The Takashi Murakami circus has hit Paris, and soon it is coming to Tate Modern. Murakami, Tokyo’s reigning King of Pop Art and Japan’s answer to Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, is in Paris for the opening of his new show at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin. Huge 6m canvases cover every wall, emblazoned in minute detail with tens of thousands of tiny smiling daisies and madcap cartoon characters in psychedelic colours. Entering the gallery feels a bit like stepping inside a heavily subversive comic: too much and it could do your head in.
Young Japanese artists, members of Murakami’s crack team, are still beavering away on these paintings when I visit the gallery days before the show’s opening. They work in complete silence, up ladders or kneeling on the floor, trying to complete the paintings before the deadline. Working agonisingly slowly, millimetre by millimetre, using brushes as fine as eyelashes and wearing white gloves, they work in teams, on rotation 24 hours a day, to execute Murakami’s artistic vision. The end result, immaculate, precise and finished with a thin coat of varnish, hits you hard between the eyes with its hallucinogenic impact. In the background, running around like demented cartoon characters themselves, are Murakami’s fawning courtiers, his media co-ordinators and their various assistants, fussing over a series of interviews that he has granted and over what the great man is to eat for lunch.
Murakami is only 47, but he is already turning fatalistic. The art world wunderkind, whose tripped-out paintings, psychedelic mushroom installations, hypersexual giant cartoon figures and cute figurines are celebrated in grown-up museums, sold for millions in galleries and splashed all over Louis Vuitton handbags, is thinking about his posthumous reputation. This Paris show consists largely of self-portraits — a completely new departure for him — because Murakami believes that the real battleground for artists lies not in the time when they are alive, but in the future after they are dead.
“Important artists such as Van Gogh and Warhol all left self-portraits that later appeared in their retrospectives. I realised I had not done enough [to provide for exhibitions after my death] so I decided to make some,” he says.
Murakami appears in his paintings as a cartoon character, his chubby round face topped with a playful little ponytail, perky eyes laughing behind round spectacles and a little goatee beard. Beside him are his favourite candy-coloured cartoon creatures. There is Mr DoB, a round cartoon creature with googly eyes and sometimes a devilish grin with razor-sharp teeth, who was originally inspired by a combination of Mickey Mouse and a range of historic Japanese cartoon characters. Mr DoB is apparently Murakami’s alter ego. Then there is Kaikai, a rabbit-suited juvenile, and his snag-toothed sibling Kiki, all of them floating among a frantic mass of his trademark anthropomorphised smiley daisies. Murakami seduces not with subtlety but with shock and awe. It all looks slightly demented, which is the impression one gets of a lot of Murakami’s work.
Millions around the world, however, admire and covet it. At the Basel art fair this summer, his piece Simple Things, made in collaboration with the American record producer Pharrell Williams, sold for $2 million (£1.2 million) in the first 40 minutes of the fair. It consisted of a 6ft sculpture of Mr DoB’s head. Inside its open mouth were placed various essentials from Williams’s life, including a bottle of Johnson’s baby lotion, a can of Pepsi, a condom, a cupcake and a bottle of Heinz ketchup, encrusted with 26,000 diamonds and gems.
This autumn Murakami will occupy an entire room in the Tate Modern show Pop Life. “There will be a collaboration with Kanye West [the American rapper], a cabinet piece and a new video work with Kirsten Dunst in a collaboration with McG who made Charlie’s Angels,” he says. The exhibition explores how artists since Warhol have used business and glamour to create a public image. It was originally called Sold Out, but some of the artists objected. Murakami wasn’t one of them.
Just what is this guy on? “Actually I don’t take drugs. It’s really my weak point. I have no experience of them. I once tried some kind of ganja in Nepal, and I was very ill. I used to drink a lot but then I got gout so I’ve stopped that. I’ve become oddly pure,” he says with a little chuckle. As he talks, the constantly buzzing team of assistants come and go like little worker bees, whispering questions in his ear and consulting among themselves, but Murakami seems able to zone out, closing his eyes as he ponders questions.
