Still haven’t keep up with the latest episodes of anime that came out this week. I’m not sure why, but I just didn’t feel like watching any of them at all. They’re not bad, and I even quite like them, but none of them really struck me as something that really beckons me to go see them at the soonest possible moment. Nothing screams urgent. In effect I’ve put them all on standby, waiting for me to crash into some inspiration. Is this a case of anime burnout? I don’t know. All I know is that before I get myself swamped with an awful lot of backlog, I’m going to have to go complete them all.
In any case, I chose to distract myself from all the TV stuff I put on hold for a while and also decided to blaze through something I’ve put through the injustice of putting off for a very long while. And by “long time” I mean three years–yeah, it’s that long. After a very extensive break I’ve finally put my foot down and ran through it in one go. I got them all way back in 2008, and I swear I almost hit myself in the head for missing out on such an impressive set of animation work that is surely very rare to come by these days. Still it could have been a blessing in disguise, since I haven’t thought of anything to write about lately.
Bear with me here, since I think this one’s going to be long.
Genius Party/Beyond (Studio 4C, Various)
Omnibus packages of anime have been around in the past, though the earliest one that comes to mind is Robot Carnival back in 1987. Not much of them have been made since then, what with the TV market still dominating the airwaves when it came to anime, but what few of them were quite memorable. 1995 saw the release of Studio 4C’s own anthology movie Memories, which boasted stories from Katsuhiro Otomo and Tensai Okamura. The film itself was based on Otomo’s own manga short stories. What’s most memorable perhaps about that film is the work of one Satoshi Kon. After coming off working as a manga artist, he dabbled in a few jobs in anime for a while, but I guess he got his big break in Memories. Otomo gave him the role of writing the script in the first part, Magnetic Rose, which then went on to become highly acclaimed, and even considered as the best of the three-part movie. Thus marked the beginning of his illustrious, if not horribly short-lived career. Afterward, 4C then became a sort-of pioneer of the format, releasing a few of those every now and again, receiving generally positive acclaim.
2007-2008’s effort was my second foray into their package deals. I didn’t really think much of the arrogant-sounding title Genius Party, but after watching it I thought some parts deserved to be called works of such “geniuses”.
I mentioned above that I put off watching the whole collection for three whole years, but in truth my experience with this set was one of the weirdest I’ve had with an anime. I actually watched a few shorts of the first set of shorts, but got turned off with one. Such was its effect that I entirely forgot all about the thing, which led to me shelving it for the past three years. Between that, though, I watched the first few shorts of the second set, Beyond, which I also dropped midway. Not to say any of them were bad, but I felt that I needed to complete the first package for me to advance to the second. So this convoluted tale of anime watching began.
Wanting to forget about the initial impressions I’ve had during the first run-through, I decided to see all of them in the correct order this time. This fresh start gave me new impressions and thoughts about the entire omnibus, inspiring me enough to go ahead and type out a few things about it.
Genius Party (Atsuko Fukushima)
The shortest out of all the parts, this 5-minute production serves as the opening for the complete set. Atsuko Fukushima (together with Otomo) was in charge of the opening and ending parts of the Robot Carnival collection, which makes this latest effort a full-circle for her, so to speak. For an opening piece of animation, this one was incredible. It succeeds at laying out the persona of the rest of the shorts, and establishes what seems to be the running theme aimed at by the omnibus production–the unleashing of imagination and creativity. It has meaning unto itself, as if showing the viewer: This is what you’re going to see for the rest of the thing; enjoy. What’s also notable about this short was of course the animation. Fukushima was considered one of the leading animators back then, and she showed what she can do here. Playful shots of wacky figures zipping around in a blankly colorful landscape abound. They boasted grace which went along with the energetic flavor of the thing, giving the short enough zip to act as a true opener. There was a ton of creativity shown in this short, thereby giving the first proof of the supposed identity of the complete project. I had high hopes for the rest of the series after watching this.
