Branded delivery systems are Takashi Murakami’s stock in trade. He’s got his own production company, Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd., and a tiered sales system that involves making artworks that can be bought at various levels, from plastic figurines for the manga/anime aficionado to the high-roller art collector who shops at Gagosian. The genius of Murakami’s traveling 2007–8 survey show © MURAKAMI was its inclusion of an actual Louis Vuitton boutique that sold an artist-designed bag that was only available within the exhibition. Shopper/viewers flocked to the show from global metropolises far and wide. His work is unabashedly populist and incisively critical. He’s the Japanese Jeff Koons, and it would seem no accident that Murakami’s first feature film would make a US tour of art venues on the eve of Koons’s splashy Whitney retrospective.
Film is clearly a crossover medium that reaches far broader audiences than a museum or gallery show. (Koons made a mythical porno, Made in Heaven, though only produced images and objects around it.) There’s no guarantee that major art pedigree can translate to success in cinema—Julian Schnabel has the temperament, though Cindy Sherman admitted she’s too solitary an artist for the collaborative spirit of filmmaking. Murakami, however, has the built-in affinity for working with teams, an attribute that would bode well for his moviemaking ambitions.
Jellyfish Eyes had a single, sold out screening at the Asian Art Museum, the final stop on its rounds of eight American art venues. The fact that he chose this route over the film festival circuit seemed suspicious, as it raised a question of context: did the film function as cinema or art? But with Murakami, each decision seems considered, and perhaps in this way, there’s a cultural component that the artist highlights—if it weren’t shown in a museum, its deeper intensions might be overlooked.
Jellyfish Eyes turns out to be a very capable Japanese genre work. It’s a kid’s fantasy monster movie with impressive CGI effects and serious things on its mind. It’s not easy to find out about its Japanese release—is it a box office success or cult item?—but the film would seem to be able to seamlessly enter into mainstream cinemas there, and accepted as pure entertainment, not contemporary art. Its release category is less opaque Matthew Barney opus than current multiplex fare such as the latest Godzilla remake.
The latter is particularly apt as the plot of Jellyfish Eyes, while of more modest budget, concerns monsters born of technology and thriving on its toxic spirits, as well as trampling on civilization and playing electrical wires like a zither. Whereas the big budget Hollywood film had trouble conveying a troubling message about technology, Murakami’s film assuredly folds a cautionary tale into the narrative. The story concerns a young boy relocating to a small town after the death of his scientist father—who in a nightmare sequence is consumed by a tsunami with the rainbow sheen of an oil slick. (The giant ocean wave recalls the shocking YouTube footage of villages decimated after the enormous 2011 temblor that unleashed Fukushima.)
The narrative is fairly standard kid’s fare—lonely sixth grader Masashi who, with a distracted, grieving mother, finds himself a seemingly imaginary friend. Only this marshmallow-y creature with a pink mushroom cap of a head and an insatiable appetite for a specific processed cheese snack is definitely an invention that pops out of Murakami’s gallery work. The character is cutesy but also kicks ass.
As a species, it’s part of something called F.R.I.E.N.D.s, and when the young boy is at school, it appears that they’re a trend—his classmates all have them. Whereas he communicates humanly with his, the others are controlled with a spiffy electronic device that looks a lot like an iPhone. There are scenes where the kids are in the classroom, texting frantically on their devices each moment when the teacher has their back turned to the desks. They’re conjuring their more aggressive creatures of various stripes, from jewel encrusted bauble heads to snarling, slimy hyena-hybrids, into existence. This conceit is a not-so-veiled spin on culture’s overly dependent on technology and social media as an illusory form of connection. Masashi endures the taunts of bullies and relies on his adorable F.R.I.E.N.D. to navigate conflict, as well as find young love. His budding empowerment irresistibly clings to the kid’s film genre.
So do the sub-plots involving a diabolical group of young scientists, black-caped Japanese boy band types who have created creatures to steal the souls of school children and to create a monster of Godzilla’s proportions. That scenario creates the visual climax of the film, with swarms of F.R.I.E.N.D.s and kaleidoscopic tornado swirls; The Wizard of Oz spiffed up with the latest in hallucinogenic imaging technologies. These are the sequences with the most visual panache, ones that can be most associated with Murakami’s art pedigree, but more of the film has a prosaic suburban look of a Spielberg movie.
Jellyfish Eyes is not catering to American tastes (though the titles are inserted in English). It is unabashedly Japanese in its tone and setting. One of the more interesting aspects of Murakami’s achievements is in notions of export—his work traffics in themes that have more nuanced meaning in Japanese culture, yet he’s able to float them in international waters. The ultimate intentions of the film, which has sub-currents of religious extremism, bad parenting, and pacifism, may never quite register with Western audiences. In particular, the nuanced significance of kawaii, the Japanese veil of cuteness that covers less savory aspects of modern life is more than just pink tones and a busty French maid (who is the gender-bending, martial arts master avatar of a particularly nerdy young boy). This is also what is so successful about the film; a candy-colored Trojan Horse, using a friendly, familiar medium to address dark themes.
In an interview in The Wall Street Journal, Murakami addressed his use of youth in the film: “The message I want to convey to children is you are not the chosen ones, you are not always blessed and the world is dark and dreary. By telling children the harsh truth, some of them will use that energy and create something awesome when they grow up.”1 While it is dressed in tween clothing, Jellyfish Eyes is a commanding, and heartily entertaining, mature work.
1) Hsu, Jenny (2013), Takashi Murakami Makes Monster Movie to Teach Children a Lesson, Wall Street Journal (published December 4, 2013)
All images: Stills from film Jellyfish Eyes, 2013. ©2013Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Photographs by Taka Koike.