Renowned Japanese artist Takashi Murakami talks to Emmanuelle Charlier about his feature directorial debut, a two-part tale about a fatherless youngster in a post-Fukushima world who relocates with this mother to the countryside where he discovers a strange creature.

Speaking through a translator, Murakami discusses his goals in telling the story, the power of children and David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Jellyfish Eyes will tour US venues starting in May. For more information click here.

What made you decide to make a film?
It’s been my dream to make a movie because a lot of elements [in my work] have been influenced by the movies; mostly sci-fi movies. George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola came and changed everything with their vision and I was influenced by that. We saw a lot of movies like Star Wars, that kind of movie. So that is my background and why I wanted to make a movie.

When did you come up with the concept of this story?
The animation idea came about 10 years ago. At the time the story was about a family where the father lost his job and became bankrupt. They move to a rural area with a Brazilian community and the child meets a Brazilian child and they try to communicate, but because of the language barrier it is very difficult. There are spirits/beings that reside in the woods that facilitate their friendship. That was originally the story but I couldn’t quite develop it. I was working on the film at the time of the earthquake disaster in Japan [the Tohoku quake in March 2011 that triggered the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown] so I put that element into the movie and then made it into a live-action film.

So it was supposed to initially be a completely animated film?

There is a lot of social commentary in the film – is that important to you? What is the central theme of the film?
Even though a lot of the children in Japan weren’t in the affected area and only know about the incident from the news, it is true that the people who were in the area had to evacuate and relocate. These people from these small communities are spread all over Japan and the kind of situation I’m depicting in the film exists all over. It’s also a reality that at schools there is bullying stemming from this. For example the kids would say, “Oh, if I touch you I’ll get radiation so I don’t want to touch you,” – so these things happen. So I wanted to hold up a mirror to the situation of the children so that they become aware of it themselves.

Children are the main focal point of the film. There’s a lot about the empowerment of children, how children can save the world. Is it important to you to empower children through your art?
Especially after I did the retrospective Copyright Murakami at LA MOCA in 2007, that was the time I felt children were actually a very important part of my audience. I was already making animation films and stuff like that for children but I heard that at MOCA they had a deluge of visitors to the show and they couldn’t handle it at first because they didn’t know how to deal with it. That really made a big impression on me and I felt like I should be creating things that were aimed at children.

So can this be considered a children’s movie?
I made this film with the idea that it is for children specifically.

Given that it’s live-action and animation, how does the film fit with your overall creative aesthetic as an artist?
I am also creating an animated TV series right now [called Six ♡ Princess] so what’s good about doing the full animation is that it’s like creating my own artwork and drawing so I can create everything from scratch exactly the way I’m envisioning it. The flip side is that I continuously wants to perfect it, so I keep changing it and it never ends and time just goes on and on. With live-action once you shoot the film of course there is editing but the material is already there and you can’t change [it] that much, so I thought it would be a good framework to work within. But because of the technology there’s so much you can do with computer graphics and fiddle around with that I’m spending more and more time even though it’s a live-action film. But it still gives me a timeline and finite materials to work with.

The timeline from conception to shooting to post-production – what was that like?
The idea for Jellyfish Eyes came 10 years ago but the actual shooting took a month and then from there it took about a year-and-a-half of post-production. So all together about two-and-a-half years to create Part 1. But within that time I started creating Part 2 and it has already taken two years and will take another two to complete because it’s very complicated. So Part 1 came out pretty quickly but Part 2 is going to take four years total.

Was it difficult to get the project off the ground? Who backed it? Where did your financing come from?
It’s 100% financed by my company [Kaikai Kiki] and so I’m putting all the profit from the sale of my artwork into the production.

Was it difficult to cast Takuto Sueoka as Masashi, the unlikely teenage hero?
Because it was my first time directing a film I had a lot of people supporting me and they had already held two rounds of auditions and by the third round I got to see [the auditions] and they had narrowed down the actors to about 50 or so. When I chose the actor who plays Masashi, everyone else said that he’s really not trained and were not recommending him. But I really liked the expression of the actor that played Masashi.  

What do you hope audiences take away from your film?
For children, I would really like them to first enjoy the film as though they’re watching any other fun, adventurous movie. But the difference between this film and what they might be watching a lot on TV is that children’s programmes don’t really delve into the social problems and issues that I’m tackling in this film, so [it is my hope that by mixing] more familiar entertainment [with] serious reality, [the film will make them] feel something there and start to want to know and see the reality of the larger society out there.

How do you think the film is going to resonate with American audiences? You’re also taking the movie on tour.
This tour is mainly art institutions, so they will already know Takashi as an artist. For example, when I was young I really liked David Lynch and when I saw Blue Velvet I really loved it and wanted to see earlier works and I watched Elephant Man and Eraserhead, but when I watched Eraserhead I knew it was the first work Lynch had made so I was forgiving going into it because I already really liked the director. So I feel as a touring artist the audiences are fans already, so they will lower their expectations and watch the film very favourably, so I might not receive too critical a review from them. But for Part 2 I’ll probably be judged more critically or harshly because standards will be higher. In making Part 2 I have to be better [in order] to stand up to less forgiving eyes and I want a more general audience to see the film, so I’m working on details and building up the film to stand up to that kind of audience.