Japanese animator's 'kaikai' to show at MOCA

The grinning flowers. The jellyfish eyes. The exaggerated mushroom forests. As both homage to and reaction against the world of Japanese animation, Takashi Murakami’s iconic Superflat creations would fit right at home in an actual cartoon — and soon they will, as the artist is already deep into directing his first original animation, “kaikai & kiki,” starring two of his most familiar characters.

According to Murakami, “With animation, as opposed to other artwork media, I can make children laugh — and make the audience move and cry.” On Monday, Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art will premiere the first 10-minute episode in the “kaikai & kiki” series as part of its “© Murakami” show, a midcareer survey of the artist’s oeuvre.

Rather than partnering with a professional animation house, Murakami is producing the project (one of two film projects under way, the other being live action) through his 100-person Kaikai Kiki studio in Tokyo. Designed to compete with the likes of Disney, the result offers an extremely personal spin on popular “Pokemon”-style toons while reflecting 18th-century eccentric-style painting and other key influences — a fusion of art, technology and animation that provides an ideal opportunity to consider where the medium is headed.

To that end, Variety and manga publisher Tokyopop present a panel discussion Saturday with industry heavyweights, including DreamWorks Animation topper Jeffrey Katzenberg, Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy and “Bee Movie” directors Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith, entitled “Animation Future Art” at the museum.

“It’s a little-known fact, but before studying nihonga-style painting at the National University of Tokyo, Takashi went to study animation, only to find it was too challenging and time-based,” explains MOCA curator Paul Schimmel.

Murakami may have abandoned his animation studies, but the aesthetic — particularly the 1970s Japanese toons of his childhood — figures prominently in virtually all of his creations, which have graced museum halls and commercial shelves alike. The MOCA show represents both sides of the artist’s oeuvre. Though Murakami intends his animated short for all ages, other works in the exhibition (such as his provocative hyper-sexualized anime sculptures from the late ’90s) aren’t exactly child-friendly.

“He’s absolutely not interested in limiting the film to arthouse or museum exposure,” Schimmel says. “Unlike artists such as Matthew Barney, who makes very specific films for a limited audience, Takashi wants to be hugely successful in terms of the film industry itself.”

The process has also forced Murakami to expand both his skills and visual concepts to suit the challenging animated medium.

“I suspect the conceptualization of this iconography will have a big impact on his painting and sculptural work going forward,” Schimmel predicts. “As he moves back and forth between media, something that may seem prosaic in one medium is transformed into something more protein in another. The film will become key to his future development.”

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