Tag Archives: Japanese

CAPSULE: THE SNAKE GIRL AND THE SILVER-HAIRED WITCH (1968)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Yachie Matsui, Yûko Hamada, Sachiko Meguro

PLOTAn impressionable young girl is sent home from the orphanage to live with her parents, where she has to deal with a dazed mother, a hateful maid, a secret mutant sister, and a silver-haired witch intent on killing her.

COMMENTS: How would you feel if you were a child who had grown up an orphan, living a happy life in an idyllic children’s home, only to suddenly leave everything you’ve ever known to live with two strangers who happen to be your real parents? It would probably be difficult, right? Now imagine that on your first night home, your biologist father goes off to Africa, leaving you home alone with your disturbed mother, a stern housekeeper and… a secret older sister with a disfigured face who lives in the attic and happens to be half snake?

Yeah, most children would probably wish they had stayed at the orphanage. But wide-eyed young Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) is too innocent to leave her new parents, despite the countless horrors that she suffers at the hands of her older sister, Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi). First, it’s just a snake in the bed, but the madness soon escalates with a horrific dream where Sayuri’s beloved doll turns into a miniature human and is mauled by Tamami, who transforms into a grotesque reptilian creature when she attacks her prey. 

Even after Sayuri has a toad torn in half and thrown in her face, wakes up to a swarm of spiders in her bed, and is threatened with a flesh-dissolving acid bath, she still remains resolute in her decision to stay with her oblivious mother, who overlooks all of these offenses as unavoidable concessions that must be made to the pitiable Tamami.

But wait… We haven’t even touched on the second part of the title yet! Sayuri is willing to put up with her snaky sister’s shenanigans, but she draws the line at the silver-haired witch who emerges from the shadows of her attic bedroom. She barely escapes the house with her life and returns to the orphanage to seek help, but her sister and the witch aren’t about to let her get away that easily.

Part of a recent slew of obscure Japanese horror films released on the Arrow label, The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a hidden gem that offers more in the way of garish shocks and traditional horror imagery than more renowned art-house horror classics such as Kwaidan and Onibaba (long available from the Criterion Collection). Directed by Noriaki Yuasa, otherwise known primarily for the Gamera series of sub-Godzilla monster movies, there is nothing dull or formulaic about Snake Girl. It packs a lot of bizarre moments and unexpected plot developments into its brief 82 minute running time, while creating an original mythology of its own, which never relies on the usual horror tropes.

Another secret to this film’s success is the use of a child’s perspective. Horror films seen through the eyes of children are almost always more successful than those where adults are the main characters, although the latter variety is more common. And even though the special effects here are thoroughly low-budget and ridiculous (the titular “snake girl” is represented in dream sequences by a slit-mouthed puppet straight out of Sesame Street), the fact that everything is seen through the eyes of the unsuspecting Sayuri makes it forgivable.

Despite the apparent lack of budget, Yuasa creates a creepy mood that will be irresistible to any horror movie fan. When a film begins with slurping sounds, theremin, and a snake strangulation which is swiftly diagnosed as a “heart attack,” you know you’re in for some good schlock. The visuals are full of swirls and scaly imagery that drives home the idea that Sayuri is living in a house of snakes. There’s always something weird happening to sustain the mood, with none of the romantic side plots or dramatic filler often present in horror films of the era. It might not be high art, but if you’re looking for some classic Japanese horror that delivers the goods without taking itself too seriously, Snake Girl will give you all you’re looking for, and then some.

