Enter the hallucinatory universe of Takashi Murakami, possibly the hottest artist in the world, and it comes as little suprise to discover his first memory is not of birthday parties, bicycles or holidays at the beach - but of a dream. 'More of a nightmare, really,' he recalls, 'I was about two years old and I dreamed I was on the street when some kind of strange rabbit came along and touched me. It must have been a trauma.' As is often the case in creative fields, one child's trauma is another's raw material. Murakami's anime-inspired sculptures and otherworldly paintings feature characters so surreal - and so claustrophobically composed - they should brandish warnings for epileptics. There are disembodied eyeballs, magic mush-rooms, lactating heroines, ejaculating cowboys and, yes, two recurring rabbits whose names translate as 'Scary' and 'Frightening'. And don't forget Mr Dob, Murakami's copyrighted, Mickey Mouse-like alter-ego. He has been guilty of some highly antisocial behaviour. 'Recently, Mr Dob's face has been exploding or puking,' the artist explains. 'He has become my self-portrait.' Thankfully, there are no projectiles the morning we meet in his hotel room in Tokyo. Barefoot and charmingly geeky, with round glasses, a straggly goatee and samurai ponytail, Murakami is well-mannered and seems entirely sane, if a bit jetlagged. He has just flown in from London where he opened an exhibition - one of the biggest of his career - at the Serpentine Gallery. But it is his involvement with another dream - the aspirational yet oh-so-elusive world of fashion - that has propelled Murakami from critically acclaimed artist to cultural icon in his own right. The catalyst: a Louis Vuitton bag. The latest in a line of collaborations between designer Marc Jacobs and cutting-edge artists - remember Stephen Sprouse's graffitied trunks and Julie Verhoeven's fairy-tale shoulder bags? - Murakami's collection is the most ambitious and far-reaching yet. For the first time, the label's distinctive logo - itself inspired by France's Japonisme craze a century ago - has been transformed into something sweetly familiar, and just a little subversive. Sprouting from the monogram, for example, are Murakami's signature eyeballs, smiling flowers, pointing fingers and Mr Dob dressed as a panda. Up to 93 different screens are required to obtain the bags' psychedelic swirls (only three are used in the original LV print) and the larger bags are expected to fetch about $10,000 when they hit the shelves this month. If all goes according to plan, you'll be lucky to get on the waiting list. While some critics might condemn such commercial endeavours as a sell-out, the pop artist couldn't be more proud. 'I think this is the best time for my work,' explains Murakami, who has worked with Issey Miyake on prints in the past. 'I am much more fulfilled working with a fashion designer than in a high-culture context. And Marc is like a prophet, a genius prophet, who never goes wrong. I've worked on many projects and never before have I met someone who had wider horizons than myself. I didn't know fashion shows were so much like cartoons. All these girls in high heels ... I was afraid they wouldn't be able to walk in them. It was like animation.' Jacobs, who contacted Murakami after seeing his exhibition at the Cartier Foundation in Paris last July, acknowledges the artist's influence. 'The inspiration that came from working with Takashi goes beyond just the bags,' he says. 'The spirit of the collection came from a very two-dimensional, doll-like woman. I looked at many images, from Barbies to Takashi sculptures, and decided to play with these cliches of femininity.' Cartoons and caricatures are something Murakami, like most of his generation, grew up with. Born in Tokyo to a working-class family - his father served in the Japanese navy - Murakami spent his youth watching second-generation anime and the Walt Disney classics that preceded them. 'I was a really big fan of comic books like Tomorrow's Joe, Galaxy Express 999 and Akira - Katsuhiro Otomo is a super artist in my mind - and wanted to become a cartoonist. But I discovered I didn't have enough talent. I could draw, but I couldn't make up stories.' So he settled on a career in art. That led him to the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he studied nihon-ga, a Meiji-era school of painting that combines Japanese and Western traditions. After receiving his doctorate in 1993 he became fascinated by otaku - the marginal, manga-obsessed subculture that makes the most term-inal Trekkies seem socially well-adjusted - and started attending their conventions. There he developed his theory of the 'super flat', which holds that animation is not a lesser art form, as it is perceived in the West, but an integral part of Japanese aesthetics that can be traced to the works of masters such as Katsushika Hokusai. After researching the post-modern, pop-art strategies of icons such as Andy Warhol, Murakami felt he had found the formula for success in the art world. First, he decided, one had to establish one's legitimacy within the traditions of art history, which meant including in his work copious amounts of sex, death and the allure of the exotic - in this case, Japan's complex commercial society. The plan worked like a charm - one of his sculptures recently sold for US$427,500 (HK$3.33 million) at Christie's - but Murakami is far from satisfied. 'At first, my challenge was: how can I become the next Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst? It looked like fun. Now I have that success but it's not fulfilling in the end. I feel like a liar or something. So it's time for the next revolution: I need to make a success in Asia.' According to Murakami, the Vuitton project is part of this agenda. Practically a cult in Japan, the brand will bring him the recognition that has so far eluded him at home, where the artist has yet to be accepted by the cultural establishment. Murakami has also established a Warhol-style 'factory' outside Tokyo, called the Kaikai Kiki Corporation, where workers churn out his labour-intensive paintings and life-sized sculp-tures, and which is ultimately expected to turn other artists into 'idols' on its star-making assembly line. Then there are the commercial products - watches, T-shirts, mouse mats and other paraphernalia - manufactured at a factory in Shenzhen; next to the inevitable copies of his bags, one wonders? But Murakami's ultimate goal is film-making. 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a good example of a movie that had success in the Western and Eastern worlds - although my Hong Kong friends told me it was boring for Chinese people, that it was already finished 20 years ago,' Murakami says. He comes up with a better example: Shaolin Soccer. 'Now that's the next level: fighting, kung fu, football - it's universal, it's at a mass level and bridges East and West ... I want to create something like that. If I succeed and live up to expectations, then I will finally step out of Warhol's shadow.'