Genius Party & the Shelf of Shame

geniusp1There’s a section of my Blu-ray collection that looks particularly shameful, in that so much of it remains unwatched: my anime films and television series. There’s some absolute jewels in anime, films like Akira and Millennium Actress, and television shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop and Kids on the Slope, which remain absolutely personal favourites that are very dear to me. Most are really discoveries bought ‘blind’ on DVD or Blu-ray and its always doubly rewarding when they turn out to be something really good. There’s a few I’ve tried that didn’t really ‘click’ but that’s a part of the risk, I guess. Here in the UK a specialist label, All the Anime, have done for Anime releases what boutique labels like Arrow and Eureka etc have done for mainstream material, possibly only more so, because All the Anime have a tendency to release series in elaborately packaged releases, in lovingly-designed slipcases and boxes that elevate them to collector pieces. Unfortunately for the likes of me, such releases are particularly inviting even though I clearly don’t have the time to keep up with them, and as they are mostly limited editions, if you don’t pick them up when they come out, you can miss out. God, I hate limited editions, whether they be Blu-ray discs or soundtrack CDs or Super Deluxe CDs.

That’s a roundabout way of explaining why I’ve got far too many anime Blu-ray discs on my Shelf of Shame that really need catching up with.

geniusp3So here is Genius Party, an anthology of animated shorts that was released with its follow-up collection, Genius Party Beyond, in a box-set with a 144-page making-of/artbook a few years ago now by All the Anime. Its a little like a Japanese Fantasia or Heavy Metal Movie, disparate shorts that are more experimental than narrative. They tend to lean upon visual strengths rather than storytelling, and some are clearly more accessible than others: anime usually has a non-Western, Japanese ‘bent’ regards humour etc that can make it all a little frustrating and ‘marmite’. On the whole, Genius Party largely works and is rewarding, but at its worst it proves quite baffling, such as the second short, “Shanghai Dragon” which is just irritating in the extreme, frankly. Fortunately since the shorts are, as the description implies, all fairly short, they don’t really outstay their welcome, so if there’s one that proves a dud its quickly followed by the next. Of the seven shorts that make up Genius Party, I’d say three were really good  (“Deathtic 4”, “Doorbell” and “Baby Blue”) with two worthwhile  (“Genius Party” and “Happy Machine”) and two that, well, that’s what the chapter skip button is for (the frankly ‘I-never-want to-suffer-through-that interminable-tosh-ever-again’ “Limit Cycle” and aforementioned “Shanghai Dragon.”

geniusp2My favourite of the bunch has to be the strange, utterly bizarre “Deathtic 4″in which a Halloween world of monsters and zombies is depicted like some kind of Nightmare Before Christmas on acid. Its so strange and captivating visually that it just bewitched me and made the purchase of the discs worthwhile, and just demonstrates how beautiful and unusual anime can be- its just so unlike the traditional mostly family-oriented animation we see in the West from the likes of Disney and Pixar. “Deathtic 4” has the feeling of glimpsing someone else’s dreams, vast and otherworldly, and reminds of the endless possibilities of animation as an artform. The short does have a plot, of a sort (one of the creatures discovers a frog, from our world, and the story narrates his race to return the frog to where it came from whilst being pursued by the authorities) but really like most of the Genius Party shorts, any plot is secondary to the gorgeous animation from Studio 4°C. 

geniuspbSo then we come to the second of the films in the set, Genius Party Beyond, which was released a year after the original, and featured just five shorts which were, I believe, leftovers from the first project. On the whole I think all five are stronger entries (there’s certainly no utter bomb like “Limit Cycle”) and at the very worst they are at least visually arresting. My favourites of this bunch are “Moondrive” which is a sort of heist story set on the moon with a really curious style of animation,  “Toujin Kit” which features really clean, very European-style artwork such as you’d find in a graphic-novel, and “Dimension Bomb” which, while it doesn’t really have a narrative, as such, throws so much bizarre and beautiful imagery at you, I think its best just to soak it up and go with the intoxicating gorgeousness of it all. The two lesser shorts, the opening “Gala” and “‘Wanwa’ the Doggy” are stronger than the weakest entries from the first film. 

geniuspb2So that’s Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond, and one more set removed from the anime corner of the Shelf of Shame. We’ll see how 2021 goes regards this particular section of the Shelf of Shame but I’m hoping to make some headway.

Kids on the Slope

kidsonslopeKids on the Slope is a simply wonderful, sublime piece of work. Unfortunately, its an anime, which will inevitably limit its potential audience, as most people think cartoons are for kids or that anime is all giant robots/ultra-violent nonsense. Kids on the Slope is proof of just how wrong such preconceptions are. This 12-part series is a joy from start to finish and deserves a wider audience than it is ever likely to get. Set in mid-1960’s Japan, it’s a coming of age story of a small group of teenage kids at school, following them through the final years of their schooling together, with a back-drop of the coolest jazz music.

Really an ensemble piece, the initial lead character is Kaoru Nishimi, who in the summer of 1966, moves to stay with relatives in Kyushu. A withdrawn and lonely figure, Kaoru is awkward at his new school but accidentally befriends bad boy Sentaro Kawabuchi, another odd-one-out figure at the school. The two share an interest in music -Kaoru plays piano and Sentaro plays drums- and Sentaro introduces Kaoru (a lover of classical music), to his love of Jazz, and the two begin to jam together in the basement of a music shop. Through Jazz, Kaoru discovers a new life, new friendships, new confidence. It changes him forever.

kidsonslope2Over the course of the twelve episodes their friendship becomes that of kindred spirits. Kaoru grows out of his shy, withdrawn character and falls in love with Ritsuko, daughter of the music-shop owner, but this relationship is awkward, full of the growing pains of adolescence. Sentaro himself has a sensitivity and dark secret that he hides with his roguish, bad-boy reputation. As the episodes play out we encounter other wonderful characters as we meet Sentaro’s circle of family and friends, and memorable characters at their school, as the events of the turbulent ‘sixties pass by around them, all suffused with that wonderful jazz-music backdrop. Characters fall in and out of love, friendships grow and fracture. Its all a wonderful story well-told with care and joy for youth, life, love and music. It’s funny, its sad. Its damn nigh flawless. Over the course of the series weeks pass into months, months into years, and the ending is just… well, suffice to say it is enough to send you rushing back to episode one, to soak up the whole thing all over again. Its that good.

kidsonslope3So no, its perhaps not what you would expect of a cartoon or anime.  It is, frankly, one of the most remarkable series I have ever seen, whether animated or live-action.  Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe of Cowboy Bebop fame (Bebop, if, somehow you have never heard of it,  is the best anime series of all time, in my opinion, and, yikes,  coming to Blu-ray here in the UK next week!), this series reunites Watanabe with composer Yoko Kanno (of, yes, Cowboy Bebop fame- really the pedigree of this series is remarkable). The artistry in creating characters that you fall in love with, to tell a story that you get so emotionally invested in… well, its a wizardry of sorts, plain and simple, and storytelling equal to anything done by the Pixar crowd. The fact that it will pass largely unnoticed by the majority of people simply because it is, well, an anime, is the unkindest thing of all. It deserves a wider audience. I will just point out that this is the only anime that my wife has ever watched, the greatest proof of all at just how universal the appeal and quality of this series is.