The Arrow Video release features a stunning new HD restoration that is worth the money. The Blu-ray also features a commentary by film historian David Kalat and an interview which gives some background info on the film and the work of Kazuo Umezu, who wrote the manga on which the film was based (and also has a brief cameo as a taxi driver in the film). Arrow is certainly doing the good work in rescuing these Japanese classics from obscurity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“With a host of surreal imagery including dream sequences full of creepy, hypnotic spirals, and moments of shocking violence such as a large frog being suddenly ripped in half right in front of Sayuri’s eyes the film certainly doesn’t stint on blood, horror and general freakiness… A children’s film that no one in their right mind would actually show to a child…” – Hayley Scanlon, Windows on Worlds

CAPSULE: ONIBABA (1964)

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DIRECTED BY: Kaneto Shindo

FEATURINGNobuko Otawa, Jitsuko Yoshimura,

PLOTTwo women make a living luring passing samurai to their death in a large pit and selling their belongings, until the return of a lusty neighbor leads them headfirst into a deadly conflict of sexual passion and supernatural punishment.

COMMENTS: Anyone familiar with Japanese films from the 1950s and ‘60s knows that the samurai film was very popular in those days. But if your image of Japanese horror is The Ring and The Grudge, you might be surprised to know that Japanese horror films of earlier eras also skewed towards the samurai genre (when not of the Godzilla variety, that is). This isn’t the samurai film of and Toshiro Mifune, though. Onibaba takes place in an even more distant era of Japanese history, some time around the 14th century, during the Warring States era, which found samurai generals leading groups of conscripted farmers waging endless wars on behalf of various emperors and warlords.

The story goes like this: an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in the middle of a vast susuki grass field, awaiting the return of her son and unable to farm because of bad weather and the lack of men in the area. To make ends meet, they ambush passing soldiers stranded in the tall grass and kill them for their belongings, disposing of the bodies in a deep dark hole. One day, a neighbor (Kei Sato) returns from the war, bearing news of the son’s death. Before long, he makes advances towards the dead man’s wife, infuriating her mother-in-law as well as a ghostly spirit who rises from the tall grass at night.

Except for that last part, this might not sound much like horror. To be fair though, Onibaba is not so much a fright film as it is an erotic drama with supernatural undertones. The sexual passion arising between the young man and woman is elemental, like the tall grass that fills the Cinemascope frame and dwarfs the three main characters. While scenes involving the evil demon who appears to punish the two lovers can be hair-raising, ultimately it’s the grass that makes Onibaba such a strange and compelling experience. Depending on the moment, it can look like ripples in a shallow pond, flowing hair, a raging fire, a cage, or a bird’s wings.  You experience the isolation of the characters in a way that is tactile and sensual. Feelings of sexual desire and fear take on a primitive intensity, as Japanese taiko drums thunder in the background with threatening urgency.

Adding to the film’s mystique, the cast and crew lived in makeshift huts in a remote field while making this film, with contracts that required them to stay on location for the duration of the shoot or forfeit their pay. The finished film reflects the isolation and frustration resulting from these conditions, with the actors expressing their characters’ desires with a physicality atypical for Japanese cinema: rolling around in the grass like dogs in heat, grinding their bodies against wooden poles, and attacking their samurai prey like wild animals. This makes for an unusually intense film about sexual desire and spiritual beliefs in a more primitive era of humanity, with a ghostly and unsettling atmosphere that perfectly evokes the fears you might experience if you lived your entire existence in an all-encompassing sea of grass.

Onibaba has recently received an upgrade to its previous Criterion Collection release from 2004, a new Blu-ray edition which retains most of the special features from the original DVD (including an interview with director Kaneta Shindo and on-set footage from the shoot), along with a new HD restoration and a 2001 commentary featuring Shindo and actors Kei Sato and Jitsuko Yoshimura. If you’ve never seen this Japanese horror classic, there’s never been a better time to remedy that situation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The director’s brooding tale is abetted by Hiyomi Kuroda’s cloudy, low-key photography and Hikaru Kuroda’s properly weird background musical score. But despite Mr. Shindo’s obvious striving for elemental, timeless drama, it is simply sex that is the most impressive of the hungers depicted here.”–A.H. Weiler, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES (2021)

Droste no hate de bokura

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Junta Yamaguchi

FEATURING: Aki Asakura, Kazunori Tosa

PLOT: Kato receives a warning from his future self over the closed circuit TV link between his café and his apartment and things cascade—from innocent hijinks to run-ins with dangerous thugs—much more quickly than he would prefer.

