It must've been two or three years ago when I first heard about Takahide Tori's Junk Head [Janku Heddo]. I didn't need more than a single screenshot to know this was a film that was going to be right up my ally. Several years and countless geo-locked film festivals later, I was finally able to watch it. Junk Head is one of those rare films that actually managed to surpass my initial expectations, Tori's passion project is an absolute wet dream for fans of stop-motion and sci-fi, with gleaming bonus appeal for those who have an appetite for the weird and creative.
To brand this film a passion project is in fact a gross understatement. Takahide Tori is an interior decorator by profession, who started this project in 2009 without any of the formal training needed to tackle a project like this. What's more is that he started this journey all on his own. It took him about 4 years and an endless amount of YouTube tutorials to create a 30-minute short. After garnering the vocal support of some big industry names (Guillermo del Toro being one of them), additional funding and a little outside help pushed him to make a 115-minute version, which was later trimmed down to the 101-minute cut that is currently making the rounds.
Reviewers have cited many influences when writing about Junk Head, the most prominent (and interesting) one for me is Tsutomu Nihei's Blame (coincidentally Nihei is an architect turned mangaka). But where Nihei's first masterpiece is all about rising through a superstructure, Junk Head's hero is descending into an underground one. And sure enough, the creature design borrows happily from H.R. Giger, Tsukamoto's cyberpunk roots peek around every corner and names like Lynch or Cronenberg make for sane analogies, but when all is said and done, there's nothing really quite like Junk Head out there.
The plot is set in a distant future. Mankind has lost its ability to procreate, a human-created species has revolted and developed a separate society underground. When a virus wreaks havoc on the surface, an expedition is launched to study how this newly developed species procreate, in an ultimate but somewhat desperate attempt to save humankind. The human delegate immediately finds himself in a pickle and as he travels deeper and deeper underground, his chances to complete his mission diminish with every step taken. Instead, his journey becomes an ultimate struggle for survival.
It's difficult to overstate the visual grandeur present in Junk Head. Looking at the lushly decorated, detailed and expansive sets, Hori surely benefitted from his experience as an interior decorator, but even then it's hard to believe what he accomplished here. The camera work is insane, the art design superb, the stop-motion animation on point. It's crazy to think most of it was done by a single guy, but even without taking that into account Junk Head still looks mighty impressive. Not counting some CG work that was added at a later stage, this is true craftsmanship from start to finish. The style is extremely coherent though, which is great if you love this kind of gritty and ugly bleakness, those hoping for a more colorful and jolly universe better stay clear.
Though Hori's visual accomplishments may be the obvious standout, it's worth noting that he also took almost all the sound work upon himself. From the actual score, to the sound effects and character dubs (which aren't in a decipherable language, but do feature distinct voices), it's all done by Hori himself. And while this may have been out of necessity, the quality of his work is once again exemplary. The electronic score is very fitting, adding oodles of atmosphere, the voice acting is fun and distinctive and the sound effects are spot on. Together with the visuals it creates a tight and immersive experience, the kind you can only get when an entire team is entirely in sync, or when one guy does everything by himself.
Junk Head is an expansive sci-fi adventure, where the audience is forced to discover a strange and alien underground world together with the main character. Hori does take a little time to explain the broader lore of this universe, but doesn't get into too much detail. It keeps his world wrapped in a veil of mystery, which probably won't be to everybody's liking. Personally, I welcome the mystery and adventure, following the events as they are experienced by the main character. Those who need more grounded explanations for what they see on screen may feel a bit disoriented at times.
As for any additional themes, the broader story offers some food for thought if needed. The premise isn't all that original though, with humanity's usual flaws sending us to the brink of extinction, having to resort to desperate measures to find a way out of the mess we created for ourselves. I'm not even certain whether Hori takes any of this too seriously, it could just as well be a convenient excuse for the gritty and uninhabitable world he wanted to depict, but at least it's there for those who care about such things. The fact that there's not really a clear-cut ending or an easy way out of this mess certainly helps too.
Every fan of Japanese cyberpunk will tell you not nearly enough films are being produced in this niche. That alone makes Junk Head a notable film. The (admittedly slim) bright side of this is that filmmakers who do try their hand at it are usually very spirited and driven to do the genre justice. With Junk Head, Hori delivers a sprawling sci-fi adventure, meticulously styled, set in a dark and perilous universe that harbors neat surprises around every corner. It's a living testament that one person can still deliver a professional film, even if it costs him 7 years of his life. An absolute must-see this one, make sure you catch it if the opportunity arises.