An Animated Debut

Prolific pop artist Takashi Murakami on Jellyfish Eyes and being detested in Japan

Takashi Murakami on Jellyfish Eyes and being detested in Japan

Artist Takashi Murakami
Takashi Murakami launched a tour of his film Jellyfish Eyes at the Dallas Museum of Art. Artwork © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All rights reserved. Photo by Chika Okazumi
Jellyfish Eyes by Takashi Murakami
A still from the film Jellyfish Eyes. © 2013 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All rights reserved. Photo by Taka Koike
Artist Takashi Murakami
Jellyfish Eyes by Takashi Murakami

One of the most famous and culturally relevant painters and sculptors working today, Takashi Murakami has collaborated with musicians such as Pharrell Williams and Kanye West, designed for Louis Vuitton, and exhibited at Versailles. His mixed generational appeal goes far beyond any museum's walls, and the fact that Dallas was first on the list of tour stops for his first live action film Jellyfish Eyes — and one of only five personal appearances — is no small achievement for the Dallas Museum of Art.

Inspired in part by the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Jellyfish Eyes is the story a misfit boy named Masashi, who ends up with his very own anime-inspired Friend. It owes more than a little to the classic Japanese kaijū (monster) movie, but the visuals are pure Murakami — most eye-poppingly in a fight scene with Takashi's voluptuous Miss Ko character and in the Godzilla-esque ending.

The film, which will eventually get a wider U.S. release (check back with in coming months for details), was an unqualified hit with the Dallas art cognoscenti, including noted art collector and philanthropist Howard Rachofsky, despite its being created for an audience of children. Patrons of all ages lined up in the lobby afterward for photo ops with the characters Kurage-Bo (Jellyfish Boy) and Luxor, as well as Murakami himself.

This populist appeal has served Murakami well in all of his endeavors, though perhaps less so in his native Japan. The day before the screening, the artist sat down with CultureMap and his interpreter, Yuko Sakata, in his suite at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek to talk about breaking into a new industry, his artistic career and what his filmic future holds.

CultureMap: How did coming to America influence your style? Did it shift how you approach your artwork?

Takashi Murakami (via translator): When he came to the U.S. for himself, he felt like he could see everything much more clearly and simply. The info he was getting in Japan [about Western art] seemed different than the reality. He was able to understand how an artist would have a certain motivation.

In Japan, that process was interpreted in a very complex way, and when he was making artwork there, he thought with complexity, trying to make it unnecessarily burdened with meaning. In America, he was able to think more simply and work on his own vision.

CM: Why was now the right time to become a director? Is the movie a natural outgrowth of your paintings, or was there another impetus for putting your characters on celluloid?

TM: He's been making short films and shorts for a while and has always wanted to make a feature film, but the opportunity never arose. The movie industry and animation industry in Japan is rather closed off and exclusive. They were not receptive to Takashi as an outsider coming into their field, so he really couldn't find people that would be willing to work with him.

Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) helped him with the entire direction and script. He is sort of a B-movie film director at the periphery of the industry, and that is why he was perhaps open to work with Takashi.  

Now that he's been working in this medium for four years, he knows more people in the Japanese film industry, and they are more willing to work with him. But the atmosphere is still exclusive and sometimes uncooperative.

CM: That is surprising, because your work is based on anime and is very cinematic.

TM: Actually in Japan, he's very, very strongly detested. The reason why is at Sotheby's, his sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy was sold for $15 million. When the news reached Japan, they were like, "Oh, you took this anime-like boy character and showed him masturbating — it's such a shameful culture you're introducing. Why would you do that?

"You're also misrepresenting the anime culture to an overseas audience, and this extraordinary high price you're putting on your work, it's a fraud!" So they're really, really critical, and ever since they've always detested him.

CM: Were there any animators or films that inspired you when making the movie?

TM: There are various influences, but the strongest is from his childhood: The Ultraman series, Ultra Q, Ultraman and Ultra Seven. The screenwriter for the series, Mr. Kinjo, is from Okinawa, but the important point is during his lifetime, Okinawa was still under American occupation.

His story Takashi says seems twisted in a way, because even though he's creating shows for children, he's persistently posing these questions: "What does it mean to be Japanese? What kind of influence did the war have on Japanese society?" Even though it's children's shows, these current problems were always woven into it.

CM: Jellyfish Eyes explores the reality and the fantasy of childhood. How do you feel the film relates to the modern child?

TM: Takashi feels anime and children's shows today are all about selling related toys and merchandise or video games, and they don't address social issues and what the reality is like today. He feels that if a child is really perceptive and developed, they might pick up things from news media, but there are so few medias that are addressed to children that convey current issues, so he thought it would be a very interesting thing to do in his own film.

CM: So Jellyfish Eyes is a social experiment!

TM: Mr. Nishimura advised Takashi for the very first film you should do all you want; you shouldn't be strategic about what would be popular or sell at this moment, but just do what you like and give it your all.

When you think about David Lynch's Eraserhead, you will see in the first film of the director everything of that director poured out, and that's important. Maybe it is now about a social experiment, but he did not have a moment to think about that when making it.

CM: Having collaborated with musical artists and fashion houses, is there any outlet you haven't explored that you want to?

TM: He feels that now he's working on the film [and] he can do all of that within the process of making the film, he feels less interested in doing that kind of collaboration in the real world.

Jellyfish Eyes part two is already done shooting and in post-production and may be finished at the end of next year. At the same time, we already started a scenario writing and working on [a 15-episode series] The Six Heart Princess that we will launch in TV next year in Japan and hopefully America.