Wednesday, March 11, 2015

NYICFF ’15: Jellyfish Eyes

Considering Japanese pop artist and commercial phenom Takashi Murakami frequently features his manga alter-ego, Mr. DOB in his work, it is not surprising his debut feature film is heavy on the creatures. Eventually, a kaiju attacks, but that also makes sense, given Ultraman’s formative influence on his artistic development. It is all kid friendly, but in a slightly trippy sort of way, like Sid & Marty Krofft rebooted for Japan. As a result, one sensitive young lad is in for the weirdest coming-of-age story in Murakami’s Jellyfish Eyes (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York International Children's Film Festival.

Tsunami survivor Masashi Kusakabe is relieved to be moving out of the shelter, even though he and his mother are still deeply grieving his father. However, he quickly suspects there is some sort of strange presence in their new exurban apartment. That would be the critter he eventually names Kurage-bo or Jellyfish Boy. It turns out all the kids at his new school have what they call F.R.I.E.N.D.S., except they can control theirs with special handheld devices given to them by the local lab, from where Kurage-bo escaped.

Kusakabe quickly bonds with Kurage-bo, whose resourcefulness stymies the attempted bullying of the bad boy clique and their creepy F.R.I.E.N.D.S. It seems there is a sort of underground F.R.I.E.N.D. fighting circuit operating afterschool. Fortunately, Luxor, the biggest, hairiest F.R.I.E.N.D. was entrusted to Saki Amamiya, who vehemently dislikes all forms of fighting. She is not too fond of her mother’s doomsday cult either, but she might be okay with Kusakabe. Unfortunately, the aspiring bullies will escalate their aggressive behavior, with the secret encouragement of a shadowy cabal operating in the research institute. Somehow the negative energy generated by the children and their F.R.I.E.N.D.S. perfectly suits the needs of the so-called “Black-Cloaked Four.”

Based on post-screening reactions, it is safe to say Luxor is a smash hit with kids. You have to admit, he is pretty cool and pairing him up Himeka Asami’s Amamiya just cranks up the cuteness to Spinal Tap levels. In contrast, Kurage-bo is sort of weird looking, but he grows on you. However, the earnestness of young Takuto Sueoka and Asami, really sell the madness, while directly expressing extraordinary angst no kid should have to deal with. Likewise, Mayu Tsuruta is quite touching as Kusakabe’s bereaved but steadfast mother Yasuko.

The shadow of the 2011 disaster is constantly present in Jellyfish Eyes, but Murakami largely keeps it in background, rather than belaboring the point. He clearly has a nice touch with kids, but there is a lot of manipulation and thematic recycling going on his the boy-and-his- F.R.I.E.N.D. narrative. Nevertheless, the bizarre details (how many kids’ films have both an apocalyptic cult and an apocalyptic secret society?) as well as the sincerity of the primary cast really distinguishes the film from the field. Imagine if he got together with Takashi Miike? The mind reels. Warmly recommended for older elementary school kids who have discovered anime or kaiju movies (and big kids who enjoy either), Jellyfish Eyes screens again at the SVA Theatre this coming Sunday (3/15), as part of this year’s NYICFF.