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Murakami’s film debut is anything but ‘superflat’

But whether this post-nuclear parable is fine art or pop culture is harder to discern

Such is the intentional blurring between fine art and pop culture aesthetics in Takashi Murakami’s work that it is sometimes difficult to know how to talk about it. Which is, of course, his intention. A case in point is his feature film debut Jellyfish Eyes, which—after some short local runs in the US, a Japanese release and festival screenings—was shown on 15 June as part of the Art Basel film programme.

Murakami has proposed what he calls a “superflat” theory of Japanese domestic culture, whereby the country’s historical art has influenced the animated contemporary styles of manga and anime. He further suggests that distinctions between “high” and “low” culture have become indistinct and consequently “flattened”.

He extends this process by representing populist items as fine art and by marketing them at below art-market prices. That said, his works still command high-market prices. In 2008, his anime-derived sculpture of a masturbating boy, My Lonesome Cowboy, fetched $13.5m at Christie’s, not such a flattened price after all. And on the Harper’s Bazaar website, you can find a photo gallery of some of the creatures from Jellyfish Eyes posing next to models wearing, for example, a $4,000 Valentino jumpsuit.

Cute but scary Jellyfish Eyes is ostensibly a children’s film (although too scary for the very small despite a high cute-rating for its animated co-star’s first appearances). Early on, it features a scene so ridiculously happy—like, say, a family in an advert for a bank—that you know bad stuff will be coming.

Murakami told the Creators Project on the Vice platform that, following Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent radiation leak from the Fukushima nuclear plant, he felt one of his responsibilities was to “make a healing project for the victims”.

In Jellyfish Eyes, a young boy, Masashi, goes to live in a new town, where he befriends a smiling, pink, jellyfish-like creature. He then finds his classmates in thrall to other creatures that seem to emanate from the children’s smartphone-like handsets, each with a distinct personality and appearance but largely engaged in fighting proxy battles on behalf of their pre-adolescent puppeteers. The creatures are clearly manifestations of inner emotions, as seen down the literary ages from Shakespeare’s Caliban and Ariel to the pre-adolescent “daemons” in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Without wanting to give away too much of the often tearjerking plot, it turns out that a group of black-clad, youthful scientists are manipulating the children’s emotions. The aim is to release energy that will power a creature so overwhelming it may destroy the world, while their parents are in thrall to what appears to be a fundamentalist Buddhist cult. Can the children work together to save the day?

Comparisons with ET The theme has been a common one in Japanese post-nuclear creature-features, from Godzilla onwards, and Jellyfish Eyes is very much in an indigenous movie tradition. It’s easy to spot comparisons with ET, Gremlins, Robert Rodriguez’s Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Power Rangers (originating from Japan) and a host of other television series and films, but this raises the question of which culture—Western or Japanese—is predominant. Murakami is on record as saying he wishes Japanese culture were not so inward-looking. However, its pop culture influence on Western film and animation, video gaming and design in general has been extensive and is now deeply rooted.

In another interview, for the Nowness video platform, Murakami expressed surprise that the US audience laughed at parts of the film, as he had intended much of it to make the Japanese audience cry.

Whether Jellyfish Eyes simply draws on a cultural language that is misinterpreted through Western eyes is debatable. Western film critics were harsh. The Hollywood Reporter hoped that a declared sequel was an in-joke, and Variety called it a “Pokémon knock-off”, perhaps putting the cart before the animated fighting-pet.

Murakami is often contradictory and he knows it. He told the Creators Project: “Everybody understands that my process is really confusing… like, say ‘yes’ this morning and say ‘no’ this evening. That is important to me [because] what is important in making an art piece is a really fresh idea.”