Director: Takashi Murakami
Stars: Himeka Asami, Masataka Kubota, Asuka Kurosawa
Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes
Takashi Murakami's 101-minute film, Jellyfish Eyes, is a triumph on many levels. Not only is it the famed Japanese artist's debut feature film (it's a trilogy, in fact), it's a highly relevant, layered extension of his art practice up until now.
The film's initial screening was at LACMA in April 2013, and Murakami spent May and early June 2014 touring the film elsewhere in the U.S. It deserves a wider audience, not only to inform the masses of Murakami's art and ideas, but to create dialogue around the topic Jellyfish Eyes explores most brilliantly: the blurring of positive and negative forces in our culture, especially in relation to disaster and tragedy.
The film begins with the cryptic line, "In this vast universe, we encounter one another miraculously," before introducing the main character, a young boy named Masashi, and his mother. They've recently lost Masashi's father and have moved to a new town. He meets a F.R.I.E.N.D. (companion characters that he later learns are given to all the children in his town) and calls it Kurage-bo—Japanese for "Jellyfish Boy." The story initially follows this endearing "boy and his dog" narrative, before going full CGI live-action.
On the first night in his new home, Masashi dreams of radiating jellyfish. In a later dream, he sees his father being swallowed by a tidal wave of jellyfish eyes, creating a blurred scenario questioning what's "good" and what's "bad" early on (since his F.R.I.E.N.D. is a jellyfish). It echoes the post-World War II attitude of uncertainty in Japanese art and film that Murakami has previously applied to his art at length. In place of definite opinions about what it means to "win," "lose," "help," or "hurt," there's complacency and acceptance.
Masashi's Uncle Naoto enters the picture as a scientist who works at the research lab in town. He tells Masashi that the lab is studying how to get rid of all the negativity in the world. In an earlier scene, viewers meet "The Black-Cloaked Four" of this lab, who claim to "need more negative energy" for their project. The lab additionally acts as a central location of uncertain positive or negative benefit, as citizens, including the mother of Masashi's best friend Saki, pray in protest against it daily. The lab also reflects the oscillating benefit of a nuclear power plant, and in particular, the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant, that started releasing radioactive materials after the Tōhoku earthquake in March 2011 (and could have caused a major disaster in Japan).
Other examples in Jellyfish Eyes continue Murakami's artistic dialogue about how humans think about and respond to disaster. As he stated in the New York film screening's Q&A, much of the film's storyline (written over 10 years) changed after the earthquake and power plant meltdown, including the decision to portray Masashi as a child instead of as an old man. Post-Tōhoku/Fukushima, Murakami realized that the truly marginalized, peripheral members of society are children; he said, "We have to tell kids to believe in themselves."
All of the kids in Murakami's film are unaware that their F.R.I.E.N.D.s, who can be turned on and off with "devices," aren't just there for companionship. The research lab is collecting their data and negative energy—gathered from competitions when they make their F.R.I.E.N.D.s fight—in order to ultimately create an agent of destruction. The devices themselves, in spite of the loyalty and obedience of the F.R.I.E.N.D.s they trigger, are another force of uncertain, alternating positivity and negativity (as they are in today's world of obsessive cell phone usage, as well).
"The Black-Cloaked Four" eventually succeed and create a giant F.R.I.E.N.D. named Oval, who will uncontrollably destroy Japan. He is giant, loud, and ugly, and it is up to Masashi to pierce his weak spot. Oval is the ultimate positive/negative paradox, since he is considered a F.R.I.E.N.D. but only exists to destroy.
The ending leaves room for a sequel, but the examination of forceful and accidental destruction remains layered and poignant. It's as much a children's coming-of-age film as it is an action film for adults. Murakami made a film his way, and on a $7 million budget, it succeeds in telling a narrative central to Japan yet relevant to the rest of the world. The uncertainty of the positive and negative forces and intentions in Jellyfish Eyes continues his artistic dialogue that in most cases appears pop. The film gave Murakami an opportunity to better articulate the dark side of his cultural theories and ideas, and he did so exquisitely.