Takashi Murakami has achieved a level of ubiquity that is unparalleled in the art world. His work has been in the sky over Manhattan, on thousands of Louis Vuitton handbags around the globe, and on the cover of a Kanye West album, to say nothing of his year-round schedule of museum and gallery shows. In light of this, it’s almost surprising that it’s taken him so long to branch out into filmmaking.
His first feature film, Jellyfish Eyes, opens today at New York City’s IFC Center. It follows a young boy named Masashi (Takuto Sueoka) as he and his mother move to a new town from a nuclear decontamination zone. A strange creature named Kurage-bo (or “Jellyfish Boy”) befriends Masashi. Soon he learns that all the kids in his new school have similar creatures, which fall somewhere between the cuddly Mogwai from Gremlins and the deployable power animals of Pokémon on the totem of cute pop culture critters. The creatures, which are known as FRIENDs thanks to some creative acronyming, were distributed by a local group of nefarious scientists who, to make a long story short, are using them to harvest the world’s most powerful energy — the anger and anxiety of young children, obviously — to wipe out all of Japan’s negativity and make it a happy place. It’s made clear that Masashi’s father died either in the 2011 tsunami or the subsequent nuclear disaster, and there’s evidently some very dark and difficult subject matter lurking just beneath the very playful surface of Jellyfish Eyes.
Hyperallergic met with Murakami to discuss the deeper meanings of his first film, the challenges he faced in making it, and how the Japanese are addressing (or not) the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear explosion.
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Benjamin Sutton: What drew you to make your first feature-length film?
Takashi Murakami: When the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster happened, and especially when the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion happened, before that I already had ideas for a film and this story, but because of that happening I was able to expand and deepen the story that I already had in my mind, and that ultimately came out to about a 90-minute, feature-length story. And the timing was good because I also met the director Yoshihiro Nishimura [the co-producer and supervising assistant director of Jellyfish Eyes] at that time, and he said, “oh, I could do a live-action film for you,” so the timing worked out. So it was not that I was going step-by-step planning for this, but because everything came together at that time.
BS: Was it difficult to integrate the film’s weightier subtext about the tsunami and nuclear disaster, and the pervasive fear of radioactive contamination, with the story about a boy fitting in at his new school in a strange town?
TM: The reason the design for the main character, Kurage-bo, the Jellyfish Boy, came about is that when Nishimura and I were talking about the film in the beginning we came up with the title, Jellyfish Eyes, but I didn’t want to create any character with “jellyfish” in the name and I really wanted the story to center around the big monster, Oval. But Nishimura kept insisting that “the title has jellyfish, you have to have a character or a monster that has that name, otherwise the story wouldn’t really work.” I really resisted, for two weeks I was resisting, but when the first script was finished it didn’t have a core and I started to think, “well, maybe he’s right.”
So I forced myself to make this character with the name Jellyfish Boy, and so it’s weird for me that it’s become the main character, it’s on the poster, and it’s cute. Originally in my head I was coming up with a story where a boy and a girl meet and they have these negative feelings that they’re trying to communicate, and that feeds into this spirit or ghost, and that turns into a monster. That in and of itself didn’t work out, but once Fukushima and the tsunami happened, by working those into the story I was able to expand and deepen the story, and that’s how the film worked.
BS: The film is very rooted in reality, and what people tend to think of as the characteristic Murakami aesthetic doesn’t really come to the fore until the final chapter; why did you choose to make the film relatively realistic, rather than doing something more fanciful and colorful?
TM: Perhaps the live action part of the film isn’t crazily colorful because in terms of production design and when I’m filming the live action, I really prefer the world of Star Wars and films like that, which are a little bit dirtied, a little bit more subdued in terms of color. Once I start working with CGI it’s really easy to place a lot of colors, so toward the end of the film there’s a lot more CGI, which is why it becomes more and more colorful. In the beginning the scene designers were thinking, “oh, it’s Murakami,” so they were introducing a lot of colorful elements, but I kept removing them and making it more and more simple, so as I was working on the live action part I personally must have wanted something more realistic.
