And now those bags—not to mention Murakami's fame—have gone supernova. After whipping up a hive's worth of buzz at the Louis Vuitton fashion show in Paris last fall, and receiving rhapsodic reviews from the likes of Vogue and Women's Wear Daily, the art world's favorite son has suddenly found himself fashion's "It" boy, too. Though Murakami's bags have been on sale since spring, demand continues to humiliate supply, with shipments selling out before they hit showroom floors. Waiting lists in stores from San Francisco to Berlin still number in the thousands, and People magazine recently lamented (or celebrated?) the fact that the only humans who actually seem to be able to get their hands on his totes—which sell for more than $5,000 apiece—are "A-listers" such as Elizabeth Hurley, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Lopez (who, People reports, already owns two).
Unfortunately, this dizzying fuss has caused a bit of a problem for Murakami. As he chats before going to a party to celebrate the construction of Louis Vuitton's newest store in Tokyo (the last such obligation he has to the company for a while, he is quick to point out), he is surprised at just how overwhelming the fashion frenzy has become. The crease in his brow, the nervous laugh, the fidgeting: Murakami is uncomfortable. Stroking his wispy beard as a Louis Vuitton minder hovers nearby, he's a touch concerned that too many people, especially in the West, especially those who may not have heard of him before, now suddenly think of him as some sort of handbag designer. "I need to rebuild the wall between the commercial art and the fine art I do," he says. "I need to focus on the fine-art side of me for a while."
In Japan, he asserts, there is little money, prestige or exposure in being a fine artist. But there is also little distinction between high art and low art, and no cultural repercussions for flitting between the two. That's why he viewed this fashion foray as a perfect way to become better known in his own country, where Louis Vuitton is the godhead of the nation's real state religion: the worship of luxury brands. (Indeed, Japan accounts for one-third of the company's international sales). Mission accomplished: in Japan, Murakami is now magazine-cover, mobbed-in-public, rock-star famous—something that a million gallery shows could never have made him.
But in the West, some art-world folks still cling to the romantic notion of the solitary, idealistic, uncompromising (and uncompromised) artist. Looking characteristically frazzled and unkempt in a gray Mr. DOB T shirt, baggy jeans and green suede Pumas, Murakami says, "In the West I am being criticized for being too commercial." Indeed, a recent review of Murakami's Serpentine show in the Guardian newspaper accused the artist of being little more than a huckster: "There's no sign of any internal critique, just a lot of very high-class production values ... not much art here, either—only a feeble sort of entertainment." Worried about his reputation as a serious artist in the West, Murakami rattles off a list of departures he is now taking to maintain his high-art cred. For starters, he says, he is exploring traditional Japanese materials and motifs—updated twists on Buddha statues, scrollwork, calligraphy, screen painting and a 300-year-old dye technique called yuzenzome.
Also, like the example of Warhol and Koons before him, Murakami rarely makes his own stuff anymore. He conceptualizes and sketches every major work and follows up with critiques and color corrections throughout production, but he seldom puts paint on canvas these days. His artworks require layer upon layer of acrylics to produce their flawlessly shiny, signature sheen, and he leaves that tedious task to the 40 apprentices he employs in a factory-style commune 20 kilometers outside Tokyo and another 15 disciples in a Brooklyn, New York City, warehouse.
Many critics search for Murakami's essential Japaneseness in the influences expressed through the art itself—influences that include animé, otaku figurines and mushroom clouds, to name just a few. Yet few seem to have noticed the manner in which Murakami is perhaps most Japanese: taking someone else's concept (the art factory) and pushing it to new levels of discipline, efficiency and production innovation. Spend time at Murakami's KaiKai Kiki commune and you'll quickly discover that the hippie vibe the place radiates is a front. Looking past the shabby prefab trailers and scrubby farmland they skirt, you see that Murakami is as much a factory floor manager as an artist. Under his direction, computer researchers catalog recurring motifs for easy cut-and-paste reproduction, drafters transform sketches into outlines on canvas with robot-like precision, and technicians keep precisely documented recipes for the 70 to 800 colors used in each painting. All workers circulate e-mail updates on their progress every day (an idea Murakami borrowed from a book by Microsoft's Bill Gates) and the KaiKai Kiki employee manual (which covers not just art techniques but also how to greet visitors) is thicker than a phone book.
Murakami is also obsessive about cost saving: the company reuses packing materials and canvases from failed works, and buys Japanese-made Holbein paints not because they are better than American-made Liquitex but because they are up to 30% cheaper. According to some of his employees, Murakami's pursuit of conveyor-belt efficiency can make him a ruthlessly demanding boss. "The word compromise is not in Murakami's vocabulary," says Tomohiro Hoshino, who does 3-D paintings at KaiKai Kiki. Still, Murakami's relentless focus on the business of making art pays rich dividends. He proudly notes that in 1998 it would take him and 30 helpers six months to complete a large work. Now his art factories churn out 40 pieces a year.
In an essay accompanying one of his shows a few years back, Murakami outlined his master plan for total art-world domination, based on the premise that New York still decides what art matters: "1. First, gain recognition on site (New York) ... 2. With this recognition as my parachute, I will make my landing back in Japan ... 3. Back overseas, into the fray." So how far does he think he has progressed in his quest? Murakami relaxes for a moment, looks around and grins, as if he's got a secret. "I think that Louis Vuitton is a big part of accomplishing No. 2. What I would like to do now is break down the barrier between high and low art in the West." How he plans to accomplish No. 3 is not exactly clear. There are those traditional motifs he's working on, such as calligraphy and screen painting. And he mentions an animated feature film he would like to make. He doesn't know. He's still figuring it out. Overall, though, he likes his chances. "As a Japanese artist whose art is born in the chaos of an art scene without rules or distinctions, maybe I am able to break boundaries in ways that a Western artist cannot," he says. "In some ways, I do all this," and here comes another smile, "because I can."