The most prominent animation studios in Japan have flavors to them the way this book publisher, or that record label, have such things. With Kyoto Animation, you know you're getting lustrous, top-caliber animation and heartfelt storytelling; with Polygon Pictures, it's using 3D technology to do what's now prohibitively expensive for hand-drawn work, but without sacrificing human feeling in the process. Studio 4°C, though, has always been about pushing visual and narrative boundaries: Mind Game, Harmony, and these two anthology films with an absolute murderer's row of contributing directors. They're keepers, even the lesser episodes, because they show what anime's luminaries can be all about when they're not trying to satisfy a prime-time audience.
"Genius Party" / Atsuko Fukushima
Fukushima, a key animator on many A-list projects (AKIRA, Kiki's Delivery Service, In This Corner Of The World) opens the first anthology with a beautiful and description-defying allegory about the inspirational power of the creative imagination. A bizarre birdlike being extracts smiling skulls from the soil and devours the little hearts that emanate from them. One such skull, thus awakened, inspires the others with its newly found power. Described like that it sounds awful and flat; best to watch it unfold and connect the dots for yourself.
"Shanghai Dragon" / Shoji Kawamori
Kawamori is one of the founding luminaries behind the Macross franchise; most any mecha or hard-SF series either has him as a designer or an influence. Here, though, he eschews hard SF for a more lighthearted fantasy. A Chinese boy discovers a kind of magic wand that allows him to bring to life the things he draws in the dirt, and finds himself pursued by giant-mecha-driving forces who are determined to either destroy him or harness his power for the betterment of humanity. The design work in this episode has a charmingly schizoid look to it: the mecha are all hard-edged and super-real, but everything the boy brings to life has a rough, crayon-on-paper look.
"Deathtic 4" / Shinji Kimura
Kimura's list of credits is not long, but significant: he's mainly known for his background work on titles with highly detailed, hand-drawn environments (Angel's Egg, AKIRA, My Neighbor Totoro). Here, he channels the spirit of Tim Burton for a bizarre story about a town of zombies vaguely reminiscent of the grotesque underworld in Hells. One zombie boy runs into a real living thing, a frog, and teams up with a bunch of sorta-kinda superheroes (a riff on the Fantastic 4, I guess) to return it to its world. The design work is the real star here; it's an outstanding fusion of hand-drawn imagery and CGI shapes. But the story doesn't really add up or go anywhere; it just peters out.
"Doorbell" / Yoji Fukuyama
This installment plays like a Twilight Zone episode, although I suspect its real impact may be muted for many viewers. A young man on his way home from school stops at a railroad crossing, and then to the disbelieving eyes of a young girl, engenders a double. This double runs on ahead and takes the original's place in his life: by the time the original comes home, the double is already there, and his family don't see him anymore. When he tries shacking up with a friend, the double beats him to it as well. Finally, in an encounter with a girlfriend, he comes out ahead ... but the implication is not so much that he's won, but that he's simply prevailed, and that the double is now in his former position, waiting for a chance to overtake him again in the future. It's all presented in a highly precise, matter-of-fact way that seems fitting: sometimes you just want to tell the story, not put it in a gaudy picture frame.
"Limit Cycle" / Hideki Futamura
Futamura, another animator with a long and distinguished career, turns in the longest, gaudiest, and least impressive segment of the bunch. It's not even clear what it's about: it opens in an office, where a worker sits after hours at his computer, and then expands into a kind of Umberto Eco-esque meditation on God, death, time, the self, and a whole fusillade of other subjects. But none of it is remotely coherent; it's just pretentious and windy, and the elaborate CGI used to animate the whole thing eventually becomes as uninvolving as a screen saver.
