Anthology projects in anime are far and few between but raise something of a noise whenever they emerge, in big part because the people involved are almost always major talents. Any new project from a director of importance is going to be worth cherishing no matter what the scope, and the fact that Short Peace includes a directorial effort by AKIRA creator Katsuhiro Otomo is reason enough to give it a place on the shelf. But the other three projects features in Short Peace are also worthwhile: even when they're little more than a technical exercise (as a couple of them unfortunately are), they're examples of what anime can be when it's not obliged to fill a timeslot or appeal to a demographic.
Conceived as a joint project between Shochiku and Sunrise, Short Peace is something between a commercial project and a cultural one, part of a general wave of products designed to draw attention to Japan as a cultural force. I have mixed feelings about formally adopting such a mission: the problem with "Cool Japan" isn't that Japan isn't cool, but that cool is where you find it. It's something that has to be discovered and celebrated naturally, not manufactured on demand. What I can't deny is the expertise — and even the cachet of cool — associated with the names involved. Shochiku is one of Japan's longest-lived entertainment institutions, one that wrings a lot of mileage out of evoking Japan's past in colorful (if also inoffensive and uncontroversial) ways; the fact they use a stylized Mt. Fuji as their logo should be a tipoff in that direction. Sunrise ought to be a familiar name to most any anime fan as the institution that owns Gundam, Cowboy Bebop, Code Geass, Tiger & Bunny, and tons of other A-list titles.
And then there are the directors themselves. I mentioned Otomo himself, but also included in Short Peace are works by people with pedigrees that are becoming at least as impressive. Shuhei Morita worked on Freedom along with Otomo, but also Coicent, Kakurenbo, and as of late Gatchaman Crowds and Tokyo Ghoul. Hiroaki Ando, also of Freedom, gave us Five Numbers!, Metropolis, Tekkonkinkreet, the amazing and little-seen Noiseman Sound Insect, and the wretchedly titled but remarkable Tweeny Witches. Hajime Katoki is best known for his work on the Gundam and Super Robot Wars franchises, and while he's dabbled in other work outside of them they remain his mainstay. And Koji Morimoto, director of the splashy opening credit segment — which is unfortunately little more than a bumper — has a career so varied and loaded with essential viewing he deserved more time. With most of them so closely associated with Otomo, it's not hard to see the whole as kind of Otomo umbrella project, in much the same manner as his 1995 anthology film Memories.
Morita's "Possessions" is the opener, which was submitted to the 86th Academy Awards and received a nomination for Best Animated Short. On a technical level alone, it deserved that tier of mention: it uses the same kind of post-processed 3D animation that has started to come into vogue as of late as a way to accelerate production. The figures have enough of a marionette-like flavor to them to tip off an observant viewer, but the color schemes and the weights of objects and lines are meant to evoke hand-drawn animation. (Otomo's own Freedom and Knights of Sidonia are two other good examples).
But it's the subject matter and the story that elevates "Possessions" beyond being a tech demo. Set in Japan's past, it features a burly wanderer — a repairer of household goods like lanterns and umbrellas — taking refuge from a storm in an abandoned shrine cluttered with junk. He's haunted by what appear to be the spirits of a whole avalanche of thrown-away objects (there's a superstition in Japan that such things turn into ghosts of a sort), but his attitude that nothing is ever really discarded forever and can be repurposed helps see him through the night. Morita finds many ways to make the dead objects resemble living things, as when a frog-like creature appears to be made out of broken umbrellas, or when a whole array of discarded kimono swirl like comet's tails.
"Combustible", Otomo's segment, is easily the best of the bunch — so good, in fact, that I speculated Otomo wanted to direct an entire feature-length production in this style, couldn't raise the financing, and instead opted for this short film. Set in Japan's Edo (old Tokyo) era — this particular story is set around the 1700s or so, is my guess — it uses the tilted-angle, 3/4-view visuals common to ukiyo-e art. The genius of it is how it starts entirely confined by such a presentation — it begins with a shot of a scroll unrolling and showing us the Edo cityscape, advances by animating the figures shown within, then adds more and more freedom of camera movement and animation as the action grows more intense. It's genius-level stuff, the sort of thing that begs for another artist — or for Otomo himself — to come back and pick up where this project leaves off.
