Takashi Murakami’s work makes breaking down the divide between art and commerce look like child’s play. His paintings of busty maids and rascally avatars (cartoonish, often with sharp teeth and dozens of eyes) are pleasing to the eye, and play to a global consumer culture, while maintaining a distinctly Japanese identity.
Murakami’s debut feature film, Jellyfish Eyes, follows that line of thinking and pushes it from the gallery onto the screen-a much more commercially minded medium. The film tells a coming-of-age story about Masashi, a tween boy who moves from a nuclear meltdown evacuation center to a town where all of his new classmates have their own Pokémon-like characters that fit in their backpacks. These characters, perfect appropriations and revisualizations of Murakami’s gallery work, are called F.R.I.E.N.D.s. While seemingly cute, they are actually a part of an evil plot, leading back to a sinister laboratory, to harness the negative energy inherent in children-who use the F.R.I.E.N.D.s to bully each other and beckon a mysterious power from beneath the earth. Masashi’s F.R.I.E.N.D. is Kurage-bo, the titular “Jellyfish.”
The film’s playful character design is to be expected from Murakami, who is often credited with founding Superflat, a Japanese art movement influenced by manga and anime. Yet the story of Masashi also serves as a portrait of a generation of Japanese youth in peril, and Murakami’s film is pregnant with symbolism about the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
MAXWELL WILLIAMS How do you feel now that the film’s finally finished and on its way to release?
TAKASHI MURAKAMI I’ve always wanted to be involved with movies but watching them and making them are two totally different things. On top of that, I’ve always been an anime fan so at first, the project was planned as an animation. However, after I encountered Yoshihiro Nishimura, the splatter movie director who served as my assistant on the film, we decided to shoot it as a live action movie. I was certain at the time that there was a big difference between live action and anime but after spending months perfecting things in post production, I began thinking of them as the same thing and adding CGI everywhere until it really became a film of very peculiar taste.
WILLIAMS Can you tell me a little bit about the film’s visually rich production design?
MURAKAMI The film is influenced by many of the tokusatsu (special effects) TV shows I watched as a child, including Ultraman and Akuma-kun. In these shows, the dogma of Japan as a nation that had not recovered from the scars of World War II manifested itself as monsters. I was obsessed with these shows as a child and my interest in visual expression probably developed from the process that went on in my brain as I watched and took in their values.
WILLIAMS You mentioned to me at the opening that you feel like Jellyfish Eyes isn’t ‘art.’ Can you tell me why you don’t see it as an art piece, and what differentiates Jellyfish Eyes from being an ‘art film’?
MURAKAMI I like action and sci-fi movies. Matthew Barney’s movies are real works of art and most of Julian Schnabel’s are real dramas. But me, I like that sci-fi taste. When Robert Longo made Johnny Mnemonic, the studio took away the film in the editing room and it became a cheap action movie. But if he had been allowed to stick to his vision until the end, I have this dream that he would have made a great film. This partly influenced my approach to the production of my movie but at the same time, I didn’t want it to make it an art film. I wanted it to have the power of a real movie.
WILLIAMS In Jellyfish Eyes there is a sense that people don’t actually know what goes on at nuclear power plants. How do you feel that the Fukushima disaster has affected the Japanese people?
MURAKAMI Nothing has changed at all and even after holding a demonstration in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in which over 100,000 people participated, there is still zero response from the Japanese government. Even among the people who oppose nuclear energy, there are very few who offer up any new alternatives themselves. Japan as a nation is incapable of looking toward the future. We can only look to the past.
WILLIAMS Some of your recent paintings on view at Blum & Poe depict arhat, or monks that have reached nirvana. When did your interest in Buddhism develop, and are these works related to your film?
MURAKAMI In Buddhism, we have what are called upaya. It’s this idea that in trying to open people’s eyes to certain truths or provide spiritual comfort to those in need, it’s okay to employ untruths or otherwise unacceptable behavior. In this larger context, religion itself is a kind of upaya. At a certain point, I realized that art too is an upaya-especially after [the 3/11 Fukushima Disaster], when I experienced what could only be called the kind of moment that inspires the start of most religions.
WILLIAMS Jellyfish Eyes deals with certain issues of Japanese youth culture, namely bullying, being an outcast-otaku culture-which leads to Japanese children feeling cut off and alone. Can you tell me about the message that this film sends to those children?
MURAKAMI I think I probably wanted to give them an almost religious affirmation of the notion that even you can’t rely on the other people around you, there’s still something out there that can save you. A lot of people become otaku because they have been treated badly by this world and I wanted to make a fantasy that would serve as an upaya, a cathartic device for them.
Jellyfish Eyes had its world premier the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on April 8th. Murakami’s new paintings are on view in “Arthat” at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles (through May 25).