Saturday, February 6, 2016


For decades now, going back to at least the 1980s when I was a kid, Japanese popular culture has steadily gained influence around the world. Anime, manga, and video games have become predominant art forms, with an aesthetic that eventually could be seen in American comics, cartoons, and movies. Perhaps the only modern movement to have more of a foothold is hip-hop--which itself has never been afraid to borrow from across the Pacific. Take a look, for example, at Pharrell Williams’ video for the song “It Girl.” Set to an anime backdrop featuring cute cartoon girls and colorful settings, the clip was produced by renowned artist Takashi Murakami, whose “superflat” fine arts brand has always borrowed from all of the above to create energetic pop art that has permanently altered the visual landscape.

Given the buoyant nature of Murakami’s creations and its source material, it’s only natural that he’d experiment in different media. So it was that he moved into feature-length motion pictures in 2013, directing Jellyfish Eyes, a sci-fi children’s adventure designed as a perfect vehicle for the artist’s visionary imaginings.

Jellyfish Eyes is a bit like a live-action Pokemon. It tells the story of Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), who after losing his father in a tragic accident, moves to a new town with his widowed mother. The night before his first day at school, the nervous boy stumbles upon an odd looking mini-monster whom he calls Jellyfish Boy. Like Elliot luring E.T. into his home with Reese’s Pieces, Jellyfish is enamored of Masashi’s chee-kama, a snack stick made from cheese and fish. Though surprised at first by the rubbery pink-and-white goblin, Masashi discovers his new pal is playful and fun, and so he adopts him as a pet, carrying him everywhere in his backpack. Even to school.

It’s in class that the boy discovers that all the kids in his new home have a creature like Jellyfish Boy. They also have small iPhone-like devices they can use to control them, and they have secret tournaments where their avatars fight. Unlike Masashi, they did not find their creatures by accident, but they were given to them by the mysterious scientific cabal running a nearby lab. Masashi’s uncle Naoto (Takumi Saito) works there. It’s through him that we discover that Jellyfish Boy is an escapee from the program that created the creatures, which are code-named F.R.I.E.N.D.s, a rather unruly acronym that stands for “life-Form Resonance Inner Energy Negagive emotion and Disaster prevention.”

That’s right, disaster prevention. Through means that aren’t entirely clear, the children and their F.R.I.E.N.D.s can stave off or harness other-dimensional bad energy. Energy that four black-cloaked rogue scientists in Naoto’s company want to take advantage of. It’s because of them that Jellyfish Boy has escaped. And it’s going to be up to Masashi and his little buddy to stop an even bigger monster from taking the town.

Jellyfish Eyes mashes together a variety of influences, including Godzilla [review] and countless anime series about young boys being pushed into a noble destiny by virtue of their command of something special (think, for instance, the teenage pilots operating giant mecha in Neon Genesis Evangelion). Girls get their due here, too, as Masashi’s first ally is Saki (Himeka Asami), who has the largest F.R.I.E.N.D., a hairy combo of Sweetums from TheMuppets and Spike Jonze’s take on the Wild Things. Murakami does fall a bit on familiar tropes, as the girl is of course the voice of reason among the bloodthirsty boys, but then, Jellyfish Eyes is lathered in genre trappings. The cloaked masterminds look like wizards out of a horror movie, while Naoto is caught in a cautionary sci-fi tale. In a clever twist, he ends up having to fight a F.R.I.E.N.D. that is an exact replica of himself. It all comes down to Jellyfish and Masashi, however. Like Pikachu before him, Jellyfish turns out to be as important and powerful as he his cute and diminutive. And Masashi will have to give up everything in order to save the world.

It’s all rather fun, but not entirely unique. The arc is familiar, and Murakami’s screenwriters don’t add anything to the genre. It’s really only Murakami’s colorful designs, and the exquisite digital animation that brings them to life, that distinguishes Jellyfish Eyes from any number of similar features. (Stephen Chow’s terrible CJ7 comes to mind [review]). Each F.R.I.E.N.D. is different, there are no two alike, and they are distinctively Murakami. Jellyfish Boy flies using the pink artichoke leaves on his head; he coos like a kitten when happy, snorts like a bull when triumphant. The action in the fight sequences is fast and energetic, and viewed in high-def, one can really appreciate the craft with which Murakami’s team brings it all together.

That said, Jellyfish Eyes still is little more than a trifle. The same movie made with a less revered practitioner at the helm wouldn’t have likely been imported around the world, much less added to the Criterion Collection. It doesn’t have that certain something special, it just is what it is.

Which I suppose is enough, especially when Murakami ultimately delivers his message of peace and understanding. The children eventually learn to respect nature, not to use living things as violent toys for their amusement, and to get along with one another rather than compete. (In one tremendous set-up near the climax, one schoolboy leads his entire class in a coordinated attack, sending their swarm of F.R.I.E.N.D.s  up against the big bad.) And like the aforementioned Godzilla, Jellyfish Eyes cautions against using science irresponsibly.

In all that, it may have more resonance with younger audiences; as an older fellow, it failed to charm me into that childlike state the way a more equipped filmmaker like, say, Hayao Miyazaki can. Jellyfish Eyes is basically a well-presented diversion--particularly in this package. The transfer is top-notch, and the sound design takes full advantage of the multiple speakers. Special effects fiends will also enjoy the pair of documentaries looking at the making of the movie and its invented stars.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

No comments: