What is 'Japanese capitalism'? In the 1950s, Kōzō Uno focused on what he called the ‘nihil’ of capital’s inner drive. Left to its own devices, capitalist exchange tends to flatten all obstructive distinctions, so that ultimately — ideally — it describes a closed circle, a circuit of self reinforcing speculation. In reality, however, its dynamic is not simply circular, but something like a twisted loop; unable to account transparently for its own grounding conditions, capitalism is forced into continual self-deformation, its logical 'inside' coextending with its troublesome 'outside'. And since it cannot escape this twist, it must continually recode or naturalise it, internalising the traces of its exteriority as paradoxical exceptions.1 Capital could be conceived along these lines as a pure surface 'miraculating' its own depth.2

Uno consequently rejected both of the main postwar assumptions about the Japanese economy: (1) that Japanese capitalism was fundamentally crippled by the country's precipitate modernisation, by its all-too direct transition from a feudal society to a militarist form of industrial capital; and (2) that the apparent persistence of feudal relations was merely a remnant to be overcome by progressive development. In his view, Japan's contemporary 'feudality' (a term he broadened to include such things as local customs and everyday feelings and attitudes) was not simply an obstacle to capitalist expansion, but served simultaneously as its enabling condition. In their very anachronism, as an ostensible hindrance, Japan's administratively perpetuated traditions supported the functioning of something called 'Japanese capitalism' while deferring any decisive reckoning with the self-destructive career-path of capital itself.3

Uno's analysis was spectacularly confirmed, in its first respect, by the 'miracle' of Japan's rise to the position of world's second-largest economy in the 1980s — an achievement taken by envious observers as proof of the benefits of a 'smarter' capitalism, combining competitive dynamics with the values of hard work, respect for authority, and long-term vision. Yet it is cruelly even more pertinent today, in the extended 'lost decades' of stagnation that followed the asset price bubble collapse of the early 1990s. Is there anything distinctively Japanese about Japan's economic predicament, or does today's Japan effectively circle in the void to which Uno gave the name, 'pure capitalism'?

In the spirit of this dialectisation of opposites, let's consider a crass and extremely silly work of art. If Takashi Murakami’s My Lonesome Cowboy (1998) is perhaps familiar enough that it no longer claims any shock value, this might just mean that it is ready for a second look. My hypothesis is that this great work, produced in the ongoing reverberations of Japan’s economic crisis, is neither meaningless (as Murakami himself has suggested)4 nor is it exactly open to interpretation (as is so often said about art). What if it presents us first of all with a ‘nihil’, which is to say, if its form condenses the inertia of non-meaning as such? We could in this case regard it quite literally, without obscurantism, as a miraculation of the void.

It was Kōdai Nakahara who first took the sculptural figures marketed to otaku fans of Japanese animation and presented them in a gallery as ready-made artworks. Murakami’s idea was to make such figures of his own, blown up to a size larger than life.

"Let's find and analyse the new standards of 'beauty, eros and sculpture' that arise after we have fulfilled otaku's desire by flawlessly converting a 2-D anime figure into a 3-D figure, then let's take that figure out of the context of otaku, and into the context of art. This was the concept that gave birth to the 'figure project'."5

The most famous of Murakami’s figures is My Lonesome Cowboy — also known as MLC,6 or even just ‘Masturbation Guy’7 — a naked boy, proudly holding his penis and letting off a torrent of semen that spirals up and around his head. MLC retains the graphic stylisations of anime; notably, the flamboyant hair and the big, flashy eyes. It’s also, as Murakami says, a 3D realisation of a 2D character. With feet firmly on the ground and hips pushed forward, its stance is suggestive of actual, physical tension and release. It might therefore be said to occupy what otaku themselves call a ‘2.5D’ space, having an intermediate, neither fully flat nor real quality; the otaku relation to anime figures could certainly provide further examples of the ‘cross-dimensional’ fantasies studied by Shunsuke Nozawa.8

2.5D is an interesting idea. What would it mean to speak literally of two and a half dimensions? Far from designating an occupiable space — a void in the sense of some empty background — doesn’t this expression imply a fundamentally inconsistent, heterogeneous space, a void of fractional, divisible dimensions? It seems that in order to give it the meaning it takes on in actual otaku usage, as a description of things that are ‘somewhere’ between two distinct worlds, we’d have to surreptitiously reinterpret the .5 (more precisely, the decimal point that marks it) not as a breakdown of dimensionality but as a sign, on the contrary, of some hidden, further, ‘hyper-’ dimension.