COMMENTSBeyond the Infinite Two Minutes is a meditation on pre-determinism and with it, the concept of history as an immutable foundation for future events and actions. It’s a tightly scripted exercise in reiterative story-telling, exploring (among other things) the Droste Effect as it pertains to temporal progression and regression. With this film’s ironclad approach to time travel, Junta Yamaguchi creates a cinematic sleight-of-hand on par with Primer. Except this time, the story is told for laughs: in addition to everything else, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is a rollicking, fun-time comedy.

The shenanigans begin simply enough, with Kato closing up his café and shuffling upstairs to his apartment. Entering his room, he picks up his guitar and begins searching for something. Suddenly he sees himself appear on the computer monitor connected to the CCTV feed from his café below. His future self—two minutes ahead, it is explained—tells him that his guitar pick is underneath the carpet. He finds the missing plectrum and heads back downstairs to fulfill his present-future self’s duty to his past self, and so the cycle begins.

Beyond is a sci-fi temporal sitcom, with a romantic interest (the barber’s daughter we first see, briefly, in the opening shot; which I will remark on in a future paragraph). It’s peopled by a bunch of affable twenty-somethings who are first confounded by the anomaly, then scheme about its possibilities (horse-racing outcomes, anyone?), and then are forced to plot out Kato’s survival when a pair of gangsters crash the time party. The entire thing is shot in four rooms and a stairwell, using an iPhone, so everything hinges on the script. The two-minute gap is adhered to with commendable strictness, and the whole thing is littered with spoof-level platitudes found in countless time-travel movies gone by. (“The future keeps going!”, one exclaims; then, lamenting their earlier escapades, “There’s gotta be a better use.”)

The “opening shot” I mentioned a few minutes ago was a bit of a misnomer, because not being content with just the time-travel constraint, Beyond also gives the impression of being shot in one take. Characters cart the linked monitors up and down stairways, then linger outside the view of the “time tunnel” when they square the screens to face one another, but there is never an obvious cut to the action.

The whole shebang is one uninterrupted hour, which is impressive on account of both the running camera trick and the filmmaker’s restraint; it never overstays its welcome. Fantasia’s earlier stylistic reboot One Cut of the Dead gave the zombie genre a much-needed shot in the arm; Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes has renewed my faith in erstwhile time-worn time-traveling.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a remarkable feat that in a film with this many brain-bending moments, the only part that really strains credulity is the length of the power cords of the two screens that drive the plot.” -Thomas O’Connor, Tilt (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

Môsô dairinin 

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mamiko Noto, Shouzou Iizuka, Toshihiko Seki, Haruko Momoi (Japanese); Michelle Ruff, Michael McConnohie, Liam O’ Brien, Carrie Savage (English dub)

PLOT: Toy designer Tsukiko Sagi, under tremendous pressure after creating an enormously successful character “Maromi,” is attacked by a bat-wielding boy on skates—dubbed “Li’l Slugger” (or “Shonen Bat”)—or so she claims. The two detectives assigned to the case have their doubts, but more attacks occur, and the victims appear to be connected, and all under some type of mental distress.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: “Paranoia Agent” balances horror and humor adroitly, especially when seen from a perspective 20 years later. Aside from some minor points, the series doesn’t feel dated; it could have been generated within the past seven years. The credit sequence establishes the tone, with the main characters laughing hysterically despite their incongruous settings (underwater, in traffic, and before an atomic explosion, to name a few), while the upbeat theme song just adds to the unsettling nature.

“Paranoia has a stronger image than fantasy. Yes. Delusional, maybe. Right. The word gives an impression that a person is, in a sense… actively making himself delusional. That kind of strength is inherent in the word. Well, in order to go through life… everyone needs to have something apart from reality… such as fantasy, dream, or maybe paranoia. Otherwise, life can be surprisingly hard. Yes. The world as a person perceives… it is a world filtered through his fantasy or paranoia, I think. In that sense, I don’t think that fantasy and paranoia are necessarily unhealthy.”–Satoshi Kon

COMMENTS: For admirers of Satoshi Kon’s work, “Paranoia Agent” can be viewed as a grab bag or sampler of sorts. There are echoes from Perfect Blue (1997), Millennium Actress (2001), Tokyo Godfathers (2003), and you can see hints of Paprika (2006). “Paranoia Agent” grew out of concepts that did not develop into larger projects, and a proving ground for things that did show up later.

