Murakami’s ‘Jellyfish Eyes’ blends kawaii and creepy into a postquake critique

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

In the West he’s been referred to as “the other Murakami.” To those in Japan, the difference is so prominent that very few would ever confuse artist-cum-filmmaker Takashi Murakami with novelist Haruki Murakami. However, the two men do share some things in common, including an enduring collaborative friendship with North America.

“I feel like America practically raised me,” Takashi of that ilk tells The Japan Times. “So now, I’m really comfortable with working and being there.”

Actor Jack Black, reportedly an enthusiastic fan, showed up for the special premiere of Murakami’s debut feature film, “Mememe no Kurage (Jellyfish Eyes),” in Los Angeles and sang his praises. That would’ve pleased Murakami, who once told a press conference in New York: “The most gratifying moment for an artist is to be told that the world gets him.”

Murakami made a splash on the international art scene in 2000 when he curated a group exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and coined the term “superflat” to explain his particular vision to an increasing — and increasingly adoring — American audience. Murakami’s style of merging anime, manga and J-pop-inspired kawaii (cute) elements into a distinct aesthetic helped push a Japanese subculture boom on both sides of the Pacific. He blazed a trail that, for better or for worse, became known as “Cool Japan” — last year, Murakami told Toyo Keizai magazine that he didn’t believe Japan was cool at all, being crippled with economic problems and plagued by an inherent laziness.

Murakami’s sense that his homeland has so much potential but is trapped in a nonfunctioning socio-political system was one of the things that inspired him to embark on “Jellyfish Eyes.” He set to work on it shortly after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, because he “wanted to do something and do my share in these terrible times.”

Having always been in the antinuclear camp (“I hate nuclear power plants”), Murakami was appalled by the government response to the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant and makes it clear in the film. The protagonist is 9-year-old Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), who lost his father on March 11. He moves to a new town with his mother, which involves that most dreaded of fates for Japanese children: changing schools and being bullied as a result.

But Masashi is not alone; the intelligent and pretty Saki (Himeka Asami) becomes a supportive ally in his new class. Masashi also finds a “Friend” — a cute and irrepressibly spunky jellyfish that he names “Kurage-bo.” When he shows up to school, Masashi discovers everyone in his class has their own Friend, visible only to the children and never to the adults. Some of these are violent and a little grotesque; others, such as Kurage-bo, are adorable and often elusive. The kids can control their Friends via remote control, which provides them with the illusion that they’re in charge. However, the creatures were actually designed by a corporate/government entity involved in a conspiracy to absorb negative energy, and ultimately form a destructive “supra-power.”

“Jellyfish Eyes” is engrossing on many levels, one of which is an ambience that recalls Japanese kaijū (monster) movies from the 1950s. Some of the Friends could have been inspired by Godzilla or Mothra — only scaled down and child-friendly. But the queasy anxiety that fueled those old movies is duplicated in the film mainly because this country is currently revisiting the fears that existed in the age of kaijyū : mistrust of government, radiation, pollution and isolation.

According to Murakami, made-in-Japan monster movies are emblematic of a larger anxiety.

“When society is less anxious, few people are interested in monster movies. But when people are scared, monsters are back in business,” he says. “Monsters don’t heal the viewer so much as give voice to their inner fears. I know ‘Jellyfish Eyes’ is being touted as a monster movie but I don’t think that explains the whole of this work — it’s a lot of other things as well.”

For one thing, it’s much more technically sophisticated. Murakami deployed more than 900 CGI shots to create the Friends. When combined with the living, breathing cast, the result is a calculated hodge-podge of sci-fi visuals, peppered with retro funkiness throughout.

Story-wise, “Jellyfish Eyes” is often heartbreaking. The children in general — and Masashi in particular — experience a profound sadness; it seems none of the adults around them has any clue as to what they’re going through, and recede into an adult world infused with adult issues. In real life, this is the sort of thing that invites bullying — often the parents have no idea their offspring is a victim (or the one doing the bullying), and their ignorance snowballs and becomes part of something terrible and uncontrollable.

Murakami’s target audience is children (though adults constitute the core of his fan base) and bullying is not an insignificant theme in “Jellyfish Eyes.” The story is never without hope, however, and certainly doesn’t leave the kids stranded in bully-land without some kind of solution or a window of escape.

“In the movie, Masashi and Saki know instinctively that kindness is the best prescription for problems like bullying and violence,” he says. “It’s not like kids everywhere are bullying each other all the time — Masashi and Saki understand that sincerity and honesty will win out and eventually stomp out the bad stuff.

“In a greater sense, the Japanese all understand this. True, bullying is a huge problem in this country and it’s gotten a lot of press in the global media. But we know this and many are trying to overcome it and striving to move on to the next stage.”

Indeed, the solutions to Masashi’s angst (and sadness) are within himself, and ultimately the boy must search his heart for the right answers instead of waiting for Kurage-bo to bail him out.

Initially, the Friends had been less friendly-looking than those audiences will see in “Jellyfish Eyes.” Murakami says that at first he designed them as much larger creatures. Kurage-bo in particular was more than 2 meters tall and resembled the “Rat Man” from Shigeru Mizuki’s classic manga series “Gegegege no Kitaro.” Murakami says he always loved the “Kitaro” series and dips into its pages even now.

“The production staff said that if the Friends were too big, they would look strange paired up with the kids,” he adds. “They all told me that since I was the director these creatures should definitely have the kawaii thing going. So I made them cute and round and when I lined them up next to the kids, they were a perfect fit.”

Having said that, the sequel to “Jellyfish Eyes” is already deep in the works and Murakami says that there will be a significant toning down of the kawaii quotient. Apparently, the new film will be darker and will focus on the so-called supra-power stored up in a mysterious underground facility.

“I think I will continue to make movies with children as the centerpiece,” he says. Perhaps that’s an indication of his mistrust (and an indictment) of the grownups in charge of this nation. Murakami has called Japan a “superflat surveillance society where mere criticism masquerades as action and justification.” He also points out that one of the biggest problems the Japanese have is that most people feel they’re happier and in a better place than they were 20 years ago, which in his opinion is a serious form of self-delusion.

The Japanese title of “Jellyfish Eyes,” “Mememe no Kurage,” refers to three me (eyes) and appropriately there’s a lot of observance happening. As the movie ultimately shows, though, heavy surveillance doesn’t do anyone much good. As with Murakami’s art, the experience should delve deeper than what your eyes are telling you.

“Mememe no Kurage (Jellyfish Eyes)” is in theaters now. For more information, visit www.jellyfisheyes.com.

  • http://twitter.com/midnightbrewer Cailean Babcock

    In the review, “Murakami deployed more than 900 CGI frames to create
    the Friends”. I think you mean “shots”, since “frames” would mean that
    he only had 37.5 seconds of CGI footage in the entire movie.

  • NatSamui

    Can somebody explain to me what is “Cool Japan”? I heard that it’s a special organization held by businessmen and even some government people who support the mass distribution of “cool” Japan culture – pokemon, otaku, fashion, etc. Now I read that it’s just a term and nothing more. Does somebody know the truth? Thanks)

    • Bebio Amaro

      it’s just a term. It was popularized by some politicians (taro aso in particular, i think?) and they did establish an office dedicated to making special efforts to spread japanese culture across the world. but that office was NOT called “cool japan”. There is also a Japanese TV show called “cool japan”.