Jellyfish Eyes (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from visual artist Takashi Murakami, is a fantasy of childhood innocence and fantastical creatures come to life as Pokemon-like playmates. It’s also a strange conspiracy involving a cult of young researchers in a post-Fukushima world applying an alchemy of science and magic to a transporter device linked to an alternate reality.
Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), the young son of a widowed mother (still trapped in her mourning), moves to the idyllic little town next to an ominous, secretive research lab. He’s practically adopted by a flying creature that looks like a mushroom crossed with a jellyfish and turned into a rubber doll you might win from a carnival game, right around the time he starts having nightmares of his father, the tsunami that took his life, and jellyfish. Then Masashi discovers that every kid in town has their own creature, which they explain are called F.R.I.E.N.D.s and controled with the help of a handheld device. The boys send their F.R.I.E.N.D.s into battle in arena-like matches, much to the outrage of a shy girl (Himeka Asami) with giant sheepdog of a F.R.I.E.N.D. who hates the bullying culture that this violence inspires.
It’s an odd choice for a feature debut by an internationally renowned visual artist, a commercial science fiction adventure fantasy about a child who, after the loss of his father, finds comfort in the friendship with a fantastical creature with unconditional love and protective loyalty. It channels E.T., Pokemon culture, Godzilla, secret societies, imaginary playmates, and H.P. Lovecraft, and Murakami maintains a goofy innocence throughout, even as the cute little creature comedy becomes a giant monster movie as the cabal of wizard-like scientists use the kids as guinea pigs to siphon “negative energy” (anger, sadness, and especially aggression) to power their master plan. In a sense, they are scientists as vampires, feeding off the children they have hooked on their tiny monster mash culture, while the gadget-addicted kids ignore the endless possibilities in front of them to obsessively replay those battles.
There is plenty of gentle satire here—from game culture to merchandising to high school cliques and bullying to religion (there’s a particularly unnerving cult that believes the lab to be evil incarnate and tries to pray it away)—but no real teeth to the message or edge to the presentation. That lightness makes it fine for children but doesn’t serve the drama, which has the depth and dimension of a video game. The kids are a flavorless bunch, the adults have even less personality, and conflicts are resolved in a flash of generosity and a rousing call to unity. It’s as if it can’t decide if it is a parody of juvenile anime and game fantasy or simply a knowing, idealistically upbeat pop-art incarnation of it. Which makes this warped reflection of Japanese pop culture a strangely fascinating artifact but not a particularly compelling piece of storytelling.
In Japanese with English subtitles on Blu-ray and DVD with two original featurettes, created for Criterion from behind-the-scenes and production footage shot for the Japanese release, explore the making of the film: “Takashi Murakami: The Art of Film,” a 39-minute documentary that follows the production from the announcement of Murakami tackling his first feature through shooting to release, and “Making F.R.I.E.N.D.S.,” a 15-minute piece on the design and creation of the film’s creatures. Also features a new interview with Murakami and a trailer for the upcoming sequel. All supplements in Japanese with English subtitles. The accompanying foldout insert features an essay by critic and film professor Glen Helfand.
Tokyo Tribe (XLrator, Blu-ray, DVD) – Sion Sono, now emerging as Japan’s new cinema wildman rebel, seems determined to become the new Miike Takashi. His films are increasingly outrageous, unhinged, extreme, and unpredictable, pushing expectations as well as boundaries, and trying anything and everything in a wildly creative (if unfocused) attempt to refresh familiar genres.
Tokyo Tribe, adapted from a graphic novel series, is a comic book gang war thriller in an alternate future, part Blade Runner, part Escape From New York, part The Warriors, part Miike Takashi gangland freak show, part all hip-hopera musical on a studio soundstage like a golden age Hollywood musical. It opens with a long take and a traveling camera that follows our narrator up and down a long studio street as he raps the exposition—the Tokyo of the near future is divided into districts run by different gangs in a wary state of détente—the film never leaves the insular atmosphere or the perpetual night of the studio-created city, and it never stops moving or rapping.
We jump through the main gangs with a quick introduction and get a thumbnail idea of the style of each fashion statement (each gang has its own, often elaborate tribal look, sort of like sports uniforms in the glam league). Then we come to Lord Buppa, the insatiable, possibly cannibalistic leader (he keeps severed human fingers in his cigar box) of a Yakuza-like organization who decides to wipe out the rest of the gangs and take over all of Tokyo for himself. He’s played by Riki Takeuchi, star of Miike’s Dead or Alive films, so we know he’s absolutely committed to extreme bloodshed, though instead of Miike’s trademark sadism and creatively explicit gore, Sono indulges in purely gratuitous nudity, foul language, schoolgirls in underwear, Takeuchi engaged in (non-explicit but still disgusting) masturbation, and constant sexual threats to young women. You know, like an adult manga with a juvenile attitude.
Among the victims is a giggly group of teenage girls scooped up Lord Buppa’s henchmen to fill in his ranks of sex workers (at least those who are not handed over to Buppa’s son to serve as his living furniture). There’s also a beat-boxing personal servant, a pair of kung-fu siblings, references to Scarface, Bruce Lee, and Kill Bill, and the most literal use of penis envy as motivation I’ve ever seen in a film. Packed with incident and movement and color, it’s a big, busy mess that is more overwhelming than thrilling or engaging, but you’ll see things you’ve never seen in American gang war movies and you won’t have a moment to catch your breath.
In Japanese with English subtitles, no supplements.