When Murakami says, in exactly this sense, that he thinks of his fantastic monsters and sci-fi creatures as characters ‘from a 4-dimensional world’, he recalls a well-established convention of manga and anime storylines going back to Doraemon (1969).9 What is Doraemon? A little blue robot cat sent from the future. Drawing innumerable tricks and gadgets from his ‘4D pocket’, Doraemon is continually accomplishing feats that suspend or circumvent the rules of time, gravity and so on, so that, for the young boy who befriends him, reality itself comes to seem less and less real.

In its essentials, Doraemon gives us everything we need to see how Murakami’s interest in sculpture is reconciled with his insistence on the ‘extreme planarity’ of Japanese aesthetics.10 In fact, in his attempt to account for the figure project as a natural extension of Murakami’s famous ‘super flat’ sensibility, Hiroki Azuma, the philosopher and cultural critic, resorts to a 4D pocket of his own. Azuma’s explanation is precise: ‘Murakami not only rejects the spatial in the planar, he sees space itself as an assemblage of planes’.11 But this explanation is also subtly paradoxical.12 Contrary to the impression of a balanced exchange, resolving 3D ‘space’ into flatness and vice versa, Azuma’s formulation logically twists the very relation between the second and third dimensions, implying a basic, ‘cross-dimensional’ torsion. That is to say, if space is nothing but an effect of planarity, then any attempt to ‘reject’ it from the planar must sooner or later turn back on itself, yielding not a uniform flatness, but an inherent convolution of the planar field.

It’s significant that Murakami commissioned the sculptor and costume designer, Fuyuki Shinada, to model the figure’s body. Shinada is known for his attention to anatomical realism, and it is true that his details make the 2D features of MLC’s face and hair seem all the more like some kind of accoutrement, as if we had somehow just stumbled on an ordinary, naked, guy wearing a cosplay mask and wig. Yet the appropriate rejoinder is not that, in the end, even the most meticulous realism is only ever a surface effect, rendering every 3D sculpture in some sense ‘flat’. The weird upward swirl of the boy’s discharge expresses the eccentricity of the simplest 2D figure, the circle, trying to escape itself — a self-antagonism overlooked by Azuma, who prefers to interpret the ‘super’ of ‘super flat’ as a sign of something beyond the zero-level of flatness, as if reality’s flattening and warping resulted, Doraemon-like, from the interference of some other

‘From the inside’, Murakami has said, ‘my brain looks like the Guggenheim Museum, like a spiral’.14 It’s a compelling image, as surreal as any of his artworks, but perhaps even more intriguing is the statement’s form itself. While it obviously doesn’t express the viewpoint of a person looking from the outside, it doesn’t immediately tell us, either, how Murakami sees himself. Instead, it evokes a kind of doppelgänger gaze, the gaze of another person somehow observing him from his own interiority. And what if, again, the twisting of his brain, its Guggenheimian distortion, is in itself an index of his own effort to imagine logically how he would look from such a paradoxical viewpoint? Maybe here, if we furthermore allow ourselves to assume that he implicitly figures this gaze as that of an American — of someone naturally associated with a New York art museum — we find a clue to Murakami’s relationship with Andy Warhol, the double with whom he is inevitably compared.

How can Murakami claim MLC’s title as ‘my own invention’, despite having borrowed it from a Warhol film he had never seen?15 Visually, the work draws on a variety of characters from manga and computer games, from a novel by Yoshio Kataoka, and even from a performance by Bob Flanagan. It goes without saying that we should avoid the trap of puzzling over which of these elements are authentically Japanese and which are foreign or merely derivative.

"What distinguishes Murakami ... is his conscious exposure of the contradiction that many aspects of postwar Japanese culture - including anime - are a consequence of Japan's cultural colonization ... because nothing that grows in Japan is purely 'native'. Everything is a reaction to and a modification of a received foreign culture."16

It’s always somebody else who calls Murakami ‘The Japanese Andy Warhol’. Critics acknowledge the appellation, but they invariably make a point of qualifying it, as if afraid of implicitly Americanising him with a reductive comparison. While it is known that he consciously based MLC’s outrageously spiky hair on the hero of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball (1984), for example, its no less unmistakable resemblance to the distinctive ‘fright wig’ of Warhol’s late self-portraits is rarely noted. For Murakami himself, however, Japanese culture is not (or not just!) an elusive, lost object. His ambivalence towards what he characterises as the ‘dark side’ of otaku culture is symptomatic.17 ‘Eroticism and nonsense, which the West looks for in the realm of art, have always been a part of Japanese subculture and manga’, he says, ‘perhaps excessively so’.18 So, what if the seeming mish-mash of MLC’s visual referencees has nothing to do with any supposed shortage of ‘images of men as sexual objects’ in Japan (the explanation given by one of Murakami's American curators)?19 For a connoisseur of pornographic manga, finding such pictures is not especially difficult.20 What if the problem is, on the contrary, that for Murakami himself certain aspects of Japanese culture are overly present, that he is bothered not by their lack, but by their ambiguous excess? Could his appropriation of Warhol be understood, in practice, as a means of establishing some minimal distance or breathing space in relation to such images?

