Last year – completing a trifecta of triumphant collaborations with Millennial icons – Murakami worked with Virgil Abloh, the creator of the impossibly hip clothing line Off-White, on a series of exhibitions for New York’s Gagosian gallery. Many of the artworks created by the pair incorporate Murakami’s signature cartoonish flowers with smiley faces. (They look a little bit like emojis on LSD.) The Abloh venture was well-received; Architectural Digest wrote of it, “The early 20th century had Man Ray and Duchamp; the ’80s had Warhol and Basquiat; 2018 has Virgil Abloh and Takashi Murakami.”
Wherever Murakami is talked about, Andy Warhol’s ghost hovers. What they have in common, along with a penchant for fame and celebrity, is that neither is a starving artist in a garret. Murakami does not wear a beret, nor does he do much standing in front of a blank canvas with a brush in hand. As a big name in contemporary art, his work involves fabricators, spreadsheets, and a solid knowledge of international tax law. Through his company, Kaikai Kiki, he employs a staggering 350 people. Some work at an animation subdivision in Tokyo; Murakami has always had a passion for cartoons. A few more are based in New York, where large-scale works are assembled on site to avoid customs duties. The majority work in a giant warehouse in Tokyo’s drab outer suburbs. This is Murakami’s studio, but unlike Warhol’s factory, which was almost as famous for its disco parties and recreational drugs as for its silkscreen prints of actor Liz Taylor, it’s all business. Murakami is famed for his work ethic; Justin Paton, who has visited twice ahead of the AGNSW show, says the studio operates “24/7”. I resist the urge to ask the question I most want answered: what does a contemporary artist actually do all day?
Takashi Murakami is sleeping. Erica, a young American minder from the artist’s Tokyo gallery, says he had a late night. At 9am on a Friday in June, his studio is humming. Twenty-something workers dressed in taupe or navy boilersuits are lifting canvases, typing on computers and hovering around half-finished sculptures. Murakami, meanwhile, is in a cardboard box which he keeps in the corner of his office. His best ideas come after dreaming. This might suggest a long wait, but only a few minutes after our designated start time, he arrives at a conference room to be interviewed.
I don’t know what I was expecting from a famous artist, let alone one who has worked with top fashion houses, but Murakami exudes a slouchy, studied nonchalance. His is exactly the look his friend Kanye West has trademarked: baggy basketball shorts; a T-shirt, olive green, which probably costs a bomb; leather slides that somehow look ugly and elegant at the same time. “This is for you,” he says to me, gesturing at his outfit. “Western articles always begin, ‘When he appeared in front of me, he was wearing this T-shirt, these shorts,’ so I had to wear something good.” (Although he’d arranged for a translator, Murakami spoke to me in English throughout.)
The look comes courtesy of Murakami’s stylist, who dresses him for media appearances. The stylist used to run a boutique in Japan’s southern prefecture of Kyushu before he was plucked by Murakami from the obscurity of the Instagram Discover tab, which shows accounts selected by algorithm. Murakami’s T-shirt is from West’s Yeezy line, and it turns out to be literally priceless, because it has been customised by the artist. On the bottom he has sewn a strip of fabric featuring his bug-eyed cartoon creation Mr Dob, a signature character.
Were a pesky journalist not here today, Murakami would be wearing a salmon-pink T-shirt, one of 100 or so he bought in bulk from American Apparel before it went bankrupt. The T-shirts are always worn with a pair of silky basketball shorts. This is one of the many conscious steps he has taken to free his mind of minutiae. Like Barack Obama, who famously cut down the number of decisions he had to make every day as president by wearing only grey or blue suits, Murakami has adopted a uniform. He describes it as a “kind of armour”.
Sometimes, for a photo shoot, he will don an elaborate headpiece – a bright blue octopus, or a pink jellyfish. “I wear the octopus to show I am not a negative person,” he says. “I am very positive.” The octopus is probably not necessary. Murakami’s studio is all white walls and hushed reverence; the lighting, so bright as to resemble a laboratory. Yet the man himself – not tall, but with a topknot that seems to take up a lot of space – cracks jokes frequently, and freely unspools his many neuroses to a stranger.
“Two days ago I was with my TV animation team in post-production having a recording meeting and I was very upset,” he volunteers while settling into a squeaky black leather swivel chair. “I said, ‘Hey, producer, I told you that before the meeting I wanted an agenda. And then I never received it.’ Then some people said, ‘Hey, Takashi. You already sent us an agenda. So we were wondering why you were so upset.’ ” He laughs. “This is a very ordinary situation for me. My memory is nothing.”
