View of Takashi Murakami’s exhibition “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow,” 2014, at Gagosian.

I like to play a game before I see a new exhibition by a celebrated artist: on the train ride to the gallery, I make highly specific guesses about what the pieces on view might be. One time, in 2010, on the way to a Gedi Sibony exhibition at Greene Naftali, I bet my friend $20 we’d see at least two pieces of raw canvas nailed to sheet rock. I should’ve gone for $50. 

Late in December, en route to Gagosian’s cavernous location on West 24th Street to see Murakami’s latest, “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow,” I imagined several vacuous, anime-inspired pieces likely to be in the show. The press release for the exhibition touted Murakami’s work since the 2011 Great Tōhoku Earthquake (which he experienced firsthand) as investigating “the role of faith amid the inexorable transience and trauma of existence.” Reflecting on his past collaboration with Louis Vuitton, or that unfortunate Pharrell Williams music video, it seemed unlikely that “Land of the Dead” would leave viewers with anything to chew on except for maybe their own relationship with sexualized images of barely legal cartoon characters. Yet, I’m thankful I was alone and couldn’t place a bet. Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t necessarily like the works in this show, but for the first time that I can remember, the art of Murakami felt important. 

Visually, few pieces “surprised,” but an impressive departure was the mammoth work Bakuramon (all works 2014), an imposing and eerie wooden structure modeled after Rashomon, the 10th-century gate to what’s now Kyoto. Beyond Bakuramon hung a disturbingly psychedelic mess of black skulls, part of a large wall mural of contorted figures, human or otherwise, bending in surreal gestures atop an electric, multicolored ground. Nearly as imposing were Embodiment of ‘A’ and Embodiment of ‘Um’, two towering sculptures of demon guards whose tactile surface quality seemed a step forward for Murakami’s “superflat” vocabulary. Behind them, more rainbow-hued paintings vibrated with black circular focal points that each resembled the pupil of an eye or an unsettling abyss. Murakami has long had a penchant for mashing together the cute and the grotesque, but the work has rarely felt threatening or foreboding. What captivated me here was how starkly this exhibition stood in contrast to his signature low-meets-high concoctions. The content was legitimately intense and manic. Now in his 50s, Murakami appears to have stopped for a moment to zoom out, and ruminate on what his cultural influence might possibly accomplish.

Last summer, I had the good fortune to see Ryuta Ushiro of the radical Japanese art collective Chim-Pom and collaborator Kentaro Ikegami give a performative lecture on the history of natural and man-made disasters throughout Japanese history. Their work takes absurd risks with a deviant sense of humor, confronting contemporary social themes with anarchical jubilance. While they employ concepts similar to Murakami’s, they make his work look stagnant, safe and tired in comparison. But I find it encouraging that Murakami has apparently been shaken out of his narrow, market-driven brand of commodities dressed up to look rambunctious. Did this result from surviving the earthquake? Or is it a midlife crisis? I would wager it’s both. It seems that Murakami is finally willing to engage his role as one of Japan’s most visible cultural figures progressively. Let’s hope he does just that.