Junk Head

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/30/17 00:43:19

"Wonderfully strange and impressively mutable."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: If nothing else, you've got to respect the very existence of an independently-made stop-motion animated sci-fi film that runs almost two hours. That thing is a labor of love that had one person exercising both amazing creativity and incredible patience. In this case, it looks like he started from an initial short, but that takes little away from the finished product, a dystopian odyssey where even the surface-dwelling human explorer is as changeable as the world around him after his quest to learn about the clone workforce underneath immediately goes awry.

You can sort of see the episodic structure, and how director Takahide Hori may have occasionally used it to recharge his creative batteries, as his (mostly) human explorer occasionally falls down to a lower level of the clone-occupied subterranean world, with each new group to find him building him a new robot body and placing him in a new sub-adventure. It never feels like the stop-and-go sort of episodic, though, with his new form and adventures being a refresh rather than a restart and the flashbacks that emerge from his jumbled memories helping to tie things together even though the focus is often on the here and now. That we don't see much of this explorer in his true form until late gives Hori a lot of room to explore this world from the point of view of a character who is just as much an outsider as the viewer while his outbursts of memory and metamorphoses create just enough of a sense of urgency to move things along.

And while this isn't the sort of animated film you'd call "gorgeous" or the like - it's a post-apocalyptic world whose clones are often mutated and where various forms of worm-like monsters can leap out at any second - the detail is impressive, and the use of CGI to augment the physical puppetry is excellent. It is the sort of film where scaling it up and down in one's head keeps it impressive, as either the small things in a scene are incredibly detailed or Hori has built something fairly substantial, and he's able to use the grotesquerie of his designs to give sympathetic characters a certain pathos and to link the world's creatures without ever seeming to repeat himself too much. Spoken dialogue isn't quite minimized, but the title character, at least, communicates more through action than words. I believe most of the dialogue is nonsense sounds - it didn't sound like Japanese - so everybody is a bit distanced by watching it with subtitles.

It's not just the fanatic detail that works; though Hori seems inspired by manga artist Tsutomu Nihei in his endless decayed cityscapes full of mutants and cyborgs, the design of the place has a heft to it beyond crazed architecture. There's a nifty science-fictional spin on tree-of-life myths that becomes more prominent as the film goes on and complements the very well-realized (if more traditional) version of the sterile environment topside. There's still a grimy desperation underground, and Hori doesn't quite fill it with memorable characters - the stark emptiness is important - the clones encountered are more than just their great design. As is often the case with stop-motion, the action scenes proceed at a deliberate pace but are impressively bloody. Hori does have a streak of pitch-black humor at his disposal, mostly coming out toward the end when he almost can't seem to help but laugh at the absurdity of this guy who starts the film by literally losing his head being considered some sort of messiah or chosen one.

It does sometimes seem like Hori could have tightened things up a lot - there's a long and often entertaining detour where "Junkers" (as the hero is known at that point) is fetching "mashrooms" for his current group that doesn't really move things forward, and while Hori is good enough that you don't feel it at the time, it's cast aside almost as soon as it's done. It's one of a number of sequences that work well on their own, but when the film ends and it seems the remaining characters are just about to start on their true journey, it's hard not to feel that he could have shown this if he hasn't spent so much time on that.

Maybe he's already working on the next episodes of what will become "Junk Head 2", and if so, I'll see that. Despite not really having an ending, the first is the sort of movie that turns heads and is still satisfying when you look a bit closer. Hori's style may be worlds apart from the more mainstream new wave of Japanese animators like Motoko Shinkai, but it's worth remembering that Shinkai, who directed 2016's biggest Japanese film, was not too long ago close to the only name in the credits of his first films just as Hori is here, so Hori is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

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