Einsteins of anime

Fourteen 'geniuses' are brought together to show the power of Japanese animation

by Mark Schilling

Headquartered in a nondescript office building in Kichijoji, a Tokyo suburb with a bohemian flavor, Studio 4°C hardly looks, from the outside, like the epicenter of anything. Yet this animation production house, founded in 1986 by Eiko Tanaka, Koji Morimoto and Yoshiharu Sato, has made some of the most innovative anime of the past decade.

The company’s films may not have hit the box-office heights of Studio Ghibli’s fantasies (which Studio 4°C once helped make), but they have screened widely, here and abroad, beginning with Katsuhiro Otomo’s omnibus “Memories” (1995), followed by the “Animatrix” project for the Wachowski brothers’ SF hit “The Matrix” (1999), Masaaki Yuasa’s mind-bending directorial debut “Mind Game” (2004) and Michael Arias’ kids-versus- gangsters epic “Tekkonkinkreet” (2006).

Studio 4°C’s total output, however, is a mixed, hard-to-categorize lot, ranging from TV shows for kiddies to experimental shorts that display the talents of up-and-coming animators.

There is no studio style as such, though there is a studio philosophy: “I wanted to make a place where creators who wanted to make interesting work would naturally gather,” Tanaka recently told careers site Cobs Online.

One extension of this philosophy are the shorts, including the six-part “Digital Juice” (2001), the four-part “Sweat Punch” (2004) and the four-part “Amazing Nuts” (2006) series. Another is “Genius Party,” a collection of 14 short films to be released in two feature-length packages — the first on July 7, the second early in 2008.

Studio 4°C invited 14 “geniuses” — outstanding talents in a variety of anime-related fields — to take part in the project. Some, like Yuasa, are veteran animators, while others, like manga artist Yoji Fukuyama and art director Shinji Kimura, are making their directorial debuts with their “Genius Party” shorts. “In a way they’re competing with each other, which helps raise the quality of their work,” says Yukie Saeki, a young Studio 4°C producer who has been with “Genius Party” from conception to completion. If the films are hits, their creators will reap the rewards in a rare-for-the-industry profit-sharing deal. But box-office calculations, insists Saeki, did not influence the production process. “This is about testing the limits of creative expression,” she explains.

The theme of all 14 shorts is “energy.” “We gave the directors total freedom in expressing the theme,” Saeki says, “though we did ask them to make their (segments) with a feeling of passion.”

In line with the “go with the flow” style of the project, Studio 4°C did not decide the order of the shorts in the first “Genius Party” film until it had seen what the directors had dreamed up. The one exception was Atsuko Fukushima’s segment “Genius Party,” which was planned from the start as the opener for the package. “The (segment) is about the birth of images, and her animation expresses that theme perfectly, with the feeling of a child’s picture book,” Saeki said. “We told her she could make it longer, but she just gave us five minutes, so that’s what we had to go with,” she added with a laugh.

After Fukushima’s intro, however, it’s every director for himself or herself, with no stylistic or narrative threads holding the segments together. Several, however, present dialogue in unconventional ways — or abandon it altogether. Fukushima’s segment is silent, while Shoji Kawamori’s “Shanghai Dragon” opens with characters speaking in Chinese but no effort to translate it. “Kawamori saw children playing when he visited Shanghai about 20 years ago. He felt he could somehow understand what they were saying, even if he didn’t speak their language,” Saeki explained. “He wanted (the short) to have that same feeling.”

Stranger is the language of Shinji Kimura’s short “Dethtic Four,” in which the characters use a garbled form of Swedish. “We have one employee who is Swedish, so we asked him to translate the dialogue (into that language), but we didn’t insist on accurate pronunciation — in fact, we told the actors to say the lines pretty much as they liked,” Saeki says. “We wanted the dialogue to sound vaguely European, but we didn’t want it to be too identifiable.”

Finally, Yuasa’s segment, “Happy Machine,” is largely silent, save for the gurgles and cries of its infant hero, who is on an adventure to explore a fantasy world that, like Alice’s Wonderland, is a thrilling, unreliable mix of miracle and madness. For fans of Yuasa’s internationally acclaimed “Mind Game” — a high-octane, highly vocal journey to the extremes of terror and joy, life and near death — the new film may come as a surprise. It’s somewhat as if William “Naked Lunch” Burroughs were to morph into Lewis Carroll.

But Yuasa, said Saeki, wanted a change from the “Mind Game” sort of extreme animation. “In ‘Mind Game’ the tension level is quite high, so he wanted to make something different (for “Genius Party”), something lower key,” she said. “But even though the images are cute, they’re also scary.”

The most accessible segment — and certainly the one getting the most press attention — is the last, Shinichiro Watanabe’s “Baby Blue,” which features voice-overs by Yuya Yagira and Rinko Kikuchi. Yagira won the Best Actor prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival at age 14 for his performance in the Hirokazu Koreeda family drama “Nobody Knows.” Kikuchi shot to fame after earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress this year for her performance as a hearing-impaired high-school girl in Alejandro Gonzalez In~arritu’s “Babel.”

Best known abroad for his work on the “Cowboy Bebop” series, as well as for directing two “Animatrix” segments, Watanabe is yet another “Genius Party” invitee who experimented with new themes and methods in his short. “He has done a lot of animation in which action is an important element,” Saeki explained. “This was his chance to do a seishunmono (youth drama), a genre he’d long wanted to try.”

It was the casting of Yagira and Kikuchi, however, that drew media attention, though their pairing, Saeki said, was not planned from the start. “Yagira was the first actor we cast, actually — he just naturally had the sort of feeling we wanted,” she said. “We cast Kikuchi in November, before she was nominated for an Academy Award. We looked long and hard for an actress for that role. What caught our attention was a TV commercial she did for a PC maker — it was only 15 seconds long, but she had what we were looking for.”

The final decision to use her was Watanabe’s, though Saeki did much of the preliminary scouting. “One thing we did not want was a voice that was just cute,” Saeki said. “We wanted someone who could express the hardships the character had encountered in her life — that quality was definitely present in Kikuchi’s voice.”

Despite the media hype, as well as the growing fan base for Studio 4°C product, “Genius Party” is being released on only 29 screens nationwide. That’s not many considering the hundreds devoted to a typical Studio Ghibli film or “Spider- Man” sequel. Who is going to come? “This may be a difficult film to sell to hardcore anime fans,” Saeki admits. “We think it may appeal to people in their 20s who are looking for something more creative than the usual animated film. That’s our hope, anyway.”

Read Mark Schilling’s review of “Genius Party”