Taking place in the 1700s, this short animated film spans the lifetime of two friends, a girl and a boy, in feudal Japan.
2004’s animated Steamboy was the last we’d seen of filmmaker Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated oeuvre. He made a splash around the world with his creator owned manga turned feature AKIRA and has subsequently gone on to do cult classic anthologies like Robot Carnival and Memories. Unlike his contemporaries, his works are few and far between, but animation fans sit up and take notice whenever a new work is presented.
His latest effort in the animated realm is titled Combustible. It’s a 12 minute short he made a little bit out of frustration. As he described it during a Q&A held at the REDCAT in Los Angeles where he screened the film to animation festival goers, his interests in period pieces are not often shared by the people who would fund his work. Doing this film as a short form experimental animation was really the only way he could get the story out there.
Otomo’s background is as a manga artist and writer so, he’s had many decades to hone his skills in those departments. It shows quite clearly in his work as his animated efforts (and even live action works) show an emphasis on plot that keeps his films sailing above the fray. Being that this is a short form work, the plot is quite a simple one. It’s a relationship story between two childhood friends in period Japan. The story spans their entire lives from childhood to adulthood and is told via bite sized moments throughout their lives. The two are neighbhors and both from well to do families. We watch them as they play in the girl’s yard as toddlers, they flirt as teens, and then they become estranged as adults, ultimately reuniting under fiery circumstances. I take back what I said earlier about this being a simple plot. As I think about it, the film manages to tackle so much (said and unsaid) subject matter that’s it’s really worth seeing this multiple times to get all the rich texture on display.
Speaking of texture. Let’s also talk about the visuals. The film is told using both traditional animation and CG integration. With the exception of a few scenes, however, you’ll be hard pressed to tell when an element is CG and when it is traditionally drawn. Visually the story is presented in the form of a literal scroll unraveling to show the events of this tale. Just as in real traditional Asian tapestry art, the plot is told continuously as we pan over the parchment from right to left. The story opens to a large (period) cityscape and we scroll by from greater city, zooming in as we get closer and more intimate, and finally down to the single home where our principle characters are playing and giggling in the yard. Everything from the character and environment designs, to the rich and authentic color palette, all help to serve the time and the subject matter on display.
For the legion of fans who were waiting to see another long form project from Otomo, news that this is just a short film will no doubt discourage them from bothering to seek this out. That would be a shame though as this is every bit as powerful a work as any of his other productions. The story is an intimate one and lacks the flare of the sci-fi projects that he’s known for, but lovers of storytelling, animation, and Otomo in general will want to queue this one up.
An A grade for Animation
An A grade for Direction
An A grade for Plot and Storytelling
Overall an A grade for a film that manages to capture so much in such a small package.