Wednesday, 11 May 2011

カクレンボ / Kakurenbo

I’ve wanted to watch Kakurenbo since I saw it advertised on my trip to Japan, a year and a half ago. It was being heavily promoted around Harajuku and Akihabara, and I was curious about this entirely cel-shaded CG-animated OVA, with a very traditional Edo-era aesthetic. I never found anywhere to download it with English subs, so in the end decided to watch the short half-hour animation for Japanese practice. Given that it has a very simple plot, this didn’t seem like a bad idea.

In a mysterious town, kids don kabuki masks of the sort the ANBU wear in Naruto, and go to play hide-and-seek with demons. The story follows three groups – the tough kids who talk like gangsters, there to prove their bravery against the demons they think are imaginary, the mysterious identical twins who seem more capable than the rest but barely get any screen-time, and then the typical protagonist – the innocent, adorable boy there to find his sister (voiced of course by Takeuchi Junko) but who tends to cower behind the tougher boy he meets, while readily trusting the quiet girl who tags along with them.

The demons of course turn out to be real, great monstrosities straight out of Japanese woodcarvings, based on genuine mythological creatures. They proceed to pick off the kids one by one, until at last the dark secret of the town is revealed.

No, there’s not much to it, but considering it’s only half and hour long, the plot and characterisations are perfectly serviceable. But the real draw of Kakurenbo is its aesthetic. Frankly speaking, it’s beautiful. The towering buildings with their flickering neon lights are foreboding and deeply atmospheric. The kids’ masks may not make it very easy to empathise with them, but sometimes just seeing their eyes is enough, and it gives everything an eerie, preternatural atmosphere. But the real triumphs are the monsters, great flowing monstrosities with leering faces, falling apart and reassembling at times. The CG isn’t perfect – oddly, while the monsters lumber and stomp with real weight behind them, the kids sometimes have that bizarre weightless when they walk or when they run so characteristic of early-90s CG (like Reboot or the first Tekken intro). For the most part, though, they look like anime characters in masks, and move more fluidly than most animation studios could possibly accomplish.

Nothing about Kakurenbo will make it a classic. But it’s a bit of a milestone, a fully-CG anime that with cel-shading has a traditional look, and also still exhibits most of the characteristics of anime. CG has become its own genre, with Pixar and Dreamworks’ styles dominating the West and Square trying to be a little more adult in the East, but cel-shading is still developing. With traditional cell animation reaching new heights with Ghibli’s worldwide fame and Kyoto Animation truly pushing the boundaries of what can be accomplished in weekly series, cel-shaded CG has a long way to go, but it’s interesting to see a showcase like this, and wonder about the future.

(originally written 10.4.07)

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