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Takashi Murakama’s ‘Jellyfish Eyes’ At The DMA

friend in jellyfish

More Pillsbury Doughboy than jellyfish, but what the hey. All together now: Skweeeee! A particularly cute F.R.I.E.N.D. from Jellyfish Eyes

Last night, the Dallas Museum of Art screened the film Jellyfish Eyes by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Murakami is world-renowned for his childlike, colorful artworks, artworks that have sold for millions of dollars. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks says, this time, there’s something darker in Murakami’s art.

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Takashi Murakami’s Jellyfish Eyes is filled with a whole crowd of happy, cooing, big-eyed, little monsters — monsters that only the schoolchildren in the film can see or contact via their cellphones. Such creatures in Japan are part of a sub-culture or style known as kawaii, often translated as “cute” but covering everything from Hello Kitty lunch pails to adult women dressing and acting (and even getting cosmetic surgery to look) like schoolgirls. Pokemon, the cartoon and toy mega-franchise, is probably the biggest, best-known example of such cuteness. Pokemon, in fact, is short for “pocket monsters,” an apt description of the Jellyfish critters.

Murakami has long had his own take on kawaii – in his paintings, sculptures and now his first film. Murakami says, twenty years ago, when he moved to the US, he searched his Japanese background for something he could bring to the American art scene. That turned out to be a crisp combination of historical Japanese techniques and the big-eyed cuteness of Japanese cartoons: “I want to make a bridge for the Japanese animation style and historical painting. And that was the origin of superflat idea.”

murakamiedirTakashi Murakami in KERA’s studio. Photo by Jerome Weeks

Superflat is Murakami’s name for the postmodern style he developed — referring to what he sees as the “flattened” and fetishized nature of Japanese post-war consumer culture as well as his paintings’ own self-conscious lack of visual depth. Rather than ‘windows’ on to some real or imagined, three-dimensional space, they’re more like wallpaper patterns, their surfaces crowded with bright, trippy, cartoon characters (below).

It may be a tired comparison but it has its uses: In America, Murakami is often linked with Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, not only because of his use of pop imagery. His career blurs high art and high-end merchandising. He’s designed Louis Vuitton handbags and the cover art for Kanye West’s  2007 album, Graduation. He runs galleries and shops that sell plush toys, tote bags and posters.

But Murakami says Japanese culture doesn’t have the same division between the commercial on one hand and gallery or museums artists on the other — making the Warhol/Koons comparison shaky. His works lack the same boundary-breaking appropriations (though they often have a similar deadpan tongue-in-cheekiness that can be hard to read: earnest or sly?). Instead, Murakami says he’s controversial in Japan precisely because he transforms ordinary comic books and TV culture into artworks that sell for millions of dollars — primarily in the West.

“That is very stressful for the Japanese people,” he says, “because, ‘Hey, Takashi, so this is anime culture and TV culture. This is cheating for the American people — because this is not real, your piece is not real.” So that’s why, you know, Japanese museum collections for my piece is just two museum. That is a sign Japanese art world hate me.”

phoca_thumb_l_Murakami_T-OhMyTheMrDOBTakashi Murakami, Mr. DOB All Stars (Oh My The Mr. DOB), 1998, Acrylic on canvas. Rubell Family Collection.

But Murakami does resemble Warhol or Koons in that he runs an entire studio of artists (originally called Hiropon Factory but now known as KaiKai Kiki). It’s his attempt, he says, to rectify the serious structural weaknesses of the Japanese art market. But he’s gone beyond, say, Warhol’s exploitative version of an art factory into more of a Renaissance  artist’s workshop or craft guild. He’s established an art fair, a school for young artists and a management team for nurturing their careers.

All of which is why Murakami’s move into the collective, commercial process of moviemaking was probably inevitable. But while his artworks are in museums around the world, that didn’t impress Hollywood studios. Jellyfish Eyes doesn’t have studio backing, no distribution deal. Last night’s screening at the DMA was the first of a month’s worth of museum showings and appearances across the country. “My skill and my name in the film industry is small,” he explains with a laugh, meaning “nothing. So that’s why you know, this is completely independent. So that mean I’m making everything myself.”

It’s plain Jellyfish Eyes is Murakami’s response to the biggest thing to hit Japan in years: the 2011 tsumami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. He points out that the classic Japanese Godzilla monster movie in 1954 was inspired by Cold War atomic bomb tests in the Pacific — tests that killed Japanese fisherman and poisoned fishing hauls. He says Jellyfish Eyes has a similar DNA: It may be a children’s fantasy film, but it’s prompted by serious fears about radiation. It reflects Japan’s battered sensibility, having invested so much in a nuclear future that would secure the island nation’s energy needs — only to suffer more than a thousand deaths in the original disaster and more than a thousand more in related deaths the following years.

Fukushima’s leaking, broken reactor happens to be less than 150 miles from Murakami’s Tokyo studio.”When I was a child,” he says, “you know, when I see the America-Russia has a Cold War, so kinda that really intense darkness – that feeling has come back.”

At the same time, Jellyfish Eyes is also inspired by Murakami’s early love of pop auteurs Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Robert Zemeckis, of Hollywood films like ET and Gremlins. In fact, Jellyfish Eyes is the first of three planned films.

Yes, just like the Star Wars trilogy.