Omnibus films are hard sells to ticket buyers and critics; the former because they want a full cinematic meal, not a plate of hors d’oeuvres, the latter because they see a package of segments as a sort of horse race — and proclaim disappointment when all the horses/segments don’t cross the finish line first.
The producers of “Genius Party” — an omnibus of seven animated shorts — have tried to finesse this problem by making their packaging concept as free as possible. Instead of horses on the same thematic starting line, their seven directors are more like explorers on their own individual journeys, with only the most general instructions from base camp. (“Let the Force be with you.”)
Critics will rank the segments anyway, since that’s what critics do — but this one is inclined to cut their makers a bit of slack. They may not have all made it to their respective Everest or South Pole, but at least they set out minus the usual supports of manga franchise or genre formula. Their return “party” is a cause for celebration.
What about the “genius” part of the title? Production company Studio 4°C may be accused of hype, since real genius is about as rare in the anime industry as anywhere else, but its seven directors are major talents in their various fields, from manga to anime background art. One purpose of “Genius Party” is to show the world that there is more to Japanese animation than big and old familiar names like Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo and Mamoru Oshii. Mission accompli- shed, though one would hope the film also serves as a calling card for bigger things.
Atsuko Fukushima’s opening segment, “Genius Party” is an apt introduction, in its invention and ambition, to what is to come. Wordless and only about five minutes long, it depicts the spiritual ecology of a fantasy world. A gangly birdman, who looks like a toy hammered together by a 10-year-old, ambles across a desert landscape inhabited by “eggs” that resemble smiling stone bowling balls. One egg produces a heart-shaped “spirit” that floats above its forehead. The birdman ingests it — beginning a chain reaction that sets the desert alight and alive. Described in the program as “the moment when images are born,” the interaction between the eggs and the film’s other creatures is not always easy to follow, let alone explain, but it is fascinating to watch — which sums up the appeal of the entire program.
This doesn’t mean all the segments are impenetrably arty, though. “Shanghai Dragon” by Shoji Kawamori, a director for the iconic “Macross” series, is simple and action-packed enough for antsy 8-year-olds. Set in an old section of the title city, it begins with street kids playing and chattering away in their native tongue, minus subtitles or dubbing — which poses no problem whatsoever, since the story line (big, fat kid bullies small snot-nosed kid) is so universal. Then stick-shaped objects fall from the sky and the snot-nosed kid discovers he can use one to create whatever he imagines, just by drawing with it in the dirt. Fun, fun, fun — until a pair of alien soldiers arrive to claim the stick. Kawamori’s animation may not break new ground, but his story draws directly from childhood wishes and dreams and is told with verve, humor and a childlike sense of wonder.
In “The Dethtic Four,” animation background artist Shinji Kimura presents an alternative world in which the dead rule — think Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” set in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, made with a mix of 2-D and 3-D techniques. A boy finds a live frog that has somehow entered this world and risks falling into the clutches of the Life-Form Disposal Squad. He and his buddies decide to take it to the Uzu-Uzu Hole, where they can return it to the land of the living, and various strange, slapsticky adventures ensue. The mangled language employed by the characters enhances the otherworldly (or underworldly) atmosphere. Subtitles are provided (and, this time, needed).
In “Doorbell,” manga artist Yoji Fukuyama creates a “Twilight Zone” episode as filtered through a shojo manga (girls comic) aesthetic. A high-school student, Yu, returns home one day to find his mother, younger sister — and his own double. This doppelganger starts popping up everywhere and, though Yu gives chase, proves frustratingly elusive. The segment lacks the spine-chilling frisson of the first feature-length anime horror — Satoshi Kon’s “Perfect Blue” — but the scene of Yu pursuing his double is creepy enough. I’d run in the exact opposite direction.
In “Limit Cycle,” Hideki Futamura takes the concept of human duality beyond “what if” horror/thriller scenarios into philosophical/mystical depths. A young man who looks vaguely like James Dean finishes work at his computer screen in a high rise and, on leaving the building, sees a butterfly and starts to pursue it — until he too runs across his doppelganger. In telling this tale, Futamura slows the onscreen action to a crawl while his narrator, Hiroshi Mikami, reels off long passages of dense prose poetry. This is not a segment for the sleep deprived.
Masaaki Yuasa’s “Happy Machine” goes in an opposite, preintellectual direction as it follows an infant in a journey though a fantasyland full of primal fears and discoveries. Mom, he discovers, is a machine, and Baby is soon abandoned to his own devices. Tears flow, but curiosity abounds, as Baby sets off to explore his world. Hailed as a genius for his mind-blowing, action-packed feature debut “Mind Game” in 2004, Yuasa tries to simplify in “Happy Machine” while meditating on the strangeness of the universe like a latter-day Stanley Kubrick.
The last segment, Shinichiro Watanabe’s “Baby Blue,” follows two high-school friends on a journey of remembrance and discovery who take a long night journey to Enoshima Island to relive a shared childhood memory, while encountering new adventures and feelings. The story is a seishun eiga (“youth film”) standard, but Yuya Yagira and Rinko Kikuchi, in first-time voice-acting roles, breathe fresh, bittersweet life into it. This segment may not be the most experimental of the seven, but it is another illustration of the package’s thematic breadth and expressive power. What a party. Too bad we have to wait until 2008 for the next: “Genius Party 2.”