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Burning Buddha Man, The
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by Jay Seaver

"As strange and not-for-everyone an animated film as you'll see."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Burning Buddha Man" is almost certainly unlike any feature film that will show up this year, animated or not. In fact, the style of this movie is so singular that it might be the rare movie that is more enjoyable on video than at the theater. Someone in the audience is going to hate it, and hate it at the top of his or her lungs. That's perfectly all right - even those who love the movie will admit that it's rough in spots - but it might make it hard to appreciate it for being interesting, if not great.

Something strange is happening in the shrines around Kyoto - large Buddha statues are being stolen in seemingly impossible ways. The latest shrine to be attacked is the one operated by high-school girl Beniko's parents, with the theft accomplished with a sort of Matter Transfer Device that left the upper halves of their bodies sheared away with the statue. With her only family a long-comatose grandmother, Beniko is taken in by Enju, an old friend of her parents with a shrine of his own. Enju's shrine is filled with strange, deformed children, and while his sculptor nephew Enji is nice... Well, this is the sort of place that has a door not meant for curious kids to open.

And then things get really weird.

The bulk of this movie is created with a Japanese animation style called "gekimation", in which backgrounds, characters, and objects are cut out, mounted, and then manipulated in front of a running camera. In many ways, it resembles puppet theater more than traditional animation, and given that Japan has a rich tradition of puppetry to draw from, it's surprising that this doesn't show up a little more often, even if only as a specialty item (the festival program has the last mainstream production in the 1970s). The director, Ujicha, is able to use this technique to give every part of the movie a shared aesthetic that is as lushly painted as it is frequently grotesque, and while the motion and static expressions don't look real, they work in the same way as any puppet show, especially since there's an immediate bond between the artist and the audience.

And yet, it's not hard to see why this technique has fallen by the wayside. The tools available to animators today can make it much easier to replicate the painted style and detail with more movement, and it's a fair question as to whether the humanizing jitters visible here make up for how the static characters often have Beniko showing an expression that doesn't exactly match what's going on. Ujicha uses other gimmicks to limited effect, like various goos and strings and holes. The limitations do have their benefits - metamorphosis and recreation are a large part of the story, and the need to switch out to a new cutout highlights this - but is it enough?

It might be, perhaps, with a little more practice. Right now, Ujicha is a beginner as storytellers go (he was discovered by his university professor), and while the plotting here is better than "an then this happened, and this, and this", the tale does meander. He's got a tendency to have characters narrate their actions a bit, which is giggle-worthy and highlights how the voice work seems fairly amateurish as well.

There's clearly potential here, both in the level of imagination shown and how Ujicha occasionally gets something interesting out of his unusual medium. But, to say it is not for everyone is to understate the case, whether it's the creepy story or unorthodox execution that puts people off.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=25455&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/24/13 02:00:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ujicha

Written by
  Ujicha
  Reo Anzai
  Takeshi Nakazawa

Cast
  Yuka Iguchi
  Minori Terada
  Chisako Hara
  Ryuki Kitaoka



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