Katsuhiro Otomo's uneven but often dazzling anthology feature "Short Peace" reminds viewers of the untapped visual potential of animation.
Although Otomo is best known as the creator of the dystopian feature "Akira," he oversaw two previous collection films: "Robot Carnival" (1987) and "Memories" (1995). For "Short Peace," he and three other directors each created a short film in a personal visual style that suited its story. Although three of the sections draw on Japanese history and folklore, the only element tying the segments together is their individuality.
"Short Peace" opens with Shuhei Morita's "Possessions," which was nominated for the Oscar for animated short this year. An itinerant tinker takes refuge from a storm in a remote shrine only to be attacked by tsukomogami umbrellas, bowls and other household objects that have acquired souls after 100 years of use. These humble objects resent being thrown away after decades of loyal service: "Use and dispose," chants a frog-like creature composed of parasols.
The tinker uses his skills to repair umbrellas and sew fabrics while he assures the spirits that their work has been appreciated. Morita blends the look of 19th century woodblock prints and contemporary anime in a striking short that is both an illustrated folk tale and a comment on a wasteful society.
Otomo's "Combustible," which was shortlisted for the Oscar, is a romantic tragedy set in 18th century Edo (Tokyo). Owaka and Matsukichi, the children of wealthy merchants, grow up next door to each other. Matsukichi's father disowns him when he gets his arms tattooed and joins a fire brigade. Forced into a loveless arranged marriage, Owaka triggers a blaze that summons her beloved Matsukichi — and destroys their neighborhood. From the exquisite patterns of Owaka's kimono to the stylized flames that ravage a city built of wood and paper, "Combustible" evokes traditional woodblock prints even more closely than "Possessions."
In Hiroaki Ando's darker "Gambo," one little girl and a few adults are the only survivors in a hamlet ravaged by a demon. A samurai wearing a crucifix, which was forbidden under the Tokugawa shoguns, tells the girl to pray. She obeys and her prayers summon a mysterious white bear that tears the demon apart. Drawn in a loose style that suggests traditional brush strokes, "Gambo" is more violent and less striking than "Possessions" and "Combustible."
"Short Peace" concludes with Hajime Katoki's "A Farewell to Arms." A small crew of soldiers searches the monochromatic ruins of future city for a robot-tank that destroys everything it encounters. "Farewell" looks and feels like the middle section of an anime sci-fi feature. It's skillfully directed, but the viewer doesn't get to know the characters or learn what's at stake in their deadly battle.
Although it ends on a weak note, "Short Peace" remains an imaginative, visually striking collection that will delight animation fans seeking something new and different.
MPAA rating: None; violence, brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 8 minutes
Playing: At Downtown Independent, Los Angeles