Reviewby Justin Sevakis, Oct 20th 2008
Seven all-star animators are given creative carte blanche with their own short films in Genius Party, including Atsuko Fukushima, Shoji Kawamori, Shinji Kimura, Yoji Fukuyama, Hideki Futamura, Masaaki Yuasa and Shinichiro Watanabe. None of the segments are related or have any unifying themes.
Genius Party is a collection of new short films from the justifiably famous Studio 4°C, intended as much as a creative sandbox for some of anime's best and brightest as it is a showcase for their talents. As is to be expected when creative types are allowed to go wild without adult supervision, the results are mixed. The clearly lesser talents in the bunch turn in the frustratingly abstract without direction or coherence, whereas the most popular talents don't deviate far from their established work, and end up with crowd pleasers. And then, there are outright experimental shorts that are truly pieces of art, which will be appreciated by those with the intellectual chops to approach them.
The anthology starts with the title short, a wildly imaginative -- if incoherent -- experimental piece by animation veteran Atsuko Fukushima involving a giant desert bird that seems constructed like a third world scarecrow, and its quest to eat the hearts spawned by an appreciative audience of clay heads that occasionally double as tumbleweeds. Needless to say, this is a heavily stylized music video piece, and while slow in places (the music drags the piece down with its monotony), its features some of the coolest visuals to have come out of Japan in years. That said, this look at the birth of ideas (according to the director's notes) is nowhere near as easy to explain as it is to enjoy.
Next, Shanghai Dragon takes place in a visually rich and monetarily poor Chinese town, where a snot-nosed boy named Gongrong is drawing on the floor with chalk. It's a few minutes before class sometime in the late 20th century, and while one bossy girl is mindful that he might get in trouble, most of Gongrong's classmates are more apt to bully him. They've barely started their daily abuse when a huge explosion takes place outside: Earth is in the process of becoming a battlefield in a large intergalactic war. Large warships are everywhere, and as one crashes to the ground in the schoolyard, Gongrong notices something shiny that fell amongst the wreckage: a knife that looks like it came from the game, Halo.
Gongrong picks it up, and uses it to scratch a drawing of some food into the pavement, and his classmates are shocked to see the food becomes real (and quite edible)! The knife doesn't seem to work for anybody else, but soon Allied Forces approach Gongrong, inform him that he's the chosen one, and that his talent is required in saving the universe. Soon, the boy and his snot-trail are both living out their wildest self-insertion comic book fantasies in a way only a six-year-old can. The piece is wildly inventive in how it uses science fiction clichés, and it ultimately has a pretty hilarious take on the fantasies and foibles of childhood. Shoji Kawamori has had a spotty recent history (redeeming himself with Macross Frontier after the failures of Aquarion and Arjuna), but this short ensures the man's return to form.
Next we have Deathtic 4, featuring a more textured and 3D look than anime fans are used to. Shinya Kimura's piece tries very hard but unfortunately doesn't add up to much. In a strange world of the undead, a boy on his way to school discovers a real, live frog. Sneaking it into his backpack, he and his friends conspire to take it to the Uzu-Uzu Hole, where it can return to the world of the living. Adventure ensues. The film is imaginative to be sure (the Zombie world is definitely Tim Burton inspired), but it's held down by a certain sensory unpleasantness that permeates both its visuals and its soundtrack. The zombie cityscape is off-putting in a hostile way, and the audio is so noisy and chaotic that potentially meaningful dialogue gets lost. (It seems to be trying to imitate Studio 4°C's earlier Noiseman Sound Insect.) At best, the film is a fun but inconsequential romp; at worst it'll give you a headache.
The segment entitled Doorbell might have sounded like a good idea on paper, but is the film's first complete failure. A teenager comes home only to find out that someone else, also him, is already home and nobody who's come in contact with his doppleganger can see him. Trying to find some place to go, he finds himself in a constant race against other incarnations of himself, who anticipate who he'll try to see next and takes his place. It's an interesting idea of which the short running time all but precludes any intensive examination. The end result is meaningless, an exercise in weirdness that neither completely makes sense nor has anything to say. Worse, the film squanders the visual potential of Studio 4°C, opting for a seinen manga art style reminiscent of Naoki Urasawa (Monster, Yawara). The line work is simple and undetailed, the shading is pedestrian, and the only thing on the screen that couldn't have been done just as well by a slightly underfunded TV anime crew is the cel-shaded cars moving in the background.
