Short movies get kind of short shrift because... they're short. And even though our modern mode of considering a "film" as something that lasts at least 90 minutes has more to do with modern commerce than it does with anything inherent in the medium, it's hard to fight against cultural expectations. The short film feels like a calling card. A dry run. A test for an idea that might have legs, or be the basis of a "real movie".
Except in the world of animation. Some of the greatest animators in history have done nothing but shorts. All of the Looney Tunes, which are a hallmark of American animation, were just short films made to mark out time between double features, or to preface the main event. For a live-action filmmaker, even an Oscar-winning short film seems like a step toward something, but Oscar-winning short films can be the crown on an animator's career. (I mean, as charming as Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-rabbit is, does anybody like it more than "The Wrong Trousers"?)
So a collection of short animated films has a kind of promise that short live-action might not - of seeing something that will touch you and stick with you and feel like a full, complete entertainment. Genius Party and its companion, Genius Party Beyond, are collections of short Japanese animated films by directors of various vintage and lineage, an attempt to step past the very obvious strictures of the anime constraints and let these creators fly.
The results, like any short film festival, are decided mixed.
These were two releases which came out a little more than a year apart, in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Genius Party is seven short films by different anime creators, and Genius Party Beyond has five. There's no theme that connects the disparate films, except for their origin: all Japanese creators, all at various levels in the industry. Let's consider the shorts one at a time:
"Genius Party" (5 minutes), the opening film, is a short piece about strange stones that resonate to a bird-thing and create new stones from their interactions. Yeah, just try picturing that. This was directed by Atsuko Fukishima, a female animator who has been a key animator on several major anime motion pictures, including Akira, Kiki's Delivery Service, and In This Corner of the World. This is the apparently her directorial debut. It's a rhythmically driven piece, like a music video, without much in the way of narrative but visually very arresting.
"Shanghai Dragon" (20 minutes) is the first narrative short of the collection. Atypically for anime, it features mainly Chinese characters, particularly a literally snot-nosed little kid who, according to the intergalactic space warriors who find him, has the exact right brain chemistry to use the hyper-advanced device they've brought that can bring to life anything it draws. Aliens then attack. Mayhem ensues. This is a fun and engaging, energetic piece that matches mostly traditional anime-style art with some CG and a bunch of child-like drawings come to life, fighting the bad guys. The director is Shoji Kawamori, perhaps best known for being the creator of Macross, which was the basis of Robotech in the U. S.
"Deathatic 4" (11 minutes) is a morbid, weird little short set in a world of zombies. Some zombie kids find a living frog and have to get it to the nexus between their world and ours before the zombie cops catch them. The animation and visual style is a far-remove from traditional anime, being largely 3d-animated with bizarre characters designs covered in odd, relatively grotesque textures. It looks interesting, in an ugly kind of way. "Deathatic 4" was directed by Shinji Kimura, a long-time background artist.
"Doorbell" (14 minutes) looks much more like traditional anime, and tells the intriguing story of a young man who finds several doppelgangers of himself running around town, trying to take over his life. It's not an action packed tale, but more of a low-key Twilight Zone, where the main character finds he has to improve himself, lest his doubles have all of his fun for him. This was directed by Yoji Fukuyama, who from what little I can tell researching on-line is mainly a manga artist.
"Limit Cycle" (20 minutes) is by far the most experimental of the shorts in this collection. It's about an office worker examining his life through the lens of God and trying to find out if he has any actual meaning. The animation is largely a series of montages, different images cascading over one another, sometimes in clarity, sometimes in kaleidoscope fashion. Whether the message has any philosophical coherence would be difficult for me to say... I bounced off of this short hard, and couldn't find myself paying attention for more than a couple moments at the time. Either I'm a dullard, or it is too opaque to be endured. It was ambitious, but perhaps not successfully. This was directed by Hideki Futamura, a long-time animator with credits ranging from Akira to Perfect Blue.
Often in an animated short festival, there's a couple of ringers. The names that brought the savvy audience in the first place. For the first film, Genius Party, there are two: Masaaki Yuasa and Shinichiro Watanabe, and their respective shorts round out this first collection of films.
