November 4, 2005
Things have been pretty busy in the last month, between our fifth issue and the recent Animation Innovator event. So I didn't quite get around to watching Kakurenbo as quickly as I'd intended, though I'd been quite taken with the teaser I saw at the Japan Media Arts Festival screenings at this year's SIGGRAPH conference.

Kakurenbo concerns seven children playing hide & seek on the streets of Tokyo after dark, in defiance of their peers' warnings that demons wait for exactly those conditions to take children away. (One of the characters has personal reasons: his sister disappeared one night). They start out recklessly brave, but when strange creatures manifest and start to hunt them down, it quickly turns to fight or flight for the hopelessly outmatched kids.

As an atmospheric, short horror film (it's a mere 25 minutes) that leans heavily on digital animation (the characters are cel-shaded 3D CGI), Kakurenbo's most obvious spiritual connection is to Production I.G.'s Blood: The Last Vampire, another short horror film that leans heavily on digital animation. Both are also short on plot and heavy on atmosphere, but in an appealing way. (Kakurenbo, in particular, has the character of a ghost story being told among children.) The less obvious predecessor is Akira, which also brought out the idea of a nighttime Tokyo as a dark children's playground, combining the modern urban with the ancient mythological. Also, as far as I can tell, Akira is the first commercial anime production to have atmospheric nighttime scenes with truly dark palettes and a wide range of colours within the shadows, providing rich and enveloping textures. (Earlier films like Wicked City still tended to use colours that would pop on a dark background. The only movie that comes close is Osamu Dezaki's Golgo 13, recently re-released on DVD.)

The other similarity to Akira is its use of children who aren't particularly sympathetic. Only one kid here appears as an overt brute, from the beginning, but watch what happens when two other kids find themselves boxed in: wordlessly, they arm themselves with a rock and a lead pipe with unnerving familiarity. (We also never see their faces; the kids wear masks throughout the film.)

Kakurenbo highlights why teenagers and college students gravitate more toward anime than, say, Disney or Dreamworks. Kakurenbo is all about kids, but isn't in the least bit sweet. Children are put in danger, without the underlying expectation that they'll come out okay just because they're children. (This is also why you should stick with the Japanese language track; the Japanese voices are, or at least sound like, real children. The American voices sound like adults trying to sound like children.)

It's also interesting to watch how studios outside of North America experiment with CGI. Kakurenbo, My Beautiful Girl Mari, Sky Blue and The District are four CGI movies that point in four different directions, stylistically and thematically. As much as I liked Chicken Little, it didn't go anywhere new visually or storywise. And neither will Cars, Shrek 3, or Hoodwinked. And that's a damn shame.

Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek
Yamatoworks/D.I.C./Central Park Media
25 minutes
Buy Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek from Amazon.com

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