Limitcycle, meanwhile, is - and I don't say this lightly - a piece of utter art school garbage that should have never even been included in the film. The experience can basically be summed up as, "James Dean lookalike drifts through surreal cityscape while we hear a monotonous and meaningless narration ramble about God." Pretentious and incomprehensible, the short drags on for twenty excruciating minutes, each line of faux-intellectual/spiritual narration more banal and meaningless than the last, till it all congeals together. At one point I tried to ignore the narration and simply pay attention to the visuals, which are pretty, but lack form or substance (or any connection to the narration), as if it were an iTunes visualizer loaded with scans from an old religion field manual. Director Hideki Futamura has directed nothing in his career other than Jo-Jo's Bizarre Adventure (and a small section from Koji Morimoto's short in The Animatrix), so I have no idea what qualified him as a "genius" sufficient to make a segment.
Its hard to say whether the building frustration in the viewer at this point helps or hurts the next short, Masaaki Yuasa's haunting Happy Machine. Yuasa is no stranger to experimental animation, and he basically shows Futamura the right way to do it. The film follows a remarkably happy and unflappable infant as he crawls along a surreal world: Mommy becomes disabled, and so the baby goes in search of milk, friends and adventures that defy verbal description. Visually, Yuasa revisits the imagery of his earlier Cat Soup (Nekojiru-so) to the point where he is, at times, repeating himself. Nonetheless, the man is quite possibly the best experimental animator working in Japan today and this is a fascinating look at the surrealism of the world from a baby's point of view, albeit one without fear. That, and its disturbing lack of discernible reality reminded me of the famous children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon, which I must admit left me with an uneasy feeling when I was young.
Finally, we have Baby Blue, the new work by Cowboy Bebop's Shinichiro Watanabe and possibly his best to date. It's also one of his least epic; a slice-of-life story of a boy that asks a girl if she wants to cut class with him. The two haven't been friends since they were kids, when they broke into a military compound and stole a grenade. The two teens, mindful of their past and their current ideas of who each other have become, slowly regain their lost intimacy as slowly the boy reveals his real reason for asking her to skip class. Quiet and pensive, and punctuated with bits of incredible action, Baby Blue uses every second of the short's running time to construct solid, nuanced characters and a deeply personal relationship that never really got a chance to live up to its potential.
The segment will remind many of Makoto Shinkai films, and indeed the mood is similar, though Baby Blue is far less infatuated with dramatically lit classrooms and nostalgic naval-gazing as it is with portraying its admittedly flawed characters' imperfect lives. I'd wondered about Watanabe after Samurai Champloo and his films in Animatrix, suspicious that he might have lost his way, trying too hard to be cool rather than say anything meaningful. But it seems my fears were unfounded, for here he returns to the somber sense of carrying on with life in the face of regret that we saw small glimpses of in the best episodes of Cowboy Bebop. The film is helped in no small way by the voice talent of Yuuya Yagira, the now-18-child-actor who showed so much promise in Nobody Knows a few years back, and female counterpart Rinko Kikuchi (of Babel and Funky Forest fame). The understated, but evocative musical score is from none other than Yoko Kanno.
Genius Party is interesting, pretty and at times thought provoking. It's also maddeningly uneven, devoting an almost unbearable amount of time to self-indulgence and half-formed ideas. It would be far harder to recommend seeing it in a theater than it would be as a DVD, as the use of the Chapter Skip button proves to be key to enjoying the film. But every anthology film has its duds (which is why the format continues to be a horribly unpopular one with filmgoers and producers alike), and Genius Party's highlights are triumphs strong enough to overcome even the biggest of cinematic disasters... though sometimes it comes dangerously close to losing the battle.
Overall : B
+ Baby Blue and Shanghai Dragon are the best work from their respective directors in a decade.
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