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Genius Party
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by Jay Seaver

"Seven of Japan's brightest animators get together for a great jam session."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: "Genius Party" is probably the most hubristic/critic-baiting title I've seen since a Chinese film by the name of "Dazzling" a few years back; it just begs for a "but who crashed?" sort of response. If anybody can use that title and get away with it, though, it's the people at Studio 4°C, who have created some of the most visually stunning animated films to come out of Japan in recent years. This anthology has seven segments, and there's something brilliant in all of them.

First up, we have the opening by Atsuko Fukushima; it's a zippy piece set to music with magical flowers, phoenix birds, and smiling spherical creatures that pop up out of the ground and tap into some sort of cosmic force. It sets the tone for the film with constant motion which combines the look of traditional hand-drawn animation with flying cameras that tend to be a real hassle without computer assistance. The music and effects animation enhance it to get the audience excited for what comes next.

Things actually might peak in the second segment, "Shanghai Dragon" by Shoji Kawamori, especially for those that love the sci-fi action that people usually think of when Japanese animation is brought up. It starts out as a cute story of a (literally) snot-nosed five-year-old by the name of Gonglong who loves to draw and Meihua, the girl who stands up for him. Kawamori is most famous for anime with a bunch of mecha action, and he doesn't disappoint, as an incredible bit of future technology falls from the sky, chased by future cyborgs who want to protect it and AIs who want to destroy it (and humanity). Gonglong, naturally, finds it, and what follows is grand over-the-top action which both spoofs and embraces the clichés of the genre while putting a nifty new spin on it, as traditional anime style combines with a child's drawings.

Next up in Shinji Kimura's "Deathtic 4", which seems almost American in style and concept: It's a boy's adventure story in a land populated by zombies and other supernatural creatures (who, despite some zombie-like tendencies, are pretty much like us), done in a style that makes no attempt to hide the computer-generated, quasi-3-D looks. It's fun, though, as Rått and his monster buddies attempt to return a frog to the world of the living, with bodily function jokes and a horde of tricycle-riding zombie police standing in their way.

"Door Bell" by Yuji Fukuyama brings us to somewhat more grounded territory - a teenager encounters a mysterious doppelganger. If he gets somewhere after it does, it's as if he has turned invisible while it lives his life. This is a nifty Twilight Zone premise, but it does fizzle a bit on the ending (even viewing it as philosophical rather than paranormal doesn't help), and while the animation is nice, it never does the things that the other segments do to amaze.

Eye-popping animation isn't a problem for Hideki Futamura's "Limit Cycle". Futamura did a lot of work on The Animatrix, and maybe he's still in that mindset, as he gives us a character who sees the world filled with numbers, talking continually about how enumerating things is a human tendency and going on and on about god and belief and nature and... As keen as the continually changing images are, the monologue is standard cyberpunk anime philosophizing, and it never stops. It's not only a bummer watching the piece with subtitles, since the constant stream of text diverts one's eyes from the very nice looking imagery, but it's just plain and simple not as fascinating as Futamura seems to think it is; the audience member who yelled out "WHAT?" as the segment ended seemed to speak for many of us.

Things picked back up after that, though, with "Happy Machine". Director Masaaki Yuasa gave us Mind Game a few years back, and "Happy Machine" shares a similar art style. Like "Shanghai Dragon", it starts out looking like something stylized but realistic, as a baby is attended to by his mother in a nursery, but suddenly things start breaking down - the mother is revealed to be an animatronic, and the baby is tossed out into the world as systems start failing. It's a strange world without other people but filled with danger. Yuasa does a fine job of not just presenting it as threats to a helpless infant, but filled with wonders for a curious child to discover, and caps it off with an ending that doesn't so much provide answers as scale.

Shinichiro Watanabe scales things down for the last segment, "Baby Blue", even though his filmography is filled with things like Cowboy Bebop and two segments of The Animatrix. It's a sweet little story of two teenagers, friends as children but not particularly close now, who cut school to go to the beach but fall asleep on the train. It's the only segment that lacks a fantastic element, and shows how animation can be a great storytelling medium even for the stories that don't seem to "need" it. Traditional hand-drawn animation can communicate a type of stillness that looks unnatural in live-action or the busy digital methods that try to emulate it, which is just what this story of friends connecting for possibly the final time needs.

The still beauty of that last segment and the wonder of many of the others is why "Genius Party" gets a perfect score even if "Limit Cycle" is frustrating and "Door Bell" doesn't completely meet its potential; the various other parts of the movie are terrific enough to make for a great whole.

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originally posted: 07/05/08 22:57:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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