Please enjoy the this guest post on our upcoming screening of Jellyfish Eyes by writer/scholar Zack Davisson.
Japan loves monsters. They write books about monsters, draw comics about monsters, make movies about monsters, and even name their foods after monsters. Whether it is from the magical menagerie of Japan’s traditional yōkai or the post-war, towering beasts of destruction like Godzilla, Gamera, or Ultraman; or the endless parade of modern Pokemon (which translates into English as Pocket Monster); Japanese children are weaned on monsters. They find these strange beasts as friendly of companions as American children find Snoopy and Yoda. It comes as no surprise that one of Japan’s premier modern artists, Takashi Murakami, loves monsters, too.
Murakami has always included monsters in his artwork. When he was searching for an artistic style free of Western influence—something “uniquely Japanese”—he found was he was looking for in Japan’s monsters. His Superflat* exhibitions summoned all of Japan’s monsters, from the distant Heian period prints to the garish extravaganza of modern pop culture, and smashed them together into an organic style that speaks both of Murakami and Japan.
In his first film Jellyfish Eyes, Murakami again summons monsters. They are monsters of his own creation but with a nod to two fellow Japanese artists in particular—Shigeru Mizuki and Toru Narita. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Murakami states that Jellyfish Eyes is “… inspired by ‘a manga called GeGeGe no Kitaro’ from the 1960s,” a comic that “accidentally formed the basis for the rest of [his] life.” In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, he expands, saying “My life is heavily influenced by two television shows – Ultraman [1966-1967] and Ultra Seven [1967-68] – because of the artists behind them, especially the Ultraman series artistic designer Toru Narita.”
Murakami is in good company. These artists—Takashi Murakami, Kitaro-creator Shigeru Mizuki, and Ultraman-designer Toru Narita—are torch-bearers of Japan’s monster culture. Shigeru Mizuki rescued Japan’s folkloric yōkai monsters from the ashes of WWII, recasting them as down-to-earth working class heroes with very human motivations and adventures. Mizuki is a mix of the sacred and the profane, pursuing serious scholarly research into yōkai for his Yōkai Encyclopedias, all the while injecting his comic Kitaro with his own earthy sense of humor—fart jokes and all. Toru Narita dove into the future for his monsters, more inspired by the American Buck Rogers and alien attacks than mythical yōkai. He gave the children of Japan a sense of hope for the future and a much needed escape during a time of social upheaval and transformation.
These three artists are also not content delivering mere entertainment. Mizuki turned his beloved Kitaro characters into history teachers, brutally confronting Japan with its own past in his comic series Showa: A History of Japan. Narita also used his monsters to personify social problems, creating physical manifestations of complex issues for Ultraman to smash. In the same way, Murakami promises that Jellyfish Eyes will use the approachable, familiar, and friendly faces of these cute little monsters to educate the children of Japan about concepts as grim as the inevitability of death and the certainty of periodic failure.
And, I have no doubt, at the same time Murakami will inspire a new generation of Japanese monster-lovers to carry their strange beasts into the future.
See Murakami’s Jellyfish Eyes this weekend at Henry Art Gallery – get tickets here.
*”Superflat” is a term coined by Murakami to describe the way various forms of graphic design, pop culture, and fine arts are compressed or flattened in Japan. Want to learn more? Join us at 6pm on May 2nd, before the 7pm screening of Jellyfish Eyes, for “Collections in Focus: Superflat” with UW Associate Professor James Thurtle for a FREE conversation and viewing of works from our collection. Thurtle will make connections between Murakami’s work, manga, anime, and the ‘flat’ images of 17th, 18th and 19-century Japanese printmakers.
Zack Davisson is a translator, writer, and scholar of Japanese folklore, ghosts, and manga. He is the author of Yurei: The Japanese Ghost and the translator of Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. He also created the popular Japanese folklore website Hyakumionogatari Kaidankai.