GENIUS PARTY DVD Review
It's no secret we are very big fans of Studio 4ºC here at ScreenAnarchy. From all major animation studios currently busy in Japan, Studio 4ºC is the one which is consistently pushing the boundaries of the medium the most. Their output stands out for often being unashamedly "artsy" while at the same time being of an exceptionally high technical quality.
Unfortunately it is hard being a Studio 4ºC fan in the West as not much of their work has been released outside of Japan. And after being burned financially with their English-subtitled DVD-release of "Mindgame" (which was relentlessly pirated from day 1 onward) Studio 4ºC refuses to put English subs anymore on their Japanese-market DVDs.
This unavailability is a crying shame especially because Studio 4ºC's output is diverse enough to be globally appreciated, often not being as strictly "Japanese" as the work of other studios is.
And if there is one thing Studio 4ºC's approach lends itself to it is anthologies, allowing groups of animators to spread their wings trying out different things. Several were released in the past and the most recent anthology was nothing short of a legendary piece of work: the twelve-part "Genius Party"-project. Huge in both concept and execution, this project gave free reign to several teams which were given one deliberately vague theme to work with: each segment should show "the spirit of creativity". And ever since the announcement of this project I've been dying to see it.
Well, the wait is over thanks to Australian DVD-distributor Siren Visual, who has given the "Genius Party"-project a good release on DVD. They kept the same split intact as was used in Japan, where the whole project was released as two feature-length films: "Genius Party" and "Genius Party Beyond". This review is for the DVD of the first film, while the second one can be found by clicking this sentence.
For this review I'll foresake my normal split in "plot" and "movie", as this "Genius Party" DVD consists of seven short stories, and I would be assinine to expect everyone to keep scrolling up-down-up-down to keep on the right subject. So here are the segments one by one:
1: Genius Party (dir: Atsuko Futushima).
A humanoid creature disguised as a bird attempts to steal ideas from a bunch of round smiley-faced rocks. Or does he implant them in a way? For his interference with one rock leads to a wild exchange between the globes, resulting in the birth of several beautiful creations.
This very first segment serves as an introduction to the whole "Genius Party"-project and does a fine job of it. There is not much of a story here but the visuals are awesome and the artwork is high-quality. A great precursor of what is to come.
2: Shanghai Dragon (dir: Shoji Kawamori).
A snot-nosed little Chinese boy picks up a glowing pencil which fell from space. Whatever the boy draws turns into a real object, but his schoolclass' amazement turns to horror as both boy and pencil are attacked by a huge army of giant robots and their city-sized spaceship...
This segment is just brilliantly entertaining from start to finish. Director Kawamori parodies his own mecha-background while at the same time providing us with a lovely tribute. His fame is mostly based on super-giant mecha designs (his "Macross" work comes to mind...) and boy, does he give us a nice example here! But the whole segment is also a brilliant send-up of the whole concept, and I just loved it. The snotty nose never fails to gross me out but nevertheless I've already rewatched "Shanghai Dragon" several times.
3: Deathtic 4 (Dir: Shinji Kimura)
Far below the surface of our world, a huge subterranean one exists where undead people live, eat and work just like we do. One day a living frog tumbles into this world and gets found by an undead boy. Together with a band of undead superhero-wannabees the boy tries to get the frog back into our own world, even daring to thwart the huge zombie-police army while doing so!
This segment is quickly described as: Jaw Hits Ground. Hard.
Kimura might be best known for having drawn stunning background visuals for films like "Tekkonkinkreet", but please let someone give him a budget for a full feature and do it fast! The world his segment takes place in is incredibly rich and rewarding, holding the middle between Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and the illustrations in "Where the Wild Things Are" (the book, not the film). It is simply gorgeous and the 3D-cgi is unlike anything I've seen before.
4: Doorbell (Dir: Yoji Fukuyama)
A guy splits into multiple versions of himself, and discovers that he is invisible to people if they see his other selves before they see him. After a few nasty discoveries he races to reach the girl he loves before any of "the others" do.
The first segment directed by a non-animator (Fukuyama is a manga artist), "Doorbell" tells its Twilight Zone-style story as a romantic manga. It works up to a point but you never get a sense of why things happen, or what the rules are. As such I never felt anything for the protagonist or felt enthralled by what I was seeing. Just like a real Twilight Zone-episode, in fact...
5: Limit Cycle (Dir: Hideki Futamura)
A man reflects on the subject of humanity, belief, attraction and deity from the position of an all-seeing, all-knowing God.
Good grief. According to director Futamura it might be a good idea to watch his segment while drunk, but I recommend against that. Just to be able to follow what the hell is being discussed takes a big amount of brainpower as Goethe's worldview, chaos theory, medieval alchemy, theology and philosophy get mixed at high speed, accompanied by colorful computer graphics. When images began repeating themselves I sort-of fell asleep, only to jolt awake at the end. I've tried repeat viewings but I keep getting lost around the halfway point. Hypnosis? Epilepsy? Or does my brain shut down when trying to comprehend the incomprehensible? Anyway, this was NOT my cup of tea.
6: Happy Machine (Dir: Masaaki Yuasa)
A baby is raised in a fully automated nursery, but when he is expelled he discovers a strange world outside to have many adventures in.
