Ujicha: The Ghastly Master of Geki-mation
I love being pleasantly surprised. I’ve made no secret about my concerns over the future of creativity and storytelling. Rehashing old ideas, exhausting the already weary or butchering classics all seem to be industry standard for the time-being. Less and less we are seeing the old being reinvigorated. So when Third Window Films dropped the trailer for an upcoming Blu-ray release of Violence Voyager, a sci-fi horror both violent and hilarious in a world so uncanny it seemed borderline unwatchable, I was pumped from the get go. Through the use of Geki-mation - the only films of their kind and the directors own concept, a form of puppetry using hand-drawn cut-outs, sets and props layered with diegetic sounds and music, organic practical effects to create a realm of bizarre, macabre fantasy – the filmmaker takes animation into a whole new realm.
Ujicha is the filmmaker behind all of this (He takes his pen-name from the famous Green Tea grown in his hometown, Uji in Kyoto). An artist, working primarily on his own and outsourcing voice actors and composers, with all we see on screen created and performed by him, Ujicha submerges us into his gruesome worlds where the suspension of disbelief is easy to attain. Geki-mation it not entirely his own creation. We have seen the techniques used in the UK, just as the Japanese director was inspired by influences he grew up with. But I have seen something of the style used in old storytelling techniques for children, sets in which one could buy and recreate stories. On screen I had seen it on nostalgic viewings of classic 60’s shows like Paddington Bear. Ujicha’s work is far more intricate, as though the bear from darkest Peru lead his human caretakers into hell and left them there to suffer the gruesome fate of the realm.
Third Windows Films Blu-ray release of Ujicha’s works came out a week ago. I pre-ordered it and rinsed it yesterday. I was not disappointed. Working through his early shorts first, I got an idea of the filmmaker’s ideas, influences, and interests for the grotesque, not to mention his sense of humour. The style is so organic; it lends itself to the eeriness of it all. His worlds are uninviting and strange, a place we tread not of our own volition but due to the hypnotic familiarity; vibrant, brash, warped and uncertain. It should seem unwatchable, it should feel jarring but it does not take long to settle into the vision of Ujicha and relish in the art, the impressive effects.
The first of his features is Burning Buddha Man (2013). What is most striking about Ujicha’s films is how one cannot imagine, once finishing them, how the stories could be told as effectively any other way. Geki-mation truly enhances the experience of these films. In Burning Buddha Man, Buddha statues are being stolen from temples. When high-schooler Beniko’s parents are murdered at the temple they care for following another theft, she is thrust into a horrific nightmare as she must find out the truth behind their deaths. Into a fantastical world of monstrous proportions, she must face her destiny to save the world from a hellish fate.
Less refined than his later work but an amazing achievement none the less, Buddha Man is Ujicha flexing his animation muscles with a bigger budget. He’s developing his skills right before the camera and it shows impressively with the art and fluidity of the work already apparent. The choice to bookend the film with live-action segments is almost an attempt to soften the impact, easing us into the world he’s created for wider audiences. These sections are less impressive but dissect what we are about to see on film, having its actor prepare the scene with the layers of backgrounds and characters of the temples. It makes sense in many ways. A way to say; ‘Here, this is how I told this story, brace yourself.’ But nothing can prepare the audience for the strange world we face. The characters, even the humans are eerie looking and nothing quite sits right, adding all the more to the atmosphere that both the technique and the story create in this world. But this is just a starting point for Ujicha. For his better work comes later.
Following up my binge was Violence Voyager (2018), Ujicha’s latest film. With a complete absence of live-action, immediately we are in the world to stay. More refined in its structure and style, both brighter but bleaker in its subject matter, it’s the kind of body horror nightmare one can hardly begin to imagine. Yet Ujicha did. It follows young boys Bobby and Akkun, on their way through the mountains to meet their friend in the neighbouring town. However, they come across an amusement park. Whilst there, they discover other children, trapped and hiding from the humanoid robots hunting them down. Perfect cult-film content, Voyager harks back to classic sci-fi, an adventure that slips into sinister Cronenberg levels. Ujicha’s influences are far and wide with the film feeling both old and new. Once again that familiarity comes back to haunt us as a sense of childlike wonder takes us into the story. It’s the same as if you tuned into The Clangers and five minutes in they started eating one another in a cannibalistic frenzy. This is how his stories seem to work.
Bigger budget, a big-name cast of anime regulars, everything about Violence Voyager is more impressive. The characters are better with a story far more fleshed out and rewarding. I found myself amazingly invested in the children and their interconnecting lives. His sets are far more down-to-earth, leaving the bloodbaths all the more poignant. In dialling back the immediate bizarreness, his descent into the malevolent becomes all the more striking. Best still was the evil scheme behind it all; horrific, dark and twisted with great character designs, I loved the villains and the extensive grotesquery of their heinous plans. They are far more sympathetic and all the more terrifying for it. Violence Voyager is Ujicha really coming into his own – the blood, the guts, the horror, the slime are better executed, his visual language is stronger and his themes carry more emotional weight. Voyager is an incredibly strong tale, funny, unnerving yet surprisingly moving in the end, whilst embracing all the brilliant qualities of Geki-mation.
After 125 years of cinema, we are often seeing new advancements in technology. Rarely, however, do we see old forms come to life in such a way, using a relatively unexplored technique on film but demolishing the boundaries of the connotations of said technique. Third Window Films are brilliant in their Ujicha Blu-ray release of which includes the two features I’ve discussed, three short films (The Retnepac2, Space Yokai War and Tempura - the best of them), Directors commentary and interview with a teaser for his next project, making all of these brilliant works available to the UK.
I found my expedition into the world of Geki-mation invigorating, discovering a new favourite director of whose future works I look forward to immensely. Ujicha is a filmmaker worth looking out for. A one-of-a-kind master, he is a filmmaker who has found a way to make animation exciting again and proof that Japan are the true innovators of story and technique. I would recommend Ujicha to any fans of animated cinema and cult horror. His worlds are weird, but fascinating. The organic nature of the work, the realness of the hand-drawn art at hand, the evidence of months of intricate illustrations and filming of each technically impressive scene enhances the viewing experience; every element becomes a visual treat. I look forward to seeing more of Ujicha’s work. Shaking things up on the animation scene I hope he gains wider appeal, with his next film finding its way to the UK. He’s a fascinating filmmaker and truly an exciting young storyteller emerging before us. Cinema has never been so exciting.
The Weird and Wonderful World of Ujicha is avalable to buy here.