“In this universe, we find each other miraculously.” With that powerful opening line, Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami’s cinema debut, “Jellyfish Eyes,” introduces viewers to his distinctive art and storytelling styles and forcefully explores Japanese society after the destructive earthquake of 2011 and meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The film screened Thursday at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco as the last stop on its United States tour.
The opening sequence of “Jellyfish Eyes” immediately kicks off the action: A flash of lightning and kaleidoscopic space travel explodes into a dark laboratory. Four cloaked figures surround a yin-yang-shaped platform as a meek scientist looks on from behind a computer. Something hitched a ride on the flash of space lightning, escaping into the outside world, and no one can be sure of what will happen.
The plot of “Jellyfish Eyes” is a familiar coming-of-age story: A young boy named Masashi (Takuto Sueoka) and his mother move to a new town in an attempt to start over after he loses his father in a tsunami. While unpacking and setting up his new life, he feels a strange presence in his family’s apartment, which turns out to be the mysterious visitor from earlier: a jellyfish-like creature that Masashi immediately befriends, despite it not understanding a word Masashi says. Regardless, the two become quick friends.
When Masashi and his jellyfish companion, named Kurage-bo — “jellyfish boy” in Japanese — show up for school, they quickly find out that every other child in this sleepy town also has a creature straight out of an anime! These otherworldly, Pokemon-like creatures are called F.R.I.E.N.D.s, and their presence in the town is a mystery, but the children have found a boredom-curing solution to that: make them fight each other using special devices.
Through these battles, Masashi and viewers meets the other denizens in the town: the classic bully kids with rough home lives, the parents that just don’t understand — because they don’t know about the F.R.I.E.N.D.s — and a girl named Saki (Himeka Asami) whose F.R.I.E.N.D is a giant dog-like creature named Luxor. Masashi is ostracized and bullied for being an outsider, as well as for having an uncle — the scientist from the opening — who works in the shady government lab that may or may not be behind the presence of F.R.I.E.N.D.s in the town.
Viewers never find out who the four cloaked figures at the beginning are working for, nor does the film ever really explore the true nature or origin of the F.R.I.E.N.D.s. These aspects of “Jellyfish Eyes” are shrouded in mystery for much of the film, only to be revealed toward its end, when the children of the town must band together to stop a common foe that could destroy the sleepy Japanese hamlet. Murakami forgoes delving too deep into any one part of his story in order to tell a more relatable tale of growing up in an uneasy time and incorporates his distinctive, cartoon-like visual style into the film through the 3-D-animated F.R.I.E.N.D.s.
“Jellyfish Eyes” is, for all intents and purposes, a live-action cartoon: The villains are outlandishly dressed in black cloaks and deliver their lines dramatically, while battle sequences are fast-paced and full of flashing lights and colors. Murakami isn’t subtle about the message behind the film either: Everyone in the town seems to be on edge in one way or another, and for Masashi and the children of the town, the F.R.I.E.N.D.s are an outlet for their aggression and unease. But the battle sequences, while incredibly fun to watch unfold, are a tad too tiring to fully enjoy over the course of the film’s 101-minute run time. Murakami’s directorial efforts, despite these minor setbacks, pay off in the end, delivering a fun and fresh coming-of-age tale that carries with it a universal message about connecting with others.