Short Peace: Complete Collection
Sentai Film Works: $29.98, Blu-ray
Although Katsuhiro Otomo’s reputation rests principally on his watershed cyberpunk feature Akira, his third anthology feature Short Peace brings together four strikingly different short films, two of them quite beautiful. Three of the films draw on Japanese history and folklore, but each is unique in look and content.
Shuhei Morita’s Oscar-nominated Possessions opens with a roving tinker seeking refuge from a storm in a small forest shrine. Inside, he’s harassed by tsukomogami: umbrellas, fabric, jars and other household objects that have acquired souls over a century of human use. They resent being consigned to the rubbish heap after their devoted service. Using his skills and the tools in his pack, the tinker repairs frayed umbrellas, sews lengths of worn brocade and thanks the spirit-objects for their decades of hard labor.
Morita skillfully uses CG to blend the look of 19th century woodblock prints and contemporary manga. Possessions establishes him as a young director of great promise, and the film should have won the Oscar for Animated Short this year, rather than the unimpressive Mr. Hublot.
As a director, Otomo has explored styles that range from the dystopic, cyberpunk future of Akira to the Victorian Steampunk of Steamboy. The romantic tragedy Combustible focuses on the daughter and son of wealthy families in 18th century Edo (Tokyo). Owaka is given by her parents to a man she’s never met in a loveless arranged marriage. Matsukichi defies his father and becomes a fireman with tattooed arms. As she broods amid lavish, unwanted gifts, Owaka inadvertently causes a fire that brings Matsukichi’s brigade, and reduces their families’ homes to ashes. Otomo adapted the intricate patterns of period fabrics and the stylized flames of the great ukiyo-e woodblock prints to create an opulently beautiful spectacle.
In Hiroaki Ando’s dark fable Gambo, a demon has kidnapped the women and killed the men a tiny mountain hamlet. A samurai wearing a crucifix—in an era when the Shoguns had banned Christianity in Japan—orders the last little girl in the village to pray. The demon slays both the samurai and the Imperial troops. But as the girl prays, a huge white bear appears and tears the demon apart. The imagery in Gambo is rendered in strong, calligraphic brushstrokes, but the film lacks the assured beauty of Possessions and Combustible.
Hajime Katoki’s A Farewell to Arms brings Short Peace to a weak conclusion. A standard sci-fi tale about a squad of soldiers trying to eliminate a robot-tank in a ruined city, it’s capably directed and its almost monochromatic palette effectively suggests the desert setting. But the characters and the story remain underdeveloped, making Farewell feel like a middle with no beginning or end.
Despite the ineffectual finale, the imaginative visuals of Short Peace offer a timely reminder that the visual potential of the art of animation is limitless—and largely unexplored.
[Release date: August 5]
Naruto Shippuden: the Movie: Blood Prison
VIZ: $24.98, Blu-ray
In Blood Prison (2012), the eighth Naruto theatrical feature, director Masahiko Murata demonstrates the flair for fast-paced action and elaborate battle sequences he showed in the earlier films The Lost Tower and The Will of Fire. Blood Prison delivers the emotionally-charged excitement fans of the hit supernatural ninja series Naruto Shippuden want and expect.
Everyone’s favorite ninja and self-proclaimed knucklehead Naruto Uzumaki is unjustly accused of attempting to assassinate the leader of the Hidden Cloud Village and the murders of ninja from the Cloud and Hidden Mist Villages. Stripped of the hard-won headband that identifies him as a member of the Hidden Leaf Village, he’s confined to the prison of Hozuki Castle, a sort of Ninja Azkaban, run by the sinister Lord Mui.
Not surprisingly, Naruto proves to be a less than model prisoner, but more is at stake than his immediate problems. Hidden within the castle is the magical vault that conceals the Box of Paradise, which is supposed to grant any wish the possessor chooses. Long ago, the chiefs of the Hidden Grass Village nearly conquered the entire ninja world with its powers. In prison, Naruto befriends the mysterious woman Ryuzets. She explains that Mui and his colleagues framed Naruto to gain access to the enormous reserves of chakra energy that belong to the Nine-Tailed Fox Demon that’s’ sealed within his body. With that energy, they could finally gain access to the Box and make the Hidden Grass Village supreme.
There’s no way Naruto will allow anyone to gain power to harm his home and friends in the Hidden Leaf Village. His efforts to thwart the plot woven by Mui and the four masked leaders of the Hidden Grass Village leads to an all-about battle that ultimately hinges on sacrifice, loyalty and friendship, rather than raw strength or lethal weapons. When Naruto fights, all his friends fight with him, even when they’re not there physically.
Like Murata’s earlier Naruto features, Blood Prison features some striking imagery, although for some reason, the grim prison is built around a copy of Bernini’s sculpture of St. Teresa of Avila. The climactic, pull-out-all the stops battle pits Naruto and his friends against a wonderfully bizarre monster that looks like the misbegotten melding of a giant spider, one of the Angels from Neon Genesis Evangelion and Alice the Goon from “Thimble Theater.” Amid the titanic struggles, Naruto learns the lesson Carl and Russell did in Up: that the silly, boring details of daily life may be the most significant and endearing.
As Naruto spends much of his time alone, the film lacks the broad comedy his friends supply in the TV series. The filmmakers make up for it in a brief tail piece and in the knockabout slapstick short Chunin Exam on Fire: Naruto vs. Konohamaru, which pits the intrepid hero of the series against his over-eager “l’il bro.”