The thing about genius is that more often than not it needs to be tempered. Almost any work of creativity needs input from an outside source, especially if the work in question is a labor of love. It’s incredibly easy for creators to get too close to their works and become unable to see where adjustments need to be made, which is why a good editor is such an essential element for creative types. If Junk Head makes two things clear, it’s that the film’s mastermind, Takahide Hori, is a bonafide genius…..and that he desperately needs someone to help him refine and polish his vision. There is a work of staggering beauty and creativity waiting to be fully realized within Junk Head, but a good sharp knife is first needed to pare away the excess material and perfect the work (it also needs an ending, but that doesn’t fit with the metaphor).
Junk Head takes place centuries in the future, when mankind has achieved immortality through a combination of genetic manipulation and cybernetic augmentation. However, this has come at a horrible price: humanity has lost the ability to reproduce. To overcome this, the workforce was filled with genetic clones who rebelled against their creators and retreated underground to a massive network of subterranean temples. Years later, their descendants have populated the underground, while the remaining humans live on the surface. When a disease begins ravaging the human population, selected humans begin to venture underground in search of a cure in the clones’ genetic code. One such explorer, an unnamed human, is attacked and loses his memory upon arrival. He soon finds himself transferred into a new body and put to work by the denizens of the underground – and at the mercy of the creatures that live there.
A look at the credits of Junk Head should make it clear that the film (which began as a short) is a labor of love, to say the least. Hori not only built the stop-motion puppets and sets, but also animated them, edited the film, did the voices, and composed the score, as well as 99% of the other miscellaneous work that went into the production. Junk Head is his baby, one that he’s spent years laboring on, and what a baby it is. The film is a virtual masterclass in character design alone, and every model has so clearly been labored over, designed and detailed to perfection. If an artbook ever comes out for Junk Head, it’ll be an instant buy for anyone interested in the art of design, but polyglot that he apparently is, Hori also displays a knack for character and world building in the film, as well as a wry sense of humor.
So why is Junk Head not the absolute home-run it should be? Two reasons. For starters, the film has some major pacing issues. The first hour and a half or so, which includes the original short, are spent literally and figuratively wandering. Stuck doing odd jobs, the protagonist spends the majority of the time wandering a succession of gray hallways, occasionally being chased by wonderfully creepy monsters along the way. Any sense of stakes, obstacles to overcome, or narrative in general, seems to recede into the background. It’s still charming, but charming in a directionless way. This might not be such a problem if the plot didn’t suddenly arrive towards the last half hour. The final third of Junk Head feels like everything the film should have been. Suddenly we have goals, we have obstacles, we have narrative momentum; this throws the previous hour and a half into stark relief, and underscores just how much of the first sections of the film could have easily been tightened up.
And then there’s the ending…..or rather the stark lack of one. Junk Head is an ongoing project for Hori, and it’s clear that he isn’t done telling the story by a longshot. To its credit, the film does at least have an exciting finale to cap things off, but then it just stops. No denouement, no indicator that the journey is just beginning, no sense of closure at all. The credits just suddenly roll and the lights come on, leaving the audience high and dry with the end goals that took so long to establish hanging in the wind.
It’s abundantly clear that Takahide Hori has a vision, and the talent to see that vision realized. His aesthetics are dazzling and inventive, and the work and care he poured into this project is crystal clear in every frame, but ultimately Junk Head is the cinematic equivalent of a raw, uncut diamond. With some refinement, some judicious editing, and an actual ending, this could easily be one of the greatest animated films of the decade. It’s just not there yet – tantalizingly close, though. Hopefully, for all our sakes, it gets there sometime soon.