Home > Film Reviews > Genius Party Review – Coloring Outside the Lines

Genius Party Review – Coloring Outside the Lines

I like anthology films. Well, I should say I like the concept of them, because in practice, they’re always somewhat of a mixed bag. Some creators are really strong with short form pieces; some clearly aren’t; and there’s rarely enough work out there for short form films for anyone to be able to specialize.

Anime anthologies, in particular, are even more uneven. The only ones that ever get a Western release are license tie-ins with popular American science fiction/superhero properties. They’ve produced some interesting work, for sure (particularly the Matrix’s tie-in, the Animatrix, which started the trend), but for the most part they haven’t been havens for the kind of creative freedom and experimentation that anthologies typically allow.

Genius Party, however, is an anthology film with a simple concept: get the best directors and animators you can find and let them make whatever crazy nonsense they want. Studio 4°C is the perfect studio for this. They specialize in short films that push the boundaries of: whether for anthologies, video game cutscenes, or OVAs. Even their movies tend towards an experimental bent, like Mind Game, their collaboration with Tatami Galaxy director Masaaki Yuasa. In short, they’re the closest thing the anime industry has to an arthouse studio (although Madhouse, despite also making more mainstream fare, is just as devoted to experimental work).

Genius Party is seven short films, ranging from 5 to 20 minutes long. Stylistically, they range from abstract experimentation in animated psychedelia to a traditional anime aesthetic. But they’re all unique, and they’re all interested in pushing the limits of what Japanese animation is. They are, then, the perfect thing for this site to cover.

Genius Party
Animator Atsuko Fukushima brings us the first short, which shares the same title as the film, and serves as a way to set the mood of the whole series.. At just over 5 minutes, it’s barely more than a music video, although admittedly a music video for what sounds like an ungodly mashup of tribal beats and chanting and cheesy 90s house.

Set over that fertile soundscape is some kind of animated, peyote-influenced madness. There’s a humanoid bird-like creature and a number of faces carved out of rocks, and the faces project glowing hearts above their heads, which the bird eats, until it grows some kind of neural mesh and goes flying up into the sky. Then the skulls start arcing lightning off each other and turn into a mass of brain matter, onto which the film’s title is etched.

It’s something that can’t be easily described or even shown in screenshots. You can get the whimsical, tribal art direction, but not the sheer fluidity of the thing. Everything is always in motion, from the watercolor backgrounds to the characters themselves. It’s showing off, more than anything, and it’s plenty impressive.

Shanghai Dragon
Shouji Kawamori, co-creator of Macross and mecha anime director, is responsible for the second short, Shanghai Dragon. It’s about Gongrong, a snot-nosed Chinese boy who likes to draw, and is the only one capable of operating a magic crystal from the future that turns anything he draws into a physical object. There are some souped-up military cyborgs, also from the future, who come and try to prevent the crystal from falling into the hands of an invading AI (also from the future), setting up a load of stylish action scenes that comprise the majority of its running time.

Kawamori shows his experience as a mecha director here, turning out some gorgeous sequences with unique mecha designs. Still, it’s not all that different from a traditional anime show, and as such it seems out of place here.

It also wears out its welcome by the end. At 20 minutes, it’s the longest short—almost a standard anime episode—and given its shoestring plot, it starts to drag by the end.

The animation is still impressive, though. Even though Gongrong’s drawings function like a normal kabob, mecha suit or the titular dragon, they still look like a crayon scrawling. It’s a cool effect, and used well in the last few scenes, when Gongrong goes wild and starts drawing crazy things all along the Chinese countryside.

Deathtic 4
Deathtic 4 at least has a plot, even if it is a weird one. The product of art director Shinji Kimura, it’s a cartoony adventure story about a group of undead children in an underworld who try to rescue the only living creature they’ve ever seen, a frog, and take it back home.

The story is simplistic and highly visual, so you can understand it pretty easily even without understanding the gibberish language its characters talk in (although there are subtitles). It’s fairly well-directed for someone with little directorial experience, but the main star here is the art design.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of Tim Burton, although it’s more round and organic than Burton’s pointy, angular creations. It’s a style the reeks of putrescence and filth, but in a cheerful, cartoon manner. That alone is praiseworthy.

It’s not spectacular, but it’s a treat to watch, and since it’s only 10 minutes long, it’s over soon enough.

Haunting and surreal, Doorbell is the story of a boy who finds that a doppelganger is trying to take over his life. He is removed from the physical world, only able to interact through his cell phone. But is he really the doppelganger, intruding on someone else’s world?

This is the only short by someone who, to my knowledge, has no other experience with the animation industry. Yuji Fukuyama is a manga artist who first made his debut in the 1970s. That much is clear from the character designs, which have the round noses and slanted eyes of a lot of 70s manga and anime characters. It’s definitely not a modern design.

The problem is that it’s very obvious that Fukuyama has never done anything like this before. The animation is very flat and lifeless (although, given the nature of the story, this may be a stylistic choice), and the direction is stiff and rigid, full of static frames and perspective changes that only serve the confuse.

