It’s no surprise that the Japanese artist-impresario Takashi Murakami has directed a feature-length film that combines human actors and animated characters. After all, Mr. Murakami is a polymath trained in anime as well as in Nihonga, Japan’s rigorous traditional painting style, and has been moving between high and low art for over two decades. He is known for multipurpose cartoon creatures, among them petal-rimmed smiley faces and mushrooms dotted with wide, baby-doll peepers that he calls jellyfish eyes. These and other signature motifs have appeared in labor-intensive paintings, in large polychrome sculptures evoking a highbrow Disneyland and on skateboards and limited-edition Louis Vuitton handbags.
What’s surprising is that “Jellyfish Eyes” is very bad. A coming-of-age story with philosophical trappings, it centers on a tween named Masashi (the appealing Takuto Sueoka), and unfolds against a battle between good and evil that seems to be a fable about post-Fukushima Japan. With a lovable, jellyfish-like sprite named Kurage-bo (Jellyfish Boy) as its lead animated character, a laboratory of unspecified function that frightens its surrounding suburb, and a shapeless gray monster named Oval that towers above the land, the movie blends aspects of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Frankenstein” and “Godzilla.” Other familiar devices include a brainwashed religious cult and four young villains in black capes who lack only big black mustaches to twirl.
Whatever you might think of Mr. Murakami’s paintings and sculptures, they are invariably polished and eerily perfect, but his movie seems thrown together. It is poorly shot and afflicted by tedious sound (lots of screaming and saccharine music) and inept special effects. It moves with either incomprehensible abruptness or tedious slowness, especially at supposedly suspenseful moments. It seems aimed primarily at die-hard Murakami fans or children under 7 who will be taken with the animation (the best part). Those who fit neither demographic may watch “Jellyfish Eyes” with growing perplexity; its obviousness might almost be ironic, but the laughs never come.
Masashi and his widowed mother (Mayu Tsuruta) have just arrived in town to be near his uncle, Naoto (Takumi Saito), who works in the lab. It has been all but hijacked by the black-cloaked four, whose mission immediately seems suspicious: to cleanse the world by channeling the powerful emotions of children.
Masashi is befriended by Kurage-bo, who likes Chee-Kama, a real cheese-and-fish-stick snack that — in a rare bit of product placement — is almost intrinsic to the plot. In the film, it is supposedly made by the company that employed Masashi’s father, who is revealed in one of the boy’s dreams to have died in the 2011 tsunami. Masashi discovers that his new schoolmates have similar companions and that they are called F.R.I.E.N.D.s, which breaks down into the not so catchy “life-Form Resonance Inner Energy Negative emotion and Disaster prevention.”
These vivid animated creatures, conjured by Mr. Murakami and his studio for the movie, are irresistible and, as might be expected, have already spawned a line of small rubber charms. The best scenes come early, when Kurage-bo fights off the other F.R.I.E.N.D.s, with the aid of Luxor, the F.R.I.E.N.D. of a peace-loving girl, Saki (Himeka Asami), who bonds with Masashi. The giant Luxor is played by an actor in furry costume.
When the black-cloaked four discover that Masashi’s energy is especially strong, things start heating up in a confusing way. Lightning flashes, toxic clouds swirl, Kurage-bo turns out to have jet engines, and eventually evil is vanquished or at least subdued. The black-cloaked four slink away, suggesting that a sequel is on the way. This grim prospect is confirmed by the trailer that follows the credits.