Takashi Murakami's 'Jellyfish Eyes' Smacks of Derivative Pastiche

Famed Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami earnestly attempts to translate his innovative Superflat aesthetic to the world of film.

Jellyfish eyes

Director: Takashi Murakami
Cast: Takuto Sueoka, Mayu Tsuruta, Takumi Saitoh
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: NR
Release date: 2015-12-05

Takashi Murakami is best known as a contemporary artist, influential both in America and his native Japan for his “Superflat” postmodernism. The term Superflat refers to a dearth of represented spatial dimensions, yes, but just as importantly Murakami points to a liberally interpreted clutch of pop culture trappings turned on their head to some degree: the classic bridge between “high” and “low” art, with a disproportionately affectionate preference for the latter.

Jellyfish Eyes marks Murakami’s first attempt at a narrative film, one originally intended to be rendered in anime until Murakami met J-horror director Yoshihiro Nishimura, who convinced Murakami that he could reach a broader audience going the live action CGI route, and that it could be done for modest sum of 30 million yen.

Murakami still didn’t have a real concept, only a desire to translate his aesthetic to moving film. The Criterion edition of Jellyfish Eyes does a predictably excellent job of documenting the production process through its trials and travails, most of which seem to stem from Murakami not quite knowing what he wants, or even what’s tenable. Indeed, in one disarming scene of the production documentary, Murakami advises his assistants to be frank with him if the real reason for their objections is one of impracticality rather than story importance, and he will thereby desist.

It’s to the credit of both collaborators that the finished product is much more cohesive than its rushed genesis would suggest. Unfortunately, that only takes it so far, with much of the storyline and visuals smacking of derivative pastiche that, unlike Murakami’s paintings and sculpture, don’t suggest anything much beyond mere surface level.

This is the gist: young Masashi has just relocated to a small town whose livelihood is built upon the twin pillars of fertile rice paddies and a looming research plant perched on a hill high above the surrounding countryside. It quickly becomes apparent that Masashi has just lost his father, and that his mother has brought him to the village to be near his uncle, Naoto, the latter of whom seems happy to see them while at the same time voicing some foreboding objections to their being there. Could his misgivings have something to do with the fact that he works at the research lab and fears for its secrets?

Masashi’s father was instrumental in inventing the popular snack food chee-kama (a packaged, ready-to-eat blend of cheese and fish sticks), the scrumptious allure of which attracts the attention of a huggable sprite that Masashi names Kurage-bo (“Jellyfish Boy” in spite of the movie’s title). When Masashi is enrolled in his new school he finds to his amazement that all of the pupils have similar pet sprites, which they control and have engage in combat through the use of handheld, i-Phone-like devices.

Much of the first third of the movie is given over to introducing us to these sprites, referred to by their owners as “F.R.I.E.N.D.s” (an overly convoluted backronym that I defy anyone to memorize after just one or two viewings). Each F.R.I.E.N.D.’s combat skills are catalogued laboriously in a clear nod to melee-style video games, which may enchant diehard fans of such but for non-gamers can become a bit of a tough slog. Kurage-bo is established early on as an elite one-on-one fighter, although he is reasonably vulnerable when ganged up upon, a pretty transparent metaphor for Masashi's own conditional resiliency.

The second act fleshes out the purposes of the research lab, which is a sinister front for a cabal of young scientists who are bent on harnessing the negative energy of the neighborhood children -- who have been provided the F.R.I.E.N.D.s for the deliberate purpose of arousing the combative, bullying side of the schoolchildren -- with the aim of destroying the world with it. It’s also suggested that the children’s energy can serve the opposite goal of saving the Earth instead, with the obvious story conflict being which direction the kids will be manipulated.

Murakami might have been better off following his initial instincts and crafting an anime film instead. The light as a feather yet aggressively convoluted storyline could have been more easily overlooked couched in the sensory overload of a fully animated fantasy world, whereas in this CGI world the ramshackle plot implodes beneath the weight of decent yet underwhelming special effects.

Murakami states in the supplements that he made a deliberate attempt to ground the film in reality wherever possible, and with a more driven narrative this approach may have succeeded, but this threadbare storyline gussied up with a series of obfuscating, superfluous plot points is both insufficiently engaging to appeal to adults while perhaps being a bit too confusing for younger children.

It’s not a total wash, though; the film moves along at a brisk pace and the F.R.I.E.N.D.s themselves are imaginatively rendered, though the CGI is at times only slightly better than network TV standards. As a forgettable piece of popcorn fluff Jellyfish Eyes certainly pulls its own weight, but it's readily apparent from the lovingly detailed supplements that “disposable” is not what Murakami was going for.

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