Ruins of the Cypress Structure after the 17 October 1989 earthquake. US Geological Survey photo by John Nakata
When the giant Tohoku earthquake struck Japan on 11 March 2011, followed by a colossal tsunami and the crippling of two nuclear power plants, the effects rippled out in many directions. In my chosen community of Earth scientists, there were many phenomena to investigate; in the engineering community, many case studies to enter in the record; in the disaster-response community, many failures to learn from.
To Takashi Murakami, a Japanese artist based in New York, it was the chance to accept movie director Yoshihiro Nishimura‘s invitation to work together on a feature film project at a time when movie crews were unexpectedly idle.
The story Murakami chose to tell grew out of witnessing the extensive failures of the nation’s authorities, failures that everyone saw firsthand. Lest we forget, the Pacific coast of northern Honshu was first laid in ruins by the earthquake and then overwhelmed by the tsunami. Both were larger than anyone, even the experts, foresaw. The tsunami in turn caused the explosive failure of the Fukushima Number 2 nuclear power plant, spewing radioactive material over a large — still depopulated — area of land.
Murakami drew upon his childhood exposure to gojira monster cartoons, his experience teaching kindergarten and his love of modern anime to craft a cathartic exploration of the Tohoku trauma, costumed as a children’s fantasy. Just two years later the resulting film, “Jellyfish Eyes,” was released in Japan. The Oakland Library has a copy of the Criterion disk, issued in 2015.
In “Jellyfish Eyes” a newly fatherless boy, Masashi, is displaced to a strange and challenging city. He meets and adopts a hovering, spritelike creature who befriends and protects him from similar creatures controlled by his new classmates. These “friends,” supplied by an advanced research lab in the city, are part of a scheme by renegades in the lab to harvest negative emotions from the children, especially Masashi, and acquire a new source of cosmic power. A classic Godzilla plot provides the climax, and the “friends” become benign at the end.
Critics faulted its quick-and-dirty CGI, stylized plot and cartoon visuals. I’m not sophisticated enough a film viewer to care. Those things work. I appreciated Murakami’s singular focus on his audience of Japanese children, a traumatized generation with its own culture and its own need for sensitive candor. I appreciated that he avoided studio financing, knowing that funders would insist on removing the blood (a few drops) and radiation (a few mentions).
“Jellyfish Eyes” is authentically Japanese, as it should be. American viewers won’t get all the hat-tips and references. But they should be able to easily see the deep emotional story beneath the plot — how a disaster hurts and how we can come back from one.
In Oakland, we have an overwhelming earthquake in our own future. We all know it will destroy things no matter how well we prepare. We know the government, whatever it does, cannot do enough. How will our youngest children respond? How will we respond to their needs? Until our own Murakami can rise to the occasion, we’ll have to study the experience of others and do the best we can.