Although the theme for the Sunrise/Shochiku multimedia project Short Peace was apparently “Japan” it seems to me that the ‘peace’ part of the title is far more telling, because in one way or another each short in this 4-film anthology is about conflict. Not only that, but unless I’m reading far too much into it, there is something to be learned from each of these battles.
The first cab off the rank after the energetically ethereal opening title sequence is Possessions, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Animated Short in 2014. On a dark and stormy night a traveller seeks shelter in a run-down shrine and encounters a range of objects imbued with their own spirits after 100 years of use. The traveller’s response is… Well, I won’t spoil that little surprise for you, but suffice it to say the lesson here is that not all conflict requires a violent response. Possessions’ 3D character modelling is a little clunky at first, but when the riot of patterns and colours of the upset possessed objects take precedence on the screen it’s no longer an issue in the slightest.
The second short, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Mushishi) won, if not an Oscar nomination, then at least a couple of prestigious film awards in Japan in 2012, and rightly so. Eschewing a traditional format for, well, a far more ancient one, Combustible is an animated emaki, or picture scroll, about a boy, a girl, and a burning city, and despite its brief running time is utterly mesmerising. If you’ve never had the pleasure of viewing this sort of art in a museum, there’s two things specific to emaki that make them so fascinating and the format such an interesting choice for an animated short. Emaki have no explicit vanishing points. Scenes are rendered in a near-isometric perspective and the backgrounds progress continually across the scroll with very little interruption regardless of whether you’re looking at armies fighting on castle walls or ladies having tea in their mansions. Now, imagine that, except animated. Now, introduce a doomed love story where a boy who wants to be a fire-fighter and a girl trapped by her social boundaries are only able to meet under very specific conditions. It can only end badly, but clearly that’s the lesson.
Gambo, the third short directed by Gundam mecha designer Hiroaki Ando, is a little like a tragic love story too, if a fair bit more violent. For reasons unknown, a kindly family tend to an injured demon who then predictably eats all but one of them, a young girl. In a fit of helpless rage and despair, she encounters a white bear and pleads with it to exact revenge. The bear, Gambo, takes pity on her and shortly thereafter a spectacularly bloody battle ensues, the conclusion of which is probably predictable but it’s not the destination that counts in this one. Gambo’s battle is not on his own behalf; sometimes the good fight is the one you fight for those weaker than yourself. Even if you are a bear.
And finally (and perhaps the one that most fanboys and a few fangirls too were waiting for) Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga A Farewell to Weapons is adapted into the fourth short by Hajime Katoki. A salvage platoon arrive in a derelict city looking for disused weapons, but before they can deal with that they have to deal with the deadly, single-minded robot sentry that still patrols the ruined streets. What follows is enough space marine sci-fi action to make you want to dig out your Patlabor DVDs and relive some of the good old days, and the moral is perhaps as typically Otomo as the character design. Although it does feel like this short could have been taken from a full feature film where the reason for the apocalyptic world is revealed and our plucky soldiers save the day (or die trying), it’s still about twenty minutes of raw entertainment and nothing to complain about.
Otomo is perhaps one animation director we could all do with more from — his work is arguably sporadic (Memories was released in 1995, Steamboy in 2004, and previous to Short Peace he directed the quite good live action version of Mushishi in 2006 but that’s been about it), because it’s clear that wherever his hand is seen, quality follows. All four films are narratively strong, a fact to be respected. Short stories are as equally difficult to get right as longer ones, but Otomo and the other writers and directors are clearly experienced enough to understand that keeping things simple works best, and what results is a dynamic, varied and ultimately satisfying anthology that could perhaps only have been improved by being longer. Then they could call it Long Peace.