Interestingly, the ‘My’ of MLC’s title suggests the same commodity logic that offers us objects and experiences packaged to explicitly anticipate their ownership. The paradox of something like Hasbro’s ‘My Little Pony’ toys is that, even if I buy one, I only ever ‘own’ it in a redoubled, mediated sense, making it ‘my “My Little Pony”’. Similarly, before Murakami took Warhol’s title, we might say that he was taken with it: finding it ‘beautiful’, and trying to imagine what Warhol himself had envisioned, he drew from a range of sources in an effort to fill out its void with something tangible.21 By adding the word ‘My’ to the ready-made title, making the final work his ‘My Lonesome Cowboy’, he refracts the question of ownership across two distinct levels, as if to enable a different answer in each of two dimensions. At one level, he accepts his work’s thoroughgoing mediation by outside influences, so that even those features taken from specifically Japanese sources are perceived as disparate reactions to or modifications of what he calls ‘my twisted U.S. image’.22 Yet at the same time — if not quite in the same ‘place’ — his very recognition and exposure of this contradiction evokes what he elsewhere calls the ‘miraculous moment’, the projected fusion of various images into one.23 His artistic consciousness grants his work a fragile unity, making the images he draws on ‘his’. As the critics say, it distinguishes him, miraculating the depth of a unique sensibility from an otherwise inconsistent assemblage of planes.

If from one perspective this solution recalls the ‘postmodern nihilism’ of Noi Sawaragi, who argued that Murakami’s strength lies in his uncompromising acceptance of contemporary Japanese art as a flat, ‘closed circle’, unable to produce anything but empty kitsch in imitation of the Western avant-gardes,24 its second aspect supports Murakami’s own conception of art as the minimal example of ‘a person who dares resist against his or her nihilistic perception’.25 Is the choice between such apparently conflicting viewpoints exhaustive, so that we can ultimately only vacillate between them? Today’s neoliberal wisdom has a version of the same dialectic. On one hand, revisionists claim with evident relief that Japan was, after all, only ever cheating at capitalism. It remained, in the end, an essentially feudal organisation, run by an authoritarian government in collaboration with powerful industrial cartels. Motivated and sustained by an ambiguous love– hate relation with the West, its adversarial trade policies failed it just when it seemed ready to surpass the US, finally exposing its celebrated ‘miracle’ as a fake, based on inflationary spending and spiralling debts without any genuine, substantial growth. On the other hand, the Marxian point of Uno’s analysis retains its imperturbable pertinence: economic liberals would like us to understand that if only market forces were allowed to work freely, without restrictions on healthy competition, we could in principle achieve a selfsufficient balance, a capitalism finally delivered of its unfortunate inequalities. Yet the theory of economic liberalism is on its own terms inconsistent; it doesn’t know what it wants, since its axiom of private ownership is in itself an ‘artificial’ restraint on development.26 Market ideologues here indulge in their own brand of the naïve-cynical utopianism usually attributed to the political left, pining for truly ‘free’ enterprise while silently counting on the durability, the resistance, of some basically extra-economic property structure.

In May 2008, ‘Masturbation Guy’ sold for a reported $15 million at an auction in New York. Four months later, stock markets went into free-fall as the bankruptcy of the giant Lehman Brothers firm set off a worldwide economic collapse. Neither of these events was a sign of some deeper truth. There was nothing ‘miraculous’ about them in that sense. If anyone was scandalised by the news stories about wealthy collectors outbidding each other for the figure of a boy swept up in his own idiotic self-pleasure, and if that spectacle was nothing compared to the US and European governments’ desperate bailout efforts, throwing billions at the failed ‘cowboys’ of global finance, we should nonetheless resist the temptation to moralise. It isn’t a lesson on the follies of abstract speculation. Inverting the title of one of Murakami’s big exhibitions, we should look not for ‘the meaning of the nonsense of the meaning’ but for its opposite: to properly confront his art’s ‘nihilism’ is to identify with the very nonsense of the search for meaning in nonsense.