So it all started in early 2005 when I watched a mind-blowing anime by Studio 4º Celsius called MIND GAME. (Acutally, I could take it back to seeing 大友克洋 Ōtomo Katsuhiro's MEMORIES in Shinjuku back in December 1995, but I won't for the sake of this piece.)
Directed by Yuasa Masaaki (湯浅政明) MIND GAME is without a doubt one of the best animated movies that I have ever seen and certainly one of the best made in the last ten years. I was so floored by it that I recommended it very highly to my pals at the New York Asian Film Festival. They loved it too and were able to book it for their festival.
When they screened it at the 2005 NYAFF it was the NORTH AMERICA PREMIER** and it played to a sold out house and I was asked to interpret for the head of Studio 4ºC: Tanaka Eiko (田中 栄子)(whom I also interviewed for Midnighteye). (**Note: contrary to what MOMA NYC states; they did not have the North America Premier-- they found out about MIND GAME from the 2005 NYAFF and screened it several months later. They also screened it off of beta while the NYAFF had a rare 35mm with soft-subtitles projected on it.)
At any rate, at that time I struck up a friendship with Ms. Tanaka and another producer and was corresponding with them through out the following year. The next summer, several staff members from 4ºC were in NYC and I met up with them again, and we made a date to meet up at their office the next time I was in Japan.
But it was during this NYC visit I was first told about GENIUS PARTY. They gave me all sorts of shwag including an early chirashi (promo poster) and a keitai strap (cell phone strap). (They also gave me a full-size TEKKON KINKREET poser! Ii ne!) I was intrigued about GENIUS PARTY and what they told me was that (at that time) there was only a plan for ONE movie to be released in the spring of 2007. That was before the heads of 4ºC realized that there was so much more by many different directors that they wanted to share. Now there are two GENIUS PARTIES set to be released.
The first will be out this month (July) in Japan and the latter is now slated for early 2008 (it was supposed to be fall 2007 the last last time I'd heard) and while I have yet to see the films, I have seen enough clips to know that it will be amazing (certainly in parts).
This weeks Japan Time's film section includes Marc Schilling's review of GENIUS PARTY and a feature article on STUDIO 4ºC up on the Time's site. (Check Jason Gray's thoughts here.) They are both worth a read.
One of the amazing and frustrating things about Japan is their special editions and sales only DVD releases. This feeds directly into the fan/collector market which Japan seems to have a glut of. Studio 4ºC has been happily pimping their wares through this non-rental market for years and as a result there are plenty of releases that are hard to see if you're not willing to shell out MANY ducats. (My days of carefree spending are over, unfortunately...)
What proves to be a problem is that these small run, 'sales only' DVDs are often omnibus collections that showcase new up and coming animators and what hot new things they are doing at 4ºC. Ms. Tanaka and the other head's of 4ºC belief is that the only way to inculcate, stimulate, and support new creativity is to give the hard working artist a chance. When I commented to her about how cool I thought this was, Ms. Tanaka seemed taken aback by the obvious necessity of this endeavor: "How else are you going to find new talent?" And she's right.
It's worth noting that these compilations don't always work as a whole, but that's not a bad thing. When I was last in Okinawa I rented their 2007 compilation DEEP IMAGINATION. (Clip below) Fans of 4ºC will note that some of the shorts had been previously released on the GRASSHOPPA! compilations (those, too, are seriously hit or miss-- but definitely worth a look if you can track them down). Taken together, the compilation is supremely weird (which is par for the course) but the quality and the ideas are so incredibly fresh and intriguing that you can't write it off. Singing soy bean sisters? A night at a friend's pad after a punk concert leads to a battle in an alternate universe? Yes, it makes our soft Western brains push up against our skulls trying to compute the madness of it all. So is it worth watching? Yeah. But it's not worth buying at ¥6,000 a pop.
Around the same time that I was in Okinawa, I had a chance to catch TEKKON KINKREET in the theater. Previously, I'd had the privilege of meeting Michael Arias at Studio 4ºC office back in the fall of 2006 and I found him to be a quiet, nice guy from New York. He downplayed the work he did in directing TEKKON-- especially when I pointed out to him that as far as I knew (which is probably not much) he was the first non-Japanese (perhaps Western is better?) to direct an entire animated feature film in Japan. (Readers, is this correct? Let me know!) At any rate, since I was unable to catch as press screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival I was forced to wait for the film. So when I finally did get to see it, several months later, it was after a lot of anticipation.
The title, TEKKON KIKREET is a play on the Japanese word for reinforced concrete Tekken Konkretto and that kind of intertwining of metal and concrete basically sums up the theme of the movie: together they're stronger. The story is simple: it's Yin and Yang, Black and White, Good and Bad. It's about the friendship between two street urchins: SHIRO and KURO (See? Black and White) and how they tire of each other, get into trouble while striking out on their own and then discover that they are two parts of a whole and need each other to survive. That's it. Really.
I liked the film a lot, but I'll be frank: it's weak in the second act (read: sluggish) and since the story is so... hackneyed... it threatens to sink under its own weight at points. But what saves it is dynamic animation-- some of the most stunning I've ever see-- and a director's hand that seemed influenced by the new Hollywood Golden Era of the 1960s and 70s. I mean, I've NEVER seen an anime with hand-held camera, snap zooms, jump cuts, and film grain. Michael Arias clearly was raising the bar with this film and wanted to show that as an animator you could dip into the regular cinema tool box and use some of their tricks. If for no other reason than this, the movie is highly recommended.
But additionally, much bally-hoo has been made about the soundtrack by British techno duo PLAID. I quite like it and find that some of the tracks echo the strongest moments of their best album (in my humble opinion) DOUBLE FIGURE. There is a more rhythmic approach to the score in general, but it has a structure which is similar to the films: dreamy and airy, dark and nightmarish, the dream becomes reality. Think chimes, bells, and soft synths and then dark drumming and heavy baselines, finally ending in a more traditional pop structure. All in all, worth a spin, especially if you like techno. (Suggestion here: since this too is priced at brutally steep ¥3150, it's worth renting from your local Tsutaya the next time you're in Japan!)
So what does this all mean? Well, folks, I'm at a loss for time right now, so I will return to this in my next post to talk more about the future of anime and how 4ºC are leading the way-- torch in hand. (I predicted this way back in 1995.) More to come...