Perhaps he developed this ability to blank out the attentions of excessively attentive women in childhood. Born in Tokyo to a taxi-driver father and a housewife mother, Murakami was taken as a child to exhibitions of Japanese and Western art by his mother. Afterwards he was expected to write a kind of critique of the exhibitions. Failure to do so sometimes meant no supper. “It was terrible. I remember it so well, although my mother says she doesn’t remember. It’s my trauma ... My father drove a taxi at night, and in the daytime he used to watch TV documentaries on the Vietnam War and describe aspects of the war to me in huge detail. It was a kind of complex of his, and it made me think about war a great deal.”
Brought up on TV science fiction cartoons and comics, Murakami left school wanting to become an animator. He enrolled at Geidai, the most prestigious art university in Japan, and took 8mm animation classes outside school. His workload was heavy and he developed an extraordinary work schedule that involved painting with intense concentration for 40 minutes and then sleeping for ten, seven days a week, from 6am to midnight.
Then, after four years of undergraduate work as a student of the Nihonga style of painting of the Meiji era (1868-1912), followed by two years of graduate work, three years of doctoral coursework and two years of dissertation writing, he realised that actually what he wanted to be was a contemporary artist.
Murakami is known as a kind of artistic archaeologist of the Japanese national character. His work is inspired by Japan’s manga-obsessed subcultures, the geeky stay-at-home generation known as otaku. These are Japanese men and women, aged anywhere between 18 and 45, who live, often still with their parents, glued to their computers or manga comics, from which they derive their excessively cute and often highly sexed fantasies. Cute is big in Japan and Murakami’s work is nothing if not cute. Japanese cute can also be dark though, and having grown up in the aftermath of the Second World War and the American occupation of Japan, he still battles with the demons of Americanisation. “After the war Japan became supported by the US. As a country it was not complete ... You could say our culture is dark.” He acknowledges that his work reflects Japanese society inasmuch as it presents vacant smiles and happy faces on the surface that mask dark and unexpectedly erotic elements beneath.
Of course his work is inspired by many other things, including the surrealism of Walt Disney’s animations, the films of George Lucas and almost everything about Warhol. But Murakami has a heavily academic bent too and maintains his interest in Japanese art history, (his Paris show includes a series of paintings in homage to Ogata Korin, the 17th-century Japanese painter), particularly the Nihonga style of painting, on which he wrote his PhD thesis.
None of this matters much though to those who covet a Murakami-designed Louis Vuitton accessory or one of his DoB keyrings. You don’t need a Japanese-English dictionary or a knowledge of Japanese art history to appreciate one of those. “My audience is very varied and includes specialist [collectors] and non-specialists, as well as children and students. I want to make things that can be easily understood by young people ... My work looks very simple, but honestly underneath it is complex.”
Murakami literally has a factory, called Kaikai Kiki, with 120 on the payroll, plus another 100 freelancers, who collectively help him to execute his artistic vision. With offices in New York and Tokyo, the factory churns out not only the paintings, sculptures, animated films, feature films and collaborative designs with fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton, but also manages all things Murakami, the merchandising of a range of towels, purses, soft toys, everything from soup to stickers.
The business seems to be enormous, and Murakami is worried that it is getting too big. “We get good fees for the art works and so on, but I’m employing so many people. I’m always having to think about how we are going to survive commercially. Damien Hirst created a kind of art industry and I followed in his way — that is the way to survive — but now that market is slipping away and so we have to think of new creative ideas, in fashion, TV, and so on. There are many possibilities.”
He works all the time, although his work schedule has changed slightly: he now sleeps for seven hours a day, divided up over 24 hours into three chunks of two hours, two hours and three hours. “I don’t have a wife or children. All my focus is on work, and this is complete fulfilment for me. Actually I couldn’t imagine ever having a family ... I want to keep on creating but my fear is, how long can I continue? I’ve survived for ten years, but I’m not sure I can survive the next ten years.
“My generation is the geek generation and many are dead before the age of 50 through addictions [alcohol, overwork]. I feel like an old man. My inspiration is shrinking, my concentration is not good. I am tired.”
No wonder Murakami is beginning to think about his artistic life after death.
Takashi Murakami Paints Self-Portraits is at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris (www.galerieperrtotin.com), from today to Oct 17. Pop Life: Art in a Material World is at Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk), from Oct 1 to Jan 17