"An' all us other childern, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an' has the mostest fun
A-list'nin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,
An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you ef you don't watch out!"
-- Excerpt from "Little Orphant Annie" by James Whitcomb Riley (1885)
Folk tales have a way of disquieting the spirit. As products of the so-called "modern" world, ghost stories told around a campfire shouldn't scare us at all. Yet they have an undeniable power in dredging up metaphysical truth. For all that we deny the spiritual, the supernatural, and the extraordinary, most all of us experience moments when things just can't be explained by our five senses. In the northern hemisphere, October is a time of decay and death as fall plows its course. Without it, we could never reach the renewal of spring. But it's a time when there's more emphasis on our mortality, an awareness of the spiritual, and a realization of our unsure footing in a world that doesn't always make sense.
October is the perfect month for Kakurenbo.
Kakurenbo is a short film, barely 25 minutes long including the credits, by a crew of essentially six folks who put together what has become an international award-winner. It takes the resonating mythology of Japanese folklore and combines it with a modern visual style that is nothing short of breathtaking. Perhaps it's creepy because it's so foreign; the soundtrack is a mix of old Japanese chants and sounds not heard in anime since Akira, and the characters have deeply Asian roots. But perhaps it's creepy because, despite the world of difference between East and West, there's a central core thought -- we don't know exactly what lies beyond -- that permeates the human experience. But make no doubt: this is a darn creepy pleasure.
In the back streets of old city Tokyo, under the neon lights and street lamps, there is a game called O-to-ko-yo. Rumors have been whispered about a match of hide and seek where seven participants in fox masks chase after each other only to be caught by demons, never to appear again. It seems like an old wives' tale. But this time, young Hikora knows the stakes: his sister is one of the missing. As the fluorescent bulbs flicker, the game of cat and mouse begins.
Even if you hate the horror genre, you must see this show for yourself. Kakurenbo boasts absolutely incredible animation -- in fact, some of the best CG-aided work I've ever seen, as impressive (if not more so) than huge studio efforts like Appleseed and Steamboy. Although director Syuhei Morita is a little too fond of sweeping up-and-down pans, you'll want to look at the world he's created with designer Daisuke Sajiki pretty closely. Although it owes at least a passing nod to the opening five minutes of Akira, it's a new take filled with beauty and terror in the dark corners. And to really understand the characters, you have to look in their eyes...the masks cover their faces, and it's a testament to the creators that despite having only one feature to work with, the eyes become so expressive. Anyone who's a serious fan of animation will love this.
Now on to the story. How much can you do in roughly 22 minutes? Voices of a Distant Star proved that characters could be developed in that amount of time if you have only two; Kakurenbo has nine, so that's out. There also just isn't enough room for much narrative. Is it possible to be coherent in this short amount of time? Absolutely. Its backdrop may be simple, but Kakurenbo packs a lot in. Horror connoisseurs will be disappointed if they expect this to be a gore fest or a "pop out and scare you" show; it's not. It's of the lingering fear variety. The characters, children and spirits alike, look like they've stepped out of a Noh drama. The music, based as it is in traditional Japanese styles, is otherworldly. The whole atmosphere drips with tension. It's spooky enough that I think it's too scary for kids; US Manga Corps has given it a "13 Up" rating, so they agree.
There are a couple of minor issues to broach before closing. One is that the ending of the program relies on a cultural language footnote. It goes untranslated in the English dub and gets its own immediate note within the Japanese subtitled version. It's unfortunate, but it makes the punchline not nearly as powerful in any English translation as it is to the Japanese speaker. US Manga Corps chose the best way to handle it, in my opinion; there's no good way to deal with this kind of issue. The other issue is that, unlike the previously mentioned Voices, I didn't have a deep connection with the show. It was excellent, but a small notch down from my best score. It was effective in precisely the way it wanted to be, I believe, but it doesn't quite have the resonance of perfection.
Now $19.99 (the list price of Kakurenbo) may seem a little steep for only a 25-minute feature, and I have to say I'm in partial agreement. You're essentially looking at $20 for what amounts to one episode of a television show. Granted, it's better looking than any TV you'll ever see, but I digress. The DVD package does have many extra features, running about twice the length of the film, and some of them are impressive. The interviews with Syuhei Morita and Daisuke Sajiki are standard fare, though I was impressed at how young they both were. There's also a feature commentary that runs with three separate screens -- the storyboard in one corner, the CG line work in the other, and the finished feature on top. If you want to see how this sort of project comes together, it's a fascinating look.
I have far different beliefs in the supernatural than what's found in old Japanese folk tales. My view involves a redemptive God at the center, not malevolent spirits. But even if you don't find Kakurenbo even slightly creepy and have no interest in the paranormal, you'll still get lots of mileage out of the wonderfully rendered animation and the creativity that we will hopefully see more of in the future from Yamatoworks, the company these guys started. They've already set a high benchmark.
Kakurenbo -- mild violence, folklore/occult themes, material too scary for young children -- A