Who do you look at when you’re conducting an interview with someone who speaks in a foreign language—the subject or the translator? That remained unclear throughout my 30-minute discussion with Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami and his translator Yuko Sakata earlier this week at the Criterion offices in New York. Close Criterion associate Janus Film is distributing Murakami’s first movie, Jellyfish Eyes, which Murakami was in town to promote. My eyes mostly darted back and forth between Murakami and Sakata as I asked questions about his work and movie, an ‘80s-esque tale about a boy and his fantastical pet that he uses to battle his classmates’ similarly fantastical pets in Pokemon fashion. To do so, they use controllers (“Devices”) issued by a local research center that’s actually run by an ominous bunch (the Black-Cloaked Four) who are stealing the children’s negative energy. Jellyfish Eyes is at once conventional by owing much of its plot and spirit to countless films and shows that came before it, and utterly insane. It’s by no means perfect, and often rests on cute—a fact of which Murakami himself seems to be aware. “Although the theatrical version may appear somewhat rough on the edges, I believe, for a first film, I have managed to create something with a solid structure,” he says in an interview provided in the movie’s press notes.
Wearing a puffy Patagonia vest over a buffalo plaid button down and cargo shorts, Murakami only looked at me when I was talking. When he talked (after hearing Sakata’s translation of my words), he would close his eyes, sometimes covering them with his hands, and unleash block paragraphs in Japanese that Sakata would then translate into English. It’s a slow process that is antithetical to my usual conversational style of interviewing, and yet surreal enough to feel appropriate. Below is a transcript of what was essentially a three-way conversation, edited lightly for length and clarity while attempting to preserve the nuance of the translation.
Gawker: Is it fair to call this a children’s movie?
Takashi Murakami (via Yuko Sakata): Yes.
What do you think of the fact that in America, most of its audience will be adults familiar with your artwork? The medium transforms between cultures.
For my solo exhibition at La MoCA, what I was really surprised by was that I also thought that my contemporary art fans were mainly adults, but for my show there were a lot of children who came, especially for a Saturday night. There were tons of strollers. A lot of infants came. In that natural process, maybe it’s the adult fans who will buy the DVDs, but hopefully it will percolate down to children.
In the director’s statement about this movie, you say, “I’ve managed to create something that I find interesting and that leaves me with a grin.” That seems like a humble standard.
Right now I’m making Part 2, but for Part 1, the director Nishimura, who created Helldriver and stuff like that, he set everything up for me because it was my first film—from casting to scripts to filming to editing, everything. He basically made a template for me, that’s how we made the film. And of course the things he set up didn’t quite work naturally with how I work, so since then I’ve been tweaking and making things work for me and in the end, the format has changed a lot. Without his template, what he set up for the first film, it wouldn’t have happened. So I really feel like it was thanks to him that I was able to make the film. In this industry, I knew nothing. [I was] a child with no knowledge of how things worked in the film, but I really wanted to work in the music and post-production the way I wanted to, so I stuck to those parts that I really cared [about]. I can say that in the end, the film became my own, so in that way, I’m not being humble. It’s really how I feel about it.
I thought it was interesting that in a longer interview in the press notes you say, “Although the theatrical version may appear somewhat rough on the edges, I believe, for a first film, I have managed to create something with a solid structure.” Admitting imperfection is not something that you often see artists doing.
Recent films for maybe audience and directors both are very refined. It’s more popular to have stories that are very cohesive and make sense and [have] lots of subplots and everything makes sense at the end. But when I was a student at university, the American films that I used to watch, like sci-fi or action films, oftentimes the main character would lose it and go bonkers. It’s a huge action and it ends. There’s not much refined subplot. The more recent films are: once you finish watching it it’s concluded and the world closes off. Of course I respect the skill and technique they’re using to create these films. For style I prefer the rough edges. But for Part 1, it’s simply that I didn’t have the technique to create something so complete and clean. So that’s just sort of an excuse.
If the objective wasn’t to create a complete, cohesive plot, was Jellyfish Eyes an exercise in creating and playing with creatures? Was that the expression?
I came up with four blocks of creature- and action-filled scenes. In the beginning we were [saying] it would be good if we could connect them with stories, so yes, it started with centering around creatures.
Have you ever done much thinking about why you’re so attracted to creatures? They show up in your art consistently.
