A bit of warning to those with slower connections–lots of pictures after the cut.
I’ve always loved the work of Studio 4°C and I’ve raved before (Tekkonkinkreet and Mind Game) about their genius. Studio 4°C is just a different sort of group from most animation studios out there. They often eschew traditional storylines–hell, sometimes they discard dialogue completely–and they often eschew traditional animation. They embrace the creativity and imagination possible in a medium such as anime and, as a result, almost everything they do exudes the carnivalesque. By that, I mean the literary theory of carnival by Mikhail Bakhtin:
…hierarchies are turned on their heads… opposites are mingled… the sacred is profaned. The ‘jolly relativity’ of all things is proclaimed. Everything authoritative, rigid, or serious is subverted, loosened or mocked.
Of course, the concept of carnival is a rather old even if some of its ideas still carry over to contemporary times. Its spirit lives on, however, in Japan’s superflat art movement, a movement that seeks to relativize high and low art as well as explore and mock otaku desires and feelings.
I want to take a closer look at Studio 4°C’s body of work, but this will be quite an undertaking for a couple reasons. First, I’m not a literary major so my interpretation of their work will always remain incomplete. One could say that every interpretation is incomplete since it is impossible for anyone to encapsulate all possible perspectives, but I just feel that this is especially true of what I will go on to write. While I wouldn’t write any of this if I didn’t think I had anything meaningful to say, I want to temper any expectation or idea that my analysis of Studio 4°C’s works is by any means authoritative and complete. Second, Studio 4°C has created a lot of anime in their existence since 1986. A close look at their body of work will require multiple entries. With that said, I will start off by looking at Genius Party.
Genius Party is aptly named because it is an anthology of animated shorts by renowned writers and directors in the anime/manga industry. It contains seven shorts, each ranging from about five minutes to twenty. What I truly liked from the outset was that not a single short shared the same art style as any of the others. Studio 4°C always manages to create a visual and aural experience that’s worth a second look (and listen) even if the story behind the animation disappoints or is nonexistent. Writing about something like this is always hard because there’s a fine balance between analyzing what I see and yet not revealing too much. I will inevitably need to spoil some details, but I will try not to reveal the climax of most of these stories so that others are encouraged to seek out and watch Genius Party for themselves. Nevertheless, I’ll begin with the first animated short, which is also named “Genius Party.”
“Genius Party” by Fukushima Atsuko
“Genius Party” is the shortest of all the stories and must really be seen and heard. We are given something that feels like a creation myth. Studio 4°C’s distinctive style is immediately apparent. For a long time, Studio 4°C did work on music videos and they still do. The short’s thumping tribal soundtrack and wild visuals both lend to a very music video-ish quality. Our birdman spies a bowling bowl playing with some heart and goes after it.
And upon ingesting the heart…
Imitation is a form of flattery; seeing the birdman, the stone ball decides to do the same.
It isn’t long before its friends join into the party.
The interconnectedness of the last picture makes it apparent that “Genius Party” appears to be an allegory of the entire anthology. Animators, like in any other form of art, will inevitably imitate and copy each other, but their cooperation will create something beyond what their individual abilities can allow. And that is Genius Party.
“Shanghai Dragon” by Kawamori Shoji
How would you feel if the fate of humanity rested on the imagination of a child? How about a child that constantly has snot dripping out of his nose?
An imaginative child with snot dripping out constantly and also happens to be picked on all the time by his peers?
And oh yeah, he needs the protection of his childhood friend too.
Almost every work in Genius Party plays with our expectations, however. If the previous short promoted collaboration and teamwork to achieve evolution and thus greatness, then “Shanghai Dragon” rekindles our faith in the childish imagination.
Something soon falls out of the sky to give life to that imagination.
Of course the first thing he imagines is meat on a stick, but nobody’s perfect. Just when everything is fine and dandy, intergalactic space robots always seem to fall out of the sky and invade. C’est la vie.
I won’t spoil any more of the story here. It always strikes me as amusing when anime is generally lauded for celebrating and loving childhood and youth when what they really mean is that anime is full of precocious teenage girls being moe. “Shanghai Dragon,” however, fully embraces a child-like imagination.
I especially like the fact that the kids in “Shanghai Dragon” actually speak Mandarin. It’s a minor detail in the grand scope of things, but most anime will speak only one language (Japanese) no matter where they go.
“Deathtic 4″ by Kimura Shinji
Is there a “Deathtic 1, 2 and 3?” A quick research into Kimura Shinji seems to say no. Anyhow, we see a young boy in his bed.
On the outside, however, something seems to be stalking closer.
Oh, it’s just his mom.
Like I’ve said before, Genius Party likes to play with audience expectations, and while it isn’t some amazing revelation that the monster in the darkness was really his mom, the twist is consistent with the rest of the whole anthology. What is more significant, however, is the uncharacteristic art direction of “Deathtic 4.” It looks like something out of an American studio; my first thought was The Nightmare Before Christmas on acid.
But why is it uncharacteristic? Where does it say that all anime must be drawn in the same way? Kimura Shinji is willing to step outside of the box to deliver his anime in an industry where everyone and everything remains static. Most impressive of all is the amount of eccentric detail placed in every shot.
Anyhow, our young zombie is about to head off to zombie school when something weird drops out of the dark sky.
