Criterion Corner: Jellyfish Eyes (2015)

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Michelle reviews the Criterion release of Jellyfish Eyes. 

Jellyfish Eyes could have been an incredible film as the concept and the look of the movie are quite creative and inspiring. Unfortunately, it falls victim to some of the more common foibles of Japanese live action films--an unfocused narrative and less than stellar CGI special effects. The film was directed by Takashi Murakami, who is a prolific artist in Japan. This is his debut into the world of cinema, but he definitely focused too much on the superficial aspects of the movie and not enough on a good screenplay or character development.

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If you ever found yourself wishing for a live action adaptation of Pokémon (with shades of the anime/manga Shadow Star) then Jellyfish Eyes may be up your alley. The plot follows Masashi Kusakabe (Takuto Sueoka) a young boy who moves to a new town after the death of his father. He discovers that the town's children have been gifted with tiny little creatures known as F.R.I.E.N.D.S. that they control in real life via a mysterious smartphone like controller. Each creature has its own unique design and fighting style and the kids battle each other in their spare time. While this idea isn't necessarily new, it has a bit of a darker edge in this film. The creature designs are incredibly imaginative and fun to look at. This is where Murakami's talents shine forth and it keeps the film from being a complete bomb.

The CGI is mediocre at best and really brings down the overall quality of the film. The creatures have a distinct anime look but with a weird plastic veneer and it does not mesh well with the live action. The animation is stiff and unrealistic which makes some of the fight scenes a chore to watch. Full CGI characters with anime inspired designs can work if done right--the live adaptation of Death Note proved just that. Jellyfish Eyes would have worked much better as an anime film (that was the initial plan) which would have allowed them to use the animation to take the creatures to their limits.

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As this film seemed to be aimed at children, it's baffling as to why it has such a convoluted storyline. There are just too many side plots and superfluous characters which makes the film seem like it's unfocused. While there are a few scenes that are heartfelt and interesting, it's surrounded by filler and unclear character motivations. The third act of the film is extremely rushed with a cliché and sappy resolution. There has been some talk of Jellyfish Eyes being an allegory for the Fukushima nuclear accident that occurred in 2011, but if that theme is there, it's shallow at best. Every once in awhile the film dips its toe into darker themes but it doesn't go anywhere meaningful with it.

It seems odd that this film was picked for a Criterion release when there are so many Japanese films more deserving of that honor. However, this film made enough money to fund a sequel, so there is a chance that Murakami can improve on the special effects and write a tighter story. Overall, this film is mediocre but could be worth a watch for anime fans or admirers of Murakami's art style.

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-Michelle Kisner