It might seem strange for me to say this, but at first I wasn’t really into characters. I didn’t like them, I didn’t have skill to create good ones. But around the time I started drawing the flower characters in the art scene abroad—here—it was a great hit. Before that I was creating the Mr. DOB character and some other ones that weren’t really well received. But the flowers were well received, and as a result, I understood these characters are popular so I made more and then more and it was well received. These are not something that came from deep inside my heart’s desire or anything like that. It was more like a natural progression.
It’s nothing like that. But for example, two or three days ago I saw the preview for the new Star Wars, and I found myself just so, so, so excited and expectant from the bottom of my heart and I really realized I’m such a childish otaku—geek. Even though I’m aging, I can’t hide the childish otaku self. That’s just a huge part of me. So it’s more to satisfy this childish otaku part of me that I’m making the film. It’s nothing like this huge scheme or anything like that.
How is it to transition from doing visual art, which is mostly a solitary undertaking even when you’re collaborating, to making a movie where your artistic vision is being carried out by hundreds of people?
As a matter of course, it takes months for me to create one painting but then in the film, one second comprises 24 to 30 images. I knew that theoretically, but I didn’t actually know it. In the post production, I wouldn’t like a composition here or a color there, but then, of course, each frame by frame it would have to be corrected, so of course it takes so much manpower and money. It’s problematic. But of course I still can’t resist making the film as if I’m making a painting.
How was it working with kids?
When I was in college, for about seven years, I was teaching kindergarten, so I’m really good at playing with kids. I love it. But at first, I didn’t really understand that they’re not just children, but child actors, professionals. So at first, I was just treating them like normal kids and they started looking down on me. I had to switch and start treating them like actors.
I read your list of film influences (Galaxy Express 999, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Princess Mononoke, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, The Godfather, Toy Story, Bull Durham, and Thief). There were a few more things that Jellyfish Eyes reminded me of that I wondered if they were influences: E.T., Gremlins, and Pokemon.
As a kid, Gremlins really spoke to me. I always wanted a Mogwai. This movie reminded me of that feeling.
I really love Joe Dante’s mind. I do like Gremlins, but I especially love Explorers. I like movies before CGI that were done with Muppets. For my film, at first I tried to do it with Muppets but it didn’t work out, that’s how I switched to CGI.
I also viewed the movie as a live-action anime.
I wonder if you could expand on something you said in an interview in one of the press notes about the movie’s “true message”: “Once you become spellbound by inexhaustible curiosity toward the unknown, you will lose sight and plunge into a world that excludes everyone but yourself.”
The film is part of a trilogy. Masashi’s uncle Naoto, up until Part 2 is on the good side, but in Part 3 in the end, he cares so much about the country, about Japan, that he thinks that without doing certain things, the country will be in decline. From a good heart, he creates the opportunity for a war to start. So whether it’s a cult or a religion or a country, if you get too caught up in the ideology of trying to bring people together, or in some sort of ideology, people can go wrong, things can go wrong. That’s what I wanted to tell the children in my stories. Other things would be hypocritical social ideas, values—the message that we give our children now, to pursue your dreams and/or go to the ideal place...I think the education surrounding children is going toward that direction. I’m trying to tell the children that you probably want to be skeptical about that kind of message. And in order to show that as a sample, I’ve created these characters.
As someone who isn’t from Japan, I could recognize that the film is pointedly post-Fukushima, but I couldn’t quite understand the nuance of your commentary about exactly what that means. Can you explain it to me?
This might be the best way to explain this: I believe from here on in Japan there will be a big burst of kaiju [monster] movies coming out. After the war, with the atomic bomb being dropped in the Pacific Ocean, America and France were experimenting with atomic bombs, that’s when the Godzilla movies became popular. Japanese people were always fearful and worried that their shipping boats were exposed and contaminated and that they were eating contaminated fish. So in the same way, people are vaguely fearful of something really bad going on in and around Fukushima. If you look back on the late ‘70s to Fukushima, you probably don’t see any kaiju films coming out of Japan. In the future, looking back at this time, people will probably say, “Oh because of the nuclear power plant disaster, Japan had to really make these kaiju movies to process that.” Probably four or five years from now, it will be come a little bit clearer.
Jellyfish Eyes opens at New York’s IFC Center today.
[Photo via AP]