Weird because it’s alive unlike everything else in this world. What follows is a meeting of friends and a wild escape from the police as the young boy fights to keep his pet frog… uh, well… alive.
“Deathtic 4″ reminds you that animation doesn’t need to follow any guidelines. Just because “Deathtic 4″ doesn’t strike you as an anime doesn’t mean that it isn’t. People have become too caught up with what being an otaku means and such, that it involves reading manga and going to expos and cosplaying. A love of anime is just a love of animation from Japan, however. It’s about being different–it’s okay to be different. And for the audience, it’s okay to watch something different. There’s no need to discard the old and the same, but it’s a shame to create and watch anime that never changes, that will forever remain static.
“Doorbell” by Fukuyama Yoji
One day, a little girl spies a young man across the train tracks, but like everything in Genius Party so far, something is not quite right.
To her dismay, nobody else sees the doppelganger. It isn’t long, however, before our hero realizes the predicament he’s truly in.
It seems that no matter where he goes, nobody can see him. Even worse, no matter where he goes, another him is there first. From this point on, “Doorbell” becomes a surreal race, a meditation on what identity truly means.
Consistent with the themes of the previous shorts, “Doorbell” could be seen as yet another allegory of anime or art in general. Doubles and copies inevitably occur; when two people create the same thing, the only one that’ll get noticed is the first.
“Limit Cycle” by Futamura Hideki
Unfortunately, the significance and enjoyment of the next animated short eludes me. What follows “Doorbell” is approximately nineteen minutes of stream of consciousness rambling about God and creation and a lot of stuff that really could not keep my attention. Visually, it’s quite busy and complex, but I failed to comprehend what exactly Futamura was attempting to do. If you’re reading this and you know what “Limit Cycle” is about, feel free to enlighten me. Seriously, I would love to know.
“Happy Machine” by Yuasa Masaaki
The penultimate short is perhaps the most beautiful and poignant of the anthology. It opens with a baby cooing softly at the toys hanging above him.
He seems to have an idyllic life.
But all is not well. Mom seems to have a strange complexion.
And soon, the baby’s world turns dark. The next few scenes remind me of “Allegory of the Cave” as our young protagonist discovers the harsh truth about the world around him.
And of course, the acquisition of truth is always followed by an Eden-like exile.
The world literally falls apart around our young hero.
And from the outside, the “Happy Machine” doesn’t appear very happy.
As you may have guessed by now, “Happy Machine” contains no dialogue. It tells a story purely through the emotions of a child. What follows is a life-changing odyssey of new experiences,
…of childish joys,
…of making friends,
…and finally, of defeat and acceptance.
Our intrepid explorer’s journey eventually comes full circle. But what awaits him in the end?
It’s ironic that the odyssey of a child in an alien world resembles youth better than most of the nonsense we see in other anime. Something like “Happy Machine” can be interpreted in so many ways to fit any situation in life. As you watch it, however, my suggestion is to understand “Happy Machine” within the context provided by the previous shorts. It isn’t the only way to understand the story, but I think it is best to remain consistent with the themes that the other stories have provided.
“Baby Blue” by Watanabe Shinichiro
We end with perhaps the most “normal” of the seven animated shorts. “Baby Blue” centers around a young man, Shou, in high school and his (predictably) childhood friend, Hazuki. It deals with unspoken thoughts and understated emotions. What strikes me from the outset is how these two absolutely act and sound like high schoolers. Like in “Happy Machine,” they embark on their own journey, one that most high schoolers will never experience, but yet the characters embody that transient stage in life where one is inbetween childhood and adulthood–inbetween coming and going.
“Baby Blue” perfectly captures the struggle against meeting the future and growing up, but at the same time–through the motif of trains and train tracks–it captures the realization that one’s life is stuck on a rail.
We aren’t free to go where we want; we aren’t free to escape. Those before us have laid down the tracks and as teenagers, we are powerless.
Ultimately, “Baby Blue” deals with the acceptance of fate. A very important shot occurs early on in the story.
What may seem like a throwaway shot, however, truly captures the feeling of being trapped by fate in “Baby Blue.” Unlike the free flying birds far above them in the sky, our protagonists are hemmed in by fences lined with barbed wire. The infinite sea of blue around them remains out of reach; they are grounded, forever to follow the paths others have decided for them.
So far, “Baby Blue” seems like a complete downer, but it isn’t without a message of hope. “Baby Blue” concludes with Shou again trapped on the rails, carried off to a future he never designed for himself. He looks outside, however, at a sight he’ll never forget.
Initially, it would seem that he’s watching his childhood friend give him one last goodbye, but the slow, dreamline sequence is by design. Perhaps we are seeing through the eyes of an older Shou trying desperately to hold onto his fleeting memories of Hazuki. In “Baby Blue,” Watanabe is telling us that although life may not turn out the way we want it, we need to hold on to whatever happy memories we have left. Thematically with the rest of the anthology, “Baby Blue” reflects an artist’s legacy. Was his or her career what he or she always wanted? Perhaps not, but there will always be the memories of the long journey, for better or for worse.
Genius Party is a lot of things: it’s beautiful, it’s silly, it’s phantasmagorical, it’s confusing, etc. I might end up being wrong about the whole thing–the idea that the entire anthology is a metaphor for the making of art. Hell, maybe there wasn’t anything to tie them together to begin with. Nevertheless, Genius Party is a great anthology of anime.