BS: There must be a lot of similarities between running a number of very large art studios and directing a film — lots of different people involved and collaboration; but what was the hardest part about learning to be a director?
TM: At first I don’t think I had a good understanding at all about the actors, especially the child actors. There were of course many of them, and when I was working with them, at first, I felt like I was just dealing with children so I was treating them like children, which was a mistake. And then as the shooting went on I was also dealing with adult actors and they would ask me for instructions and I would try to give them some and they would act on them. But I think the thing that I wasn’t prepared for and I should’ve really had a better understanding of was that I didn’t have the sense that acting is a type of art, so until some time into the process of shooting the film I didn’t have a grasp of it.
Another big challenge was the music. There was a really, really big conflict with one of the producers. Right from the beginning I kept saying that what I wanted was something like the music of Mike Oldfield or the French composer Jean Michel Jarre, that type of music and that mood. I kept saying that, but the producer kept saying, “No, you want this Hollywood-type music,” and he kept coming up with this string music and orchestration, stuff like that. And I kept saying no, and it took about six months to work through that disagreement. So that was difficult.
BS: What part of being a director was the easiest to learn?
TM: Nothing was easy. It was very difficult and it’s still very difficult.
BS: Do you plan to make more films, or was Jellyfish Eyes a one-off experiment?
TM: I’m working on part two and part three. Part two is already in production, and there will be a part three as well. And there are other projects that I’m already working on the scripts for — two of them. On top of that I’m also working on an animated TV series. About half of my week is devoted to making some type of moving images, and the other half is sculptures, paintings, and art production. So maybe two or three years down the road you’ll start to see all the things I’m doing right now and there will be a lot of films and TV.
BS: It’s not until almost the end of Jellyfish Eyes that there’s a character directly inspired by one of your sculptures, the Miss Ko² character; was the process of making characters for the film different from the process of making characters for your paintings and sculptures?
TM: For the pre-production of this film I only had three months to come up with more than 100 different FRIEND designs, so I was literally just sketching out 30 characters a day for three days at a time and then sending them off to be modeled and then come back and I would say, this one’s working, or this one’s not working. So I really didn’t have enough time to come up with all of them. But with Miss Ko², it took me more than a year to just design it, so it was just a completely different sense of time in producing these characters. I never intended to have Miss Ko² appear in my film, but a character that you spend a year or two coming up with the design for is of course very strong and in the film, when you want to show that, OK, a different, stronger character has appeared, it was impossible to do by just quickly squiggling a new character. In order to orchestrate the final, ultimate battle, I had to bring her in.
BS: Part of what makes the film so engaging is that it has these elements of very familiar relatable stories that we’ve all been through, like being the new kid at a strange school; were any of those parts of the story autobiographical in any way?
TM: It’s actually not at all autobiographical. The format of a new kid being bullied is everywhere in Japanese animation, it’s completely old. But it was intentional in my initial discussion with other people, I wanted to use characters, settings, and a story that are very ordinary and nothing new. And based on that I wanted to really develop the post-tsunami Japan part of the scenario.
BS: Has the trauma from the tsunami and the nuclear disaster been dealt with much in Japanese cinema and pop culture? I remember after September 11 there was a period when you couldn’t refer to anything even remotely related to terrorism or the World Trade Center, and then a few years later there started to be movies, books, and TV shows about 9/11. Has something similar happened in Japan now that it’s been four years since the tsunami?
TM: There are films that are treating the theme and the incidents, but they are never well-received. I think the Japanese people want to put a lid on some of these things. Especially with Fukushima, there’s just crazy contamination and radiation; people compare it to Chernobyl and say this is so many times stronger and worse. There’s the meltdown right there, but people are looking away and pretending like nothing has happened, and they want to feel like nothing wrong is going on. But there are about four or five films per year that actually address the problems and treat what happened there, but there’s nothing on TV ever. And it’s all self-censored. It’s not that the government is trying to downplay it, but people don’t want to react to it.