Like the megalomaniac in a one-dimensional Hollywood blockbuster, Takashi Murakami won’t be satisfied with anything less than world domination. So what better way for the influential Japanese artist to expand his grip on the popular imagination than by making a children’s movie with massive commercial appeal? That was the idea anyway, although Murakami’s “Jellyfish Eyes” failed to connect with local auds when released in April 2013, leaving the likably dopey pseudo-Spielbergian pastiche — which blends Godzilla movies, Pokemon cartoons and other stock fantasy elements with disappointingly generic results — to do the rounds of special-event screenings at international film festivals and museums.
Often likened to Andy Warhol in the way his output attempts to elevate low culture to a position of artistic respect, Murakami couldn’t have chosen a more different entree into filmmaking from that of his idol. Whereas Warhol’s first cinematic forays were edgy, sexually transgressive works that played to the New York underground scene, Murakami went straight for the mainstream, investing an estimated $7 million in a project designed to connect with young audiences.
The story centers on Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), a cute, cross-eyed kid who’s had trouble coping with several life hurdles lately, including the death of his dad and an unnamed disaster that forced him and his mother (Mayu Tsuruta) to abandon their homes for an evacuation center. No sooner has that crisis calmed than the family finds itself on the brink of another meltdown, this one orchestrated by a power-hungry group called the Black-Cloaked Four.
Dressed like characters from a “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” episode, this cult quartet are conducting dangerous experiments at a lab where Masashi’s uncle (Takumi Saitoh) works. They have discovered a powerful new energy force tied to children’s anger and sadness, releasing hundreds of magical companions called Friends into the community with the covert agenda of harnessing the unhappiness they create. Masashi meets one of these creatures the day he moves into town, sharing Chee-kama treats with his new floating pink Friend, Kurage-bo (“jellyfish boy”), the way Reese’s Pieces worked to tame E.T. two decades earlier.
The other kids think they are controlling their Friends via small electronic devices, but in fact, the “Pokemon”-style fights they stage in class and after school are generating a dangerous form of negative energy. The shadow of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown looms large over Murakami’s otherwise cheery kidpic, from the ominous power lines that stretch across ultra-bright rice paddies to the eye-popping supernatural climax, in which a giant CG monster (not unlike the grotesque kaiju-style figure seen in his “Tan Tan Bo Puking” painting) descends from the skies to wreak havoc.
The most consumer-conscious of international artists, Murakami has revolutionized the art world by arranging to make his work available to the public via mass-produced goods, from inexpensive plastic toys to high-end Louis Vuitton purses. With “Jellyfish Eyes,” he intends to show the younger generation that they have the “power” to change the system, though the easily merchandisable film — which turns past Murakami artworks into tie-ins and has spawned no shortage of fresh collectibles — has a strange way of criticizing the fact that most of the anime created today seems driven to sell products.
After trying his hand at several animated shorts, Murakami conceived “Jellyfish Eyes” as a cartoon feature, but the closed-off Japanese industry thwarted those plans. Instead of giving up, he teamed with horror helmer Yoshihiro Nishimura (“Tokyo Gore Police”), credited as a producer here, to tell the story in a hybrid style popularized by none other than Walt Disney, who similarly mixed live-action with cartoon characters in such pics as “Pete’s Dragon” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”
That format puts a considerable burden on the visual effects department, who supply a vast array of appealing-looking Friends, along with a giant woolly critter named Luxor who seems to have stumbled in from Sesame Street. These cartoony companions offer a natural way for Murakami to inject his artistic style into a real-world universe, while providing special cameos by familiar characters, including the Sailor Moon-like Miss Ko2 — all in service of a story barely original or interesting enough to sustain a half hour of kids’ TV.
By second-guessing what audiences want, Murakami falls into the same trap studios do when trying to appease mass tastes, delivering a film that features many of his familiar designs and characters but precious little in the way of personal vision. (As if the pic’s 40-minute finale weren’t overload enough, the film ends with a short teaser for a “Jellyfish Eyes” sequel — evidence that Murakami seems to be getting ahead of himself.) Compared with David Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” Matthew Barney’s “The Cremaster Cycle” or any number of artists’ bigscreen efforts, “Jellyfish Eyes” feels, well, Superflat.