“Superflat,” the name of the art movement influenced by Japanese anime cartoons that was founded by Takashi Murakami, also describes the human characters in his first feature film, Jellyfish Eyes. Whether they lack depth and complexity by design or because Murakami only gradually grasped how to work with actors over the course of filming — both points he made when I interviewed him last week — it makes for an at times grueling movie. (At one point the hero, a 12-year-old-boy, balls up his fists and screams at the sky as tears stream down his face: “Why does everyone leave me?!”) The cliché-splattered storytelling, jittery pacing, and affectless acting crystalize in a few scenes, especially as the narrative gains momentum, when the nonsense suddenly all makes sense: Jellyfish Eyes is live-action anime. Not surprisingly then, the fantastical creatures Murakami designed for the film are its real stars. And in spite of the superflat format, he manages to address some deep-seated fears and traumas in what might otherwise feel like a by-the-numbers kids’ movie.
The film follows Masashi (Takuto Sueoka) as he and his mother adjust to life in a small town. They had been living in the Fukushima decontamination zone, and it’s made clear — and then reemphasized in multiple dream sequences in case you didn’t get it — that Masashi’s father died in either the 2011 tsunami or the ensuing nuclear disaster. Between his status as the “new kid” and his brush with radioactivity, Masashi is a prime target for bullying at school, some of which is directed at him and much of which is played out between the fantastical creatures that every kid in town has. The so-called “FRIEND” creatures, which alternately evoke Pokémon, Gremlins, and Wild Things, are all controlled by iPhone-like devices, except Masashi’s powerful Kurage-bo (or “Jellyfish Boy”), who adopts the newcomer and needs no cellular leash to know when to spring into action. The cartoonish critters’ power to bash each other into oblivion in after-school battles causes more property damage than any adult could possibly not notice, and the grown-ups’ ignorance of the FRIENDs’ existence is fodder for recurring gags. As the logic of kids’ movies dictates, the adults remain largely uninterested in the children’s adventures until things get way out of hand.
In the final half-hour of Jellyfish Eyes, things get way out of hand, and in a way that adds some interesting wrinkles to the film’s moral. Masashi eventually learns that the FRIENDs are not innocent playthings or battle-ready avatars. They have been designed and distributed by a team of evil scientists who dress like villains from an early Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. The anger, fear, and anxiety the FRIENDs trigger among the kids is absorbed through their smartphone controllers. You see, the sinister scientists — who are technically named the “Black-Cloaked Four,” but might as well be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — have figured out that children’s negative feelings are the most powerful force in the universe. They absorb the bitterness of every brat in town to trigger an apocalyptic cleansing that they hope will leave only positive feelings in its wake. Though their scheme to forcibly eradicate unhappiness seems well-intentioned at first (if a little dictatorial), it takes the form of a giant, worm-like FRIEND named Oval that threatens to destroy the entire town and then the rest of the country. Whether this was always part of the plan, or if something went horribly awry is never made clear, but I imagine we may find out in Jellyfish Eyes 2 (coming soon).
There’s a great deal of residual anxiety about the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and the pervasive fear of grappling with its effects at work in Murakami’s film, which was released in Japan two years ago, when the crisis was still playing out. Jellyfish Eyes, perhaps unintentionally, also ends up being a cautionary tale about the dangers of being too attached to one’s devices. After all, the anger and fear being amplified and absorbed by the kids’ FRIEND controllers nearly triggers armageddon. The timing of the film’s US release, at a moment of pervasive distrust of a government that could be listening to any and every citizen’s telephone conversations at any moment, opens up another possible interpretation. Could the Black-Cloaked Four — one of whom excitedly yells “are you getting that data!?” during the penultimate FRIEND battle — be a cell of rogue NSA agents tapping phone calls and mining metadata with impunity? To Murakami’s credit, there are several layers of such compelling alternative readings available in this seemingly superflat film.