We spoke with the Pop Art icon about his first feature film, the children's movie Jellyfish Eyes, which he's taking on a nine-stop screening tour (organized by Los Angeles gallery Blum and Poe) through the United States this month.
After working across various media in highly collaborative settings for more than two decades, you decided to turn to film. Was it something you'd always wanted to do, or a relatively new desire?
It was both, really. I've always wanted to make a film, but when I attempted to make an animated feature early in my career, there was so much that was foreign to me that I was unable to complete the project. After that experience, I had given up on making a film until three years ago when I met Yoshihiro Nishimura, who served as my co-producer and right hand man on set during the shooting of Jellyfish Eyes. He encouraged me to give film another try.
You made the movie in response to problems you saw in Japan after the 2011 tsunami. But why a kids' film?
When I was a child, I watched [the Japanese TV series] Ultraman, which occasionally had strong messages. I found that aspect boring at the time, but the seeds it planted bloomed when I grew older. I wanted to create that same kind of story for the children of today.
How did the look/design of Kurage-bo and Luxor evolve from your original conception to the way they appear on screen?
In my original designs, Kurage-bo was a rather grotesque character with a long neck and more humanoid appearance. But after I decided to go all out in making this a kids' film, and also on the advice of my producers who understood my reputation and audience in Japan, I decided to make the character more cute. We then created new sketches and built new scale models, the latter of which were actually used in the filming. For Luxor, we created a full-scale costume with an actor inside during shooting. The costume still exists and we use it at events, where it has been quite popular.
Do you have any hopes or expectations for how American audiences will engage with the film?
In some ways, America is actually home turf for me. I think it's probably where I have the greatest number of fans and my work always seems to receive a lot of attention. When we screened the film in Los Angeles last year, the reaction of the audience—such as where people laughed or responded emotionally—was very different from audiences in Japan. Those differences are a great reference point for me, so I'm very excited to screen it here again.
I'm also working on Jellyfish Eyes parts 2 and 3, and I'd like to show those abroad too, so I'd be happy if people see this as just an initial volley.
How would you describe the next two movies in the series?
Darker. And closer to what people would normally consider "Murakamiesque."
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