Short Peace

Rating: 4

The Japan Foundation has been, for years, organising many events to promote Japanese culture, including touring film showings. Sometimes they show anime in London at the Institute of Contemporary Arts; last year I watched "Colorful" there, this year, as part of the "It Only Happens in the Movies?" series, I watched the 2013 anthology "Short Peace", a project of OOTOMO Katsuhiro (大友 克洋).

Ootomo should really need no introduction: he wrote and directed Akira (1988), and that's enough to guarantee him a place in the general anime knowledge of English-speaking people. Of course, he's done a bit more than just Akira: he's written Roujin Z (1991), written and directed Steamboy (2004), designed Freedom (2006). What is more topical for this review, though, is his work on anthologies. In 1987 he worked an two episodes of Robot Carnival, a set of 9 shorts on the theme of robots, ranging from the surreal, to the whimsical, to the tragic. In 1989 he directed one of the three shorts of Neo Tokyo (Manie-Manie 迷宮物語), all based on stories written by MAYUMURA Taku (眉村 卓). In 1995 he wrote and coordinated Memories, probably the most well-known of his anthologies in the West.

Short Peace is a multimedia project: in addition to the four animated shorts, it includes a videogame, Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day (ショー トピース 月極蘭子のいちばん長い日), and the five parts are sold together. Interestingly, I have seen reviews of the game that mentioned the four shorts as "additional material", instead of recognising the work as a whole. On the other hand, I'm here reviewing only the shorts, since I have not played or even seen the game. We can all be partial in our own way :)

The anthology begins with a girl playing hide and seek in a temple, who gets surprised by a… dimension hopping white rabbit? Something like that. This title sequence is about two minutes of trippy changes of scenery, with very little relation to the rest of the work.

The first actual piece of the anthology is Possessions (Tsukumo, 九十 九), in which a travelling repairman gets lost during a storm, and seeks refuge in a small hut. Inside, the spirits of old, worn objects lock him in and play tricks on him, but he takes it all stride and fixes them, or prays thanking them for their services. The following morning, as he is leaving, he finds that the spirits have left him some of the renewed objects, as thanks for his help. This story builds on the very Japanese concept of tsukumogami (付喪神), the spirits of old (or, sometimes, neglected) objects. The animation is done in rather good 3D CG, even if it has the usual weirdness of movements. The director, MORITA Shuuhei (森田 修平) also directed Freedom and Tokyo Ghoul.

The second piece is Combustible (Hi no Yōjin, 火要鎮), directed by Ootomo himself. It tells the story of Wakana, daughter of a rich Edo family, and Matsukishi, son of the also-rich neighbours, who wants to become a firefighter. Given that all houses were built with wood and paper, fires were frequent and extremely damaging, and firefighters were very important, in Edo. After Matsukishi gets kicked out of his house and gets into the fire brigade, Wakana is forced into an arranged marriage. Saddened at the loss of her childhood friend and probably first love, and at the prospect of marrying a stranger, Wakana semi-accidentally sets fire to the neighbourhood. In the end, despite all attempts from Matsukishi and the other firefighters, Wakana dies in the flames. Before the fire, the animation is reminiscent of traditional Japanese scrollworks, with flat colours and simple perspective. After the fire starts, the style shifts rapidly into a fully dynamic animation, which underscores the change of pace from slow day-to-day events, to life-threatening terror.

The third piece is Gambo, directed by Andou Hiroaki (安藤 裕章), who had worked on Steamboy. A young samurai is defeated in battle, but left alive, by a giant white bear. Some time later, he's asked to help rid a village of a terrible red demon who's taking all the women. He's reluctant to help, obsessed with finding the white bear, but the last girl in the village goes into the woods and finds both the demon and the bear. Turns out, the bear is not evil, and the demon has been using the women to breed more of his kind. In a long and violent battle, the white bear fights the demon and defeats it, helped only in small measure by the samurai and some other warriors with firearms. This piece is drawn with rough brushwork against clean and detailed backgrounds, producing a strong contrast between the environment and the characters.

The fourth piece is officially titled "A Farewell to Weapons" (Buki yo Saraba, 武器よさらば), but it should probably be called "A Farewell to Arms", since the Japanese title is identical to the translation of Hemingway's famous novel. I don't think there are many parallels between the two works, apart from the war theme. In this short, directed by KATOKI Hajime (mecha designer on many Gundam series) from a manga by Ootomo, a crew of trained soldiers / technicians drives on a desolated post-apocalyptic landscape scavenging and disabling all sorts of weapons from the last war. They get ambushed by an autonomous tank, and despite all their efforts, all of them but one are killed. The only reason the last person survives is that, having got out of his armoured powersuit, he's considered a civilian: he tank ever gives him a leaflet about the war and how rational it was. In the end, he's left, naked, raging against the tank, reduced to throwing rocks. In the background, Fuji prepares to erupt.

The ICA screening of Short Peace was accompanied by an introduction and a Q&A with Helen McCarthy (Wikipedia page, personal website, Twitter account), an internationally renowned expert on Japanese anime. I first heard about her back in 1998, on the Nausicaa mailing list for fans of Studio Ghibli, but I had never met her before. She's very knowledgeable, although I may disagree with some of her opinions.

She remarked how all the parts of Short Peace take place around the Fuji, and how they revolve around quintessentially Japanese themes: spirits in everyday objects; the contrast between family obligations and personal wishes; the struggle between nature, people and the supernatural; the consequences of war. I'm not completely convinced that the area around Fuji is representative of all of Japan: I'd like to know the point of view of people from Hokkaido or Okinawa; after all, London is not representative of the whole United Kingdom!

McCarthy also said the each short showed a different era of Japanese history, but from my profound ignorance, I could only distinguish "sometimes in the past" from "sometimes in the future". The present time is apparently represented by the videogame, so I can't comment on that.

All in all, Short Peace is a very good anthology, in which different themes and styles complement each other and produce an artistic whole that any anime fan should see, together with the other anthologies already mentioned. In the Q&A, McCarthy also recommended watching Genius Party (2007) and Genius Party Beyond (2008), both from Studio 4°C.

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DatesCreated: 2015-12-11 12:38:33 Last modification: 2023-02-10 12:45:24