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Short Peace
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by Jay Seaver

"Stupendous shorts."
5 stars

Studios and exhibitors should find a way to get short films on movie screens more often. Individually, they're often great, compact little stories, and a ticket that gets you a handful of them for ten bucks can come across as pretty good value. Unfortunately, it seems like the only time that happens in America is with the annual Oscar nominee showcase and some very uneven horror collections. Fortunately, Japan will occasionally fill in the gap with an animated anthology, in this case one spearheaded by "Akira" and "Steamboy" director Katsuhiro Otomo. It's kind of short, just over an hour, but there's nothing close to a dud on the bunch.

In fact, even the intro directed by Koji Morimoto is a fairly strong segment. As is often the case with these "wrapper" bits, it has another purpose that supersedes telling a complete story, easing the audience into animation and getting them excited to see many different things in different styles. Rather than create a scenario that explains the rationale for multiple stories and introduces them, Morimoto does it emotionally, sending Mai (voice of Haruna Fuka) into a crowded, futuristic landscape on a bright quest with a poppy soundtrack that leads to a bunch of transformations that prime the audience for just how malleable an animated world can be. It's just a few minutes, but really sets the mood.

I actually saw the first, "Possessions" both last at Fantasia festival last summer and as part of the Oscar nominee package, and I am still impressed by this story based on a historical belief in Japan that objects can gain souls and trick people after a hundred years. "Possessions" earned that nomination; director Shuhei Morita and his crew give their wandering handyman protagonist (who takes shelter in an isolated storage shed during a rainy night) a hint of papercraft in his design, along with a wonderfully distinct personality: The solemnity of a samurai and the eagerness of a maker upon discovering fine materials. It takes a bit of edge off what could be a simple scary story, but still impresses when the supernatural elements come into play.

Next up is "Combustible", Otomo's own contribution as director and a bit of a surprise considering the science-fictional material he's best known for. The story is not only set in a bygone era, but it is mostly presented as a scroll on which a detailed map is drawn, with Otomo panning until he reaches Waka, a well-born tomboy whose best friend and next-door neighbor Matsuchiki wants to be a firefighter when he grows up. He does (getting disowned in the process), while Waka faces an arranged marriage until... Well, I strongly suspect that Otomo spent a great deal of time researching how fires were fought in cities where all the interconnected houses are made of wood, and the result is as illuminating as it is horrifically awe-inspiring. Even beyond his meticulous attention to detail and spectacle, "Combustible" is a terrific short by a great filmmaker; he tells his story with simple efficiency that doesn't sacrifice emotion even when the characters are stoic and doesn't misstep when using for as a metaphor for passion. Otomo also make great use of his formal experiment, especially in his ability to cut out zoom in without feeling like he's cheating.

"Gambo" is set even further back, with a wounded ronin reaching a town beset by a demon who demands sacrifices until Kao, the village's last daughter runs away - only to encounter a mammoth white bear. Director Hiroaki Ando, working from a story and designs by Katsuhito Ishii, makes a pretty good medieval horror story, one that starts paranoid and eerie and then explodes with monsters and vicious violence. It actually makes that jump a lot better than many examples of that genre, building to a fierce final action sequence. It's probably the least tight of the shorts in terms of pacing, but occasionally being willing to go a little crazy helps it big time.

The last segment, "A Farewell to Arms", finally delivers some of the sci-fi action audiences might have expected, with Otomo writing and Mobile Suit Gundam designer Hajime Katoki directing. It features a crew doing weapons disposal in a post-apocalyptic city, and it's as sleek a digitally-augmented sci-fi anime as you'll see. It's high-tech and thrilling, with a simple but fun cast of characters pitted against an intimidating robot tank in a great action piece that is just relentless once it kicks into gear.

So, that's what "Short Peace" gets you: Four and a half pretty strong stories in roughly sixty-eight minutes, all of which look great in different ways and move quickly without any wasted time. It may be short, but it's got more greatness to it than a lot of features twice its combined length.

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originally posted: 05/23/14 13:20:01
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  18-Apr-2014 (MA)

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