Jasper Sharp on the anthology movie currently touring the UK
There have been three Japanese works nominated in the Academy Awards category for Best Animated Short Film over the past ten years or so: Koji Yamamura’s Mt. Head (2002), Kunio Kato’s The House of Small Cubes (2008) – so far the country’s only winner – and most recently Shuhei Morita’s Possessions (2013). For all that, it remains pretty difficult for most viewers who aren’t regulars on the specialised festival circuit to catch such examples of cutting-edge animation.
The last of these titles is a welcome exception, included as it is in the Short Peace anthology, which is receiving a fair amount of exposure in the UK due to its inclusion in the Japan Foundation’s touring programme. Produced by Sunrise, Bandai, Namco and Shochiku under the auspices of Akira-director Katsuhiro Otomo, and marketed in Japan as part of a larger package that also includes a video game, it is a far more commercial proposition than the other two independently-realised art animation pieces.
Indeed, it is easy to see the whole of Short Peace as something of a celebration of Japan’s noteworthy contribution to the wider arena of global pop culture. With all set at different points in the country’s historical timeline and with the recurrent motif of the appearance of Mount Fuji, the four films are realised in distinct styles that, while wearing their “Japaneseness” proudly, are instantly recognisable as anime.
Aside from the kudos of its Oscar nomination, Possessions provides an apt starting point for our look at the overall package, in that it is also the opening film of the bunch. Its basis is an old legend that after a period of 100 years, all tools and instruments discarded by their users develop spirits of their own. A lone traveller who chances upon an abandoned hut in a deserted forest soon finds himself trapped in a single room while a storm rages outside. Here he is besieged by a succession of animated umbrellas, multiple kaleidoscopic arrangements of eyes peering from behind their tattered coverings, and enveloped by reams of colourfully patterned obi (the sashes to tie up kimonos), which he fends off by repairing them with an elaborate toolkit that magically appears in front of him.
This idea of objects manifesting themselves as ghostly spirits is a well-trod path in anime and live-action; for example, it forms the subject of Japan’s first completely cel-animated work, The Dance of the Chagama (1935), with its parade of ghostly teapots, and also of the Edo-set trilogy of Yokai Monsters feature films produced by Daiei from 1968-69 (as well as, of course, the manga of Shigeru Mizuki and the various works these too have inspired).
Possessions certainly makes the most of the more decorative elements of the traditional Japanese design style, but like the other works on display here, the approach is very much in keeping with a more modern anime look (CG is used for the character animation, but rendered to blend with the other hand-drawn elements).
For me, the most stylistically ground-breaking of the bunch is Otomo’s own Combustible, in which an emotional storm in a traditional Edo household leads to an upset oil lamp and a conflagration that sweeps across the entire city. The film plays out in the style of an emaki picture scroll, letterboxed by the ornate header and footer of the screen, opening with a lengthy pan across the scrolling ancient cityscape rendered with non-converging perspective lines and populated by tiny human figures.
It is highly reminiscent of the director’s earlier Cannon Fodder from the 1997 Memories omnibus, whose innovative depiction of a future war unfolded as an almost-unbroken 15-minute take made up of disorienting viewpoints. Combustible is not quite so bold, departing from the intriguing style of its opening at various points to situate the viewer more explicitly within the main dramatic scenes. Nevertheless, it provides the best example of how the whole film toys with the traditions of pictorial representation to be found both within Japan’s pre-modern decorative arts and the familiar modern face of anime and manga.
Less interesting, I think, is Hiroaki Ando’s Gambo, with its more cartoonish character designs and an overwhelming emphasis on action in its portrayal of a war of the gargantuas – in the form of a giant white bear and a monstrous red ogre – over the soul of a young princess. Historical settings are rejected entirely for the final film of the set, A Farewell to Weapons, which takes place in a futuristic arena of desert warfare that feels unnervingly contemporary – its Kevlar body-armoured, helmeted warriors run through the desolate ruins of a ravished urban landscape populated by airborne drones and lumbering mechanical battle bots.
Directed by Hajime Katoki (character designer for Gundam) from an Otomo manga of the same name, the style is highly reminiscent of 1990s anime such as Roujin Z, also penned by Otomo, or the earliest Patlabor features. Despite an intentionally ludicrous climax, in which the sole human survive is left confronting his giant automated nemesis without a stitch of clothing to shield his modesty, the film is a reminder of just how much conceptions of modern warfare owe to the world of videogames.
In this respect, it is also worth considering the massive impact Japan has had on the gaming world, and in turn, the increasing role played by its traditional pen-and-ink animators in contributing cut scenes to videogames. With Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day, the fifth part of the Short Peace project, not quite a piece with the other four narrative works contained within the 68-minute runtime, it is difficult to say to what extent it riffs on the varied stylistic approaches displayed within this main anthology.
Nevertheless, its very inclusion as part of the package sold for the home viewing market in its own country serves to underscore the incredible synergy between these two home-grown industries, and the fact that whether the setting is historical or futuristic fantasy, contemporary Japanese design styles have now become very much a part of the global imaginary.
Short Peace is currently travelling around the UK with the Japan Festival Touring Programme.