"Happy Machine" Masaaki Yuasa
Yuasa is the genius behind some of the high points of anime across the last couple of decades: MIND GAME, Tatami Galaxy, and Kaiba, among many others. His segment is easily among the best of this bunch. A baby raised in what looks like a high-tech nursery is set free when his artificial mother malfunctions and deflates. There's nothing outside but a wasteland — well, it looks like a wasteland, but after some exploring and experimentation on his part, he discovers it does in fact have an ecosystem of its own. He learns to integrate himself with it, tame it, delve into it ... and then after decades of search returns to where he started. This segment, without a word of dialogue, and with Yuasa's wildly funky trademark animation, manages to have all the depth that "Limit Cycle" couldn't.
"Baby Blue" / Shinichiro Watanabe
The man who gave us Cowboy Bebop, Kids On The Slope, Samurai Champloo, Space Dandy, and so much more is known best for his flamboyance. Here, he shows us a (slightly) more sedate and sentimental side, as a teen-aged couple bunk off school to have an adventure, only to have the whole thing go rather wrong and fizzle out. But there's a closing moment, both a surprise and a I-should-have-seen-that-coming, that ties it all together wonderfully. As with "Doorbell", the style is realistic and laid-back, perfectly suited to a story about trying to extract magic from a mere day in the life. Or maybe it's not ''mere" after all.
"Gala" / Mahiro Maeda
Maeda, another long-time industry veteran, is best known for Gankutsuou and being a key member of both GONZO and Studio Ghibli. His segment is wild and lively, about a village of mythological creatures whose lives are upended when a massive ... meterorite? ... crashes down nearby. It's apparently alive, and so the village elder summons magical musical instruments to help it come completely to life. The animation and design work are glorious, and there's a great punchline to the whole thing, a reminder that the best short stories (and short films) are structured in much the same way that the best jokes are.
"Moondrive" / Kazuto Nakazawa
Nakazawa, another veteran with an impressively varied c.v., turns in the second-weakest segment of the whole lineup. It's essentially one long dumb joke about a quartet of idiot criminals on the moon trying to find buried treasure based on a map they've scavenged up. The animation style's amusingly crude, but the humor is just crude, and at about the halfway mark I'd stopped laughing.
"'Wanwa' the Doggy" / Shinya Ohira
A great example of how animation can express a point of view. It's a young child's wild fantasy about a terrifying adventure — he's chased by demons, and tries to nurse an injured dog back to health — which turns out to be his dream state while waiting for his mother in the hospital. Ohira, a key animator on dozens of major projects, makes the whole thing look like a child's crayon drawing akin to the creations brought to life by the kid in "Shanghai Dragon". The net effect is not just to make the story about the little boy, but to have as much of it happen through his eyes as possible.
"Toujin Kit" Tatsuyuki Tanaka
In a dismal quasi-futuristic city, a bored woman creates living dolls by harnessing the life force of a weird, protean creature she keeps locked up in a closet. The cops find out, and ... that's about it, but the sheer atmosphere conjured up in this segment is more than reason enough to keep watching. David Lynch has experimented in the past with animation, and this feels remarkably close to something he might come up with if he were given a sizable budget and a crew. (Side note: Tanaka's artbook, Cannabis Works, is gorgeous and absolutely worth the $40+ you might need to shell out for it.)
"Dimension Bomb" / Koji Morimoto
Morimoto has the same visionary genius as Yuasa, although he tends to express himself in the margins and corners rather than by seeking the spotlight (the dazzling Sharon Apple concert sequence in Macross Plus was his, for instance). This segment is all but impossible to describe — it involves a friendship between a boy and a girl; anything beyond that I'm hard-pressed to say. But it's lovely to look at and ultimately quite emotional, even if you're not always sure why you're responding emotionally to what you're seeing. (Also see Morimoto's artbook Orange for further examples of his inventiveness.)
For a time Genius Party and its follow-up were only available as pricey imports, or briefly glimpsed on Netflix (before a very short-term deal with Studio 4°C expired). Now, Shout! Factory and GKIDS have enshrined them on disc for American audiences, where they belong. It's been heartening to see how many other projects in this vein, some of them really far off into the weeds — Robot Carnival, for instance — have also been lovingly restored over the last few years. I'm still waiting for restorations of the likes of Memories or Neo-Tokyo, but at this rate we might not have to hold our collective breath too much longer.