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Short Peace Anime DVD Review

11 min read

ShortPeaceTitleFour short animated films by 3 rising directors (and Katsuhiro Otomo): get comfy. There are not enough hours in the day to re-watch all of these as many times as you are going to want to.

What They Say:
In 1995, Katsuhiro Otomo’s anthology Memories showcased the work of upcoming superstars of the anime world. Now, Otomo’s spotlight shifts to a fresh generation of master creators with an all-new anthology of visionary films.

A lone traveler is confronted by unusual spirits in an abandoned shrine in the 2013 Academy Award nominated Possessions (Tsukumo), directed by Shuhei Morita (Coicent, Kakurenbo). A mysterious white bear defends the royal family from the predations of a red demon in the brutal Gambo, directed by Hiroaki Ando (Five Numbers!) from Redline’s Katsuhito Ishii’s original story with character designs by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Neon Genesis Evangelion).

The focus shifts from supernatural to science fiction for the action-packed A Farewell To Weapons (Buki Yo Saraba), as Mobile Suit Gundam designer Hajime Katoki helms Otomo’s tour-de-force saga of men battling robotic tanks in apocalyptic Tokyo, while grandmaster Otomo himself assumes the directorial reigns for a spectacular tale of love, honor and firefighting in ancient Japan with the multi-award winning Combustible (Hi-No-Youjin).

Prepare your senses for the animated films that are taking the critical world by storm as a new era in anime is ushered in with Katsuhiro Otomo’s Short Peace!

The Review:
Audio:
Both audio tracks, Japanese and English (with Japanese subtitles), are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. While not all of the four tales (five with intro) make the best use of the surround sound, a couple manage to do so to great effect. The dub is first rate in all except the Opening (and little instances here and there) and actually surpasses the Japanese track for A Farewell to Weapons.

Video:
Originally released in Japanese theaters on July 20, 2013, this DVD contains all four short animated features—Possessions, Combustible, Gambo, and A Farewell to Weapons—as well as the opening piece/introduction. All four features utilize different blends of CG and traditional animation, and all appear perfectly rendered.

Packaging:
Short Peace comes in a standard black keep case that features a single-sided insert for front and back cover art. The cover sleeve features different cover art on the front and the standard comingling of blurb, screenshots, and information on the back.

ShortPeaceDVDMenuMenu:
Back by a looping piece of an electronic score, a static background features the characters and other imagery from all four titles on the disc. Selections are offered for playing the whole disc, language selection, and special features. Instead of a Chapters selection, there are 5 tiles available for selecting either the opening or one of the four short movies. Each section has its own distinct background and accompanying music. (Note: the music behind the Special Features menu is so gosh-darned beautiful, reminiscent of early Disney, that letting it repeat it hypnotic.)

Extras:
Aside from the Short Peace trailer, trailers for other anime available via Sentai Filmworks, and disc credits, there are no on-disc special features of which to speak. The disc itself, however, comes with four lovely postcards that individually feature one scene from one of the four titles.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Opening extends the classic invocation of the muse by depicting the call of art to its audience—introducing the four shorts which comprise Short Peace:

Amidst crying cicadas and an ominous, ambient score, the camera slowly zooms in on a young girl covering her eyes with her hands while squatting beneath a torii in what seems to be an abandoned shrine or compound. “Are you ready,” she calls out. After a few moments, an off-screen voice says, “No, not yet.” The score swells in another brief but pregnant wait. “Are you ready,” asks the girl. A cat meows beside her. A cut brings the girl’s covered face closer. The cicadas cries grow louder. “Are you ready,” she calls again. After a brief pause, the ambience blind and thick with potential: another cut; the girl’s hands, still covering her face, are all that can be seen. “Yes, I’m ready,” the disembodied voice answers. The girl takes her hands away from her face as the camera zooms out to reveal the girl is in completely different surroundings save the torii. Exotic bits of CG animation start to punctuate her world. The girl is amazed, curious. She ventures further, opens a door in a foreign structure. Strange shapes and indiscernible figures surround her. After wandering through landscape after landscape, the girl ends up in a hall looking at a strange glowing orb. She takes it in (literally), and the show begins…

Possessions (Tsukumo) is a grand pun but an even grander watch. During a thunderstorm, a traveler becomes lost in a forest and takes refuge in a refuse shrine. He closes his eyes to offer a prayer and thanks for the shelter, but things quickly get weird. Upon opening his eyes, the traveler finds himself surrounded by curious entities: Tsukumogami (artifact spirits). As he passes from room to room on a sort of hero’s journey to find a way out, the traveler is confronted by spirits distraught over their state of disrepair.

