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Takashi Murakami's Post-Fukushima Fantasy Takes Flight In "Jellyfish Eyes"

Artist and culture-maker Takashi Murakami talks about conjuring creatures from the mysterious depths of smartphones and the sobering message about post-Fukushima Japan behind his colorful first film.

By the time Takashi Murakami hatched his first movie idea 10 years ago, the Japanese artist had already built an anime-inspired juggernaut that spanned paintings, sculptures, toys, music videos, and fashion collaborations with Louis Vuitton.

Still, Murakami had to make a substantial course correction before he came up with the adorable fantasy figure at the heart of his feature film debut Jellyfish Eyes. "I originally wanted to make a fully animated movie where this boy meets a tall monk-like old man from the forest," says Murakami.

When he later decided to combine computer-generated animation with live-action, staffers at the artist's Kaikai Kiki studio urged Murakami to create a fantasy figure more in keeping with his signature style. "The team said 'It's probably going to be very creepy to put this old man character in a live action. This is a Murakami film. People will expect something bright and cute,' so I shifted toward that direction. Once we decided it had to be a cute character, I made a really quick sketch. The Jellyfish Eyes character is basically truthful to that sketch."

The E.T. Factor

Set in the aftermath of a Fukushima-type disaster, Jellyfish Eyes follows 12-year-old Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), who moves to a new town and discovers a pink jellyfish, whom he names Kurage-bo, flying around his apartment. Masashi soon learns all his classmates have virtual "F.R.I.E.N.D." pets of their own.

The friendship between lonely boy and saucer-eyed creature calls to mind Spielberg's iconic E.T., which Murakami cites as an influence. He says, "I've also been a great fan of movies from the 1980s like Spielberg's Gremlins or Joe Dante's Explorers. I love the idea of children meeting these strange creatures and opening up to them, and then becoming liberated from their frustration. With Jellyfish Eyes, I wanted to create something like that."

Smartphone Fantasy

In Jelllyfish Eyes , kids control their companions with smart-phone-like devices. Murakami explains, "I was trying to find the dark mysterious place in the contemporary world that's around us, so I picked up the thought of the smartphone—it's black and mysteriously dark and deep and I decided that would be a good place for these creatures to emerge from."

Nuclear-Powered Anxieties

Sinister forces at play in Jellyfish Eyes eventually unleash a giant worm-like destroyer whose climactic rampage nods to Japanese monster movies from the 1950s and 1960s. "When Godzilla and Mothra came out, people vaguely feared radiation effects from H bomb testing and that's what inspired these older films," he says. "When I went to work on Jellyfish Eyes after the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear disaster of Fukushima, I noticed that Japan as a society always looks away from the real issues and tries to go on as if nothing had happened. I feel like that's actually the issue for contemporary Japan as a whole. I wondered, how do children respond to this kind of phenomenon?"

For Every Kid, a F.R.I.E.N.D.

Jellyfish Eyes features melodramatic scenarios involving schoolyard bullies, a love interest for Masashi and sinister scientists known as the Black Cloak Four, but the movie's most remarkable performances come from the creatures themselves. Besides the squeaky Korage-Bo, they include Yupi, ferocious tongue-waggling frog. "The F.R.I.E.N.D.s are reflections of each child and who they really are," he said. "I modeled Yupi character after a frog because I liked them as a child and kept frogs as pets," he said. "I figured there must be other children who love frogs."

Miss Ko2 in Jellyfish Eyes
Detail shot of the Miss Ko2 sculpture, courtesy The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

The toughest F.R.I.E.N.D is short-skirted Japanese schoolgirl Ko2, who's controlled by an anti-social orphan. The character first surfaced in 2003 in the form of a "Miss Ko2" sculpture that sold for $567,000 at auction.

Murakami says "In Jellyfish Eyes I definitely use the colorful, concentric-circle eyeballs, the short limbs and big heads that you see in my artwork but I wasn't consciously trying to connect them. While designing these characters, I was really thinking more about, "If I were a child and just doodling, what would it be?' That's how I came up with most of the characters."

Jellyfish Eyes plays a series of one-night engagements through May in Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles, culminating in New York on June 1 and June 5 in San Francisco.

[Images courtesy of Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd., © 2013 Takashi Murakami, All Rights Reserved]

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