Of course, this being an omnibus project by a multitude of directors–seven, in fact–there was bound to be an ample dose of diversity and differences–which then leads us to…
Shanghai Dragon (Shoji Kawamori)
One of the few parts of the set I’ve watched before the hiatus, it was also one of those few which I remember liking. Not only because of Shoji Kawamori’s name-value, but also for the feeling of excitement and curiosity expressed in it. After having watched it again, I felt more or less the same levels of the same feeling, but this time I’ve had a few reservations. For one, this one felt like a misfit, after Fukushima’s vibrant and tremendous opener. I would have hoped this built on the awesome quality of the said opener. It has the misfortune of coming straight after a special piece, and combine that with a seemingly conventional set-up, it then felt all the more lacking. I would have preferred this one to come at the middle as it would have worked better as a breather piece. Nevertheless, Kawamori’s direction has always been charming and playful, so his inclusion in this set is well-deserved.
Part of the work’s charm and appeal is the setting. It’s rare to have an anime set in (what is apparently) China, and it’s even rarer for its characters to speak in Chinese. It achieves a certain extent of authenticity (though I know practically nothing about the language), which consequently endows the deal with quirkiness and an aura of playfulness. Kawamori is one of those directors who can think up a highly creative yet admittedly crazy idea, and still make it work (well, more or less). You can’t really expect anything bland from the creator and director of Macross. I still find it funny why space agents from another galaxy speak in fluent Japanese, but I guess since it’s anime, I ain’t got to explain nothin’. The short piece has some good shots of animation overall, but nothing really spectacular–which is quite disappointing, considering the quality of the preceding work. Also at odds with the opener was Dragon’s curiously creative, yet ultimately pale set-up. It was typical of normal TV anime, but in the end Kawamori’s charm saves it.
I’ve always thought of Shoji Kawamori as one of the best mecha designers in anime, but the mechas here (which I assume he designed) were plain and ordinary.
Deathtic 4 (Shinji Kimura)
This particular short was kind of a return to the roots planted by the opener, but it doesn’t have quite the same appeal. I suppose I made the mistake of comparing this one to the opener, especially considering Shinji Kimura is not exactly an animator, but more of an artist. The art director of 4C’s 2006 feature Tekkon Kinkreet was given a project with which to fully express himself, this time as an anime director and not an artist. The producers did a commendable job at offering such a diverse set of individuals shots at creating something quite different from their usual gigs, which in turn helped give the set its own personality and character. So there’s really no sense comparing this or any of the other succeeding works to the opening shot. That aside, Kimura’s short is one best watched mainly for the art. Every inch of it looks good.
I presume Kimura also did the character designs, which retain that rough and flat aesthetic of his backgrounds, so the whole short feels unified as a whole. There’s really nothing much to say about anything else in this film, as the animation is again nothing to write home about–though it is enjoyable watching the characters in motion–as is the case with the narrative, which doesn’t really beg for much understanding. It’s a simple story of finding and letting go of something. Kimura’s stylishly detailed artwork is enough to carry the short, fortunately, and thus it remains an impressive work.
Though I still can’t understand why they felt the need to make the characters speak in Swedish (was it?)…
Doorbell (Yoji Fukuyama)
Again, this was a short piece done not by an anime director or an animator, but this time a manga artist was put in charge. I don’t know much about Fukuyama’s work as a manga artist (man, I need to catch up), but seeing his credentials tells of his talent at crafting stories. Since he hasn’t done any work in anime prior to Genius Party, his animation work bears hints of newness and feelings of relative inexperience which gives the film its own charm, but ultimately falls short. I’d say this works as a great breather piece especially in combination with Shanghai Dragon. Just for the fact that this is practically his first foray into animation, it was a laudable piece, but it doesn’t quite cut it when put alongside the more seasoned creators.
The story is quite simple yet entertaining and intriguing, but the lackluster visuals and direction fail to contribute some spice to make the proceedings a bit more lively and just interesting. Nothing really screams out from it; the uniformity of it all at times dulls the film, lessening what edge it has. Sometimes I felt as if this was a manga just carted off into animation, but I feel that is too harsh an opinion. I respect the effort Fukuyama put in here, as his skill as a storyteller does seep into the final product. It had a nice simplicity to it as well; something which I always like. There’s nothing here that shouts out pretensions and self-indulgence. The only problem was it just didn’t feel right when translated into animation. It was too static and fit much better in manga.
