Takashi Murakami’s candy-colored art is easy to recognize, whether on the walls of a museum or the side of a Louis Vuitton handbag. There is no mistaking the Japanese artist’s fanciful hand in his new movie venture, either—”Jellyfish Eyes,” his first feature film now playing on a handful of screens in the U.S.
The 52-year-old art-world polymath—a painter, sculptor and animator who has long embraced the merchandising of his own art—has created a live-action, science-fiction fantasy with the same kinds of multi-eyeballed aliens, gooey monsters and voluptuous characters that populate his other works.
“Jellyfish Eyes,” set in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster, tells the story of a boy grieving his father’s death who moves with his mother to a city filled with strange creatures that only children can see. Along the way he encounters black-cloaked villains trying to harness the children’s pain for energy. Mr. Murakami, the director and producer, conceived of the story and its animated characters, which were created using computer-generated imagery. The movie, which runs just over 90 minutes, is intended for all audiences.
With the film, which flopped in Japan last year, Mr. Murakami joins the ranks of visual artists who have also directed movies, like Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, Steve McQueen and Matthew Barney. Such films rarely reach wide audiences and are often screened at art spaces rather than movie theaters.
Creative tensions flared in the run-up to this film, the first in a planned trilogy. Mr. Murakami came up with an encyclopedia of animated characters—a froggy fighter that uses its long tongue like a weapon, a red-eyed monkey with a mean streak, a critter with a tin-can head and rocket thrusters—and sketched each one. He told his animators how the characters should move and then waited a month to see the results, which he rejected—again and again, over a year. “It’s not a really amicable process,” he said through a translator. “By the end of the film, the team was so fed up they didn’t want to work on the second film.”
The movie is named for its animated hero, a gummy sea-like creature with green eyes and an overbite that mixes its goofy cooing noises with kung fu kicks. A movie version of “Miss ko2,” a busty blonde animé-inspired sculpture that is one of Mr. Murakami’s best-known artworks, appears in an extended fight scene.
Mr. Murakami’s auction record was set in 2008 at more than $15 million with “My lonesome cowboy,” a sculpture of a masturbating man whose sale at Sotheby’s in New York sparked fierce criticism in Japan. The artist said he has poured the profits from his art sales into the film trilogy, already spending $7 million on the first film and set to spend even more on the sequel.
The movie tour, organized by Mr. Murakami and one of his American galleries, Blum & Poe, started this month with a stop in Dallas and will run into June, screening mostly at museums in cities that include Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Merchandise for sale at screenings includes plush toy characters from the film, posters, key chains and a T-shirt created with Billionaire Boys Club, the clothing line by musician Pharrell Williams.
The artist had been batting around the idea of a movie for years. After the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, he worked in earnest. “There was the tragedy of the disaster and the reality that Japan couldn’t really process or handle it, and the influence of that on the children,” said Mr. Murakami, who makes no secret of his disillusionment with his native country.
“In Japan, there’s a culture of putting a lid on anything bad. The entire Japanese society has this atmosphere of, ‘We cannot say anything bad about Fukushima, we cannot say we are afraid, we just have to look away from the actual danger.'”
As a child, Mr. Murakami watched documentaries about why Japan lost World War II—”that type of thing was always on TV”—and heard frank talk about the nature of war from his father, a taxi driver who joined the country’s military peacekeeping force and left magazines about weapons lying around the house. Along the way, he gorged on Japanese monster flicks and Steven Spielberg’s alien blockbusters.
Searching for a vehicle for the supernatural in the film, the artist came up with smartphones, which the children use to summon their increasingly violent CGI sidekicks. Young children don’t really understand how such devices work and see them as mysterious, he said, adding: “I thought it might be a good symbol of the dark side, something that resides beyond this black screen that is incomprehensible.”
The artist leaves room for the mystical possibilities in his own life, too. On the first day of shooting, Mr. Murakami brought in a master of feng shui, the practice of creating harmonious surroundings based on a belief in the flow of energy. The exercise protected the cast and crew from accidents during filming, he said.
Mr. Murakami, who lives in Tokyo with his wife and their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, said he isn’t trying to compete with Hollywood. “You ask me how it did economically and how the reaction was, I had to say, ‘Well, it wasn’t really great,’ and that’s sort of embarrassing,'” he said. Still, after some screenings, mothers have told him his movie was the first to make their children cry, which he considers a form of validation. “In terms of the quality of the work, I’m actually really happy with it, especially seeing it from the children’s point of view.”
Article by Ellen Gamerman, The Wall Street Journal