This short piece, directed by Shuhei Morita (Tokyo Ghoul), is nothing short of phenomenal. The story is told so completely via visuals that there is no need for even the minimal dialog present. The scant dialog, to the script’s credit, is complementary instead of redundant. It fleshes out the traveler’s humanity via hiccups of humor, but even this is gratuitous given the strength of the visual storytelling. As proof, watch this with the Japanese language track and without subtitles; almost nothing is lost.

Two distinct animation styles, traditional and CG, are respectively used to distinguish nature (forest) from man (main character) and his creations. The contrast is a bit jarring at first, but the combination suits the story well. The cel-shading used for main character and CG used for the artifacts and spiritual realm not only link man and his creations but endow that connection with a sense of responsibility demanded by the story’s moral. To say there are brilliant visuals for setting as well as metaphor would be an understatement, and to neglect mentioning the animation in scenes such as the mass umbrella repair would be a crime. The use of sound is equally impressive.

By surrounding the viewer, the 5.1 audio actively puts the audience in the role of the traveler. (Watch this all alone in a small room by yourself for greatest effect.) The audio itself, all the sound effects and ambience, define the difference in tones of the neglected/abused shrine and the traveler’s attitude. I’m very happy to say the dub on this is also excellent. Even the short song comes across well. The only exception is a certain line, delivered in the fabric room, that’s less menacing than it should have been.

Easily watchable multiple times, Possessions is a moral masterpiece crafted with great heart, ingenuity, and respect. Watch it now. Watch it again. Watch it with friends. It doesn’t get old, it only gets better.

Combustible (Hi-no-youjin), the tale of childhood friends Matsuyoshi and Owaka, shows how their lives take them in different directions and depicts the one event that brings them back together. From an early age, Matsukichi obsesses over firefighters. Wakana (O-Waka or Waka), the girl next door, joins Matsukichi as he parades around playing pretend. Years later, Matsukichi dishonors his family and runs off to fulfill his life’s dream. Owaka, enthralled to the duties and obligations of a courtly woman, is left to pine for him. But one night, she accidentally conjures a plan to see him again.

Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Cannon Fodder), Combustible is like watching animated woodblock prints and ukiyo-e paintings. The animation, evocative of the Edo period it’s meant to portray, is absolutely stunning. It bridges present and past by binding that specific aesthetic to a tale of the same period—all unraveled from a CG scroll that pans along with the story and changes in color and design as events unfold.

Although visually driven, the dialog present in this tale is necessary and written with little or no redundancy; implication is everything. Very little of anything important is said directly, and the visuals are acutely attuned to complement this. Every glance, whether it’s a close-up on a face or a panoramic view of the village and its people, is as fertile and haunting as a peek into the human heart through a piece of historical portraiture.

Completing the ambience of this piece, the traditional chanting and taiko (drums) that comprise the backing score are nothing less than gorgeously subliminal. Both manage to stealthily slip into the scene and then enhance it ten-fold. Whereas the singing helps instill within the audience a place and time, the taiko builds so subtly that, when they finally come to full rumble, it’s as if the sound is a violent wave that’s overtaken the senses.

Light, sound, score, color, art direction, and script combine to tell an all-too-human tale of selfish passions and the consequences thereof. While it’s the heavier of the first two pieces, Combustible needs to be watched at least twice. There’s simply too much going on and too many visuals to admire at once.

As moving as it is violent, Gambo revolves around a polar bear with a bad reputation, a rampaging demon, a village pillaged night after night for its women, and one young girl’s growing faith and persistence. This short piece, directed by Hiroaki Ando (Five Numbers!, Digital Juice), deals with perception and how humans deal with the unknown. Here, folklore is tainted with sci-fi for an unforgettable experience and powerful message about humanity in the face of adversity.

*SPOILERS*
This story brings mythology into the realm of science fiction by equating demons to aliens. (Note: the actual allusion to Alien is as appropriate as it is unfortunately distracting.) This is put to wonderful use, however, in the way the OVA defines its protagonists and antagonists. The unification of humans and the feared gods they create/worship/fear (the white bear, Gambo) as terrestrial cohabitants vs. the evil oni from the stars (literally a falling star) evokes “foes uniting against a common enemy” trope, but it does so in a unique context that ridges cultural values across centuries by being set in a bygone era and featuring futuristic technology (the spaceship).
*END SPOILERS*

The animation makes great use of color by linking characters with setting; I really wish I knew more about the particular flowers featured, as I’m sure they’re relevant and possibly telling. More than tonal in nature, the way the color palate is mixed in the final scene plays upon another prevalent aspect of this story: the violence. Gambo is bloody, brutal, and visceral. The director knows how to use a camera to establish a sense of panic through restrictive framing and how to keep an action scene alive through unflinching concentration and consequence.

