With its immaculate surface and epic scale, rendered in the Japanese tradition of four panels, Takashi Murakami’s May Satsuki is the epitome of his Superflat aesthetic–displaying a refined sense of classical beauty inspired by traditional Japanese painting, yet deeply entrenched in the anime and manga style that has come to personify his best work. It is a pristine, large-scale Splash painting in which swirls of milky fluid traverse the canvas in lyrical, curving arcs. The painting specifically relates to Murakami’s outrageous, highly erotic sculptures Hiropon and My Lonesome Cowboy, which he exhibited in 1998, in which trails of bodily fluid project from each figure with a wild, comic exuberance. Now part of his visual lexicon, they allude to the underlying sense of adolescent male fantasy that is a distinct, erotic undercurrent in anime and otaku culture. Its clever title, May Satsuki, references the popular 1988 children’s anime film My Neighbor Totoro, whose female characters were named Mei and Satsuki. (“Satsuki” is also the traditional Japanese name for the month of May, while “Mai Satsuki” is the name of a Japanese porn star).
In the present work, Murakami creates an impressive painting that dazzles the eye with its impeccable surface and luxurious sheen. Its candy-colored pink hue bathes the viewer in a soft aura, enhanced by the leaping arabesques of Murakami’s strange and evocative splashes, which fling themselves across the canvas. The skill with which Murakami renders these liquid sprays is nothing short of astonishing–with characteristic flatness, the artist manages to impart a palpable sense of realism while working within his trademark Superflat style. The resulting painting reads like a comic-book pastiche of a Pollock drip, or an Ed Ruscha liquid word painting as illustrated in the manga vernacular of Murakami’s boyhood. Its sheer massive scale evokes the dizzying panoramas of 19th century landscape painters, while the overall sumptuous quality of its surface recalls the gold-covered screens (or byobu) of the Kano School. In fact, Murakami was particularly enraptured by a 17th century screen depicting the sinuous curves of an old plum tree by the artist Sansetsu Kano (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which shares obvious similarities to May Satsuki.
Straddling the line between the “high art” of traditional Japanese painting, the “low art” of manga and anime, along with references to Western art history, Murakami’s May Satsuki epitomizes the Superflat style has become synonymous with his best work. This is characterized by a pared-down minimalist sense of abstraction combined with a playful attitude toward traditional Japanese painting and Western art historical conventions. While it references the two-dimensionality of Murakami’s work, it also clouds the distinction between high and low art, creating a new realm in which a myriad cultural references are combined in a fresh manner. Upon viewing the Splash paintings in 1998, the art critic Jan Tumlir was struck by the curious blend of art historical reference and dazzling beauty that radiated from these paintings: “Murakami strains his trashy enthusiasms through a complex art historical matrix, drawing all sorts of surprising analogies along the way. This unexpected referential richness is made especially evident in the show’s painterly component...depicting two baroquely rippling sprays... Rendered with an icy, crystalline precision, these massive [paintings]...are absurdly beautiful” (J. Tumlir, “Takashi Murakami at Blum & Poe,” LA Weekly, July 17-23, 1998, p. 61).
Indeed, there are layer upon layer of hidden references cleverly concealed within the serene surfaces of Murakami’s Splash paintings. As he explained, “At its core, my standard of “beauty” is one cultivated by the Japan that has been my home since my birth in 1962. It is a core that is not easily shaken. The materials I have at my disposal are Japanese art history, manga, anime, otakudom, J-POP culture, postwar history and imported accounts of contemporary art.” (T. Murakami, Murakami: Ego, New York, 2012, p. 178) Indeed, Murakami’s inventiveness, wit and wry sense of humor are on full display in May Satsuki, an epic painting, both audacious and sublime.