This certainly wasn’t the worst one out of the bunch, especially when put side-by-side with this…
Limit Cycle (Hideki Futamura)
Now we get to the real reason for the hiatus. Yes, you got it right: this particular piece was the one that turned me off from the rest of the film during my first scattered viewing of the set all those years ago. This film just screamed over-exertion and false artistry. It looked like it was trying too hard to give off that oh-so-fundamental feeling of intelligence, but in the end falls really flat on its face. Many people who also watched the film seemed to have the same opinions as me at that. My initial impression was that it could have been a great film, if only it didn’t bask in its false sense of superiority that much. I managed to sit through it, but it got on my nerves. But, after this session of re-watching, I found myself quite surprised at my enjoyment of the thing. I was impressed, though I had to do my own share of grasping at stuff to achieve it.
Don’t get me wrong, the film itself is still an irritating mess of garbled monologues about random bits and pieces of nonsense strung together by a bland character, and I was still hugely annoyed by it. There’s really nothing worse than some anonymous guy stringing together jumbled chips of philosophy, psychology and whatnot for twenty whole minutes, which I also felt insulted my already limited knowledge. I know I’m not that smart, so I didn’t need a cartoon to remind me of that. That aside, what interested me in the end was the strong composition and the smooth directing. It conveyed such a dense amount of information condensed within a bunch of scientific imagery without ever feeling dull or lifeless. It was just the narration that was off-putting. Futamura does a good job of pacing himself, not bombarding viewers with huge volumes of data and not taking too much time with them either. It was all done in a uniform measured speed, but the density and the angles of the images were respectively huge and broad. His skill as an artsy director is here and is visible, but it’s just muddled by the unnecessarily long and droning monologues. If it was only interlaced with music, it would have been a much better film.
Call me an idiot if you want, but this film really is best appreciated on mute.
Happy Machine (Masaaki Yuasa)
Finally, we reach one of the strongest contributions to the whole first set in the complete omnibus. Those who visit this site may already know of my admiration and love for Masaaki Yuasa, and thus may feel that this write-up is biased, but there is a good enough reason for that: It’s plainly because he is just that good. After the incredible energy put forth by the opening short, this one is more of a fantastical tale grounded on emotion. If Kawamori’s earlier opening was filled with childishly playful curiosity, this short takes that literally, as the story is shown through the eyes of a child. What’s also interesting about this film is that it asks you questions, without actually asking them. This, I daresay, is visual storytelling at its core. Yuasa has shown the many facets to his professional character in his various other works, but Happy Machine is one such work that compresses them all into one delicious serving. Yuasa the director, Yuasa the animator, and Yuasa the storyteller are all present and in full effect here, albeit in one short dose.
I’ve heard people accuse Yuasa of being self-serving and–dare I say it–pretentious, but it’s really the opposite. His stories are actually quite simple and easy-to-digest; it’s just that his wide and wild imagination is the engine driving his stories–and as such the result of which is what you see here in Happy Machine and all his other more popular works. The visuals here in this film share the same amount of imaginative invention that Yuasa is now known for, and he uses them to great effect–building a genuine emotional connection with the viewer (the scene where the fire creature gets put out by the baby) and putting across a subtle yet quite poignant image (where the baby is transformed into an old man made of patchwork). Yuasa’s animation is crisp and fun-filled as usual, utilizing his varied creations effectively to his own purposes. In the end, a lot of things can be taken out of this story, and it is up to the viewer what he makes of it. That is one of the beauties of this short. Yuasa leaves it open to interpretation without obscuring the whole thing with needless indulgences. His works oftentimes contain very simple messages which can be found quite easily, just hidden in unorthodox design and animation.
The title Genius certainly doesn’t quite fit all the participants–be it here or the subsequent Beyond–but in my mind, Masaaki Yuasa is one of those who do deserve it.