There’s not much story here, either. Nearly the entire 14 minutes are devoted to the boy running around, confused and trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s just not very interesting to watch

The story could have played out well as a comic: the story works well in still frames, told without a lot of dialogue. The individual shots show that Fukuyama clearly knows composition, but he’s somewhat at a loss when having to deal with moving images. The beauty of comics is that you can read at your own pace, which would solve those issues.

Still, for all its problems, Doorbell is fun to watch. And the ending itself is almost worth it.

Limit Cycle
Animator Hideki Futamura’s Limit Cycle is a 20 minute long philosophical meditation on prayer, God, science, social pressures and man’s purpose in life, overlaid on a realist psychedelic science fiction cityscape full of abstract images and mystic symbols, set to minimalist ambient music. The narration is constant, rambling ruminations on existence, life and death, science and faith. These ruminations are interesting, hardly the psudo-philosophical garbage I was fearing, but there’s no sense of direction to them. They loop around, thoughts diverging seemingly at random, running off into tangents, only to come together later.

If you concentrate hard enough, it almost makes a kind of sense. If you don’t concentrate hard enough, it’s still an amazing short film of droning ambiance and surreal imagery. It’s guaranteed to put you into a trance, or at least Zen-like serenity.

I have to admit, I love everything about Limit Cycle. From the mystic philosophy, to the abstract imagery blending high technology with Kabbalistic symbolism, to the ambient soundtrack and droning aesthetic of the whole piece. It’s one of those things that’s a synthesis of so many seemingly dissimilar things you like that it seems like it was made just for you.

On the other hand, it’s a 20-minute long circuitous philosophy lecture set to abstract imagery and ambient music. It’s not for everyone, or even most people. In fact, you have to be really into this stuff to not get tired of it over the course of 20 minutes.

Still, if you have a philosophy degree or an interest in mystical religions, or like drone music or surreal, psychedelic animation or thought the film Pi wasn’t obtuse enough, Limit Cycle has something for you. If you like all of those things, you’re probably me.

Happy Machine
If you’re a regular reader of this site and not already familiar with Masaaki Yuasa, you soon will be. Director of Tatami Galaxy, last season’s standout show and one of my favorite shows of all time, Yuasa himself is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors.

Happy Machine takes us back to before Tatami Galaxy, before even his posthuman sci-fi masterpiece, Kaiba. In many ways, it seems like the genesis of many of the ideas behind Kaiba, from the surreal, dream-like post-apocalyptic settings to the cartoony character designs and emphasis on visual storytelling. There are also plenty of other Yuasa hallmarks, like a fondness of blending live action and animation, and a fascination with crudeness.

Entirely dialogue-less, Happy Machine is the story of a child, who escapes from the nightmarish automated nursery when the system completely breaks down, leaving him adrfit in a surreal dreamscape, alone except for a handful of animal companions who all end up dying in horrible ways.

The story is dark and tragic, from beginning to end, but told with a joyful playfulness throughout. It’s a blend that anime does well, but none so well as Yuasa. The whole thing is a wonderful piece of visual storytelling from one of the genre’s brightest stars, from the frightening beginning to the heartbreaking conclusions.

It’s certainly the most piece that will tug at your heartstrings the hardest, and it’s one of the best animated short films I’ve seen. It still isn’t the best piece in Genius Party, however.

Baby Blue
Shinichiro Watanabe is the master of tempo change. He directed Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, two series that work as well in their moment of quiet serenity as they do in the frenetic, stylistic action scenes he’s best known for. And he does it with a quiet grace, free of the jarring mood whiplash that typifies most work that tries this.

His previous work is heavier on the action, but Baby Blue is all about the calm. It’s the story of a high school kid making a quiet rebellion against everyday life. On his final day before moving, he ditches class, asks out his crush, and sets off on a journey with her to make it to the beach before their money runs out.

It’s done in a normal anime style, but with lifelike, hand-drawn backgrounds. Based on this and the quiet pacing, I initially thought it was done by Shinkai Makoto, another director who should have been included here.

Eventually, though, it becomes something only Watanabe could make, from the beautiful acoustic guitar score (he always knows exactly the right music) to the way the piece segues into over the top action sequences. It’s always grounded in everyday life, never the hip-hop fantasy Japan of Samurai Champloo or the underworld sci-fi of Cowboy Bebop, but it’s still hyperreal.

But more than that, it’s beautiful. It embodies the feeling of bittersweet transience the Japanese call ‘mono no aware’. Watanabe takes that ubiquitous setting of anime, high school, and in 15 minutes does what few anime directors can do in 26 episodes: make it meaningful and stunningly, wistfully beautiful. Baby Blue is the closest anime has come to being art, in the sense that film is art. There are a few other shows that surpass it, as longer works, but no one else in anime has ever done more with less.

Genius Party has not been licensed for distribution in North America. Given that we live in a world where Strike Witches has, this is a travesty. There was apparently a very limited Australian DVD release, but they fetch ridiculous prices at the few places I’ve seen them online, and won’t play in an American DVD player that hasn’t been region-unlocked. This site has tried to avoid the controversy surrounding fan-subtitled releases, but in this case I recommend picking up one of the versions freely available on the Internet. If you are a fan of animation of any kind, it is worth watching.

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