In front of a giant movie screen, Takashi Murakami speaks as a large, pink creature next to him flaps its arms up and down excitedly. Imagine your average pink manga character with human arms and legs topped off by a head with huge eyes and darker pink strands of what looks like hair. The cute character obviously moves thanks to a human operating it from the inside, but the audience giggles as it flitters about next to Murakami as if it actually existed as a visitor from some made-up land.
That land is actually a world that Murakami crafts through Jellyfish Eyes, his first feature film as a director, which comes out April 26. Last night at LACMA, fans gathered for the film's international premiere.
In the film, that adorable creature goes by the name of Kurage-bo, translated to "Jellyfish Boy," and stays by the side of the young Masashi, who recently moved to a new town in Japan and is mourning the death of his father.
Turns out he's not the only with a little "friend" by his side; his new classmates use devices -- which look a lot like smartphones -- to control their own little characters. They're called "friend" because it's acronym, FRIEND. The devices come from a lab performing its own experiments using the town's children and the acronym stands for the different negative energies being collected from the kids that will -- well, if we reveal any more it'll take away a lot of the movie's fun.
Suffice it to say that the movie -- which Murakami wrote and directed -- keeps twisting and turning and Kurage-bo only gets more and more adorable. All the cartoonish creations in the movie scream the aesthetic of Murakami, known for works that heavily reference Japanese popular culture including anime characters. Murakami reached American popularity through similar works as well as his design for Kanye West's album cover for Graduation.
While Kurage-bo looks cute now, during a Q&A session after the screening Murakami shares that he originally envisioned the character as having a giant penis. Others involved in the movie convinced him otherwise, and Kurage-bo came to life.
Longtime fans of Murakami will recognize some other naughty traits in the film, though. At one point in the movie, a young boy uses his most powerful FRIEND creature in a fight -- she looks like a manga character in all respects, and a lot like the statues populating Murakami's previous shows. In a show at Gagosian gallery back in 2011, these girls popped up as large manga-like statues with risque outfits and exaggerated breasts. As the FRIEND in the movie fights back the evil guys, we get plenty of flashes of her thighs.
Yet somehow the movie stays lighthearted and Murakami does aim for children to see it; even in the darkest parts it refers to universal feelings, as he explains that the plot is linked with the tsunami that affected Japan in 2011. Murakami also shared that while the female lead already had acting experience with a previously successful BMW commercial, the actor who played Masashi did not have the same credentials. Despite others telling Murakami he made the wrong choice, he just couldn't pass up the kid's sad face (one heart-wrenching scene where he cries is the director's favorite).
Not everyone in the audience praised the work. One person walked out of the theatre loudly stating, "What a piece of shit!" But the majority of fans stuck around to hear about Murakami's thoughts, especially his plans for a Jellyfish Eyes part two... and three.
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And when the crowd filed out, many stopped to get their photo taken with the giant Kurage-bo, and Luxor, the female lead's FRIEND. If you see a photo of your human friend posing next to a large pink creature with a huge head, now you know why.