Baby Blue (Shinichiro Watanabe)
As much as the opening short film was an incredible capsule of pure animated ecstasy, this end note to the first omnibus is a down-to-earth character driven tale about farewells, in polar opposition to Fukushima’s piece. The simple theme of goodbye is always a good base to build upon, and what most attracted me to this final piece was the name Shinichiro Watanabe. Sure, fans may know him more as an action-oriented type, seeing as he directed the almost-legendary swashbuckler Cowboy Bebop and the anachronistic joyride Samurai Champloo, but he does have something of a skill with staging dramatic sequences, and his many powerful shots in both series show that facet of his work quite clearly. He also uses music very well, fitting them to his purposes with apparent ease. He has worked as musical producer aside from actual directing, and he’s done great work with that as well (see Michiko e Hatchin as an example). One thing that I saw in Baby Blue, however, was that he isn’t half as good when he’s on his own. He needs incredible people to help him accomplish his incredible directing. Watanabe is one of my favorite anime directors, to be sure, but without good collaborators I found he can’t shine as brightly. In Bebop he had the talented Keiko Nobumoto as script writer, and in Champloo he had contributions from Dai Sato (Eureka Seven, Ergo Proxy).
I liked this short for what it was, though, and I thought it served as a fitting footnote to an eccentric collection of shorts. The opening shot was fierce and high-flying, and Baby Blue brought the omnibus back to earth smoothly and without glitches. This short tells the story effectively well, with some quirks (namely the grenades) that made Watanabe such a good director and he’s done his job well enough on his own. Aside from that, the characters are quite bland, not only in terms of their designs but also in terms of their actual characters. They were vehicles of a dramatic narrative, nothing more, nothing less. I could have been contented with that, but this is Watanabe we’re talking about here. Well at least he still did a good job in the detached contemporary look and feel of the film, so it was still a success. It was also good that he remembered to bring in one of his collaborators, the skilled Yoko Kanno, to do the music. Her score was simple and unobtrusive, yet it provided just the needed amount of juice to give the drama the desired effect.
Surely not one of the best in the entire two-part omnibus, but this was still a great ending to a solid introduction.
New Watanabe TV anime, please…
Now, now, don’t stop reading yet.
The second part of the Genius Party omnibus was released the next year in 2008, and this time it only had five participating shorts within it. In this case, less is definitely more, since I had considerably more fun watching this set in one sitting than I did with the first half. As part of my screwed-up preliminary viewing session, I had watched three parts of this collection after signing off on the first, but the second session, I think, has cleared up my thoughts and impressions regarding its overall quality.
Genius Party Beyond is one step beyond its predecessor.
Gala (Mahiro Maeda)
While not as powerful and impulsive as the opener to the first Genius set, this short does a great job at setting a high standard of entertainment and quality which the succeeding shorts must try to meet, or even surpass. It’s filled with the imagination claimed to be the pure driving force behind the whole omnibus set, and delightful creativity which again sets the tone for the rest of the entries. It gives a highly artistic and inventive edge to what is ultimately revealed as a relatively simple story of cultivating life. Maeda’s work on this short serves as a great example of the uniqueness of the imagination and creativity which the whole set was emphasizing, starting with the not-so-humble name Genius Party. This was just purely delightful entertainment.
I’ve always thought of Maeda as one of the better anime directors in the industry today, with his few series at much-maligned studio GONZO being the ones that rose to the top of the class in terms of enjoyability and quality. I just found him limited by something which I can’t put a finger on. Is it the inherent constraints of the TV format, or the limitations of his personnel? He certainly didn’t seem like he was lacking in terms of directing talent, but at GONZO I thought he was strained and needed a place to test himself. It turns out that this was his place. His work here was free and unrestrained, exuding the great fresh feeling of something which needed to unleash itself. Maeda takes pages from history, culture, and mythology and blends them with his well of imagination to create something quite ingenious, but most importantly, just fun. He inserts a varied array of characters and images, mixing them capably, and putting them on the stage to shine just as brightly. This in turn makes the twist at the end all the more special and surprising.
Apparently, GONZO plans to make its return with another anime for Last Exile, and I hope Maeda is at the helm this time.
