Don't worry, I'm not pivoting to reviewing shorts all of a sudden. But after reviewing Jibaro a couple of weeks ago, I did feel compelled to grant the same honor to what is probably my all-time favorite short, directed by one of the most gifted and creative anime directors out there. Koji Morimoto's Noiseman Sound Insect [Onkyô Seimeitai Noizuman] has been a certified favorite from the first time I watched it as a crappy, scanlines-deformed fansub and it's one of the few unsubbed DVDs I own, on top of being one of the only stand-alone shorts I ever bought on DVD. So safe to say, I really like this film a lot, and even though it's 25 years old and I've seen it countless times already, it hasn't lost any of its original attraction.
To put this film into context, you have to cross the ocean and look at what was happening in the US animation industry. In the mid-90s, Pixar made a real splash with Toy Story. It's a film that heralded the death of 2D animation in the West. While we'd be stuck with a shiny, plasticy quest for realism in the coming decades, Japan wasn't quite as eager to throw away its classic anime aesthetic. That didn't mean they were just going to ignore the computer. High-profile films like Akira, Patlabor 2, and Ghost in the Shell had found good ways to incorporate CPU power without sacrificing their trademark look, but there was one studio that took things way beyond. Studio 4°C was born and Morimoto's leadership would be pivotal in its earliest successes.
Going back to 1995, the Memories anthology was the first Japanese film to really lean into computer animation. If you look carefully, Magnetic Rose and Cannon Fodder make good use of CG effects to enhance the animation, without destroying the classic anime feel. Noiseman Sound Insect took things a little further and set a real benchmark for cel-shaded animation. There's a complexity to the settings and the fluidity of the animation that felt utterly unreal at the time, and to this day is still something to marvel at. Once you start freeze-framing the film and actually analyze the animation you'll find that it's a mix of technical prowess and smart trickery, but the effect is 100% there. Studio 4°C would continue to push the mix of traditional and CG animation in the following decade, but nothing could quite compare to the leaps and bounds they made with this short.
The plot is ... something. Noiseman Sound Insect is first and foremost an audiovisual experience, but that doesn't mean Morimoto skimped on the narrative or the complexity of the setting. A mad scientist collects sound seeds and adds a growth potion. This way he inadvertedly creates Noiseman, a highly volatile creature that immediately starts its takeover of the city. He finds a way to separate people into souls and crystals while brainwashing the remaining humans to do the dirty work for him. After eating a special fruit, Tobio snaps out of his trance and pleads with Noiseman, but he is ridiculed and is made a ghost himself. With the help of a few humans hidden away in the bowels of the city, Tobio fights back against Noiseman. And yes, all of this is covered in a span of 15 minutes, so you better pay attention (or watch the short more than once).
Morimoto has a very particular visual style and knows how to push his team to the limits of what is technically possible. While he is able to produce visually stunning animated sequences all by himself, the presence of a young Masaaki Yuasa is a real boon and makes Noiseman Sound Insect one of his most accomplished works ever. The camera work is insanely dynamic, and the blend of CG and traditional animation is baffling considering the short's age (and it is still aesthetically pleasing to this very day). The architecture is stunning, the effects are beautifully animated, the colors pop, and the character designs are inventive and vibrant. You won't know where to look first, but again, multiple viewings will bring out the true intricacies of the design work that went into all of it. People have commented that this would've worked better in feature film format, but it could never have achieved the same level of detail that way. Pure excellence.
If the visuals are absolutely world-class, the score is even better. Koji Morimoto has been known to DJ from time to time and that skill certainly came in handy here. While the music and vibe are pretty different, the closest comparison I can make is to Aronofsky's Pi, where the score truly became one with the rest of the film. Morimoto worked together with Yoko Kanno (one of the absolute greats when it comes to scoring Japanese media), but it's the way the score is incorporated and takes on the responsibility of directing the film that is exceptional. It almost feels like one huge naturally evolving track, minutely tailored to what is happening on screen, even to how the camera moves. This type of synergy between audio and visuals is something I absolutely adore, and which I don't see quite enough in films. The dub is very much on point too, and the obscurity of this short prevented substandard dubs from existing, so it's all good.
Noiseman Sound Insect is the kind of fantasy I crave. It offers a world that isn't fully explained or revealed but is so lively, original, and full of detail that it can be explored multiple times while discovering new things with every consecutive watch. That does mean some kind of effort is required from the audience. Morimoto doesn't spoon-feed you a story and he doesn't rely on familiarity to showcase his world, instead, he establishes a vibe and offers a vibrant experience in a world that isn't ours. Noiseman Sound Insect can come off as a little chaotic and unfinished because of that, but it's truly a feature, not a bug.
Noiseman Sound Insect is only 15 minutes in length, but it feels a lot longer as it uses its available runtime extremely well. There is no filler here, everything has meaning and every single second adds to the overall experience. The aesthetic and the art style are lovely, the technical competence is insane, the worldbuilding is wildly imaginative and the score plus sound design are virtually unmatched. This is Koji Morimoto at his very best, and thus anime at its very best. It's a shame Morimoto never got the chance to showcase his skills in a mid or feature-length project, but why complain when he made something utterly delightful as this? One of my favorite anime.