The story itself, unfortunately, is somewhat abbreviated, and that I blame more on the constraints of the short-film format than on any defects in the filmmaker's work. It deals with two children, the son and daughter of upper-class families, who have grown up in adjacent houses. The boy is a rambunctious sort who idolizes the town's firefighters — not the sort of thing the child of nobility should do, since firefighters in those days were considered disreputable and dangerous, barely a grade above criminals. The girl is drawn to him, but her family forbids any union between them, and soon the boy — now a man — gets himself disinherited and joins the town firefighting crew. One night, after she's been engaged to be married to someone she has no interest in, the girl — now a woman — starts a fire in her house by mistake, and seizes on that as a way for her love to come and rescue her. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work out that way.
Aside from the amazing technical achivements on-screen — it's shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with the tops and bottoms of the screen taken up by the brocaded designs that normally border a picture scroll! — "Combustible" also gives us a tantalizing peek at a part of an age that isn't normally dramatized in detail. Japan in the old days was constantly at risk of fire, given that the construction materials used were all highly inflammable, and the relatively low level of technology meant that firefighting mostly consisted of reactive measures. At one point when the raging fire threatens to consume a whole neighborhood, the crew sets to work tearing down an entire house, as that was one of the few methods available to keep large-scale fires from spreading. From beginning to end, it's astounding work, and both the visuals and the story deserve revisiting on a broader scale.
Katoki's "Gambo", another old-Japan entry, is so much less ambitious by contrast it almost feels like a letdown. It's not a bad segment, just a minor one, and it involves a village that has been attacked by red-skinned demons or oni straight out of Japan's mythology. In a parallel development, two rogue swordsmen tangle with a giant white bear (the "Gambo" of the title), and are drafted into destroying the demon as well. But Gambo, who has formed a bond with a little girl from the village, steps in, and the result is a monster-vs.-monster wrestling match. There's also a concluding shot that is meant to be a surprise reveal, but so many elements of that particular surprise have been given away by that point, it lands with a thud instead of a splash.
Still, what makes "Gambo" stand out is the animation — it uses a peculiar but striking technique, clearly achieved with CGI, where the edges of objects shift slightly between frames as if they were all hand-drawn for each frame. Likewise, the color scheme has the look of watercolor on ricepaper, not the flat tones common to computer graphics. What with Hollywood abandoning hand-drawn animation for the blandness of Plasticene-like CGI, they might well want to look to these productions to get an eye of how to make things look a little less generic.
Katoki's "A Farewell to Arms" (it's translated as "A Farewell to Weapons", but the Hemingway homage is plain) is in some ways the toughest one of the bunch to criticize. On a technical level it's outstanding, and it has just enough of a story — and a provocative enough of a one, I suppose — to pass muster with most viewers, and maybe also even most critics. But when all is said and done, it's a one-note joke. It was adapted from one of Otomo's own manga, and it's a repetition of a theme he comes back to often without really expanding on — e.g., his Neo-Tokyo anthology segment "Work Stoppage Order", where machines run amok and the most human beings can do is thrash around uselessly in their thrall.
Unlike the other segments, "Arms" is set some indeterminate time in the future, with Japan in ruins. A gang of four freelancers (all male) drive out into the ruins of Tokyo and dress up in super-armor to rid the world of the last remaining autonomous weapons, self-driving tanks called GONKs. After a great struggle, they manage to eliminate first one and then another — and then there's a concluding twist about the behavior of the GONKs that, again, is painfully obvious in retrospect. And then on top of that is a visual metaphor — one akin to the line about how World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones — that is just as painfully obvious. It renders the whole episode little more than a technical exercise that's good for exactly one laugh.
But again, the technical side of the short is amazing. Katoki's work feels like an expansion of Otomo's own Freedom, with everything from the backgrounds to the characters themselves generated via CGI. But it doesn't look stilted or puppet-like, in big part because the faces appear to be hand-drawn and a great many other manual tweaks have been added to make the results look natural. The battle between the four freelancers and the GONK is terrific stuff, on a par with films like The Hurt Locker in terms of coherent staging and blocking. It's just a shame the whole thing amounts to a giant shaggy-dog story.
Scarcely a season goes by without more evidence that the anime industry is becoming all the more craven, all the more willing to simply cater to its self-selecting audience, all the less interested in broadening its scope and ambitions. Then a project like this comes along, which for all its flaws reminds me that Japan cannot ever be completely counted out.