March 5, 2023 · 0 comments
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 agent is dispatched below ground, to the wainscot society of artificial creatures that were once the servants of mankind, but which rebelled many centuries earlier. Something is keeping the underground life-forms alive and fecund – humanity just needs to work out what it is.
A pitch like that might easily 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) apart is the means of its execution, because Junk Head is an astonishing 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 ever 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 being truly felt two decades later.
“I’ve always liked movies,” he told Wired magazine in 2021, “so even if I didn’t have anyone around me who knew about video know-how, I decided to make a ‘movie that I really want to watch’ that incorporated all my personal hobbies. I had already worked at [Tokyo] Disneyland on puppetry and aging 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 film that formed the first building block 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 also 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 after the initial release secured more funding. Nevertheless, it amounts to an almost solo endeavour akin to that from On-Gaku: Our Sound’s Kenji Iwaisawa, praised by no less a figure than Guillermo del Toro as “a work of deranged brilliance.” In 2017, it won the Best Animated Feature Award at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Canada, but it would be another four years before 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 ever 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 costs 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 building it one frame at a time, paltry seconds of motion taking hours to create.
Hori also supplied all the voices, choosing to grumble and mumble in an indistinct, wordless dialogue resembling that of hung-over Clangers. As a result, the film is subtitled in every language territory, including Japan – I spent a huge amount 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 clear enough in context without translation.
It’s only when the Mulligan/Marigan (romanisation differs in online sources) creatures stand around debating their history, ten minutes into the film, that it becomes necessary to really have subtitles. It’s here that they acknowledge that the unseen humans on the surface are, in a sense, their ancestors and creators, semi-legendary figures with whom the underground dwellers have had no dealings for as long as they can remember. Later on, Hori even plays around with the subtitles, injecting emojis for additional impact – in particular, the simple addition of hearts to the dialogue of an obsequious underling helps accentuate his craven character.
When we finally get a glimpse of life for humans, or what’s left of them, on the surface world, Hori’s film takes on an element of prophecy. In footage finished several years before the COVID-19 pandemic, he presents humans in a state of constant 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 complacency for hundreds of years to suddenly ramp up its “research” programme among the rebel creatures below 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 also handily comes up with a reason for everybody looking like marionettes – a plot decision recalling that of another avant-garde animation from Japan, Keitaro Motonaga’s Malice@Doll (2001).
“I don’t know what will happen to humans in the future, but there is a chance that they will throw away their bodies and exist on a memory chip. It got me thinking about what defines humans as human, and I decided to set the world of this story so far ahead that we didn’t need to have faces. I wanted to express the very final limit of being human.”
There are some lovely touches to the animation, sound effects adding 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 also makes admirable use of digital filming, not only in the occasional, subtle repetitions of frames, but also hiding such corner-cutting by zooming in on a portion of an image he has already 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 appear as if a live cameraman is desperately trying to capture the action as it happens. He even throws in some unobtrusive green-screen work, using every available trick in the film-maker’s toolkit to tell his story.
As the film passes the 30-minute mark, it displays the glimmerings of Hori’s renewed funding and workflow, first indicated by the arrival of a new voices – including female characters played by his new assistant, Atsuko Miyake. But by the end of the film, it is clearly part of an ongoing story, which Hori laid out for fans in his business plan. His next project, subject to funding, is the prequel Junk World, setting up some of the events of his debut work. But he also has plans for a grand finale, Junk End, set 15 years after 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. After 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 more manpower from the next time! I hope we can announce something in a couple of years. “