Murakami Deftly Modernizes Japanese Art in MFA Exhibit

"Lots, Lots of Kaikai and Kiki," Takashi Murakami.
"Lots, Lots of Kaikai and Kiki," Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami is not just an artist—he’s an entrepreneur with his own business, collaborating with artists like Kanye West and brands like Louis Vuitton. His distinct aesthetic has received global acclaim, and underpinning all his work is a strong belief that Japanese art is still as dynamic as ever. “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics,” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston until April 1, is a unique look into Murakami’s work and inspiration. The exhibition, in collaboration with renowned Japanese art historian and Murakami’s personal mentor, Nobuo Tsuji, presents works from Murakami’s career next to pieces from the MFA’s collection of premodern Japanese art. While Murakami has drawn from traditional sources and is informed by Tsuji’s mentorship, Murakami’s aesthetic is largely his own innovative combination of cute and scary.

The exhibition opens with a vibrant and comic-like painted canvas. A tribute to Nobuo Tsuji for his impact on Murakami’s career, “Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind” is a never-before-seen preview of the artwork to follow. The work exemplifies Murakami’s Superflat movement, which places images on a completely two-dimensional plane. The playful treatment of color and the distorted facial features are signature Murakami, and the whirlwind motif hints at the art’s traditional Japanese roots. It is a colorful interpretation of “Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind” by Soga Shōhaku, a late 18th century artist from whom Murakami has continuously drawn inspiration.

Perhaps Murakami’s most famous iconography, the bunny-like monsters in “Lots, Lots of Kaikai and Kiki” best demonstrate the artist’s reconciliation of the dark and “asobi,” the concept of “playfulness” found in many strains of contemporary Japanese art. Kaikai, circular faces with rabbit ears, and Kiki, a character based on Murakami’s interaction with an intellectually challenged child, derive from “kaikaikiki,” meaning “dangerous yet appealing.” The term originally described the style of the 16th century painter Kano Eitoku, and it inspired Murakami so much that it is the name of his company. The two-teethed, smiling (or screaming) creatures are set on the same smiling poppies that star in the stained glass “Flower Lamps” and the gold canvas of “Kawaii-Vacances: Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden.” They’re cute, but almost shouldn’t be: The colors evoke a sense of pure childishness, but the faces themselves are deranged and disfigured. Murakami capitalizes on this tension as if to say that they should coexist in order to fully appreciate both qualities.


To address Japan’s religious history and evolution, Murakami drew from the MFA’s own “Shaka, the Historical Buddha.” Because he believes that religion must drastically change to appeal to new generations, his works offer what he calls his “non-denominational prayers.” In “Oval Buddha Silver,” his buddha sculpture has two faces: One has its eyes closed as if in meditation, while the other has an enlarged, open mouth that reveals a set of sharp teeth. With religion changes deities must also mutate, so the figure is not perfectly proportional like traditional depictions of the Buddha; instead, it has a head far too large for its thin body. The entire sculpture is sterling silver, acknowledging the sanctity of not only the Buddha but also the traditions that surround him. He also stands on a lotus pedestal, a traditional Buddhist motif that also appears in “Shaka,” on top of a figure reminiscent of the demonic figures that sometimes accompanied Buddhist deities. Again, the figure could be cute, but Murakami quickly contrasts that potential with a ferocious side. In the context of Buddhism, this duality could suggest the serenity of desired enlightenment and the zealous efforts required to achieve it.

The exhibition ends on a note as grand as its beginning. “Dragon in Clouds—Red Mutation” (or “The version I painted myself in annoyance after the Professor Nobuo Tsuji told me, ‘Why don’t you paint something yourself for once?’”) is Murakami’s direct interpretation of Shōhaku’s “Dragon in Clouds,” originally sliding door paintings now on eight panels. He painted the entire work in 24 hours. At almost 60 feet wide, the painting is an explosion of red across a white canvas. When viewed from right to left, one first sees a hint of a thin, scaly tail, then the body, and finally the head of the dragon itself. In comparison to the original, the dragon is fiercer with teeth-like nose hairs and crazed eyes. That does not necessarily mean a sense of danger—if anything, there is something entrancing about the bewilderment in his eyes, suggesting that he is not as scary as he initially appears.

Traditional Japanese art through the lens of Murakami is captivating, challenging, and eccentric. He has succeeded in capturing the vivacity and timelessness of Japanese art in a way that’s uniquely his own, a refreshing take on universal dualities.

—Staff writer Kaylee S. Kim can be reached at