If you're looking for evidence of the malleability of cultural boundaries, all you need to do is pop into Urban Outfitters, the great Elysian Fields of cultural sampling. Here, religious symbols stretch over the tiny baby-T torsos of teenagers, sari fabrics are sewn into handbags, and no item of clothing is destined to last for more than a season--a reference to both quality and style.

The trendy question of high versus low culture, noble sentiment versus mere entertainment, is one you can wrangle with ad nauseam, or you can simply enjoy the beautiful confusion. Somewhere between these options lies Superflat, an exhibition of contemporary Japanese art curated by Takashi Murakami, a Japanese artist extraordinarily well positioned to question the distinctions between art and product, and to subtly deflect the answers.

Murakami's own work--represented only by a banner and a wall painting in Superflat, unfortunately--draws great inspiration from Japan's comics culture, specifically the graphic novels called manga and the films called anime. In some ways, Murakami's work is a big, juicy "fuck you" to the conventional pieties of the art world. It's not just his so-called low-culture material, but the way his paintings are produced and sold: in an artists' cooperative called the Hiropon Factory, where (much in the style of Andy Warhol's Factory) groups of artists paint canvases according to Murakami's specifications. Certainly there's a kind of democratization at work here, allowing Murakami to produce much more work, for many more people. But the pieces remain stratospherically expensive, and many old-school art patrons instinctively object to work that has never been touched by the hand of the artist.

This paradox seems to delight Murakami, who takes as much care with the dolls and wristwatches and other products that bear the image of his mouse-hero character Mr. DOB as he does with his fine art. This--in the opinion of my guru of all things Japanese, my mother (who worked for many years in the Metropolitan Museum's department of Asian Art)--recalls that Japanese culture makes less of a distinction between art and craft. For example, the wood-block prints of Hokusai (of the famous Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji) and other artists, which first became popular in the Edo period (from the 17th century to the 19th), were meant to be postered all over the place, then ripped down and thrown away.

In the West, the collapsable distinctions between art and product were vigorously explored by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and other practitioners of Pop Art, another movement that saw cultural trash elevated into galleries and museums. And while it's tempting to view Superflat as simply a late-comer to Pop Art, it is in fact something quite new, a syncretism of something very Western and very Japanese.

The writer Patrick Marcias, in his introduction to Japan Edge: The Insider's Guide to Japanese Pop Subculture, identifies the Japanese element as "Asian chaos." "Asian chaos," he writes, "is Tokyo. Kansai. Hong Kong. San Francisco's Chinatown. A playground of media and populace. Crowded, noisy for sure. Lights, language, pictures everywhere. Faces. Advertisements. Foreigners. Buildings and shops crammed together with little regard for architectural harmony." It's what a friend of mine called renao, a Chinese word for "happy to be in a crowd," which literally translates to "hot-noisy." It's the way Japanese comics use all sorts of angles and points of view and close-ups--as complicated a cinematography as any Western feature film--instead of the constant middle ground of Bugs Bunny.

And, according to Murakami, it is embedded in traditional Japanese art all the way back to the 14th century, and manifested in as ordinary a current phenomenon as computer graphics. Two-dimensionality has always been privileged in Japanese art, in the multi-panel scrolls and the screens with flowers floating illogically across them. As evidence of the distinguished pedigree of contemporary Japanese eye candy, Superflat's catalogue includes artists from Japan's rich past. The comparisons are instructive, such as panels from animator Yoshinori Kanada's seminal 1979 film Galaxy Express 999, with explosions that crest and travel across the frame like Hokusai's wave. Chiho Aoshima's image of a waifish schoolgirl wedged luxuriously between two buildings, besides being a stunning image, is a kind of literal expression of a figure caught in the flat plane; Bome's cartoon sculptures have an odd ballooniness, a plastic discomfort in the three-dimensional world.

If you were particularly cynical, you could say that flat, in this exhibition, equals shallow, and certainly there is no hierarchy of content in Superflat. But the show does not exclude the possibility of historical inquiry, as with Katsushige Nakahashi's ZERO, Type 52, a floppy airplane built of 15,000 taped-together enlarged color photographs of a model of the World War II Zero Fighter. (Nakahashi has made five versions of ZERO, and he usually takes his model out into a field and burns it after the show; the version at the Henry is re-hung from Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art incarnation of Superflat.) The show also allows for the inclusion of fashion as an art form, with installations built by the design brand 20471120.

It's impossible to ignore the intense sexuality of Japanese anime, especially with reference to teenage girls, that so puzzles Westerners. In the wake of anime's elevation from subculture to high art, the strangeness of using a childlike vehicle for adult concerns becomes more explicit, from Bome's porcelain sexpots to Aya Takano's naked floating figures and even to the drawings of Yoshitomo Nara, who, according to Murakami, is "like a rock star" in Japan. Deft, outrageous, a little cruel, Nara's figures have the casual air of doodles in a teenager's notebook, but their innocence contains a kind of lurking sexuality, and a very definite menace.

Western influence permeates Superflat, a reminder that the United States is not the only great appropriator. Japan, like any good empire, has diligently, throughout its history, borrowed and (perhaps) misinterpreted and then transformed tropes in fashion, film, music, and even religion. What this tells us is that the more you examine a culture, the more elusive it becomes. In fact, most definitions become slippery and irrelevant. "I can never give 'Japan' a fixed shape," Murakami writes in Superflat's catalogue. "I cannot meet my real 'self.' Nor can I discern what 'art' really is."