At the time of its creation and release, this miniseries could be read as social commentary on aspects of Japanese society in the early 2000s. Cellphones, the Internet and the beginnings of social media are present, providing plenty of distractions for people. The show is an effective commentary on fantasy vs. reality; as Modern Life becomes more unbearable, more and more people seek escape via fantasy. But “Paranoia Agent” underlines the necessity to live in reality, as escapist coping mechanisms are shown to be ultimately destructive. Some cultural aspects the show touches on, such as Denpa-kei Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PARANOIA AGENT (2004)

CAPSULE: VERSUS (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Ryûhei Kitamura

FEATURING: , Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka

PLOT: Two escaped convicts make their way to the location where gangsters are supposed to pick them up; double-crosses follow, complicated by the fact that the rendezvous spot is a mystical forest where the dead quickly return to life.

Still from Versus (2000)

COMMENTS: Although there’s a token plot involving a gate to Hell and reincarnation, Versus is basically nonstop dopey comic book violence, choreographed by filmmakers who don’t care as much about logic as they do about making sure the actors look cool while shooting zombies. From about the ten-minute mark until the credits roll after two hours, the movie  is one long melee, with a few pauses to catch its breath.

Because the dead pop right back up as zombies here in the “resurrection forest,” there’s seldom a lack of victims; if the script temporarily runs short of bodies, it just brings in another platoon of yakuza or cops from off-screen and the killing starts again. The cast is so large that you lose track of who’s killed who, and how many times. Sometimes it only takes one bullet to take down a zombie; sometimes twenty are needed. For variety’s sake there’s ample kickboxing, knife fights, some kind of combination machine gun/bazooka, and samurai swords pulled out for the final showdown. The violence is often played for grossout laughs—Evil Dead II is a big influence here—with heart-eating, a bad guy who can punch straight through heads, and eyeballs stuck on the ends of fingers. More conventional comic relief comes in a cowardly yakuza, and there’s also a tiresome running gag where the hero keeps knocking the heroine unconscious. The mythology motivating the massacre is serviceable, the leads look good, and the action is sold in bulk. And that’s about it.

In hindsight, Versus is not an incredibly weird film, although the mix of samurai, yakuza, zombies, and nonstop gore was novel at the time. The movie was significant as a proto- film, however. Not only did it launch the career of cult action star and subgenre icon Tak Sakaguchi, but it’s also the first screenwriting credit for , who would go on to mix the absurd violence found here with -style body horror in Meatball Machine (2005) to launch the line of bioweapondry-obsessed B-movies that grew increasingly ridiculous throughout the early 21 century.

Arrow Video’s 2021 “Limited Edition” Blu-ray is another Criterion-quality set from the specialty releaser, with numerous extras and a second disc housing the “Ultimate Edition” of Versus. This 131-minute cut provides an additional 11 minutes of fighting footage that was newly shot in 2003. If you’re surprised that they went back to the forest to film even more fight scenes, rather than some extra exposition or character development, then you’re probably not in the target audience for Ultimate Versus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kitamura’s gonzo flick is overstuffed to the point of nausea, its barrage of gory outrageousness becoming wearisome after the first fifty fatal mutilations…”–Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Martin,” who described it as a “Japanese gangster, zombie, martial arts, apocalypse movie. Mind blowing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UROTSUKIDŌJI: LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND (1987-1989)

超神伝説うろつき童子

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DIRECTED BY: Hideki Takayama

FEATURING: The voices of Tomohiro Nishimura, Hirotaka Suzuoki, Youko Asagami, Maya Okamoto

PLOT: The three realms—human, demon, and beast-men—are in for an apocalyptic reconfiguring once “the Overfiend” is born anew after a 3,000-year dormancy.