Moondrive (Kazuto Nakazawa)
Straight off the smoothly designed and realized world and characters of Gala, here comes next a rugged, rough, almost unpolished piece of work from the ever-so stylish Kazuto Nakazawa (character designer/animation director of manglobe’s Champloo). He’s quite the tough one, utilizing his idiosyncratic design sensibility and zippy animation work in the span of fifteen minutes. There’s nothing else that drives this short forward other than pure, undistilled Nakazawa. Moondrive is him at his fullest. I don’t know him much except for his work on Champloo and his signature quick-draw rapid-fire yet stylishly fluent animation, and this is a good benchmark for finding out more about him, especially now that time has led to a maturity of sorts for his artistic sensibilities. Since everything looks and feels like his handiwork, this is where he bares everything to the viewers.
Moondrive is a rebellious story driven forward by punks, and also gives the impression that the director himself is a punk. Not to say I know Nakazawa personally, but the individualistic persuasions shown in full force here shows his rock star-ish vibe excellently. I don’t have anything much to say about the story, since its a paper-thin comedy at its core anyway. What takes center stage is Nakazawa’s personalized approach to everything in the short–his characters, his animation, his backgrounds–which themselves look so appealingly sketchy and rough around the edges that it almost opposes the rest of the works. He even leaves the frame borders intact in the final product (I remember he said it looked cool to him, so he left them in). In truth, this short benefits from its own roughshod style and gives the entire second collection an ironic sense of unity, if only for the fact that the succeeding shorts were by highly individualistic creators themselves. It’s just one of the reasons I think Beyond is better than the first.
Toujin Kit (Tatsuyuki Tanaka)
It’s another one of those anime where everything in a shot combines to make a unified and layered whole. The background work immerses you with its minutely detailed specifics; the characters designed to mesh really well with their surroundings and move within it, and the animation lush and fluent, completing the three-dimensional effect pursued by the creator. It really wouldn’t work as well as it did if you take away even one component out of the machine. This was one of the more impressive shorts out of the whole package, but it also suffers the problem of not holding up really well when put alongside the other works (especially the next ones). But still, watching Tatsuyuki Tanaka‘s drawings in motion or not is always a treat.
Tanaka was an animator back then, with his smoothly fluid yet hyper-kinetic style one of his most defining traits, but since then he’s now focused on drawing image boards and doing manga, now adopting the monicker Cannabis. His return to anime then was a joy, since he now has a more matured personal style that pervades his drawings, but still retaining enough of the fervor I know him for. His designs here in the short look polished, uniformly fitted to the monotonously drab yet intricately detailed background, and he also moves them really well. They function as animated objects first, but then they also work as components to the lush and three-dimensional whole. In comparison to Nakazawa’s work, Toujin Kit feels more complete and more effective. While Moondrive was an overdose of slapdash style, this one adopts an appealingly monotonous feeling layered by a sense of purpose. You get the feeling that Tanaka intended to achieve this layered and unified feeling right from the start.
For all the good things that can be said about Toujin though, I’m afraid it just pales in comparison to these next two offerings, starting with this one…
Wanwa the Doggy/Puppy (Shinya Ohira)
This was the one that I was most excited about after the first viewing session (along with Gala and Moondrive). There’s nothing that beats the feeling of watching Shinya Ohira‘s characters in full motion and in full effect, traveling about in Ohira’s own machinations and Ohira’s own universe. What a masterful decision it was for the producers (namely Eiko Tanaka) to give him his well-deserved shot at creating a piece of animation all his own, with no limitations whatsoever. As the other two preceding shorts were indicative of their creators’ styles, this one was, too. The only difference being that Shinya Ohira is just more purposeful, more stubborn, and more insane than they were (of course, in a good way). Hands down, Wanwa the Doggy is one of the best offerings in the whole omnibus collection–the first Genius Party included. Nothing else crossed my mind after watching it than: Man, Ohira is amazing.
