Takashi Murakami's Sakura was painted in 1996 and shows a manic amalgam of cartoon facial features, formed as though into a ball, on a highly-textured background. The paint in Sakura - meaning 'cherry blossom' - has been applied in layers laid upon layers and then scraped, sanded and otherwise treated in order to give it an appearance that, in passages, recalls Gerhard Richter's abstract pictures, Andy Warhol's Oxidation works and traditional Japanese lacquer techniques. That ability to straddle Japanese tradition and the history of modern art in the West lies at the heart of Murakami's work, in which he has forged a new path for the culture of his homeland that embraces consumerism, history and the kitsch detritus of his country's obsessions with cuteness and anime.
The head in Sakura itself occupies a deliberately problematic position in terms of Western and Eastern tradition. It clearly relates to the anime and manga cultural bedrock of contemporary Japan, yet Murakami has himself explained that the presence of surplus eyes in some of his works is partly inspired by Western portraits, where the subjects seem to be following you around the room, wherever you move. In Sakura, these monstrous, staring cartoon eyes engage the viewer, invoking an intriguing sense of surveillance that chimes with the modern world in its own right. Murakami's work exploits and explores the relationship between Japan and the West in a number of ways. As is the case in many of his works, the spherical chimera in Sakura recalls the fireball of the atomic explosions that rocked Japan at the end of the Second World War; Murakami was all the more aware of that cataclysmic event on a personal level as his mother came from Kokura, the intended target of the second bomb whose salvation came in the form of cloud cover which meant that the plane diverted to Nagasaki.
Murakami's awareness of the complex historical, social and economical links between Japan and the West is also rooted in his training in nihonga, a style created to preserve traditional artistic techniques during the Meiji era. After centuries of Sakoku, the policy of enforced isolation, Japan had been flooded by external influences at the end of the Nineteenth Century. A new wave of foreign influence crashed over the nation in the wake of the Second World War and the ensuing occupation by American forces. The reconstruction of Japan came at the cost of much of its ancient heritage, which Murakami feels was destabilised and often supplanted with aspects and imitations of American culture, best demonstrated by the animation industry which out-Disneyed Disney. Murakami's paintings embrace the new world of capitalism, of technology, of anime, of geek chic, of manufacture, of television and of Pop in order to forge a new Japanese culture tailored to this new age, and this new synthesis is perfectly encapsulated in Sakura.