Filmmaking is a collaborative process: even the most fanatical auteur directors have to enlist the help of others to bring their visions to the screen. But in the case of stop-motion animation, anyone with enough time, creativity and sheer bloody-mindedness can theoretically make a movie all by themselves.
That more people don’t is probably a reflection of how arduous the process is. Takahide Hori spent seven years toiling on his debut feature, “Junk Head,” and a few more trying to raise funding and get the film released. After receiving a warm reception at overseas festivals in 2017, it’s taken so long to arrive in Japanese theaters that its cult movie status seems preordained.
While it would be inaccurate to describe “Junk Head” — which started life as a half-hour short — as a one-man creation, there’s little that Hori wasn’t involved in, from the direction and cinematography to the music and visual effects. At times, it can feel like watching an overgrown child playing with their toys, though I don’t think many kids have toys as cool as these.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||99 mins.|
|Language||Subtitled in Japanese|
The film is set in a dystopian future, not far from the world of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” but teeming with creatures that might have crawled from the imagination of Guillermo del Toro or the British painter Francis Bacon.
Humans have figured out how to prolong their lives through genetic engineering, but lost the ability to reproduce in the process. As a virus decimates the population, researchers hunt for the key to their survival in a network of catacombs beneath the planet’s surface, where a parallel society has evolved, populated by clone workers that rebelled against their masters.
Like the cargo cults of Melanesia, these underworld denizens view human interlopers as gods. So when a cyborg explorer turns up on their doorstep in pieces — having lost both his body and memory during the descent — they craft him a new robotic form using junk.
This marks the start of a meandering quest, in which the protagonist is alternately venerated and treated as a slave, while having numerous encounters with the various monsters that dwell in the lower depths.
There’s a gleeful relish in the way these beasts are depicted: grotesque combinations of insect and reptile features, with pale flesh exteriors and way too many teeth. Our cobbled-together hero can’t compete, though he gets some help from a trio of squat, black-clad workers who look like penguins, but turn out to be surprisingly resourceful.
The action is captured in hyperactive camerawork, with an amped-up soundtrack that suggests an affection for 1990s dance-music act The Prodigy. Adding further to the peculiarity of it all, the dialogue is delivered in a guttural gibberish (subtitled in Japanese) that sounds like someone pretending to speak Russian while gargling phlegm.
Hori doesn’t have quite enough ideas to fill the feature-length running time, and despite working on the film for seven years, it seems he never managed to come up with a proper ending.
However, the climactic set piece is a treat for anyone who’s still in touch with their inner 10-year-old, while the film hits a few unexpectedly deep notes along the way. And as a triumph of single-mindedness over common sense, “Junk Head” is pretty inspirational.
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