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."
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."
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."
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?"
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."
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.