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TAKAHIDE HORI: JUNK HEAD (2017) - 2021 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 6-22)

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HORI'S LITTLE EXPLORER, IN HIS FIRST REPLACEMENT FORM, IN JUNK HEAD

In a post-apocalyptic netherworld

It's said Takahide Hori, presiding genius of Junk Head, personally shot 140,000 sequential photos to make his one-man-band seven-year stop-motion production. This sounds about right, since at the demanding ratio of 24 frames per second Hori followed, it takes that many 24-frame seconds to make up the ninety-seven-minute run-time of this post-apocalyptic voyage to the underworld.

Junk Head is a prodigious, obsessive labor of love. Though filled with mind-bending chills and thrills and yucks and shocks that may remind you of Eraserhead and Francis Bacon, it's not entirely satisfying as narrative; it's overly episodic and lacks a satisfying conclusion. (This may arise from Hori's original plan having been to make ten short films.) But the animation itself is as artisanally innovative as stop-motion can be. There's a great variety of critters and humanoids to wonder at and that restless camera keeps this an exiting actioner. Notably also Hori, who made the film in his interior design studio, includes some deliciously complex miniature spaces full of scaffoldings, tunnels, stairways, overhanging structures. Their grandeur so much rivals Fritz Lang's Metropolis at times it can feel a bit out of sync with the grotesquery and comedy of the figures within them - and the Wall-E- like cuteness of Hori's soulful cyborg central character.

That character is encased in a protective body when first seen (and many of Hori's figures were baked in an oven). But the minute we first see him, he's being blown up, all except his head. Here's what's happening: iI's way into the future. Through genetic manipulation humans have achieved longevity, but in doing so have nearly lost the power to reproduce. They cloned themselves, creating a race, or races more likely, of creatures called Marigans (Mulligans) to serve them lodged in a subterranean world - where they have achieved fertility. 1,200 years ago the Marigans rebelled. Nonetheless many of them look on humans as gods. Now that a virus has killed off 200 million humans, the "gods" have sent down an emissary to take genetic samples from the lower world in hopes of learning how to reproduce freely again.

The only thing left of this lonely scout is the head in its protective covering (we only briefly glimpse the face inside). The scavengers who've inadvertently nearly destroyed him take the head to "the doctor," who sees what has happened, and after much busy comical computer hocus-pocus, finds that the human has lost all his memory but still clings to life. He's accordingly attached to a new cyborg body with the cute Wall-E look. He's supposed to be under the care of attendants, but he's soon out on his own in a maze of dusty, dingy, complex corridors and warehouses where menacing giant reptiles, spiders and worms, large and small dinosaur-like or Alien-like monsters, constantly threaten to destroy or devour.

In his new body he's dubbed "Junk Head" because he's assembled from discarded low value parts. But this body is Michelangelo's David compared to the clunky all-metal body and head he gets later, after he's blown up again. Then, he's called "Junkers," and is treated like the lowliest of servants. Memorably he's sent on a wild goose chase to bring back several dozen fresh mushrooms, and is cheated out of them and turned around in his path by an evil con man posing as guide.

This sci-fi road movie is like a horrific, futuristic Pilgrim's Progress, with lessons to be learned about the futility, deviousness, determination, helplessness, unexpected comedy, and occasional kindness even of this netherworld version of life. The thing is that even though he had animators and craftsmen helping him eventually this is Takahide Hori's universe, and the sense of being in one man's dark post-apocalyptic underworld is quite powerful and more than a little scary. (He voices most of the characters, who speak in a subtitled invented language, in a kind of whisper-rasp-gargle.) It's hard being in our own nightmares. Being thrust into this hyper-imaginative person's vivid, fully realized one is like David Cronenberg on acid.

One doesn't enter Hori's world as easily as one does Christopher Nolan's, say, or Eric Rohmer's. One is too constantly aware of the foreign, external made-ness. Inevitably one may start thinking about what we've heard, about the seven years the filmmaker spent on the handcrafted work; of the earlier 30-minute version that was shown in Japan to an excited audience, which gathered supporters, though crowd-sourcing was inadequate at first. We remember stories about how Hori didn't even know he was making stop motion, and had to Google it; struggling for four years to complete the 30-minute "Junk Head 1" in 2013, when he put it on YouTube, and the Oscar-winning director Benicio del Toro commented: "A one-man band work of deranged brilliance! Monumental will and imagination at work." (See the Japan-Forward article for details of the struggle.)

I was put off by it at first and found Junk Head a bit of a slog, despite its reasonable length. It was in perusing the wealth of stills on the internet that I began to realize what a richness was here. On re-watching, I understood how compelling the film is, what a forward thrust it has. Despite its episodic and repetitive nature, Junk Head creates a world and guides you through it forcefully. For animation fans this is a must-see.

Now in 2021 the film, which won the best animated feature award in its 2017 debut at Fantasia, has finally come out in a theatrical version in Japan and has also been fitted with an alternate set of first-rate English subtitles to replace the original Japanese ones. One hopes it will find its way to theatrical showings in the US and the rest of the world. One also hopes this gifted filmmaker, with that "monumental will and imagination," will continue to make more films (probably with more outside help from here on). Hori reportedly has a second film ready for release. We look forward to it.

Junk Head, debuted Jul. 23, 2017 at Montreal (Fantasia Film Festival), winning Best Animated Feature Special Mention (Satoshi Kon Award), showing at nearly a dozen other international festivals in 2017 and 2018, including the Best Director of a New Wave Feature Award at Fantastic Fest (Austin, TX). Also included in the 2021 NY Asian Film Festival, where it was co-winner of the Audience Award, and as part of which it was screened for this review. It was recently released in theaters in Japan.

Interview with animator Atsuko Miyake by Genko Jason on Genkinahito.

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THREE MARIGANS IN JUNK MAN

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A VAST SPACE IN MINIATURE BUILT AS A SET FOR JUNK HEAD

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TAKAHIDE HORI WITH SET AND FIGURES FOR JUNK HEAD

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