ジャンク ヘッド「Janku Heddo」
Release Date: March 26th, 2021
Running Time: 99 mins
Director: Takahide Hori
Writer: Takahide Hori (Screenplay),
Starring: Takahide Hori, Atsuko Miyake, Yuji Sugiyama,
Director Takahide Hori’s debut feature is dark, dystopian sci-fi-horror film JUNK HEAD, an unforgettable stop-motion movie that is unlike anything you will have ever seen. Alternately grotesque, blackly-comic, and weirdly cute, it is totally unique and sure to please those into the weird, body-horror, creature features, animation, and adventures.
It is a road movie filled with sets rich with details that absorb viewers it’s world while carefully crafted and cool-looking models are animated with such liveliness that they come to glorious life and leave us spellbound. Its effects on viewers already has been to spawn a monster word-of-mouth hit that dominated mini theatres across Japan and even garnered television airtime on variety shows. It has also become one of my favourite films of the year.
JUNK HEAD’s story is set in the far, far, far, future at a time when the human race has advanced enough to achieve immortality through gene manipulation and cybernetic bodies but has lost the ability to procreate. While humans dwell at the tops of towers close to the sky, mutants they created for slave labour, known as Marigans¹, toil away in the lower levels. It is from these mutants that human scientists hope to recover genetic material to restore their ability to breed.
Enter an explorer who is sent deep, deep, deep, into the dark and dangerous bowels of the Earth where he must journey across a dank industrial multi-floor landscape that is full of weird inhabitants that make up a cast of delightfully dim-witted but stout-hearted allies, sly tricksters, dangerous beasts, and demented castaways who are all born from their environment, wander it, and maintain it.
Aesthetically and in terms of setting, JUNK HEAD is reminiscent of the early manga of Tsutomu Nihei, particularly Abara and Blame!. The film’s brilliantly constructed and highly-detailed sets are evocative visions of concrete catacombs full of abandoned buildings and makeshift homes, lost technology and industrial waste, all fringed by exposed wires, worm-like vents, and a surrounding inky blackness that suggests the fathomless depths and distances of this world. Traversing this environment is done via rubble-and-waste-strewn tunnels, vast bridges, rickety stairways, and rusty gantries that stretch deep into the darkness. It is an amazingly complete world that viewers will definitely get lost in just as much as the main character.
Amidst this landscape are isolated villages where Marigans live, humanoid creatures that resemble us – they have clothes, tools, and vehicles and they have commerce and occupations drawn from their manmade environments – but are made unsettling, othered, even, in their blank and sometimes eyeless faces and mostly hairless bodies, and their ability to morph themselves through their own biotech.
That the Marigans maintain the factories of the lower floors is reminiscent of the morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine but they are less malevolent and more jolly and quaint. Indeed, their mythology is more fascinating and unique as we learn of their weird creation and become part of the matriarchal tech-society of Valve Village which is run by muscle-bound females. We see Marigans exist in a complex ecosystem that feel real as they work, go on holiday, and shop, and hunt some of the predators, who share their DNA, that dwell on the concrete plains surrounding their villages.
Like Nihei’s works, there is a lot of transhumanism on offer as mechanical and biomorphous creatures abound! The most eye-catching of the myriad of genetic monstrosities that exist have slithering tentacles, boulder-like fists, stiletto-like legs, and daggers for teeth which they use to tear at flesh and get the blood flowing on screen. They add a palpable sense of threat to the world and that leads to some truly thrilling chases and heart-pounding confrontations as the main character stumbles upon and flees a weird and scary menagerie of creatures that will definitely leave auds shocked and on the edge of their seats.
Discovering this is our protagonist, who comes to be named Junkers by the Marigans. A hero with a human head and a cybernetic body, he undergoes all sorts of modifications (or should that be, de-modifications) as he goes deeper down and meets new friends and foes who disassemble and reassemble him. He is our way into this world and his situation creates an engaging set of countervailing moods of comedy, action, and vulnerability with each floor Junkers descends to and every change to his body as he goes from cybernetic super-soldier to a cuter and scrappier version of himself.
His character arc fulfilling his mission as an explorer and he is an admirable hero, however, I personally fell in love with the Marigans, a gallery of rogues and idiosyncratic wanderers that bring comedy to the film through their oddball behaviour. I was particularly tickled by the Three Hell Ogres, a trio of short guys who, despite their moniker, act like silly fools. They are dressed in black and carry weaponry like bolt-guns and knuckle-dusters, they know martial-arts but, more importantly, they are capable of great acts of friendship and bravery. Their naivety, good heartedness, and rough-and-tumble natures lead to many a laugh-out-loud moment where we see them bickering and I was happy to join them on various misadventures that captured my imagination as these characters, from such disparate worlds, eventually crash together in a scary and funny and poignant action-packed finale that promises a future instalment.
And I hope a sequel gets made because this richly conceived world is a joy to discover. However, while this may may be epic in scope, its genesis is pure indie legend.
The film is a true indie work made on a low budget in that it is the singular vision of its director, Takahide Hori, an interior director by trade, who dreamed of making this movie. After making an 30-minute short and screening it in 2013, he quit his day job to work as writer, director, editor, actor, (and more – watch the credits to see his name pop up in many departments) with a small team of freelance creatives, like stop-motion animator Atsuko Miyake Ken Makino, and Yuji Sugiyama, to complete the project with everyone pitching in to create sets, dolls, special effects, and then animating and adding voice acting. Knowing that it was made by such a small team makes the film an even more impressive achievement.
This film could only have been made via stop-motion to fully realise its scope rather than using budget-busting live-action or bloodless CG. The animation was done with 24 frames per second rather than 10 or 12 and these extra frames lead into all sorts of dynamic movements and fluid motion for the dolls. This is bolstered by agile camerawork, editing, and smart use of special-effects to bring a level of kineticism to the visuals that makes it WAY more cinematic than many other stop-motion films. A note must also be made for the props as well as guns, tools, toolboxes, and clothes are all so carefully made and have a lived-in feel that adds to the dense details of the film.
This is a genuinely fun and fresh film which constantly surprises with its down and dirty attitude that makes it truly unique and distinctly different from your typical Japanese sci-fi film which tends to be bloodless variations of our present or imagine shiny high-tech futures. It is also a rare example of sci-fi stop-motion since the medium is usually given over to gothic horror, children’s stories, and fantasy. It is now getting festival play and theatrical releases are hopefully likely around the world. This has definitely shot into my top five films of the year and I urge you to watch this however you can.
JUNK HEAD plays theatrically at the New York Asian Film Festival 2021 on Saturday Aug 21, 9:45pm at the SVA Theatre!
Here’s an in-depth interview with animator Atsuko Miyake.
¹ The film is full of smart puns and neologisms (shout out to translator Emily Balistrieri for fun English-language subtitles that had me constantly laughing) such as the word Marigan which is a pun on margarine (think butter) which makes perfect sense in the world of the film where they were genetically created as slave labour and they have a made-up language (voiced by director Hori and his staff).