Review by Ed Sizemore
Two weekends ago, as Johanna’s unofficial roving reporter, I went to the final three days of the Japan! culture + hyperculture festival at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. My main reason for going was five anime films they were showing. (All the speakers mentioned below, except Joseph Chou, spoke through translators.)
Friday night, The Kennedy Center hosted the U.S. premiere for Genius Party, a compilation film similar to Fantasia and Robot Carnival but without the overarching theme used by these films to tie the pieces together. Genius Party is comprised of seven short films (15- 20 minutes each) by directors that Studio 4Ã‚ÂºC gave free reign to create whatever they wanted. Four segments have a traditional narrative structure, and the remaining three segments are experimental in their approach.
The film was introduced by Shinichiro Watanabe, the director for the final segment, Blue Baby. Watanabe said the idea behind Genius Party was to show that animated movies have no limits. Just because a film is animated doesn’t mean it can’t carry the same philosophical weight or be regarded with the same seriousness as a live action work. Another goal was to return to hand drawn animation by animators in Japan. (He acknowledged that one segment was animated by having a computer manipulate hand drawings.) Studio 4Ã‚ÂºC wants constantly open new horizons of possibility for animated films.
Watanabe talked about his own contribution to Genius Party. Blue Baby is a teen love story. He chose that genre because no one had every asked him to do a romance piece before. He said this was the first piece he’s directed where no one died. Watanabe thinks of this short film as an apology to all the characters he’s killed in the past.
Genius Party Beyond
Saturday night was the international premiere for Genius Party Beyond. This movie serves as the second half/companion of Genius Party, with five segments similar in length to the films in that previous work. Three segments were of traditional narrative structure and only two were experimental.
This film was introduced by Koji Morimoto, co-founder of Studio 4Ã‚ÂºC and director of the final segment, Dimensional Bomb. Morimoto echoed the thoughts expressed by Watanabe and said that he hoped Genius Party would become a series of films each showcasing new ground for animated works.
Both Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond were fantastic. These are some of the top animators in the world really showing off their talents. Each segment was gorgeous to look at and masterfully written. The stories were complete and perfectly paced. It’s short story telling at its best. These two films are on my must-own list.
Sunday was the marathon of anime premieres. The first movie was the East Coast premiere of 5 Centimeters per Second (5CPS), written and directed by Makoto Shinkai. Shinkai is one of only four anime directors where I’m dedicated to owning everything they make. Just like his other films, 5CPS is a quiet, subtle story that focuses on character and relationships. This film is the story of young man and the two girls who loved him at different times in his youth. The animation was beautiful. Shinkai’s landscapes are some of the most breathtaking in anime. This movie further strengthens his reputation as the next Miyazaki.
The second film was the North American premier of The Piano Forest, directed by Masayuki Kojima and based on the manga by Makoto Isshiki. Kojima was there to introduce the movie. This film tells the story of two fifth grade pianists. Shuhei is the son of a famous concert pianist and plays because he thinks it’s his duty to follow in his father footsteps. Kai plays because he loves music. The Piano Forest was amazing and very moving. The animation was well-done and did a marvelous job of showing the different attitudes the boys had while playing. Kai’s love of life and music was very infectious. I would love for this film to be picked up by a Hollywood studio and given a major theatrical release. It’s one of the best family films I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve put this movie on my must-own list too. (Thanks to The Kennedy Center, my budget will be tight for awhile.)
The final film was the East Coast premiere of Appleseed: Ex Machina. This film was directed by Shinji Aramaki and is based on the characters created by Shirow Maamune. It has John Woo as a producer. Aramaki and co-producer Joseph Chou were there to introduce the film. They both spoke of how revolutionary the film was for Japanese animation. This film was completely generated by computer. Apparently, even the concept drawings were done on computer. Both expressed their desire to continue to break new ground in Japanese computer animation.
Appleseed: Ex Machina is a straightforward sci-fi movie. The animation is meant to be hyper-realistic. This is the best and most natural looking CG film I’ve seen to date. There’s still a ways to go before CG-created characters lose that plastic look, but this film is a significant step in the right direction. The story is fast-paced with plenty of great action sequences. This is another movie that deserves a major theatrical release. And yes, I’ll be picking up this DVD.
The only complaint I had about the anime presentations was the screen used to show the movies. First, the screen used was only 20′ by 20′. This was a very small screen for the space. Add to this that the films were shown in letterbox format, so the actual projected image was only 10′ by 18′. For Genius Party, I was seated in the fifth row and so had little problems. For Genius Party Beyond, I was in the 14th row and felt like I was watching a small screen TV. It was hard to make out fine details. Let me compare this to a theater here in Richmond. The Westhampton’s second floor theater has a stage set up similar in size to the theater used in The Kennedy Center. However, the Westhampton screen is 30′ by 50′. You never have a problem seeing everything little detail in that theater.
Second, the screen was a dark grey color. (What we used to call in the Navy battleship grey.) This caused a muting of the colors, and any items done in a dark palette or drawn in shadow had a significant loss of detail. In fact, in a couple of scenes I couldn’t tell what was going on. I don’t know why they didn’t use a standard white movie screen. I did notice that the screen color seems standard for The Kennedy Center. Other screens I saw in the Center were of various sizes but the same exact color.
I also looked around at the various exhibits and art installations at The Kennedy Center. On the top level was the Manga CafÃƒÂ©. I was surprised to see that only Viz books were stocked. There were plenty of well-thumbed volumes of Bleach and Naruto on the cafÃƒÂ© tables. On the same level as the cafÃƒÂ© was Honda’s Asimo stage. I was lucky enough to be there just as one of the presentations started. Asimo is the result of thirty years of research by Honda. He can walk, run, climb stairs, dance, and kick a ball. I was awestruck by what I saw.
The art installations were interesting and fun to look at, but they were too derivative of Andy Warhol’s work to be more than a curiosity for me. Overall, it was a great weekend and I hope The Kennedy Center does something similar next year.