He goes on: “When I get an idea, I want to tell someone because I’ll forget in four or five seconds. So I wake up and shout, ‘Hey, somebody!’ ” The studio has a night shift so he can wake up and share his insights at any time. Sleeping, he suggests, turbocharges his already propulsive creativity. Perhaps this is just the explanation that geniuses give for their process because it is mysterious even to themselves. I am reminded of Paul McCartney’s origin story for Yesterday, which is that on waking from a dream, he found the melody already written, and the lyrics: “Scrambled eggs, oh my dear you have such lovely legs …”
Before he falls into the cardboard box, Murakami attempts to relax the only way he knows how, by watching Japanese animation. “Just something stupid,” he says, whatever’s new on Amazon Prime Video or Netflix. He’s loved animation since he was a child, and finds the way moving images are generated from static ones to be nothing short of magic. It used to be that he escaped reality the old-fashioned way, by drinking. Mostly whiskey. But that habit came to an abrupt end many years ago, when his leg “blew up like an elephant’s”. The doctors diagnosed him with gout, so from then on, he has restricted his alcohol intake to a perfectly made gin and tonic, once a week.
I learn a lot more about Murakami’s health over the time we spend together. The lower half of his face is covered in Band-Aids; when asked why, Murakami waves the question away with the catch-all explanation of “stress!” After the interview, I recount this hypochondria to a friend who is an art historian. She is supremely unsurprised. “All artists are obsessed with their body,” she says. “Ultimately, art is about preservation of something – but if you make silly ephemera, then you’re denying that preservation.” (The semen-wielding lasso artist and the breastfeeding superhero start to make more sense.) Murakami also dwells on the topic of mortality; his father, a former taxi driver, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 65. “I have 10 years to go,” he says. “Until then I have to do something.”
One thing he’s not doing much of at all is eating. This is part of Murakami’s drive for productivity: “I need two or three brains. I have to be careful of my body.” He has adopted a regimen of intermittent fasting because, he says, “I was getting obsessive about food.” Murakami’s Instagram feed, in between documenting medical procedures, was once full of food he consumed around the globe: heart-shaped pizzas in Hong Kong, brioche burgers in Moscow. “Eighty per cent of my brain was food. ‘What is lunch? What is dinner? What is dessert? Oh my god, greasy Chinese food and truffles and olive oil and sea salt …’ ”
An epiphany came this March on a trip he took with his feng shui master, a Taiwanese man who has guided him through life for almost a decade. (On the feng shui master’s advice, there are no clocks anywhere in the studio, except a tiny alarm clock on the artist’s desk.) “He took me to this waterfall and it was by a mountain and snowing,” Murakami recalls. “It was super-cold and in my head I’m thinking, F… you, feng shui master!Then I see this monk, sitting by the water, and he was so still. It was like slow motion. Like animation.” Which is to say, magic. “And I researched on Wikipedia how monks train to get that way and one easy way is to fast.” Plus, Murakami adds, “I was too heavy, so that was an added bonus.” Since that day, he’s consumed a lot of apple cider vinegar, thought to be detoxifying, and lost 10 kilograms.
His domestic life has grown more complicated over recent years. Back in 2005, Murakami told The New York Times that he had no time for personal attachments. “I think he is a very lonely person,” said the cultural critic Midori Matsui. Since then, he has married and twice become a father: he has an eight-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. His challenge is to tame his son, who is, in Murakami’s telling, “super-bad”.
Recently, Murakami moved his family from Tokyo to an estate outside Kyoto. He was worried about the continued radiation risk in the capital from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, and believes the Japanese government concealed the true extent of the fallout to ensure Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics bid was successful. Ideally, he would move his studio to the countryside, too, but it’s been difficult to find a space big enough to house all the employees. In the meantime, he talks to his family on Facetime daily, and when he’s not haranguing his son about his homework, shares with him a passion for the American cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants.
That’s the amazing thing about Murakami, or at least one of many: he’s not a snob. Lately on Spotify he’s been listening to the 17-year-old pop prodigy Billie Eilish. They’ve even collaborated, including for Eilish’s music video you should see me in my crown, which features a malevolent alter ego of the singer drawn by Murakami. How does he manage to stay on the cutting edge? “When Kanye West approached me [in the mid-2000s], I’d never heard of him,” he says. “I’m ashamed about that, but whenever anyone comes to me I just ask my young assistants, and if they say, as they did with Kanye, ‘You must do that,’ I do.”
When I ask why it is important to him to work with people outside of the art world, he demurs. “I don’t think of it in terms of ‘important’,” he says. “It’s a very natural situation for a Japanese artist.” This is Murakami’s most closely held tenet: that the distinction between high and low culture is a Western construct, meaningless in Japan. To us, an artist designing handbags is surprising, an affront, even, to our notion of fine art. But to Murakami, it is continuing a Japanese tradition of art as a profession like any other. Later, the translator Alfred Birnbaum tells me, “It was only with [British designer] William Morris that the idea of ‘art’ was introduced to Japan as a separate word from craft.”
