REVIEW: Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Short Peace”

REVIEW: Katsuhiro Otomo's "Short Peace"

At a time when too many American animated features have a
homogenized look, Katsuhiro Otomo’s uneven but striking anthology feature Short Peace serves as a reminder that artists
have only begun to explore the visual potential of the art form. In the US, Otomo’s reputation
rests on his groundbreaking dystopic feature Akira, but he’s overseen two previous anthology films: Robot Carnival (1987, long out of print
here and overdue for reissue) and Memories
(1995).

For Short Peace, Otomo and
three other directors made short films
in personal styles they felt suited
the stories they’d chosen. Three of the sections draw on Japanese history and
folklore, but the only element the films have in common is their individuality.

Shuhei Morita’s Possessions
was nominated for the Oscar for Animated Short this year, and should have won
over the unimpressive Mr. Hublot. When a
rainstorm strikes, a wandering tinker
seeks refuge in a Shinto shrine hidden in the forest. Once inside, he’s beset
by tsukomogami: umbrellas, bowls,
screens, sake flasks and other household objects that have  acquired souls after 100 years of use. The
objects resent being carelessly thrown away after giving devoted service. (Animism
runs through Japanese culture to this day: once a year, seamstresses visit
shrines to “bury” dull and broken needles in blocks of tofu.)

Rummaging in his
pack for the materials he needs, the tinker glues patches on tattered
umbrellas, sews lengths of shining brocade and quietly reassures the restless spirits
that their work has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated. Morita skillfully uses
CG to bring together diverse visual influences: The rough-featured tinker with
his large hands and feet suggests contemporary manga drawings; the complex world
of objects and patterns evokes 19th century woodblock prints. It’s a
striking film, and Morita is clearly a director to watch.

Why Otomo’s Combustible failed
to win the Oscar last year – or even receive a nomination – is another one of those
Academy mysteries. (This is the group that 
chose The Hurt Locker over
Up for Best Picture.) Otomo’s work
encompasses a variety of style and subjects, from the alienated Steampunk
adventure Steamboy to the charming
children’s film
SOS! Tokyo Metro
Explorers
, but Combustible is his
first romantic tragedy. Owaka and Matsukichi, the son and daughter of wealthy merchants, are
childhood sweethearts in 18th century Edo (Tokyo). Owaka’s father
forces her into a loveless arranged marriage; Matsukichi follows his life-long
of becoming a fireman. His father disowns him when he sees the tattoos on his
son’s arms.

Owaka inadvertently triggers a blaze that summons Matsukichi – and
destroys their family homes. For Combustible,
Otomo and his artists copied the intricate patterns of Owaka’s kimono from
period fabrics, and the stylized flames are modeled on the prints of Yoshitoshi
and other great ukiyo-e artists.

The tone of Short Peace
darkens in Hiroaki Ando’s Gambo. An oni (demon) has ravaged a tiny mountain
village, carrying off the girls and killing the men. Only a few adults and one
little girl remain. A samurai wearing a crucifix and a cloak decorated with
crosses – at a time when Christianity was outlawed in Japan – orders the girl to
pray. The demon defeats the samurai and government troops, but the girl’s prayers
summon a great white bear. After a ferocious battle, the bear rips the demon
apart. Gambo is drawn in a looser
style that recalls brushstrokes of traditional calligraphy, but it lacks the
effortless grace of Possessions and Combustible.

Hajime Katoki’s A Farewell to
Arms
, the closing segment of  Short Peace feels like one of the middle
episodes of an anime sci-fi series. A small crew of soldiers has been assigned
to take out a robot-tank prowling the deserted ruins of a city. Farewell has an interesting, almost
monochromatic palette that suggests a barren dessert. It’s skillfully directed,
but it’s not a complete story: Who are the soldiers? Who loosed the murderous
tank? And what’s at stake in this deadly battle?

Although it ends on a weak note, the imaginative visuals of Short Peace will leave American
animators and animation fans wondering why we can’t produce this kind of
inexpensive but innovative film. 

Short Peace opens theatrically today in over 50 theaters in the United States. 

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