It must've been 3 or 4 years ago when Studio 4°C first announced their Genius Party project. Now, every sign of a new 4°C anthology project is big news, but this one just looked stellar, with 12 or so directors involved and a set of screenshots that seemed impossible to animate. Which, by chance, is what they do all day over at 4°C. Animating the impossible.
Two years after the first announcements Genius Party appeared locally in a somewhat modified form. The anthology project was split in 2, the first part holding 7 short films, Genius Party Beyond holding the other 5. And now, two years after the initial release of the first part, Australia is the first country to release an English-friendly DVD, allowing the West to finally catch up.
This is hardly the first time the West has had to wait a while to see one of 4°C's anthology projects (I believe Memories took a whopping 10 years before it got an official English-friendly release). Which is a damn shame, because Studio 4°C is definitely one of the leading creative animation houses out there, being sure to push boundaries and limits with each consecutive release. They are known for providing freedom and funds to directors looking for a creative outlet and they have created many memorable shorts in the process. Genius Party is no different, and even though it dates back a good two years ago, the animation of some of the shorts is still mind-blowingly refreshing, which is somewhat rare in an industry that is still evolving quite rapidly.
The first short is actually the opening of the film, which is not unusual for a 4°C anthology. The short is directed by Atsuko Fukushima who was also responsible for the opening and ending sequences of Robot Carnival. Fukushima opts for a rather abstract start, as the actual events within the opening seem pretty outlandish. Still, it seems that all that is happening is related to the birth of some kind of universe, involving a birdman and a bunch of sand orbs. The visual style is awesome, looking very sketchy and bold but still holding lots of detail. The animation is smart and dynamic, with creativity running wild throughout the whole short. It's actually hard to image a better opening for this project. 4.5*
Following the opening is a short bearing a somewhat more conventional anime style. Directed by Shoji Kawamori, famed mecha designer and driving force behind Macross, this short is set in Shanghai. In a rather surprising move, they actually used Chinese language for this short, which is quite a rarity in Japanese animation. While it starts of quite slow, the pace picks up pretty quickly and before you know it two kids are being hunted down by an army of huge mechas and bots. Even though stylistically this one is more conventional, the level of detail is amazing and the animation very elaborate. An obvious crowd pleaser, featuring some dazzling chase scenes and superb action. 4.5*
The third short is directed by Shinji Kimura, first-time director but with art direction credits for films like Tekkon Kinkurito and Steamboy someone who knows the drill. And he delivers, Deathtic 4 being my favorite short of the bunch. Though it starts off a little hesitant, once it gets rolling it's one freaky, hilarious ride through 4°C town. The short is characterized by a very unique art style that seems to defy 3D translation and does take some getting used to. The story is simply an excuse for introducing weird characters and insane settings, but it works like a charm. Freeze frame the short and it seems as if there is no 3D around, but seeing it in motion is simply awesome and underlines the true power of 3D animation. 5.0*
At the point where things couldn't get any better, they suddenly become a whole lot worse. Doorbell is the 4th short, directed by Yoji Fukuyama, and feels very much like a failed experiment. The idea behind the film is nice enough, but the animation is really below 4°C's level. Especially the animation of people walking around is atrocious, completely screwing up perspective and speed. The backgrounds are nice enough, almost resembling early concept art drawings, but fail to add much to the visual flair of the film. The concept remains decent enough, preventing the film from becoming a total disaster. Still, if one short should've been scrapped from the final list, this one would be it. 2.5*
Luckily Hideki Futamura makes for quick recovery with his part of the anthology, though many will be put off by the continuous stream of information and visuals in Limit Cycle. The film has no coherent story, but fires off a philosophical monologue running through the entire film. As if this wasn't enough to digest already, the visuals go on at a similarly oppressive speed. Futamura mixes live action with animation and static effects, creating a short that creates an information overload after only a good minute or 2 and goes on for a whopping 15. Personally I like this sort of thing, but I'm sure many will be put off by it and will find it tiring or boring to actually enjoy. 4.5*
Up next is Masaaki Yuasa's entry, who has the dear task to keep the momentum going right before the end of the film. Yuasa is a good man for such a task, as his typical style and atmosphere are sure to draw fans in right away. Happy Machine is not unlike Cat Soup, only featuring a little toddler instead of two cats. The baby lives in a nursing machine, but when the power runs out he is forced to travel through a strange and barren world. The shorts features several events and characters he meets on his journey, bringing him home again at the end, jump-starting another life cycle for the machine. You have to like Yuasa's style to appreciate this film, but if you do this turns out to be another one of Yuasa's wondrous journeys. 4.5*
Closing of this first part is veteran director Shinichiro Watanabe. His choice is a little surprising, as he delivers a little dramatic piece about unrequited love. It becomes even weirder when he takes on the style of Hosoda to complete his short. The characters are bit more detailed and the animation more elaborate, but this coming from Watanabe was quite a surprise. It's a good short, but nothing too much out of the ordinary. The finale is strong though, with some very cool slo-mo effects and grainy flashback sequences. A good way to close of this first part of the anthology, though lacking a bit of that uniqueness that makes a 4°C anthology. 4.0*
The best thing about this anthology is that you really can't do justice to the visual beauty with simple screen caps. The animation in some parts is simply mind-blowing and begs to be seen in motion. It's simply amazing how they transferred some art styles to 3D animation, only reinforcing the initial look. The shorts itself are creative, neat and although they do vary somewhat in quality, there is so much to see in such little time that it is more than worth it. Some people fault anthology films for their inconsistency, I praise them for their creativity, as there is more of that here than in 7 full-length features combined. The glitch halfway through is easily forgotten, the rest of it is up to 4°C's standards. Awesome stuff, and if you have a heart for animation this is really a must-see.