Blurring the organic and inorganic, the literal and the figurative, Happy Machine depicts the lifecycle of one particular human in a land seemingly devoid of any other human presence. That’s about as general a description as one can make, and it’s one that takes the door off at the hinges to allow literally anything to happen … which is good, because plenty does. In less than fifteen minutes, Masaaki Yuasa gives you a world and life story that is both fairy tale and fever dream.
Disclaimer: a very big fan of Masaaki Yuasa’s work wrote the following:
Since they are usually out-of-the-box to begin with in terms of expressionistic freedom (concept and art), experimental/arthouse pieces and passion projects often get an extended pass as far as longevity is concerned. When not bound by the style(s) of the times, it is far easier to be considered palatable X many years past the production date. You can certainly pick at how certain technologies are employed and to what effect, but the combination of metaphorical storytelling as well as the surreal situations and environments in Masaaki Yuasa’s Happy Machine makes it no surprise that this 2007 short uses the disparity between art styles to prove just as engaging and poignant as it was ten years ago and shows what anime is capable of saying when it learns to stop flapping its lips.
Happy Machine is completely free of dialog, and few anime directors are better suited for creating visual wonders in which viewers’ minds are begged to wander than Masaaki Yuasa. His fingerprints of color, form, and surrealist precipice-teetering imagination serve well the world he creates here. Every single image can be pulled apart, and I highly recommend a watch so you can try … and subsequent watches so you can dig deeper. Yuasa creates with an “ugliness” that’s downright refreshing when compared to the uber-polished presentations produced en masse these days (as well as back then). The lack of lacquer makes this work child-like in regards to its presentation, which mirrors the content and makes of the whole thing a picture book one might expect to be drawn by the protagonist – who we assume grows up without an established/structured language.
Childhood is a series of dispelled illusions to all except those looking back on those experiencing its wonder and disappointment in its disappearance. In this way, Yuasa crafts nostalgia for an inquisitive, impressionable, and passionate life rife with lessons gleaned from transitions – chief amongst them: death. From every breakdown, be it mechanical or organic (or some combination thereof), the protagonist grows as a human being. To that end, the events animated for viewers’ eyes are more than what is being portrayed; shapes and the ways in which they are rendered and transition and in what context they do so matter a lot. The most overt example of this takes place after the mechanical coldness of a needle on an ambiguous countdown dial/gauge reaches zero.
After a loss of power, a live-action video of a nurturing female face on a TV screen, which tops a nursing apparatus, turns out to be CG balloons that wilt like so much a bouquet of flowers that appear to be re-illustrated by hand. The inorganic becomes part of the toddler’s otherwise relatively organic surroundings, and the craziness of the mother figure in death, and/or the toddler’s confusion related thereto, is shown via the video face going haywire – not in terms of electronic technical glitches but rather the positions in which the face turns and the speed and chaotic way in which it does so to illustrate terror and desperation. There’s also contrasting art styles, most disturbingly (if you’ll pardon the pun) embodied via the unnerving texture of lifeless rubber breasts hidden within the comfortably familiar texture of cotton. Furthermore, textures literally slide away from their contents: a goldfish bowl slips away from its digitally projected water and goldfish to proffer a portrayal of abandonment or at least instill a sense of the transitory. After this point, after all, the toddler gets birthed from a vagina like tear in soft material beneath his mechanical mother/sanctuary – delivered onto the hard soil of a very dangerous world with no-one else to defend him.
We are now 2:28 into the 15-minute short.
Happy Machine is also about the evolution of humans as animals of need, where those needs propel us as well as what they allow us to discover, and how those discoveries foster and feed the idiosyncrasies we exhibit as adults. There are consequences of naiveté, the learning of fear, and observation without necessarily understanding consequence. And the eventual equations drawn between the whole of experience is aptly shown here in what the child is enthralled with, what it is afraid of, and watching it observe action/inaction and reaction. And make no mistake: watching everything happen in this short piece is everything. You may have a sense of where the thread is going, and you may or may not be correct, but witnessing everything coalesce is the joy here.
To that end, varied points of view keep the camera’s leer engaging. Perspective is often over-exaggerated/simplified for visual impact but with great regard to context, and on the odd occasion, how instance interacts with context is as accurate as it is amazingly entertaining. Learning creeps in, naturally, in the most realistic ways – akin to how a child might perceive death’s imposition on life – despite surrealistic situations. There’s the learning of impermanence through the death of the fire child, whom the main character only came to be afraid of because he got burned trying to share with it. There’s the learning of shame in the same, since the water in which the main character took such joy also ended up taking the fire child’s life. There’s the depiction of good ol’ human scavenging illustrated as imitation and predatory inventiveness: the boy seeks to fly coming upon the carcass of a flying creature he once saw flying. There’s also the depiction of human inventiveness: the boy uses those adopted wings for shelter, which denotes a learning of problem solving and adaptation. There’s so much more, and it’s not just visual.
Despite the lack of dialog, the main character’s contentment, concerns, and frustrations come out in what might be considered the most basic of human communication: variations on grunts, coos, screeching, and wails. One particularly heart wrenching scene concerns greed as motivator for benevolence. The boy screeching at his glowing companion, who suddenly takes to the sky as part of its own natural evolution, attempts to warn of the impending danger sensed/seen. This reaction is simultaneously selfish and selfless, because the main character is trying to save a life that he knows has every right to live and has come to depend on and appreciate on more than a functional level (an emotional one). This grows the character’s understanding by bounds, and instills a sense of inter-species sympathy that equates all things living as equals in at least one sense.
And that brings us full circle, like the short does, with memories as weight. The main character, aged to the end of his lifetime, lugs around crude rock sculptures of those he’s encountered in a wagon also filled with an assortment of basic tools (a blade, some rope). With all the skills he’s learned through battles and experiences, as evidenced by the coloring and carnage wrought upon his physical form, he happenstantially (or most likely, as implied, instinctually) returns home in the steps of those before him. He replaces what he perceived as mere toys in his old bedroom with those sculptures from his own travels, implying a chain of learning and the passing down of knowledge (at the very least inheritance), and then retires from the wandering life to best aid the future generation.
For something less than 15 minutes, Happy Machine is a wild ride of color, imagery, imagination, and heart. It has not aged a day in 10 years due to how the disparate animation elements are leveraged and Yuasa’s competence in weaving them all together to tell our story as a species. Out of all the works about which I’ve written for the Ten Years Later column, I’d say this one is truly timeless – a story that, as parable and testament to imagination, will remain valuable and entertaining until the power goes out.
I covered Genius Party for Otaku USA in one of the special Anime USA issues, which you can purchase here. Fellow Ani-Gamer and OUSA writer Evan Minto covers the Genius Party Beyond set in the same issue. Neither of the shorts collections are currently available in the U.S.A., but you can enjoy the out-of-print Siren Visual DVDs, which include both GP and GPB as well as a ton of excellent extras, if you own a region-free player.