By Jonathan Clements.
In the far future, the human race is extremely long-lived, but infertile. One by one, they are dying off, with no sign of a solution. In a last-ditch effort to find an answer, a cyborg wage-earner is dispatched unelevated ground, to the wainscot society of strained creatures that were once the servants of mankind, but which rebelled many centuries earlier. Something is keeping the underground life-forms working and fecund – humanity just needs to work out what it is.
A pitch like that might hands be a pre-amble to an anime like Patema Inverted or Tokyo Underground. What sets Junk Head (in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 24th April) untied is the ways of its execution, considering Junk Head is an uncanny feature-length stop-motion film, assembled one frame at a time by self-taught animator Takahide Hori.
Hori embarked upon his grand project in 2009, inspired by the have-a-go example of Makoto Shinkai, and by his own niggling sensation that it was now or never if he overly wanted to be a movie-maker. It’s fascinating, in fact, to see just how long a footprint Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star (2002) truly has. You’d be forgiven for thinking that its influence had come and gone by the end of the noughties, but for some long-term, incremental film-makers like Hori, its effects are only stuff truly felt two decades later.
“I’ve unchangingly liked movies,” he told Wired magazine in 2021, “so plane if I didn’t have anyone virtually me who knew well-nigh video know-how, I decided to make a ‘movie that I really want to watch’ that incorporated all my personal hobbies. I had once worked at [Tokyo] Disneyland on puppetry and white-haired buildings, so I started taking time-lapse footage and studying the kind of film-making that makes use of such techniques.”
Hori’s initial work, Junk Head 1, was a thirty-minute mucosa that worked the first towers woodcut of the feature-length “final” product. He worked from exacting storyboards and a single line, the words “God is dead”, which form an integral part of the plotline, and moreover one of the highpoints of the humour of his first act. The ultimate result would take eight years and 140,000 separate photographs, with several assistants drafted in to help without the initial release secured increasingly funding. Nevertheless, it amounts to an scrutinizingly solo endeavour unreceptive to that from On-Gaku: Our Sound’s Kenji Iwaisawa, praised by no less a icon than Guillermo del Toro as “a work of deranged brilliance.” In 2017, it won the Best Animated Feature Award at the Fantasia International Mucosa Festival in Canada, but it would be flipside four years surpassing it received a theatrical release in its native Japan.
Hori’s underground world has the vertiginous vastness of Tsutomu Nihei’s BLAME!, although while Nihei’s protagonist is climbing overly upward, Hori’s cyborg explorer Parton is forever heading down, down, deeper and down. The environments he discovers are populated with a menagerie of freakish xenomorphs and humanoids swaddled in mummy-like bandages. It is loaded with kipple and junk, a rich environment in which his camera playfully darts around. In a medium notorious for shots and beauty-passes that go on for way too long in order to amortise the financing of set construction, Hori’s camerawork is brisk and choppy, never outstaying his welcome in any particular scene, deftly creating the illusion that he is snatching his footage on the fly, not painstakingly towers it one frame at a time, paltry seconds of motion taking hours to create.
Hori moreover supplied all the voices, choosing to mumble and mumble in an indistinct, wordless dialogue resembling that of hung-over Clangers. As a result, the mucosa is subtitled in every language territory, including Japan – I spent a huge value of time at my first viewing trying to work out how much the subtitles were really necessary, or as with the Clangers, the meaning was usually well-spoken unbearable in context without translation.
It’s only when the Mulligan/Marigan (romanisation differs in online sources) creatures stand virtually debating their history, ten minutes into the film, that it becomes necessary to really have subtitles. It’s here that they unclose that the unseen humans on the surface are, in a sense, their siblings and creators, semi-legendary figures with whom the underground dwellers have had no dealings for as long as they can remember. Later on, Hori plane plays virtually with the subtitles, injecting emojis for spare impact – in particular, the simple wing of hearts to the dialogue of an obsequious underling helps underscore his yellowbelly character.
When we finally get a glimpse of life for humans, or what’s left of them, on the surface world, Hori’s mucosa takes on an element of prophecy. In footage finished several years surpassing the COVID-19 pandemic, he presents humans in a state of unvarying lockdown, cycling through fake views of the outside world, dressing up to “go to work” in telepresence meetings with similarly locked-down clients. A third of the world’s population has been wiped out by a mystery virus, prompting a race that has lived in relative self-satisfaction for hundreds of years to suddenly ramp up its “research” programme among the rebel creatures unelevated ground. Notably, the humans much-vaunted “immortality” is revealed as a form of cybernetic remodelling, which not only explains why they have been unable to reproduce, but moreover handily comes up with a reason for everybody looking like marionettes – a plot visualization recalling that of flipside twentieth-century volatility from Japan, Keitaro Motonaga’s Malice@Doll (2001).
“I don’t know what will happen to humans in the future, but there is a endangerment that they will throw yonder their persons and exist on a memory chip. It got me thinking well-nigh what defines humans as human, and I decided to set the world of this story so far superiority that we didn’t need to have faces. I wanted to express the very final limit of stuff human.”
There are some lovely touches to the animation, sound effects subtracting a real sense of inertia, music by Hori himself and collaborator Yoshiki Kondo, that really broadens the experiences, and cunning hacks like computer-generated dust, flames and steam to add realism to the onscreen action. Hori moreover makes worshipped use of digital filming, not only in the occasional, subtle repetitions of frames, but moreover hiding such corner-cutting by zooming in on a portion of an image he has once used. He takes this to impressive levels with a virtual shaky-cam effect, in which, one presumes, moments have been shot statically, and then jiggled digitally in post-production to make it towards as if a live cameraman is desperately trying to capture the whoopee as it happens. He plane throws in some unobtrusive green-screen work, using every misogynist trick in the film-maker’s toolkit to tell his story.
As the mucosa passes the 30-minute mark, it displays the glimmerings of Hori’s renewed funding and workflow, first indicated by the inrush of a new voices – including sexuality notation played by his new assistant, Atsuko Miyake. But by the end of the film, it is unmistakably part of an ongoing story, which Hori laid out for fans in his merchantry plan. His next project, subject to funding, is the prequel Junk World, setting up some of the events of his debut work. But he moreover has plans for a grand finale, Junk End, set 15 years without the climax of Junk World.
“I’m planning a lot!” he told Screen Online. “Originally, I wanted to do Junk Head as a trilogy, so I’ve made the storyboards. Without that, I can put it into production immediately, subject to funding. Besides, I can make a synopsis. I have a live-action movie that I want to do, and an idea for a very interesting original book, so I would like to those that as well. However, I would like to use increasingly manpower from the next time! I hope we can signify something in a couple of years. “
Jonathan Clements is the tragedian of Anime: A History. Takahide Hori’s Junk Head is screening in UK and Ireland cinemas on 24th April.