At a time when too many American animated features have a homogenized look, Katsuhiro Otomo's uneven but striking anthology feature Short Peace serves as a reminder that artists have only begun to explore the visual potential of the art form. In the US, Otomo's reputation rests on his groundbreaking dystopic feature Akira, but he’s overseen two previous anthology films: Robot Carnival (1987, long out of print here and overdue for reissue) and Memories (1995).
For Short Peace, Otomo and three other directors made short films in personal styles they felt suited the stories they’d chosen. Three of the sections draw on Japanese history and folklore, but the only element the films have in common is their individuality.
Shuhei Morita's Possessions was nominated for the Oscar for Animated Short this year, and should have won over the unimpressive Mr. Hublot. When a rainstorm strikes, a wandering tinker seeks refuge in a Shinto shrine hidden in the forest. Once inside, he’s beset by tsukomogami: umbrellas, bowls, screens, sake flasks and other household objects that have acquired souls after 100 years of use. The objects resent being carelessly thrown away after giving devoted service. (Animism runs through Japanese culture to this day: once a year, seamstresses visit shrines to “bury” dull and broken needles in blocks of tofu.)
Rummaging in his pack for the materials he needs, the tinker glues patches on tattered umbrellas, sews lengths of shining brocade and quietly reassures the restless spirits that their work has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. Morita skillfully uses CG to bring together diverse visual influences: The rough-featured tinker with his large hands and feet suggests contemporary manga drawings; the complex world of objects and patterns evokes 19th century woodblock prints. It’s a striking film, and Morita is clearly a director to watch.
Why Otomo's Combustible failed to win the Oscar last year - or even receive a nomination - is another one of those Academy mysteries. (This is the group that chose The Hurt Locker over Up for Best Picture.) Otomo's work encompasses a variety of style and subjects, from the alienated Steampunk adventure Steamboy to the charming children’s film SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers, but Combustible is his first romantic tragedy. Owaka and Matsukichi, the son and daughter of wealthy merchants, are childhood sweethearts in 18th century Edo (Tokyo). Owaka’s father forces her into a loveless arranged marriage; Matsukichi follows his life-long of becoming a fireman. His father disowns him when he sees the tattoos on his son’s arms.
Owaka inadvertently triggers a blaze that summons Matsukichi - and destroys their family homes. For Combustible, Otomo and his artists copied the intricate patterns of Owaka's kimono from period fabrics, and the stylized flames are modeled on the prints of Yoshitoshi and other great ukiyo-e artists.
The tone of Short Peace darkens in Hiroaki Ando’s Gambo. An oni (demon) has ravaged a tiny mountain village, carrying off the girls and killing the men. Only a few adults and one little girl remain. A samurai wearing a crucifix and a cloak decorated with crosses - at a time when Christianity was outlawed in Japan - orders the girl to pray. The demon defeats the samurai and government troops, but the girl’s prayers summon a great white bear. After a ferocious battle, the bear rips the demon apart. Gambo is drawn in a looser style that recalls brushstrokes of traditional calligraphy, but it lacks the effortless grace of Possessions and Combustible.
Hajime Katoki's A Farewell to Arms, the closing segment of Short Peace feels like one of the middle episodes of an anime sci-fi series. A small crew of soldiers has been assigned to take out a robot-tank prowling the deserted ruins of a city. Farewell has an interesting, almost monochromatic palette that suggests a barren dessert. It's skillfully directed, but it’s not a complete story: Who are the soldiers? Who loosed the murderous tank? And what’s at stake in this deadly battle?
Although it ends on a weak note, the imaginative visuals of Short Peace will leave American animators and animation fans wondering why we can't produce this kind of inexpensive but innovative film.
Short Peace opens theatrically today in over 50 theaters in the United States.