Still from UROTSUKIDŌJI: LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND (1987-1989)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It’s hard to establish a new film genre, much less one as famous as “tentacle porn,” but that’s only one of the reasons this gooey mind-blast deserves our attention. Beyond the fantastically grotesque violence, Urotsukidōji‘s features banal, “young adult” comedy stylings. By pairing these two extremes, Takayama has made a movie that constantly wrong-foots the viewer’s expectations, leading to plenty of mental whiplash throughout its epic length.

COMMENTS: In a case of life imitating art, the story of Urotsukidōji‘s various releases is nearly as convoluted as the story Urotsukidōji tries to tell. The cast of characters—all animated, of course, but all assuredly “at least 19 years of age” per one of the (half-dozen+) advisories on the DVD I watched—runs the gamut from dweeb school boy to jock school boy to jock school girl to sociopathic “beast man” to the son of Doctor Munchausen, giddy-Nazi scientist extraordinaire. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. That last character features in the possibly-non-canon followup, Legend of the Demon Womb.

Allow me to begin again. Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend is a three-part, adults-only “Erotic Horror” film released over a few years in the late 1980s. Stateside, it was published on VHS by the good people at Penthouse Video. Their intended market? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Takayama is doubtless a household name to some, but I imagine they’d be hesitant to admit it. Manga-based depravity (and I honestly don’t intend that designation judgmentally) is one thing; I know from hearsay (I swear) that there are countless volumes of “niche” comics. But giving life to the bodily explosions, demon/cheerleader rapes, energy-beam penises, and—naturally—invasive tentacles rips these otherwise static musings from the printed page and bombards the eyes with pulsating images that one will likely never be able to unsee.

Legend’s story is nothing short of epic, with each segment featuring an admonition against “arrogant humanity.” From the get-go, we know humanity is screwed. The agent of this enscrewment is the ominously (and unsubtly) named “Overfiend”, who will be incarnated in a human vessel. That vessel is Tatsuo, a lecherous whelp of a high school (?) student whom we first meet while he’s peering into the girl’s locker room and jacking off. Up in the rafters, there’s Amano, a sort of beast-faerie fellow who’s been prowling around the human world on the hunt for the Overfiend. There’s the spunky cheerleader, Akemi, the prime object of Tatsuo’s lust (and who becomes lamentably less spunky as the demonic madness builds). And last but not least, there’s Megumi, another faerie-beast thing and sister of Amano—though their familiality doesn’t prevent them from being rather… “open” with each other.

Urotsukidōji is impressive despite the narrative incoherence. The “young adult” comedy is cutesy, but often amusing. The apocalyptic imagery is wonderfully grand and desolate. The sex is graphic, but also erotic—though it becomes differently erotic at the drop of a hat. Whatever your views on the subject matter (young romance, demons, apocalypse, philosophy, cosmic renewal, tentacle rape), the result is a credit both to the writer of the original manga (Toshio Maeda certainly deserves this name drop) as well as Hideki Takayama. Tinto Brass had a vision of hardcore pornography becoming common-place in otherwise normal movies. Takayama must think that innocent yen to be rather quaint.

Purist warning: please note that the affordable DVD linked above (titled “Urotsukidoji: Legend Of The Overfiend: Movie Edition”) is, apparently, a condensed and censored cut of the film. Commercial copies of the uncut version (on DVD or VHS) are out-of-print and can go for several hundred dollars; if you’re still interested, you can try this search.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Imagine the convoluted interlocking relationships of a soap opera filtered through a World Wrestling Federation script… Oddly enough, the eventual Chojin comes off like a cyberpunk version of the demon from Fantasia‘s ‘Night on Bald Mountain,’ albeit hyped on steroids and speed.” -Richard Harrington, Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GENIUS PARTY (2007)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Hideki Futamura, Yuji Fukuyama, Shoji Kawamori, Shinji Kimura, , Masaaki Yuasa

FEATURING: Various voice actors

PLOT: Six short animated films from different directors associated with Japan’s Studio 4ºC.