Perhaps fans may know of Ohira’s extremely idiosyncratic style of full animation, which contrasts with traditions of Japanese animation, and also doesn’t bow down to what the conventions of the industry present him. If I said Nakazawa was a rebellious rock star previously…well, Ohira is the real deal. He spits in the face of industry conventions with his insanely deformed yet realistically moved animation, and he works in such a way that it is almost impossible to fully correct his shots (not to mention the outrage he caused with Hamaji’s Resurrection). Shinya Ohira is Japanese anime’s iconic rebellious punk. It is therefore a rare and incredible chance to see his work raw, unhinged, and unhindered. And the result is just glorious. His mish-mash of stylishly deformed characters that totally ignore the unwritten rules of traditional character design move in a dense and convincing fashion. At times you may even forget it’s the characters who are moving, but rather just random undulating shapes which pulsate at every turn and move fully, smoothly, in direct contrast to ordinary anime. His backgrounds are a patchwork of clashing shapes, figures, and forms, which also move in unison with his characters, forming a sort-of intentional, controlled chaos which is just enchanting to watch. To add to that, Ohira also boasts of a seemingly hidden talent at directing, staging and composing his shots in a way which enhances the already heavy effects of his animation. His story is also a poignant one, a story built upon children. It seems the best shorts in both sets deal with children. I’ve been a huge fan of Ohira’s since I first saw pieces of his work, and this one was indeed a treat. I really hope he goes and does more in the future, even if he is a slow worker.
I read somewhere that Ohira planned to create this story because he wanted to make a film to watch with his son, and true enough it works well at that. Images of what I assumed were his son’s doodles were also flashed at the end. This tidbit may not be much, but it gives you a new perspective to view the film with.
This would have worked excellently as a finale to the whole set, but it seems the big boss finally chooses to make an appearance at the very end, so finally, we come to this…
Dimension Bomb (Koji Morimoto)
Finally, the head honcho of Studio 4C finally makes a needed appearance right at the finale of the entire two-part omnibus series. I think he intentionally timed his short to appear last, to achieve dramatic effect. All jokes aside, Morimoto’s entry for Beyond works brilliantly, not only as a finale to the sequel, but also as a finale to the Genius Party collection. No one seemed to be a better fit for a thrilling and exciting finale than Koji Morimoto himself. He makes very rare appearances in anime productions nowadays, focusing more on doing work for Japanese musical artists’ music videos, and this particular short gives us a longer glimpse into the newer version of the personality-driven and imagination-fueled creator that is Koji Morimoto.
I don’t know much about the man himself, except that he started out as an animator like so many others like him, and eventually moved on into his own fantastically bent style bordering on the abstract. His work as a more conventional director can be seen in Peek the Whale, and I hope his latest film (if he does release it, that is) shows us how his new sense of individualistic creation holds up in a feature format. Anyway, Dimension Bomb feels like it deserves its name. It’s a bomb; a bomb of fantasy melded with a personal sense of inventiveness and creativity stemming from Morimoto’s considerably vast imagination. It explodes with a bash of freewheeling energy, of pure motion that ignores whatever narrative structure there is in the film, and adds a layer of depth to the already stellar art direction. It’s random, but beautifully random. Randomness achieved by Morimoto in this film is different to the randomness in other such works–Dimension Bomb is more straightforward and is much more aesthetically pleasing. He tells you straight to just sit back and let the film take you wherever it wants to go. The pace of the short is also wildly erratic–mellow at one point, then suddenly shifts gear into fast-paced motion. But it still works, as there really isn’t any definite structure to the film. Only the great art and animation hold it together tightly. The use of 3D is also considerably better here than what is typically seen in anime, and I think it speaks of the creative direction I think Morimoto wants to go. He uses it really freely here, and assimilates it into his environments seamlessly.
I’ve noticed that the tints and hues of the environments sometimes look like those of Yasuhiro Aoki’s wonderful Kung – Fu Love, which made me think that there must have been some influencing going on there. Aoki is in good hands over there at 4C, but it’s almost time for him to break out and finally strut his stuff. Dimension Bomb‘s music was also wonderful: electronic music undulating and beating in tune with the animation, not to mention it just sounds terrific. It was done by Juno Reactor, who also did the OP for Madhouse’s Texhnolyze. They’re quite good.
This turned out to be a very long post, and I’m sorry for dragging it out. Still, even if I was years too late in experiencing the ups and downs of Genius Party/Beyond, I hope I managed to pull in new viewers into going through what was one of the most fulfilling watches I’ve had in weeks, even months. The Genius Party/Beyond omnibus collections deserve to be seen by everybody, be they anime geeks, or just animation fans in general.