Dialog is fantastic, save one or two overdramatic and telling lines, but what’s amazing are all the teases. Most come from Kao, the child mentioned previously, who is almost too much an adult mentally too conveniently. Same goes for the villagers regarding their remarkable sense of immediate understanding and acceptance (the renegade/samurai in particular). Still, the way the story ends almost asks the audience to judge instead of the character being spoken to, and that’s a fine bit of writing.

Of the three shorts thus far, Gambo is the one that feels just vague enough to make viewers revisit it multiple times to form new interpretations and spin their mind-wheels. If violence is the bait, then rewind multiple times for the wrastlin’. Warning: anyone who’s ever loved a pet will cry, images can be a bit over the top, and the grainy filter used for the animation is unnecessarily heavily employed in the beginning. Even with those small grievances, I’d recommend this piece whole-heartedly.

Directed by Hajime Katoki, a notable mechanical designer of Gundam mecha, A Farewell to Weapons (Buki yo Saraba) tells the tale of five technology scavengers—Gin, Marl, Gimlet, Junkie, and Rum—on a mission in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. During one particular mission, they encounter an aggressive relic from an earlier era and engage it. I’ve never read Hemmingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” only the George Peele poem from which the book took its title. Let’s just say the reference is more than appropriate.

A Farewell to Weapons is themed around man vs. technology and, as such (due to its post-apocalyptic setting), man vs. legacy. The setup—men running around in mechanical suits fighting an AI-imbued tank—plays to the director’s strength, mechanical design, but the action and all the little elements involved therein are commendable.

The attention to detail is particularly entrancing. From the rubble kicked up by tires to the machinations of the mobile suits, the use of sound lends realism to the environment and all the actions therein. Intricate visuals, such as HUD visors simultaneously reflecting the surrounding environment while showcasing the character speaking, are downright beautiful. Additionally, the staging, pacing, camera work, and dialog combine into a fine elongated action sequence/battle scenario. But here’s where my interest wanes.

While there’s a good ambiguity about why the team is doing what they’re doing, this story feels more like a test vehicle (if you’ll pardon the pun) or demo reel. The short format isn’t conducive to finding out who these scavengers are or consequently caring about them *SPOILERS* when they die *END SPOILERS*. Although the message is more universal than personal, not connecting with the protagonists is rather essential for evoking empathy.

What works tremendously well is the dub. From the rowdy cowboy intro to effective call-and-response dialog to what I’ll assume to be a nod to Dr. Strangelove, the English-speaking cast brings out the political undertones inherent in the character designs and action in full force.

Because the majority of this piece is semi-mindless action (some of the setups are damn well planned), A Farewell to Weapons is my least favorite of the four features in Short Peace. Still, the technical prowess and redemptive ending make it worth a watch. Unlike all the other animations contained in this collection, however, it’s the one I’ll most likely never revisit.

In Summary:
Featuring the “theme” of Japan, Short Peace is a multimedia project comprised of four animated short films and one video game. Each tale can be tied to a fixed point in Japan’s chronological history, such as the Muromachi and Edo periods, as well as the fictional, post-apocalyptic future. Modern Japan, however, is only represented via the video game Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day, which is not included on the DVD. Each short animated film showcases the talents of one particular director, and the differences in style are drastic but consistently rewarding. The quality of storytelling in these short films far exceeds that of typical series. The visual storytelling largely runs each show, gaining support from the use of distinctive art styles, soundtracks, sound effects, and minimalist, well-written scripts. The short films in this collection are not only examples of how animation can be used but how it should be used. They also serve as a great introduction to directors who deserve much more attention than they’ve been getting.

Features:

Content Grade: A+
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: A
Packaging Grade: C
Menu Grade: C
Extras Grade: C+

Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: August 5th, 2014
MSRP: $24.98
Running Time: 68 minutes
Video Encoding: NTSC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Toshiba 40” LED 1080P HDTV, Panasonic Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080P, Sony 5.1 home theater system.

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