Mamoru Oshii (Kokaku Kidotai, Innocence, Patlabor 2, Sky Crawlers) has one hell of an impressive resume, containing some of the biggest, challenging and most successful animation films out there. At the same time he never stopped experimenting, expanding his oeuvre with smaller, more artistic films (think Tenshi no Tamago or Tachiguishi Retsuden). Talking Head clearly belongs to this second category of films and should be approached with at least some level of caution.
Talking Head is part of the unofficial live action trilogy Oshii directed between '87 and '92. It's not a true trilogy though as Talking Head has little (actually nothing) to do with the other two films. Red Spectacles and Stray Dog are both set in the Kerberos universe, Talking Head is a meta film about film and animation. But ever since Bandai decided to release them as a 3-pack combination people started to adopt the trilogy idea. I'm not one to complain though, releases like these are rare and should be cherished, whatever the consequences of the release format.
Talking Head is by far one of Oshii's most abstract films. It's a film that talks about film and animation itself, turning the film into a pretty big meta experience. Oshii travels through all the different processes that make up a film, littering scenes with film history and some personal interpretations and reflections on what makes a film work. Sure enough there is some background story to warrant a more or less coherent narrative, but it's clearly just an excuse for Oshii to run through a couple of ideas surrounding the magic of the silver screen.
Rei, a director for hire, is called in to finish an abandoned film project. Rei is famed for mimicking other people's styles and directing films in their name, but to do that he has to understand the idea and concept behind the project he needs to complete. This is somewhat of a problem as the original director vanished without a trace. The only option left for Rei is to run down the production department while trying to uncover the mystery of the unfinished film. Things get weird when one by one people are starting to die and disappear around Rei.
Oshii makes the best of his experience as animation director to turn Talking Head into a visual tour de force. The way he frames and colorizes his shots are typical for someone who is used to starting from a blank page. Oshii uses a rather theatrical approach in Talking Head (with many scenes shot on actual stages and sets), but combines it with very cinematic camera work and lighting. This makes for a very interesting dynamic, enhancing the meta feel without falling into the trap of visual boredom.
The Talking Head soundtrack is just one of the many collaborations between Oshii and Kenji Kawai (who also appears as a character in the film), but it's not the most predictable one. The soundtrack is quirkier and more distinctive, not as homogeneous and ambient-inspired as usually the case when the two work together. It fits the playful style of Talking Head though, accentuating Oshii's more light-hearted approach.
That Talking Head isn't Oshii's most serious film becomes clear when confronted with the almost slapstick-like way of acting. It's a style Oshii experimented with before (Red Spectacles) but may surprise people not used to this side of Oshii's work. It only adds to the weird atmosphere already present, especially when all the actors feel clearly comfortable in their roles. Shigeru Chiba carries the film with ease, the secondary characters all have their moment of glory too.
If you're not interested in the magic of film or Oshii's thoughts about the nature of film and its various processes, you will have trouble liking Talking Head. While there is plenty happening on screen, there isn't much of a narrative to follow and there's quite a lot of dialogue to digest. Talking Head is clearly a concept-first film and will leave unsuspecting film fans bewildered. At the same time, it's also a wildly unique project and probably one of the best blends of Oshii's bipolar nature, mixing serious ideas with a very comical approach. The only film topping that is Red Spectacles.
It was a long time since I last watched Talking Head and I wasn't really sure how well I could trust my initial response to the film. Watching it again made me realize that this is without a doubt another one of Oshii's true masterpieces, dazzling and surprising its audience with each chance it gets. If you don't mind the vague narrative, Talking Head is a chain of fun, interesting and challenging scenes. A film made by somebody who clearly loves film and likes to share his own views and visions.