By now you should be acquainted with the strange visual ramblings of director Masaaki Yuasa (if not, buy "Mindgame" ASAP!). "Happy Machine" carries his signature throughout and gives exactly what you might expect from a "Genius Party" segment: abstract artistry skillfully animated by someone with lots of skill.
7: Baby Blue (Dir: Shinichiro Watanabe)
A teenage boy and girl ditch school, and pool their money to live for day like there is no tomorrow.
Whoah! What happened here? The last segment of this first half of the "Genius Party"-project, "Baby Blue" completely forsakes the realm of the impossible and stays firmly anchored in the present and possible. This is a relatively quiet piece and the artwork is common but beautiful, but director Watanabe nails it. Like a fifteen-minute version of Isao Takahata's "Only Yesterday" it seemingly meanders aimlessly for a while, but like that (brilliant!) movie the emotional sting is in the tail and I was very impressed by the ending, carrying an emotional weight I hadn't expected. Hats off to Watanabe who apparently is even more talented than I already thought...
It will come as no surprise that I valued some segments higher than others. After all, is that not the whole point of an anthology? "Genius Party" exposes the viewer to a lot of different talents, some established, some new, most to my liking, some less so.
But the average level of quality is staggeringly high and Studio 4ºC strengthens its reputation as THE single most interesting animation house to watch in Japan, and maybe the world.
If you have any love for animation as a medium of art, I cannot recommend this collection enough.
On to the DVD:
Siren Visual releases "Genius Party" as a two disc set. It is Region 4 encoded (and PAL) so make sure your set can deal with that before buying this. The packaging is a bit odd: one of those flimsy cardboard-and-plastic affairs you'd expect inside a boxset or a slipcase, but not by itself. The only thing keeping it shut is a cardboard wrap which has been glued on it with gum. It's easily removable which also takes care of those ugly rating stamps the Australians use. Problem is, the backside of this wrapper contains some very decent information about the contents. For starters good plot descriptions for each segment and information about each director, none of which is actually replicated anywhere on the discs themselves! So take it off: yes, but throw it away: no. On to the discs...
The first disc has the seven segments. Video is decent if a bit soft. And oh, how I'd love to have this in true HD...
For audio there is a choice between Japanese stereo and 5.1 soundtracks. There is no English dub, but the subtitles are good.
Disc two has the extras and boy, are we in for a treat.
For each segment there is a director's commentary running over a workprint of their segment, and often they are joined by several of the artists or cgi-technicians. The seven segments together have a running time of 98 minutes on disc 1, but these explanations on disc 2 run considerably longer as sometimes you get multiple views of select scenes.
The other set of extras is a cool item called "Next Genius". In it, you can find another seven short animations. I was puzzled about their inclusion here as Siren has provided absolutely no background information about them, but some careful Googling (and some prodding by Onderhond) revealed the following. Studio 4ºC held a contest where everbody in the world was invited to send in their short animations, and the winners won all sorts of "Genius Party" goodies. On top of that, their submissions would be included on the extras disc of the Japanese "Genius Party" release. So these are the winners of that contest!
Lack of info or not, I'm glad Siren included them because these seven shorts are quite funny by themselves. The image-quality is sometimes below average but that may have to do with the way these shorts were submitted.
Ah, what the hell. Here is a short write-up for each:
"Bloomed Words" by Amica Kubo: an inane conversation is comically visualized by two blobs.
"Apartment" by Kiyoshi Aoki: the lives of people in a block of apartments is shown in a style reminiscent of old NES computer games.
"Mimi Carina" by Helole Cedric: a storm blows a girl to an eerie graveyard-like world but she is saved by a fairy.
"The Naked Ape" by Daishichi Hashimoto: a chimpansee solves a problem and suddenly turns human, but doesn't like what he has become.
"Sad Breakfast" by Akiko Ichise: a crudely drawn cat has a sad breakfast. But the reason he's sad soon becomes apparent...
"XOI" by Victor Courtwright: a boy lands his plane near a destroyed city and is surprised by a robot.
"Telephone Pole Mother" by Yüsuke Sakamoto: a remarkably shocking and touching short in which a boy seems to be raised by a telephone pole. It's not really true of course, but is it the imagination of the boy or the telephone pole we're seeing?
All of these have something going for them and their inclusion here is indeed nice. They run from 2 minutes to 9 minutes in length so they never outlast their welcome either.
All in all this is a very good release of a stellar animation project. I'd love to see a BluRay appear in time, but until the this set will surely suffice!
Here's hoping Siren will release some of Studio 4ºC's older anthologies...
- Nicolas de Crécy
- Atsuko Fukushima
- Yoji Fukuyama
- Hideki Futamura
- Shôji Kawamori
- Shinji Kimura
- Mahiro Maeda
- Kôji Morimoto
- Kazuto Nakazawa
- Tatsuyuki Tanaka
- Shinichirô Watanabe
- Hiro Yamagata
- Masaaki Yuasa
- Shin'ya Ôhira
- Yoji Fukuyama
- Hideki Futamura
- Shôji Kawamori
- Mitsuyoshi Takasu
- Masaaki Yuasa
- Tomoko Kaneda
- Rinko Kikuchi
- Lu Ningjuan
- Taro Yabe