Big Ideas in a Cute Package

JellyfishEyes_trailerVisual artist and master merchandiser Takashi Murakami is famous for hiding big, serious ideas in cute, shiny packages, so launching a feature film franchise is a natural. Jellyfish Eyes had its premiere at LACMA in Los Angeles April 9, and being in the audience was one of those “this is why I moved to L.A.” moments. Watch the trailer to get a taste. I’ll wait.

I didn’t know what to expect and am still not sure what to think, except that (1) it’s crazily entertaining, (2) it will probably have critics (film and art) scratching their heads and (3) if I were looking for a graduate thesis topic, I’d be off and running. What did seem odd was what felt like muted enthusiasm from the audience, as if those folk from the art world couldn’t bring themselves to have fun and could only lean back and go hmmmm.

JellyfishEyes_Kurage-boThere were plenty of awwwwwws for Kurage-bo, the jellyfish-inspired animated half of boy-hero Masashi. That marshmallow-soft, huggable friend wasn’t Murakami’s original plan. As he explained in a post-screening interview with Elvis Mitchell, the first idea for Masashi’s sidekick was closer to the archetype of the mysterious stranger – as Murakami described him: a tall, dirty stranger with a big penis.

That mythic archetype was a fit for the dark, intense story Murakami had in mind (indeed, he cited Joseph Campbell as an influence). His film production partners and advisers weren’t so sure about this radical departure from Murakami’s mainstream brand of clean cute (cuteness mainly a factor of small size and immaturity/helplessness). Wouldn’t audiences wonder, where’s the cute? What about the plush?

Kagure-bo works the crowd at the world premiere of Takashi Murakami's "Jellyfish Eyes" at LACMA April 9, 2013.
Kagure-bo works the crowd at the world premiere of Takashi Murakami’s “Jellyfish Eyes” at LACMA April 9, 2013.

So Mr. Murakami relented, and tall, dirty, mysterious and hung became small, white, cushy and decidedly sexless — with a catch. In Murakami’s world, cute has more than one face. As fans know, iconic Mr. DOB sometimes has teeth, and it turns out Kurage-bo is resourceful and karate-kicking tough. While the screen shimmers with color, four black-caped villains escape for the sequel (principal shooting just completed, says Murakami), and a third installment is planned. Murakami smiled when he said that in these next films, his original dark vision gets its canvas.

I saw Murakami interviewed in a very different setting in 2001. When asked by the interviewer (in painfully overwrought artspeak) about the difference between his early creative process as an unknown artist and his later factory-style process, Murakami deadpanned that when he was young he bought paint in small tubes, and now he buys it in big buckets.

For all its fun (and if you want to leave it at that, feel free to skip the rest of this) Jellyfish Eyes is a very big bucket for a serious thread he’s been exploring for decades in images and sculptures like mushroom families and death’s head clouds. Jellyfish Eyes had been in process for more than a decade when the 2011 tsunami, earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster hit. Just as Godzilla responded to nuclear-fueled realities for ’50s audiences, Murakami knew his story was a chance to address today’s fears — a very real problem for Japanese youth, he said.

And while America tends to go forward on the bold blindness that radiation fallout can’t hurt us and environmental catastrophes are fixable with paper towels and enough storm drains, seeing Jellyfish Eyes was a gentle space to consider potentially paralyzing questions: How is it possible to conceive the future when so much destructive potential is just over the horizon? How can we act when even best intentions — perhaps particularly best intentions — can go so wrong?** When — even acting in good faith (as does a key character) – a monster can be mistaken for a god?

If we can’t conceive, we can’t create. If we’re unable to “do it,” what we’ve got left is distractions: nostalgia and the toothless cute that Murakami’s version ironizes. Repetitions, symptoms, fetishes.*** Just Do It (trademark firmly in place).

And so the audience hooted when Murakami’s blonde, big-breasted maid came to life as a warrior, high kicking little boys’ green monsters into oblivion. There’s power inside those cute, shiny packages, waiting to be unleashed. What would happen if we saw Jellyfish Eyes as a crazy call to act in light of our best selves, instead of buying the merchandise while putting our own creativity on the back burner? As with all of Murakami’s work, both possibilities are there for us to choose.

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*In 2001, Murakami was interviewed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in conjunction with “Made in Japan” which exhibited his work alongside 18th-century Japanese scrolls from the MFA’s permanent collection. Read a nice write-up by the Boston Phoenix (R.I.P.)

**Robert Oppenheimer famously opposed developing the H bomb, after seeing what the A bomb had wrought (and Truman famously called him a sissy for it.) Today, I wonder if Monsanto scientists are so proud of their breakthroughs that they haven’t been able to appreciate the consequences of engineering seeds that are unable to reproduce?

***Slavoj Zizek defines a fetish as “the celebratory container for a last holdout against knowledge.”

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