Takashi Murakami laughs before he sits down on the outlandish patent leather writing chair at which everyone else is staring. This requires straddling the chair so that his torso faces the chair's back and his arms sit on the two unusually high armrests leading up to a wooden writing panel where a headrest would otherwise be. The artist wears a long-sleeved, black-and-white, polka dot blouse under suspenders that hold up army-green shorts. He also wears rust-red boots. This outfit makes him look especially at home in the chair, which is flashier now than it would have been when first made in Belgium in the 1880s. The guys at Obsolete furniture in Venice chose the shiny leather when reupholstering it.
It's this sort of improvising that intrigued Murakami when he first wandered into Obsolete with film director McG about five years ago, while working with an editing studio down the street. In Japan and Korea, where he'd been collecting antiques, it had become hard to find intact objects. But the antique boutiques he found in L.A. fixed up broken old things, and Murakami is more interested in feel than authenticity.
Still, there's "no purpose anymore," he says of his furniture-buying addiction. Most of what he buys now stays in storage.
Earlier on this late April morning, Murakami flew into Los Angeles from Tokyo to meet Brad Plumb, the manager of his Kaikai Kiki Studio's New York office, which has 20 employees who help Murakami make his work (the Tokyo office has about 50 employees), and Yuko Burtless, the New York–based translator who has worked with the artist on and off for 11 years. They're staying at the Sofitel Hotel, then flying to Dallas, jump-starting a national tour of screenings of his first feature film, Jellyfish Eyes, which ends May 30 back in L.A. at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel. But today the only things on Murakami's agenda are furniture shopping and dinner at Osteria Mozza with Plumb and Burtless.
For a while, having big New York shows of his art was Murakami's main goal. "All this is coming true," he says, an understatement for an artist who has had solo shows at MOCA, the Brooklyn Museum and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, and gained increased mainstream exposure through collaborations with Kanye West and Pharrell Williams. Still, he wanted to make a full-length movie. He finished Jellyfish Eyes not long before his last show at Culver City's Blum & Poe, an apocalyptic exhibition that included a 16-foot-tall, gold-plated flaming skull and paintings of haggard Arhats, Buddhist monks who had achieved nirvana. He chose that subject because in post-Fukushima Japan, religion had suddenly started to matter more, and he wanted to dig into its difficult past.
While the film has a very different feel from the art in that exhibition, its content overlaps. The young protagonist's friend and love interest is the cute, fragile daughter of a religious fanatic, and the action takes place in a town near a threatening nuclear power plant. ("Maybe we can just say Fukushima," Murakami says noncommittally.) Each child in that town has a "friend," a remote-controlled, CGI animated monster given to them as part of an experiment orchestrated by a group of sinister, college-age, cloaked villains headquartered in the plant. The animated friends often fight each other, but even in the heat of battle it can be hard to tell who's good and who's not.
"After the experience of losing World War II, in Japan black-and-white judgment has been very difficult," Murakami explains on the drive to Venice, speaking through Burtless, who translates for him whenever he wants to say something complex or lengthy. "The party that comes out as a winner or the loser may have merit." He remembers monsters in movies he used to watch destroying cities but still being portrayed sympathetically. "Through this kind of storytelling, perhaps the Japanese have consoled themselves."
The difference between pre- and postwar Japanese culture has been an interest of Murakami's since he began his career as an artist in the early 1990s: He has related the topic to Japan's ambivalence about its own history, its susceptibility to Western influences and its obsession with pop forms such as manga. It's also part of what got him into furniture. In the mid-1990s, he did a series of wave paintings, which recalled the tsunami painting made by master printer Hokusai in the Edo period but for the bright cartoon monsters riding Murakami's waves.
Related thinking led to this current furniture addiction. Murakami had been researching tea ceremonies and old, prewar customs. He thought it might help him understand the art world to research this culture in which objects took on so much symbolic importance. His research led him to collect ceremonial objects and to try briefly to revive some version of tea ceremony culture in present-day Japan. But the small circle of experts in that area "aren't really welcoming the intervention," Burtless says on Murakami's behalf.
He no longer frequents Venice as often as he used to, now that Blum & Poe has moved from Santa Monica to Culver City, and he doesn't drive — his father, a taxi driver, had car accidents every two years like clockwork and, Murakami says, "Maybe I have the same DNA." So he goes to Reform Gallery and Galerie Half on Melrose more often than to Obsolete.
At Galerie Half, he's once again interested in the wood, sitting on some small wooden stools and photographing a big wooden bowl. "Maybe for making bread or something," he says of the bowl. "It's like making a story."
He didn't have the story entirely figured out when he began Jellyfish Eyes, and people who saw the first cut unanimously agreed that the narrative didn't make sense. He had to hire the professional editors he initially thought he could do without and rework it in postproduction.
It's still weirdly confusing, especially in the finale when the children and their friends are joining together to fight an evil monster. It looks fantastic, however, a series of flat shots strung together but each one bafflingly sophisticated.
He explains that the story and visuals come together better in the two subsequent films and that children, his target audience, have responded well to Jellyfish Eyes. He wants to show them, in a fun way, that they can make their own decisions about whether their country is going in the right direction. But in Japan, the film's marketers mainly targeted adolescents, while in the United States it's mostly showing at art museums.
"Probably the art-world people will be, like, what the hell is this?" Murakami says via Burtless. "For example, with the Steve McQueen movie" — the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, by the director who got his start as a video artist — "people said, 'Oh, this is why this artist is making film.' With this, it might be hard to see why Takashi's doing it outside of 'Maybe it's just a hobby.' "
It's certainly no more a hobby than anything else Murakami does. At Reform Gallery, he gets excited about a wall of burnt-red ceramic tiles by African-American artist Doyle Lane. He has wanted to do something loosely similar with ceramics, so he takes Plumb's camera and photographs the wall from all angles as Reform's owner, Gerard O'Brien, explains to him that the wall was commissioned in 1963 to go in a bank building.
"History is important," O'Brien says.
"For you it is," Murakami answers, still photographing.
"For you too, Takashi."
"Oh, I forget everything."
"I've seen those wave paintings," O'Brien counters. "You've looked at more history than I've ever looked at."
JELLYFISH EYES | Theatre at Ace Hotel | Friday, May 30, 7 p.m. | takashimurakami.frontgatetickets.com