Art Meets Film

Takashi Murakami on Religion in ‘Jellyfish Eyes’ and His New Exhibition

Contemporary artist Takashi Murakami returns with a solo show and a live-action film. He talks to Jean Trinh about the Fukushima disaster and his influences.

Amanda Edwards/WireImage, via Getty

Takashi Murakami is a busy man. The prolific Japanese contemporary artist presented the world premiere of his first live-action feature film, Jellyfish Eyes, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) earlier this week, and he’s preparing for his latest show—a collection of towering fabricated sculptures and vibrantly colored, large-scale mural paintings—at Blum & Poe on April 13.

Despite his hectic schedule, Murakami seems unfazed. It’s the day after the 51-year-old’s LACMA event and a few days before the big show. Members of his company, Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd., publicists, and cameramen are quietly buzzing in and out of the 21,000-square-foot Blum & Poe concrete art complex in Culver City, Los Angeles. He enters a white-walled room adorned with a few of his latest paintings, eating a sandwich. Long gone are his signature slicked-back-hair bun and pointy goatee, which have been replaced with a shorter do and a groomed beard. He is warm and approachable, and his English is broken—he uses a translator at times, but his passion is conveyed clearly despite the language barrier. Jellyfish Eyes represents Murakami’s directorial debut, the latest in a string of projects that blur the lines between art, fashion, music, and film. The Louis Vuitton handbags he designed in the early 2000s—the colorful LV emblems and floral designs that boosted the company’s branding—furthered his international fame. The artist has collaborated with Kanye West, creating an animated teddy-bear personification of the rapper in 2007 for his Graduation album cover and directing an animated video for his 2008 track “Good Morning.” His paintings have been featured around the world, from the Palace of Versailles in France to the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain.

His life’s work revolves around a particular audience. “Each time my target is children,” Murakami tells The Daily Beast. He reflects back to when he was a child and the effect it had on him to see his first Francisco Goya paintings at a museum, how it made an indelible impression on his life, while at the same time “traumatizing” him. It’s sometimes hard to believe his life’s work is geared toward children, because there are dark undertones within his style of art, which he’s coined as “superflat”: the bright and flattened kawaii anime characters he’s designed, with an emphasis on Japanese pop culture and fine art. Skulls and decrepit and decaying monks are a reoccurring theme in his latest exhibit, and sexuality has always played a major role in his work—take, for instance, his 1997 Hiropon, a life-size plastic-fabricated sculpture of a naked girl with teal hair, milking her own enormous breasts. Murakami feels that young children, rather than adults, are most affected by art. It’s important for them to further their minds and question everything around them, even in regard to dark and confusing subject matter.

So it wasn’t a complete surprise when Murakami decided to create Jellyfish Eyes, a Japanese-language children’s film that combines live action with CGI. The coming-of-age adventure centers on a tween boy named Masashi, who moves into a new town after losing his father after the 3/11 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Having a hard time fitting in school, he befriends a marshmallow-like jellyfish he calls Kurage-bo and discovers that his classmates all have magical friends of their own—from tiny monkeys to frightening jaw-clamping lizards. At the LACMA premiere, Murakami brought along with him life-size plush characters from his film, from Kurage-bo to a gigantic gray-haired monster, similar to something out of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

“This [the film] is a foreign move for him, and it’s really intense and touching,” said Jeff Poe, a co-owner of Blum & Poe who’s worked with Murakami over the past 17 years. “It’s also touching because a lot of artists at his level wouldn’t make a film whose initial audience is geared toward children.”

The Jellyfish Eyes trailer (entirely in Japanese).

Murakami didn’t see the fruition of the his idea, conceived 12 years ago, until Tokyo Gore Police director Yoshihiro Nishimura convinced him to create a live-action-film version. Murakami was once a student activist protesting against nuclear power plants, so he strongly feels for his people after the Fukushima disaster. With a side story on religion in the film, his story connects to the religion centered around his latest exhibit, showing how religion emerges out of times of disaster.

“The victims have nowhere to target their anger, so they are completely lost,” Murakami says through his translator. “When there is no law, the rule of society has kind of crumbled and people are lost. Religion, because it has a storytelling quality to it, it creates a narrative that would provide the kind of structure.”

With his Arhat exhibit, which runs at the Blum & Poe gallery through May 25, he hopes his art shows the “moment when religion emerges out of the situation.” In one room, there are three large mural paintings including the images of angry red and blue snarling demons, hundreds of Buddhist monks—deformed and some with multiple eyes—walking through a psychedelic landscape. A style that developed from his Ego exhibit mounted in Doha, Qatar, in 2012, “Arhat,” translated from Sanskrit, means “a being who has achieved a state of enlightenment.”

Murakami says this monk art theme, which has been used in historical times, “actually was not very popular in the Edo period, but when a disaster happened, that’s when people latched onto it, and then it became one of the major ones.”

“Every time disasters happen, that’s when they want some different types of narratives, and that’s when these little cults and belief systems pop out,” he continued.

The centerpiece in the room is a colossal gold-plated sculpture of a skull engulfed in flames—a unique and difficult technique employed by Murakami’s fabricator sculptor, which he says would not have been possible three to four years ago. “The flame sculpture with the skulls in the center is incredible,” says Poe. “It feels like it’s moving. There’s an amazing kind of twist to it and movement. You don’t really see this much—it’s a very difficult thing to achieve. And there’s a kind of wrongness to it that I really like—it bends forward a little bit and seems to come over you. It’s really physical. It’s almost like this sculpture is coming on to you, inviting you in.”

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Murakami has also painted several self-portraits over the years. He presents a series on canvas (and as a stainless-steel sculpture at Blum & Poe) featuring himself and his tiny 3-year-old pup, Pom, with characters from his previous work, with such names as Kaikai and Kiki. He names as an inspiration German artist Horst Janssen, whose self-portraits, although dark and disturbing at times, Murakami found “honest.” “I was crying,” he said of when he saw the portraits as a 19-year-old student. “I don’t know why.”

He also uses his self-portraits as a way to deal with the sadness of mortality, a thought that he says crosses anyone’s mind at an older age—which he juxtaposes with the reality of his dog, who is young and cute.

“It’s interesting to psychologically use those [characters from his prior work] as these kind of markers in his own history with his self-portraits,” Poe said. “Of course they are standing on a pile of skulls, but it’s nice to see, there’s a kind of sweetness to it, a self-reflective nostalgia to it.”