Jellyfish Eyes Dir. Takashi Murakami

[Janus Films; 2015]

Styles: fantasy
Others: Digimon: The Movie, Battle Royale

When a highly visible artist moves to a new medium, the novelty of the transition can sometimes supersede the work itself. But even if you’re able to assess their latest piece with a clean palate, and not as “x-turned-y,” the question of whether or not you’re meant to do so remains. Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, whose work has previously reached Western audiences in unexpected ways, built a career upon sphere-hopping and exploring surprising corners of popular culture. His film Jellyfish Eyes is no exception in this regard, delivering an oddly straightforward children’s movie that would’ve been right at home in an early-2000s Saturday morning block of Fox Kids programming.

Our protagonist is Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), a 6th grade boy in a new town who overcomes feelings of loneliness and alienation by befriending a small, pink, Pillsbury Doughboy-looking creature that he names Kurage-bo (“jellyfish boy”). Halfway between a partner and a pet, Masashi learns that his schoolmates all have some variety of little monster as well, known as a F.R.I.E.N.D. (which, if you’re curious, stands for life-Form Resonance Inner Energy Negative emotion and Disaster prevention.) The plot is video-gamey and involves evil people in cloaks encouraging the kids to use their creatures to fight one another, thereby creating negative emotions to harvest and use as an energy source. It’s simplistic and somewhat silly, but Murakami intended his movie for young audiences, and to his credit, it never feels cloying or unintelligent. There’s a bit of a dark vibe to it all, complete with some interesting allusions to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Jellyfish Eyes features a huge cast of CGI creatures, and their animation is often outstanding but sometimes comes across a bit low-rent. The characters are imaginative and range from amphibian to big piles of hair to humanoid (Murakami himself designed over 100 creatures for the film in just two months). The lighting and textures on these models are beautiful, giving the sensation that they are toys come to life rather than animals from the natural world. The action sequences are heavily stylized, with F.R.I.E.N.D.s flying all over the screen, crashing into everything around them. When they’re not fighting though, their movements can seem a bit stiff, and occasionally the way they’re composited into the real-life footage feels a bit wonky. Luckily, there’s less and less downtime as the film moves forward, escalating the physicality and scope of the conflict, and pushing the finale to something reminiscent of a Godzilla movie.

Overall, Jellyfish Eyes is a competent, visually-polished feature with a Power Rangers-caliber story and creatures that partially exist to become plush dolls. If this weren’t made by one of the world’s most successful artists, would we even give it a second look? Is Murakami highlighting the artisan-ship behind producing a Pokémon clone? Where another artist would demand that their latest endeavor be uninformed by those previous, the director here uses his cachet to enliven a discarded trope and cause us to question its merit. “In my artwork there is a really important concept I’m always working with, which is misinterpretation. Misunderstanding produces something new and interesting,” he says. We’re invited not to fully get it, not to grasp the significance of it, but to simply pick out little pieces that we like. Which, fittingly, may be closest to what a 6th grader would do.

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