Takashi Murakami will have to make nearly 90 more films before he can truly earn that bland and often-repeated “Japanese Andy Warhol” comparison, but as a start, he’s made Jellyfish Eyes, which opened today in New York. You may be surprised to know that the film came out well over two years ago in Murakami’s home country. How could a film made by a Gagosian Gallery–represented artist take so long to hit the American film circuit, you ask? Aside from the fact that a Murakami film would probably be too weird to do well in the U.S., Jellyfish Eyes is also just flat-out disappointing.
Jellyfish Eyes is a by-the-numbers family film—there’s nothing really subversive about it. At its start, a boy named Masashi (Takuto Sueoka) moves with his mother to a suburban town and discovers a creature that looks like a turnip with two big green eyes inside a box. Dad’s not there, so you know early on that the creature, Kurage-bo, is an unsubtle metaphor for Masashi’s father. (Kurage-bo means “Jellyfish Boy,” but, in this writer’s opinion, it looks like neither a boy nor a jellyfish—a sad example of bad CGI, and one of many in this film.) Kurage-bo does cartwheels mid-air and likes snack foods, but instead of feeling cute, he seems like a character from a B-grade Pixar film.
Though the film gets a little more interesting when Murakami shows us that other students have these friends, too, and that the F.R.I.E.N.D.s, as they’re called, are part of some sort of larger conspiracy involving black-hooded scientists and natural disasters, the film hits most of the points you’d expect from a family movie. There’s a sequence where Masashi gets bullied, a part where he meets a love interest named Saki, and, naturally, a dramatic final showdown between the evil scientists, their Godzilla-like pièce de résistance, and the F.R.I.E.N.D.s. For a film that trumpets the power of imagination, Jellyfish Eyes is, ironically, fairly unimaginative.
Relying on clichés isn’t necessarily a problem—Murakami has done it well in the past. His paintings and sculptures have pushed the visual language of anime as far as it can go, exposing the style’s hidden sexuality and unexpected historical lineage. He’s also successfully used the now-overdone language of Pop to look at the rabid commercialization of Japanese culture. Instead of just settling for big-eyed pandas and spiky-haired boys, he uses Japanese culture against itself, and, more often than not, he’s got some interesting things to say.
Jellyfish Eyes does none of those things. It’s clear that Murakami is aware of the poppy musical cues and over-the-top style of Asian films of Jellyfish Eyes’ kind. He also nails the wild storytelling that Asian filmmakers love. But simply using that style and being critical with it are two different things, and Murakami settles too easily for the former.
There are parts toward the end where it feels as if the film will get more critical. For a little while, it seems that Masashi’s uncle, who works with the evil scientists, has committed suicide, right as a group prays that a disaster won’t happen. This is dark material for a PG-rated movie. Could Murakami be questioning the validity of religion in times of disaster, as he did with his Gagosian show last year? Occasionally, Jellyfish Eyes is less innocent than it appears.
Still, what few tough realities there are in Jellyfish Eyes get overshadowed by the film’s fight sequences. In the film’s final showdown, Oval, a 40-foot-tall CGI woman who looks like Sailor Moon, shows up to clobber a few F.R.I.E.N.D.s, for reasons that remain unclear. Oval may look like a sculpture Murakami made, in which she spurts out breast milk in baroque patterns, but there’s much less going on here. Whatever Murakami had in mind, it wasn’t something particularly nuanced.
The film’s thesis isn’t particularly sophisticated either. Imagination trumps all, the film seems to be saying, without any regard for the fact that the children’s parents have a lot of problems to deal with. Yes, imagination is great, but it won’t save you from natural disasters, dying parents, or a 40-foot-tall anime woman. It could, however, save the future films Murakami makes, assuming he’s less afraid to get weird and truly say something.