Detective Pokemon is in theaters this week. Get your tickets here!
Warning: This article contains spoilers for a film you probably haven’t seen and that probably can’t be spoiled in the traditional sense because it’s fairly nonsensical.
I’m a sucker for Criterion Collection sales, and I’ll often buy a few items blind just to see what’s out there that I might not otherwise gravitate toward or know about. I’m also a fan of weird as hell outsider cinema, stuff that challenges convention or is just plain absurd, and normally you don’t see those two spheres interact much, at least not in the sense that I'm thinking here. (Still waiting on that Troll 2 Criterion release!) Strangely enough, though, these worlds collided when I picked up a copy of Jellyfish Eyes, a film I cannot believe has a Criterion release, mostly because the damn thing is a Pokémon derivative that doesn’t seem to do anything traditionally prestigious enough to warrant that Criterion branding. But here’s the thing: it’s still some pretty fun nonsense once it gets going.
The opening shot takes us on a computer-generated tour through the universe, ending on a black hole that leads us to a scientific lab populated by four hooded figures who look like they’re on their way to a Kingdom Hearts convention. It’s clear that they’re summoning… something, but it’s not really clear what they’re doing or why. Cut to Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), a sixth-grader moving to a new town after his father was killed in some sort of freak tidal wave accident that I guess is implied to be connected to the events that follow, but it's never really expounded upon. As he and his mother move into their new apartment, Masashi finds a little creature (pictured above) rooting through their boxes, noshing on Chee-kama cheese packets that Masashi’s dad used to make at his job. Masashi names him Kurage-bo, meaning “Jellyfish Boy” for how he kinda, sorta looks like a jellyfish if you squint funny, and the pair quickly bond before Masashi has to attend his new school the next day.
Now, so far this reads like a Japanese riff on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which wouldn’t be all that strange. But Jellyfish Eyes has this bizarre episodic structure that jumps between subplots in sequence so that it feels like you’re binge-watching an anime series that’s been condensed down to ninety minutes. Case-in-point, those E.T. parallels come to a rather abrupt halt once Masashi starts attending school, as it turns out that all the students in his class have monsters of their own, and for some reason decide it’s a really cool idea to bring them out only while the teacher’s back is turned. This turns into a pretty cool cartoon action beat as Kurage-bo defends Masashi from a bully’s monster while the kids have to keep their reactions silent so as not to alert the teacher, but it’s still a jarring shift to realize that this movie isn’t actually going to be about Masashi coming to terms with his father’s death.
Speaking of the monsters, though, it’s worth commenting on just how disparate their designs are from one another. They’re arguably not unlike Pokémon designs in this respect, though the film seems to play it extremely fast and loose with what a monster – or as they are called, F.R.I.E.N.D.s, an acronym I guarantee is not worth spelling out or remembering – can look like. At first it seems like these monsters will all be about the size of a small dog, drawing design inspiration from real animals with some bizarre exceptions in the mix, like a chubby little guy with a rocket-powered cinderblock for a head. But as the kids use these monsters to fight one another, we’re introduced to Saki (Himeka Asami), a girl who despises fighting but ironically has the largest F.R.I.E.N.D. we’ve seen yet, who is basically just a giant fuzzy dog mascot costume. Okay, sure, breaking the CGI aesthetic a little bit, there, but I can roll with it. (Note: I will become increasingly less able to roll with it as more monsters are introduced.)
It’s through Saki that we get what might be the closest thing to an overarching theme this film has, which is that violence for violence’s sake is bad. For being such a direct derivative of Pokémon, what with kids having their own personal monsters to love and cherish, Jellyfish Eyes has quite the preoccupation with its kids using their cuddly friends to beat the shit out of each other, and one wonders whether the entire purpose of this film is to draw attention to an uncomfortable theme prevalent in Nintendo’s worldwide phenomenon.
Then again, Saki’s mom is also part of a prominently featured apocalyptic death cult that doesn’t really factor into anything at all, so maybe I’m giving this film too much credit.
By the way, Masashi’s uncle Naoto (Takumi Saito) works at that mysterious research center for those cloaked figures, who apparently handed out the devices that the kids in this town use to summon their F.R.I.E.N.D.s. So that’s cool.
Well, until Naoto apparently kills himself at the same time Masashi gets hospitalized for getting beaten up by bullies who also captured Kurage-bo to lock him in a trunk and beat the little guy unconscious. There’s a lot that happens all at once here, and that’s not even speaking to how those same bullies end up becoming pseudo-protagonists for a hot second in order to compete in a prize match that the cloaked scientists are putting on. I realize that’s a lot of information to drop all at once, but that’s about as fast as this film shifts gears and it's very much not worth getting bogged down in the details here.
Anyway, at this prize battle, the bullies face off against this kid from a local orphanage that the hooded figures have recruited because he's somehow the best fighter, and his F.R.I.E.N.D. looks like this:
Yeah, that’s just an anime girl in a fetish maid outfit, and you get to see a lot of leg during her fight against a frog and the rocket-block. ...I got nothin’.
Masashi and Saki break into the research center because they decide they need to stop the fighting – Kurage-bo is still missing, by the way, so Masashi clearly has his priorities in order – and who should be there but Uncle Naoto, back from the dead. Except it was never Naoto at all, but a F.R.I.E.N.D. that looks exactly like Naoto that faked its own death to make Masashi upset because reasons. F.R.I.E.N.D.s can just be straight up human clones now!
And as the clone tries to kill Masashi, Masashi’s love for Kurage-bo wakes the little guy from his locker nap and prompts a transformation into a jellyfish jet of some kind to come and beat up fake Uncle Naoto. I would call bullshit on this, but after fetish café anime maid and human clones, this is actually not that unacceptable as a deus ex machina. The bar has been RAISED!
Anyway, it turns out that the scientists have been harnessing the negative energy from all the kids fighting one another, and they’ve finally opened a portal to a black hole that summons the ultimate F.R.I.E.N.D.
Yeah, this giant doofy T-rex wannabe is the final boss, and the kids all figure out they need to work together to fight the big guy off. Kurage-bo turns into a parachute and a rocket at various points and the day is saved. The only problem is that by defeating the big F.R.I.E.N.D. they’ve somehow consigned all the smaller monsters to be sent back to where they came from. Everyone gets sad for a moment until the orphan kid, who may I remind you keeps the anime girl as a pet, shows up and uses a computer hack or something to summon all the cute monsters back. Roll credits.
I don’t really have a big unifying thought or theme to share with you on this one. I really just wanted to let you all know this exists. Enjoy the trailer, and then maybe have a few drinks and give this one a rental. You’re welcome.