Now would be a good time to introduce Murakami’s overarching philosophy of “superflat”. He first coined the term in the year 2000 as a way to link the flat picture planes of nihonga, a traditional Japanese painting style in which he trained, to the eliding of high and low in Japanese culture. For Murakami, the gold-lacquered scenes of butterflies and tea ceremonies from the Edo period (the last gasp of old Japan which ended in 1868) lead directly to 20th-century anime. Both are fundamentally flat, in aesthetic and in world view. After Japan was defeated in World War II, the horrors of that event were released to the realm of cartoons, albeit of a kind much darker than Disney. Along the way, they were stripped of their historical context. Murakami might not say so explicitly, because politics isn’t his thing, but his cartoon creatures – rainbows, smiley faces, flowers and all – are critiques of that culture of cute rather than imitations of it.
As a consequence, Murakami does not think Japanese people like him much. “My name is bad in Japan,” he says. “Too erotic, or something like that.” (This was not my experience when I told Japanese people I was interviewing Murakami-san, nor does it hold up to estimates that in the 2000s, 40 per cent of Japanese people owned a Louis Vuitton product designed by Murakami.) In any case, he likes the idea that he is able to make money from a certain Western fantasy of his country. “The offers to collaborate have always come from the other side,” he has said. “What the West is looking for in Japan is something more than the very artificial, Hollywood, over-the-top Japan. I offer the middle ground, something that is just the right temperature for Western audiences.”
That this Goldilocks version of Japan makes money, and lots of it, is even better, because Murakami is unabashedly interested in the stuff. He didn’t get the grades for university, so went instead to art school. There, he decided to specialise in nihonga because he noticed its professors wore the nicest suits. (At the time, the Japanese economy was booming, and traditional painting was in vogue.) At one point in our conversation, he rambles along a tangent about how domestic tax law inhibits Japanese collectors from buying his work. “Everything comes from business,” he says, when I ask if he enjoys talking about money. “When da Vinci was working, oil paint used to be very expensive. Now I’m working in 3D computer graphics, which is super-expensive. So it’s necessary to think about money all the time.”
Unsurprisingly, Murakami’s love of money has rubbed some in the art world the wrong way. In 2007, a major retrospective of his work was mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles. A pop-up store inside the museum sold his $US960 Louis Vuitton bags. MoCA’s chief curator, Paul Schimmel, said “one of the most radical aspects of Murakami’s work is his willingness both to embrace and exploit the idea of his brand, to mingle his identity with a corporate identity and play with that”.
My name is bad in Japan. Too erotic, or something like that.
Jerry Saltz, the influential art critic at New York magazine, baulked. “Murakami has been so set on merging fine art with commercial product that by now all he’s doing is moving merch,” wrote Saltz. He thought Murakami’s “infantile flower paintings”, 50 of which sold for $US90,000 a piece the same year, had the “visual oomph of screensavers and are only placeholders for gullible collectors, who buy them hoping today’s feeding frenzy lasts long enough to fob them off on subsequent happy patsies”.
Murakami, Saltz wrote, enacted Warhol’s dictum that “good business is the best art”, but did not heed another of Warhol’s bon mots, which was that “commercial things really do stink”. Saltz twisted the knife: at Murakami’s studio, “assistants make his paintings”. It’s true that the morning I spent there, I didn’t see Murakami do anything especially creative. A schedule, which is printed by his assistant, indicated that the rest of the day was to be spent making some calls – to his gallery in New York, and to a fabricator ahead of an upcoming exhibition in Singapore – as well as picking a selection of panels, already made, for a piece. To me the studio resembled one of those trendy co-working spaces, the kind now found all over the world, where good-looking young people hunch over hot-desks with MacBooks. Only a few of those young people, the ones I was told were transposing Murakami’s rough sketches into digital colour, could be said to be “making art”.
But I come away thinking that what Murakami puts out in the world – his artistry – isn’t so easily quantified. He is both more interesting than the rest of us, and more interested. That’s what he does all day. After the interview, his minder Erica shows me to a greenhouse adjacent to the studio where Murakami breeds stag beetles. He hopes that one of them will eventually break the Guinness World Records for longest. A shy, attentive young woman named Shiori, who works in the greenhouse, introduces some of her dozens of charges, which are held in tiny drawers filled with sawdust. She says that “for a boy of [Murakami’s] generation, a beetle was a prize”, though this explanation didn’t seem to fully account for the enormous collection.
Murakami can go weeks without visiting the greenhouse, but sometimes, Shiori says, he “gets obsessed and comes by every day”. Like everyone who works with him, Shiori talks about Murakami with a very particular smile on her face, an expression of delight with a dash of confusion. It seems to say, I don’t know why he does what he does, but it’s wonderful that he does it. Which about sums up how I feel about him, too, and is presumably why people with millions of dollars continue to spend them on silk-screen prints of pastel-coloured daisies and strange sculptures of perpetually lactating ladies.