"Happy Machine" (15 minutes) is Masaaki Yuasa's contribution to the Genius Party, and like much of his work it rides the line from the hilarious to the hysterically sick. The narrative involves an infant, seemingly abandoned who finds that his nursery is not a place his parents visit, but some holding cell on an alien planet filled with strange foreign beings. Some are friends, some are dangerous, and the child's interactions with them runs from the heartwarming to tragic to... frankly disturbing. One of the friends the infant meets on this trip feeds on the kid's waste products, which we watch in semi-graphic detail. Maybe it's funny, maybe it's beyond the pale, but like most of Yuasa's films it is clearly a product of the man's vision. It has a coherent narrative and some interesting twists, and while the animation style will be familiar to anyone who has seen Yuasa's Mind Game or Lu Over The Wall, it's a fun variation on the typical anime style.
More in line with typical anime, and typically ultra-stylish is the final contribution to the Genius Party film, "Baby Blue" (15 minutes) by Shinichiro Watanabe. Watanabe is most famous as the primary creator and director of the great Cowboy Bebop, perennial favorite anime of people who don't like anime. (My favorite, too, and I do like anime.) It’s a bittersweet coming of age story about two friends whose lives have diverged, and who happen to have a grenade and are looking for some opportunity to use it. The animation style is, of the collection, the most typically "anime" like, but like Cowboy Bebop it has more of a cinematic style than typical anime TV. It also has the great music of Cowboy Bebop composer Yoko Kanno elevating the visuals.
Genius Party Beyond is less a sequel than an extension of the original vision, and is equally as lacking in an overall coherent theme.
There's also not an introductory animation, like in Genius Party, so we start with "Gala" (15 minutes). This is a vibrant and fun short about some kind of weird ceremony going on in a small village where half the inhabitants are strange magical creatures, calling themselves "kami", and the Japanese word for gods. They have to contend with an odd seed pod that dropped in the middle of their world, and the final twist that explains the whole thing is inventive and fun. It was directed by Mahiro Maeda, who among other credits was a key animator of the anime sections of Kill Bill vol. 1.
The next short, "Moondrive" (15 minutes), isn't as fun. It involves a group of criminals who are looking for their next score, which generally involves driving from place to place and offering up the girl of their contingent to the creepy sexual appetites of whoever has the information they seek. The style of the animation is grungy, reminiscent of a Gorillaz music video, but I found this piece dull and charmless.
"Wanwa the Puppy" (14 minutes) is more visually interesting, though narratively it is a bit of a slog. A baby sleeping with his mother falls into a dream that is full, I'm sure, of metaphoric import but that left me cold and uninterested. There's monsters, there's a dead dog, he wakes up. The visual style looks like CG construction paper cut outs, but the film goes on too long for my taste. This was directed by Shinya Ohira, a key animator on any number of great films.
In a more traditional anime vein, the next film is "Tojin Kit" (14 minutes), about a young woman who, through some concoction, creates trans-dimensional sentient entities which she places inside her dolls so they can move around. She's caught by a weird police force, some of whom are human and some are strange robots with brain-cases atop their heads. It's an odd narrative, but it's attractively animated and apparently coherent while maybe not making any actual sense. The director, Tatsuyuki Tanaka, is a long-time key animator in the industry.
The final film in this collection is an odd duck called "Dimension Bomb" (20 minutes). Relating the story would be difficult, because I do not think I understood it at all. I think it was about an alien who made friends with some girl who did magic but then he got attacked by people on earth, but it's not entirely clear. What was clear was the combination of the images (mostly in a "typical" anime style, but with flights of visual flurry and abstractness not coming to the medium) and the terrific soundtrack by Juno Reactor made something completely compelling, even if it was difficult to understand. Of all the shorts (except for "Limit Cycle" which as I said I bounced off of completely) I'd be most hard-pressed to explain this one, but it was also one of the most successful as a visual experience. Whatever the story was, the visuals packed an emotional impact that carried beyond the directly explainable. The director, Koji Morimoto, has not been the primary director on many projects but is an industry veteran and a founder of Studio 4c, a major anime studio.
The odd thing about a festival (and watching this whole Blu-ray is a bit like going to an animation festival) is wading through the not-so-great parts to see something new. Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond are a decade old, but I believe any animation fan who hasn't experienced them heretofore might find something they haven't seen yet. Of everything there, I believe "Dimension Bomb" might be the only short that I'll take away in my memory as something really special (and I've seen enough animation collections that I know it's not a guarantee that anything sticks with you.) But there's a lot of variety here for anyone who is interested in Japanese animation that isn't all the same, all the time.
Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond have been released on together on a single Blu-ray by GKIDS, which is part of Shout! Factory. There are no extras on the disc beyond the English subtitles.