Takashi Murakami Makes a Monster Fantasy to Fight Social Anxiety-------
Few living artists hold the level of fame and pop culture permeation as Takashi Murakami. Through his candy-colored, anime, and otaku-inspired smiley faces and other creations, the Tokyo native has explored notions of dystopia and commerce, giving new depth to Pop Art. He’s taken on the role of a sort of Andy Warhol of Japan—blurring lines between pop culture, artist personality, and fine art through curation; the generation of his art production company, Kaikai Kiki Co.; and some memorable collaborations with the likes of Supreme and Louis Vuitton. Now the ever-prolific creator is introducing a new effort: his first feature-length film, Jellyfish Eyes, the first of a trilogy.
The live-action/animated movie tells the story of an adolescent boy who moves to a new town in the aftermath of Fukushima to start a fresh life. Once there, he quickly discovers a new friend—a magical, monster-like companion that he soon finds is one of many in the area. A darker purpose for these creatures is later uncovered, leading to chaos and plenty of apocalyptic monster references—all in classic Murakami style, of course.
We recently sat down with the artist and his translator at his longtime gallery, Blum & Poe, to discuss the origins of the project, the direction of his art, and what to expect in the future.
I wanted to ask about the origins of the film.
The reason I came into the visual art world is because originally I was really influenced by Japanese animation—you know, to draw something and then make that into film. So I was moved by the results and I wanted to move other people. In reality, I have been making short animations in the past; there were many short animation pieces that I was trying to work on. And those were fine, those were possible. But in terms of feature-length film, you need a grammar for storytelling and you need to understand how to construct a narrative, and that’s been a very difficult thing for me. So for a long time, I’ve been attempting to do this, but I haven’t been very successful. And when the earthquake and all those disasters happened in 2011, Japan started to be filled with this social anxiety and the general atmosphere of worries, and that situation seemed to become very similar with my childhood in the 1970s. In the early 1970s, there were a lot of Kenshoo monster movies and the Ultraman series and Godzilla. Those emerged and became popular in that context of social anxiety. Because the social situation now has become similar to that, I felt that I could make a film with the monsters in it in a similar way. So because of this incident, the story now has a more reality grasp. In general, I wanted to portray the relationship between this Japan filled with social anxiety and the children.
It’s such a dark story—was it immediate that you saw it as being told through children’s eyes and as a picture that children could watch and enjoy?
So, in Japan the film wasn’t really a hit at all, but I’m going to try to [get] it more exposure, and as the children watch it more, I believe that it will be enjoyed by children truly. Currently the situation in Japan is that the area that includes Tokyo and the metropolitan area, including Fukushima, is of course under the influence of the radiation. Different parts of Tokyo are highly affected by radiation, and that’s a reality every day. For example, when you think about sushi, it’s always been that the best thing would be to have freshly caught fish of the season from Tokyo Bay and that you eat that as a sushi and that’s the best thing to do, but of course people who are more informed don’t feel like eating sushi anymore. And yeah, there are a lot of cheap sushi restaurants springing up, and because it’s affordable, people are kind of ignoring what they know and eating the sushi maybe. But the families that go to these cheap sushi restaurants and eat at them will probably say, “Ooh, is it really safe? Can we really eat them?” So that will come up in everyday conversation. Then children will have more additional trainings for disaster at school—what to do in emergencies and stuff like that. And of course in the news, the relationship between China and Japan is very fragile right now and there is a danger of war—that’s been talked about in the news and everyday life. So Fukushima is still a problem that is not resolved. You have to worry about food everyday. Just going to school and coming back, there are more restrictions and rules. So in everyday life for children, there is general anxiety. My film actually contains that social anxiety, so they feel when they watch it, “OK, I can trust this film.” And even though it’s a fantasy, the experience is more like they’re entering into the familiar—their daily life—and they can believe in it.
Do you feel like your work is getting more political with this film?
First and foremost my ambition as an artist and the most important question for me is what is art, and when you pursue that question, you come to, what kind of people love art? So I got really interested in the reality of people’s everyday living environment, and of course I have a question: What are you going to do, making all these new nuclear power plants and increasing and selling them? What good does it do? But beyond that, I don’t really have a strong political, activist motivation. It’s more that when I make my work, I’m looking for stories that can be true to the audience. Whether it’s a visual or a narrative, I’m looking for something that I can communicate with the audience. So I draw a lot of different things from reality, and in this situation, it just happens to be something very political because that’s what we can share right now. In the recent past, I’ve explored the themes of capitalism and greed and how they relate to each other, and at the moment now because of this disaster, I’m very interested in nature and natural disaster and the mechanism of how religion might emerge in this kind of situation and the relationship between humans and natural disaster. Not in the sense of “OK, nature is great,” but more in the sense of “How do we deal with them? How do we try to heal through them?”
So I hear there are two more films coming. What can we expect for parts two and three?
So in part two, there is the fictionalized version of Fukushima. In this fictionalized city, after the disaster, international money comes in to create a new power plant to create an entire new type of energy. So it’s kind of Japan being used by international money. In part two, children with certain motivation all gather in the city and things happen and they try to escape as well. In part three, I’m trying to really explore the relationship with the United States and Japan. In Japan, it seems like since the war, Japan has been the puppet and it still continues to be the puppet, and that’s the reality. I’m exploring how these people are trying to swallow that as a reality and cope with that and how we might share that reality with children.