Stop-motion animation, in which objects are photographed frame by frame to achieve the illusion of motion, is nearly as old as the movies.
But as recent films by Nick Park (“Chicken Run”), Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”), Tim Burton (“Frankenweenie”) and Wes Anderson (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”) have proven, there is still plenty of life — and even innovation — in this venerable format.
Working with a far smaller budget than these Hollywood titans, Yoshihiko Dai and his colleagues at PLUS heads inc. — the studio he founded in 2001 — have made “Present For You,” a 3-D film that uses stop-motion in ways fresh and strange. Dai’s peers have evidently agreed: “Present For You” was named the Best International Live Action Feature in 2013 by the International 3D & Advanced Imaging Society.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||95 minutes|
|Language||Japanese (subtitles in English)|
As the date of this prize indicate, the film has had a long gestation, starting in 2009 with the launch of PLUS heads inc. and culminating with T-Joy’s release of an English-subtitled version of the film on Feb. 7.
In contrast to almost every stop-motion film ever made in Hollywood, “Present For You” is set in a gritty underworld of gangsters, grifters and whores. Also, stop-motion and live-action scenes alternate in apparently random order, with puppets suddenly becoming people and vice versa. The result is a noir-ish melange that skirts the surreal without ever fully plunging in.
Which raises a question that a fellow critic posed to me after the film’s press screening: Why bother? Why, indeed. Dai, who also wrote the script and served as cinematographer on the puppet action sequences, may have intended a humans-who-are-inhuman metaphor, but, if so, it’s fuzzily suggested rather than plainly stated.
The transitions between these scenes, whatever their functions as metacommentary may be, remove the action one artful step from reality, somewhat like song-and-dance numbers do in musicals. And they are deftly done, with puppets that not only look uncannily like their human models but move and emote like them as well. (You could also say the humans do an excellent job of impersonating the puppets.) If star Joe Odagiri wins an acting prize for this film, he ought to share it with his inanimate doppelganger.
Odagiri plays Shigeru Kajiwara, a smooth salesman of dubious health-food products who works out of a dingy office in Tokyo’s Shinbashi district. Finding himself hugely indebted to the ruthless president (Isao Natsuyagi) of GMM (Give Me Money), a giant corporation that more than lives up to its name, he pays back the dough by scamming as though his life depends on it (which it most certainly does).
Impressed, the president makes Shigeru an offer he can’t refuse: Set up a front company called Present For You, which will peddle health food, while behind the scenes Shigeru and his associates will dispose of people the president finds inconvenient. That is, he is to serve as a sort of in-house hit man.
Shigeru agrees and, with the aid of his bumbling underling Satoru (Munetaka Aoki) and a sprightly middle-aged masseuse turned one-woman call center (Jun Fubuki), is soon busy with his dodgy work. Meanwhile visitors, including the pudgy Okinawan ramen chef on the first floor (Hayato Fujiki) and a friendly red-haired dominatrix (Maiko Nagashima) pop in and out of the office.
But Shigeru also has moral qualms, especially when a voluble politician (Akira Emoto) turns up hogtied and very much alive as his next victim-to-be. For all his swagger and bluster, Shigeru can’t bring himself to do the deed.
Despite some laugh-out-loud moments, including Shigeru’s disastrous encounter with French cuisine in the presence of his new boss, the film is soporifically talky, with narration describing actions and reactions that would have had more impact if they had been seen rather than heard. Also, the action scenes — both live and stop-motion — lack the tension of a real noir film. The puppet politico might mime fear, but his situation feels more ridiculous than dangerous. What’s the worst that can happen to him — the loss of some fake blood from a pierced vital clay organ?
On the positive side, the film’s use of 3-D enhances the puppets’ lifelike presence while never being eye-pokingly obvious. And the theme music, supplied by Spanish guitarist Vicente Amigo, adds the drama and atmosphere of flamenco to the film. Instead of all the talking, imagine Shigeru and his boss snapping castanets and dancing a fiery puppet duet. That would be a present for me.
Fun fact: PLUS heads inc. is also responsible for the hit animated sketch comedy series “The World of Golden Eggs,” which includes subtitles in fractured English that reflect the funny Japanese used by the characters. Originally broadcast as two series in 2005 and 2006, “The World of Golden Eggs” is now available on DVD.