Takashi Murakami merges elements of contemporary anime, manga, and kawaii for an instantly recognizable style that he’s defined as “superflat,” a term the Japanese artist came up with for a group exhibition he curated at MoCA in 2000. To anyone familiar with his work, the superflat aesthetic needs no further explanation, but to anyone who wants to learn more about Murakami’s vision, Jellyfish Eyes is a great place to start.
The film doesn’t officially hit theaters until April 26, but we caught Tuesday’s world premiere at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Luckily for us, Murakami was on hand to participate in a Q&A following the film, providing his own insights in a conversation with film critic and curator of Film Independent at LACMA, Elvis Mitchell.
Murakami’s directorial debut tells the story of Masashi, a young boy who moves from an evacuation center to a small town where he dreams of feeding string cheese to jellyfish while talking to his deceased father. On the first day of school, Masashi discovers that every child gets his or her own remote-controlled Friend (with a capital F), including himself. The little spirit animal/golem-type creatures are part of an evil plot designed to suck up all the kids’ negative energy in order to summon a “supra-universal power,” and in typical Murakami style, there’s a wide range of fantasy creatures, from the utterly hideous to the unbelievably adorable. On one end, Masashi finds a slimy lizard-type thing and a six-legged monster with an anvil for a head; on the other, there’s a massive bunny called Luxor and the eponymous Kurage-bo, or “Jellyfish Boy” — Masashi’s own beloved Friend.
The film evokes primal emotions of childhood, such as irrational fear and profound sadness, while also recalling Japanese giant-monster cinema of the 1950s. Just as the older movies served as a visual commentary on post-World War II, radiation-fueled angst, Jellyfish Eyes addresses similar fears reignited after Japan’s earthquakes and tsunami of 2011.
Murakami said he came up with the original story for Jellyfish Eyes 12 years ago, envisioning it in CGI. But after the disasters of 2011 — including the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown — his idea transformed into a live-action film with computer animation. It seemed to make more sense as a monster movie, especially within the context of Japanese film history.
The artist said his decision to use real actors meant they would need to have exaggerated, manga-style features. For instance, he chose the boy who played Masashi because his face was “very sad,” not because he was necessarily a good actor.
“I wanted to make it half live-action, so that’s why the main characters look like animation. That is very important,” Murakami said. “That face is amazing. Like, super-sad, you know?”
Murakami’s original design of Kurage-bo was nothing like the kawaii character that wound up onscreen. “He was almost naked, my original design,” he said. “He has a big penis or something — I loved that idea. He looks like a stranger-guy, and really, you know, smells stinky.” The artist added that because a movie is a collaboration — and because his target audience was children — he changed his design after two weeks of shooting. Fortunately, he gets to carry out his creative vision in the second part of Jellyfish Eyes. (Yes, there’s a sequel!)
“That’s why part two is very dirty, and has a very dark story. Because I am not satisfied with part one, so part two is my part.” Now that Murakami is done shooting the second part, however, he thinks it’s too dark and wants to add more cuteness.
When Mitchell asked if there would be a part three, Murakami responded, “I have an idea, but I don’t want to say it.”
Check out the trailer for Jellyfish Eyes, hitting theaters April 26. In the meantime, if you’re in the LA area, catch Murakami’s sixth solo show at Blum & Poe Gallery: Arhat, on view April 13 – May 25.
All photos ©Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.