Let’s start with Pale Cocoon.
In the vague and distant future, mankind no longer inhabits Mother Earth’s fertile green fields nor her calm blue seas. Those bucolic vistas of days long gone exist now only in corrupted data archives.
Ura obsesses over the past, littering his abode with pictures culled from his work. He and Riko spend their days recovering and analyzing these archives, but Riko, like many others in the same field of work, is slowly losing her resolve. Her task feels utterly futile. As much as they try to understand history, as Ura puts it, Riko counters that it’s all just a fanciful dream. Their existence is one of towering claustrophobic towers in sterile, metallic tones. They wake up everyday to to the lonely glows of their computer screens and the unceasing hum of machinery around them. What good is history anymore when the lesson being taught is no longer applicable? Why learn to protect nature when it has already been destroyed?
Pale Cocoon is barely over twenty minutes long and thus feels rather incomplete. The messages are rather kind of cliché, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but Pale Cocoon doesn’t deconstruct them in any meaningful way. The anime poses big questions but then goes through the motions in trying to convey meaningful answers. If we aren’t careful, we’ll ruin this wonderful world we live on… well, that’s a nice lesson, but it’s also nothing new and has been explored on a much deeper and nuanced level in other anime (e.g. Mononoke Hime). On the other hand, Pale Cocoon does raise a question that most people don’t quite have a satisfactory answer to: why study history?
For Ura and Riko, what good is it to see mankind’s folly when there’s nothing left to save? The ending to Pale Cocoon seems rushed, however, and the twist at the end feels rather cheap, like something straight out of The Planet of the Apes.
The short story tells us that studying history will give us new perspectives on our existence, which is true, but it feels elementary* somehow. Of course, the length of the treatment leaves very little room for anything to be adequately explored, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. Pale Cocoon joins the pile of sci-fi stories, anime and otherwise, with interesting premises that all eventually fizzle out. It reminded me of how exciting the first few episodes of Ergo Proxy were only for the rest of the series to degenerate into a ridiculous shounen fighting show.
*Years ago, this same question was posed in a Western Civilization course I was taking. The answers given then were equally disappointing, especially when you consider that they came from college students, the self-proclaimed future leaders of the world.
I didn’t know there was any hype for this so, as a result, I don’t really quite understand the disappointment with it. I just think it’s not very good. In some alternate universe, strange behemoths show up and, fittingly for anime, they’re controlled by kids with cow licks. After 27 minutes of Cencoroll, I think it’s natural to come away with a ton of questions. What are these behemoths and where do they come from? Have they ever terrorized mankind before to justify all the civil and military response? Why and how are they controllable by kids?
Typically, none of these questions would really matter in a good movie, but this is neither good nor a movie. It’s woefully short and it has some serious pacing problems. I don’t know how something that’s only 27 minutes long can manage to drag in the middle but Cencoroll was plain boring. For a monster flick, that’s kind of pathetic. The showdown (if you can call it that) between the protagonists and the antagonist falls flat right from the start and might as well be some trumped up Pokémon battle. There’s no energy in any of the scenes and the soundtrack is strangely muted during (what should be) the most important scenes.
There seems to be a failure of the imagination from the narrative all the way down to the core concept. Even the beasts are nothing more than amorphous white blobs. The protagonist’s pet has the dubious distinction of being able to change into generic everyday objects. The antagonist’s pet, on the other hand, is so boring that it can literally become invisible. Is this a sign of what we can expect from the future of Japanese animation? Every character in Cencoroll is unremarkable and essentially a blank template (if you haven’t already noticed, I haven’t called any of the characters in this anime by their names because they are honestly hollow signifiers), an empty variable of dull existence as if to say “a genre film is just x and y in z–substitute in whatever you want.”
The Night on Taneyamagahara
This is equally as short as Cencoroll, but it’s hardly animation. I found myself just as bored too when I tried to watch this, but on the other hand, its backgrounds are amazing and someone might find it worth watching in that case.
There’s a play being told behind all these images, but it’s fairly simple and short enough that I won’t get into. Personally, I’ll pass but it was an interesting concept.
La Maison en Petit Cubes
The shortest of the shorts here was by far the most enjoyable for me. Fittingly enough, it won an Academy award for best animated short earlier this year. There’s an understated poignancy in LMPC’s simplicity.
It’s only twelve minutes long so I won’t bother to divulge any details about the plot here either.
It is simply a wordless reflection of a man’s life.
I respect its straight-forward presentation. Up, a movie I saw as recently as last week, also has a similar montage of a man going through life. Up, however, tugs at too many heart strings for my liking. Of course, had Mr. Fredericksen not grown despairingly lonely, there would be no rebirth for him and we would have no movie. Still, there’s something that separates it from previous Pixar films and I think it’s the fact that the movie just feels forced. LMPC, on the other hand, feels natural.
A story doesn’t have to be long, but it has to hook the audience from start to finish. That’s Cencoroll’s problem. A story doesn’t have to be complex, but you can’t open the can of worms and leave it at that. That’s Pale Cocoon’s problem. La Maison en Petit Cubes isn’t animated brilliance, but it executed what it intended to do.