COMMENTS: There’s no better way to enjoy the Christmas/Saint Stephen’s/Saint John’s/Holy Innocent’s holiday run than to nestle back with coffee and cartoons, so I kicked up my heels and dove deep into a very fine collection of anime wonderments (as well as a mixed metaphor). Each entry in this 2007 anthology gets its own paragraph.

“Shanghai Dragon” – dir. by Shoji Kawamori

Somehow the fate of humanity rests in the snot-covered hands of 5-year-old Gonglong when a mysterious, magical piece of chalk is crash-delivered to his schoolyard. “Shanghai Dragon” playfully riffs on the Terminator premise, showcasing the likely whimsicality if mankind’s savior were a very, very young boy. Kawamori’s short is, in a way, straight-up action anime, including a cybernetically enhanced, cigar-smoking badass; killer robots; hundreds of explosions; and a giant AI-controlled dog robot. But it’s also one of the cutest cartoons I have ever seen.

“Deathtic 4” – dir.  Shinji Kimura

Four young school friends plot to save a (live) frog that was somehow transported to their (zombie) planet by the hazardous Uzu-Uzu weather event. While “Shanghai Dragon” was cute, “Deathtic 4” (presumably the planet’s name) is one of the ickier cartoons I’ve seen—but it still immolated me in a fire-wall of charm. The quartet inhabits a sicklier variant of ‘s “Halloween Town“, and are all losers (despite three of them claiming “super powers”). The Zombie Police discover the living froggy, they sound the alarm–via a detachable siren nose that turns out to be one of those “moooo” canisters. The lads then flee toward the MASSIVE cyclone, Uzu-Uzu, with a plan ripped from a Garbage Pail Kids’ E.T.

“Doorbell” – dir. by Yuji Fukuyama

Fukuyama’s short is by far and away the most cryptic of the bunch, but that isn’t what made it my least favorite—or maybe it is. My suspicion is the director is attempting a philosophical exercise concerning infinite realities, all variants centered around one focal point: in “Doorbell”s case, that of a young man whose versions of himself keep splitting off and cutting him off from future paths. Neat, and pleasantly understated—and as such, feels a little out of place here.

“Limit Cycle” – dir. by Hideki Futamura

Playing like a cyber-theological TED talk, Futamura’s short lacks narrative and characters, but is the most fascinating entry. Its layered visuals, which combine classic animation, computer animation along with symbolic numbers, images, and math, are lush and hypnotic—prompting me to sorely regret my lack of fluency in Japanese, as my eyes had to stay anchored to the persistent subtitles to have any grasp of what was going on. Beautiful to behold while raising many profound philosophical points.

“Happy Machine” – dir. by Masaaki Yuasa

Humanistic allegory meets wacky animation in this short. The story begins with a happy infant (whimsical mobile above his bed, toys lining shelves, loving mother approaching to feed him) whose reality is sucked away, forcing him on a strange journey through a wasteland. Animation itself is deconstructed as its artifice collapses along with the infant’s home—and that’s just one of the dozen or so dissections of life, etc., that Yuasa performs with his singular ‘tooning style.

“Baby Blue” – dir. by Shinichiro Watanabe

Boy is going to be moving away from his school–and his girl-crush–and so suggests that he and she cut class and head out. To anywhere. Those seeking a melancholic musing on maturation may find this quite satisfying. While it lacks the temporal/scientific/divine themes of its fellow entries, I wasn’t unhappy about its inclusion, particularly the scene where the boy busts out a grenade (acquired, against the odds, in a wholly believable manner) to fend off a gaggle of ’50s throwback goons.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the average level of quality is staggeringly high… If you have any love for animation as a medium of art, I cannot recommend this collection enough.”–Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead,” who described it as “pretty weird. It’s a series of mind-blowing anime shorts, specially the short ‘Happy Machine.'” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)