Reviewby Justin Sevakis,
Fans who've been following anime for more than a decade tend to complain about the medium's current state of affairs. In Japan as well as America, in industry as well as hobbyist circles, the ones who witnessed the country's animated output peak and slowly fall into decline can at any moment be witnessed bemoaning its latest offerings, featuring tired genre retreads and relentless pandering. While there is certainly no shortage of people who like the new stuff, it's hard to escape that things aren't as inventive in this space as they once were. So seldom does a production come along that throws out the rules of the format, that cruises blindly past the deeply warn grooves of Japan's pulp storytelling, that when such a film does come along one scarcely knows how to react.
But such is the case with Cencoroll, a half-hour one-shot auteur anime by manga artist Atsuya Uki. On it's surface it's merely a well-crafted piece of experimental weirdness: a story about feuding schoolboys and their Pokémon-like fight with giant shape-shifting blob monsters in downtown Tokyo, and the girl who gets mixed up in the proceedings.
The title refers to one such amorphous blob monster, Cenco (pronounced SEN-ko). In his native form Cenco is a large, off-white and more or less formless mass with eyes and a giant mouth, all of which move around a lot. Despite looking like he might try to bring about the second impact, Cenco is a pretty tame creature, and serves as a pet to a boy named Tetsu, a sullen, dead-pan type who would prefer to stick to himself. Cenco accompanies him, changing into a variety of amusing shapes, including an automobile and a little toy panda car, while Tetsu gives him orders with a little antenna that sprouts up from his hair. The boy and his blob attract the attention of Yuki, a girl who finds Cenco a curiosity. Monsters such as Cenco seem to appear somewhat frequently, and nobody seems particularly freaked out by them, so Yuki treats it with the mild curiosity of a pet snake. When a rival monster trainer named Shu challenges Tetsu to a duel, Yuki gets caught in the middle. Shu's giant monster (which can turn invisible) sits atop a skyscraper, waiting.
What should be little more than a standard shonen anime battle-to-the-finish somehow feels entirely different: a cross between the intense apocalypse of a Katsuhiro Otomo film and the mundane brutality of a gang war. There's so much visual inventiveness -- an entire scene takes place inside Cenco -- that any rules of what could happen and what might happen fly entirely out the window. Little is explained -- the half hour running time is so short that there's little room for world building. There's plenty of room, however, for metaphor -- both in terms of human relationships and youthful arrogance -- and the intellectuals among us could spend days analyzing the film.
Cencoroll is based on Uki's award-winning one-shot manga Amon Game, which he'd earlier adapted into a short film with Anime Innovation Tokyo. For all of the publicity surrounding the soundtrack (featuring a pulsing vocal dance theme by supercell/ryo), the majority of the film is actually stark and music-free, lending it a raw and immediate feel. When there is music, it's mostly of the action movie variety, quickening the pulse at opportune moments and with only slight hints of inventiveness and Drum 'n' Bass influence. The film incorporates the cinema verité style of filmmaking popular among the last great generation of art-house Japanese directors, no doubt influenced strongly by Ozu.
All of this is just to say the plain, naturalistic filmmaking only enhances the feeling of rousing absurdity. There is, after all, nothing new or inventive about large monsters controlled by teenagers destroying Tokyo. Variations on that formula have been popular since the late 1950s. What makes Cencoroll so inventive isn't its subject matter but the starkness itself. There's no hint of heroicism, not a shred of honor or charged emotion. After all, teen years are more about bland boredom and apathy, are they not?
Cencoroll is awash in such boredom, such detachment, and the recklessness that goes along with these pillars of youth. After all, despite its mystery, most teens (and adults for that matter) would quickly tire of having a monster like Cenco around. At some point the new dog stops being a new pet and becomes simply a dog that must be taken out and walked and fed. Sometimes it's rewarding, and sometimes it's a misery, but mostly it's just there: a mundane part of every miserable passing day of your life. People can get used to just about anything. The show is really quite honest, that way.
There's so much going on under the surface that the short running time is particularly frustrating. The film plays like a pilot, teasing chapters more of what might be lurking around the corner. At the same time, the puzzle of it all propells Cencoroll into something far bigger than the sum of its parts. I can only hope that, should it be a success on DVD, more might be made. But until then, one can only make do with what we have: a film that defies any and all expectations of both medium and genre, that makes us marvel and has really little time to do much else. To feel that breathless sense of strange again from anime is something for which I am indescribably grateful.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Utterly inventive and original. Wondrous and intriguing far beyond most anime of its era.
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