I’ve been meaning to get around to watching Genius Party for a long while. Well, today turned out to be a good day for it, because I had set aside some time to marathon Natsume Yuujinchou, only to find I only had series 4 to watch. So as I was in the mood for something new rather than something I’ve been watching for a while, I fixed on Genius Party.
If the title makes you expect a rave with a Tales of Symphonia character, have another think, and forget modesty. This compilation film is rather in the vein of Fuyu no Hi – several respected directors get a chance to show off their stuff. This is somewhat of a lesser project, though, in terms of its inception – it’s not international, every director represented here being Japanese, it’s not linked by a stab at being high-concept like the Basshou theme there, and the animation is done entirely by Studio 4°C. When it was made in 2007, the studio were clearly very keen to put their stamp down as a highly capable, quirky and arty studio, building on their contribution to The Animatrix, the pleasantly oddball Tekkon Kinkreet and the wonderful Mahou Shoujotai Arusu. Of course, over the next few years, they were not exactly highly idiosyncratic, getting bogged down in animating Transformers: Animated and the ill-fated Thundercats revival, with not much else to show for their newly-established place in the anime world but the entertaining but not exactly ground-breaking Detroit Metal City and their game-related animation like the cutscenes for Catherine and one of the Kid Icarus shorts.
Divorced from the studio history, however, all the component parts of Genius Party are interesting in their own rights, though in no way make up a cohesive whole. Essentially they are linked only by being together in this compilation.
The first segment is the eponymous Genius Party, directed by veteran female key animator Fukushima Atsuko. Having contributed to Akira and Kiki’s Delivery Service, she’s worked with the best, though I’d like to see her helm more than this oddball segment. In a very music video-like sequence, a lanky dark-skinned man in a very strange burlap bird outfit hunts the hearts from little living stone faces in the desert. Most hide, but one is caught tripping out with a glowing flower. The bird-man gobbles down its heart and gains glowing wings, flying up to the sky. The flower, too, has floated up high and the bird-man eats it, becoming a shooting start. Whether as a result or by coincidence, clouds form an bright sparks rain down, restoring the soul of the little stone face whose heart was eaten. The shooting star bird-man returns to fly about and the stone faces show their approval with big glowing hearts, which pop suggestively when they’re most excited. One gets so stimulated it projects a giant trippy energy-flower into the night sky, which also becomes a bird. One of the heads becomes a huge, clearly living thing. This is clearly about inspiration and creativity inspiring all those around you...but how exactly is pretty subjective. It’s a bit of trippy vagueness that is very enjoyable visually but ultimately says little of importance.
Next is an offering from Kawamuri Shouji, the man who went from helping design Optimus Prime and other original Diaclone proto-Transformers to creating Escaflowne and designing mechas for Ghost in the Shell and
7. The length of a typical anime pilot, his Shanghai Dragon features
a snot-nosed little Chinese boy who picks up a piece of alien tech that makes what
he draws become real. Unfortunately, this draws vast intergalactic forces, and some
big CG mechas come to catch him. The overused CG is looks dated now, but the
action is incredibly stylish - and very, very silly! Fantastically paced wish
fulfilment, it’s a cut above what can be done on TV budgets, and hilarious, but
nothing you’d call artistic. Eureka
Third is Kimura Shinji’s Deathtic 4, with CG shaded to look like a grim gothic children’s book – with a heavy
Burton influence. Kimura is
comparatively unknown, but was art director for Steamboy and Tekkon
Kinkreet. In a world of zombies who speak a kind of Japanesey Swedish, a boy
gets in trouble when he finds a living frog. It’s a good effort and I love the
art style, but attempts to inject action and fart jokes fall flat. A slow, meditative,
creepy pace would’ve worked better.
Mangaka Fukuyama Youji’s Doorbell is next, and the nadir of the film. Hideously ugly designs, bad CG and an overdone doppelganger storyline make this one to skip on any repeat viewings.
Futamura Hideki’s Limit Cycle is almost as bad, a faux-intellectual discourse on utilitarianism and existentialism that rambles on and on. Futamura is another key animator, though directed some bits and pieces like some episodes of the old Jojo’s OVAs, and this gets a pass from being a disaster for striking visuals. It’s all so juvenile, though. So 6th-form artwork.
Of course, the main draw here for me was Yuasa Masaaki’s Happy Machine. As a confirmed Yuasa fanboy, this short was everything I hoped his Adventure Time episode would be – and wasn’t. A surreal yet moving story of a baby discovering mortality, it had the odd yet coherent and sometimes stunningly smooth animation of Kemonozume, the freewheeling plot of Mind Game and some of the emotionally affecting qualities of his Wakfu episode. It had pee and poop and farts, yet the infantile qualities suited it, and didn’t seem embarrassing at all. Strange and yet moving, it was everything I hoped for from Yuasa, and makes me happy he could go on to direct Kaiba soon after.
Finally, big hitter Watanabe Shin’ichirou brings us Baby Blue, which is also well worth the hypothetical price of admission. The story of two students escaping ennui with an impromptu trip to the beach with a hand grenade, it succeeds primarily by being very straight, with superb naturalistic dialogue. The fantasy of blowing up an old-fashioned yankii gang helps, too. This is perhaps the most ordinary work here, but also the most mature and most meaningful – and beautiful.