Established in 1986, Studio 4°C - the temperature at which water is at its densest - was set up by Koji Morimoto (director of segments in Robot Carnival (1987), Memories (1996) and The Animatrix (2003) as well as animator on Golgo 13 (1983), Akira (1988) and Majo no takkyûbin/Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)), Eiko Tanaka (production manager on Majo no takkyûbin) and Yoshiharu Sato (key animator on several Studio Ghibli tites). Their aim was to make anime with a more offbeat feel and to that end have employed the peculiarly Japanese style of "superflat", a postmodern approach (you can find out more about it here) which results in some of the most unusual animes. Several of the team's short films have been gathered together in various collections and it's one of those, the bizarrely titled Sweat Punch, that we're looking at here. Sweat Punch comprises four shorts, Higan, Professor Dan Petori's Blues, End of the World and Comedy.
The 8.5 minute Higan has only the slightest of storylines and relies heavily on that great staple of anime, giant fighting robots knocking the crap out of each other. There's absolutely nothing new in terms of story or themes here (you wouldn't really expect much in such a limited timespan) but the visuals are stunning. Most of the story takes place in a pitch black nocturnal forest, the action picked out in the muzzle flash of the fine collection of heavy artillery on show and the sort of room shaking explosions that you only ever see in anime. There's a genuine feeling of suspense as the two hapless robot pilots pick their way through the trees trying of find and destroy the tanks that are attacking them and there's a realism and fluidity of movement rare in all but the very best anime. However, it is just a vignette, looking for all the world like an eight minute slice taken from a much longer film and it probably isn't the best place to start exploring the work of Studio 4°C - unless of course you're an unrepentant fan of hardcore mecha action, in which case, this one should be right up your street.
One of the first things you notice when you dive into the world of Studio 4°C is that there's no house style as such - each film looks very different to the next and the styles can range from the realistic to the stylised to the completely bizarre. End of the World looks so dissimilar to Higan that you'd never know that it was the work of the same production house. At a rock concert, Yuko meets the strange Kazumi who claims to live in space. She offers to let her stay at her place for the night and that's when things become completely mad - Kazumi transforms Yuko's television set into a lo-tech fighting machine, disappears into a space/time portal and ends up in another dimension fighting jelly-like creatures and eventually bringing about the destruction of an entire existence...
Repeated viewing do little to help explain the extraordinary plot. The ending is particularly strange, a metaphysical finale that suggests that it all may have been a dream, but then again.... well, who knows? What makes End of the World such an enjoyable experience however is, once again, the visual style. The alternate dimension is presented through a fine gauze of television static while the "real" world is all sharp 2D animation and CGI sets. It's a strange mix, but an effective one. The closest you may have come to the strangeness of End of the World is probably the Aeon Flux animations, with its similar mix of inexplicable events, strange creatures and youthful female assassins. But even that doesn't come close to the oddness that oozes from every pixel of End of the World. Not well liked by all anime fans, End of the World is still worth 11 minutes of your time, if only for the surreal landscapes of the alternate dimension (where enemies of the female creator of that world are crucified beneath giant flying crosses and the landscape seems to consist of one continuous, post-apocalyptic desert.
Now as for Professor Dan Petory's Blues... This has got to be the oddest animes ever created. You can be certain that whatever your preconceptions of Japanese animation might be, this will challenge any and all of them - it begins with a mostly out of shot couple arguing about whether or not they should get married (animated in a beautiful and decidedly non-anime style) before we get to meet the eponymous Professor Dan Petory - a CGI animated hand puppet who delivers a series of mind-rottingly bonkers lectures on why UFOs fly in zig-zags and why the Earth looks blue, all interspersed with singing routines from The Soybean Sisters, a boxing bout and an astronaut drifting around in orbit... Then we get a TV interview with UFO witnesses (conducted by a man in a pink bunny suit), a man discussing why live gigs are better than listening to recorded music then back to the professor for some nonsense about horoscopes. At the end, everyone exclaims "I understand!" but you almost certainly won't. Completely and utterly mad whichever way you look at it, Professor Dan Petory's Blues is certainly unique.
It's also an astonishing compendium of just about every animation style you can imagine - there's pixillation, traditional 2D animation and CGI, all blended together (sometimes in the same shot) to bewildering effect. Forget trying to work out what it's all about (it probably isn't actually about anything) and just lap up the unremitting surrealism of it all.
Finally, we've got the strangely titled Comedy. Despite the title, a barrel of laughs this most certainly isn't. Instead it's one of the most beautiful and haunting animes you'll ever see. Set in the Black Forest, it follows a young girl and her attempts to find a mysterious swordsman who only accepts certain types of books for his services and who she hopes will help save her village from the advancing English army. The dialogue suggests that the story is set during the war between the Irish and the English, but the invading English troops look like futuristic cyborgs, giving the film a pleasing sense of dislocation.
Of the four films that make up the Sweat Punch package, Comedy is undoubtedly the best looking. Filmed with a muted colour palette that's almost monochrome in places, making marvellous use of depth of field effects and steeping the whole thing in a soft-focus, ghostly atmosphere, it really is a marvel to behold. Characters are more angular and sparsely defined than most anime figures, the music is genuinely haunting and the storyline, though slim and perhaps too odd for many, is perfectly serviceable, if rather subservient to the images.
If this is a representative sample of what it is that Studio 4°C are up to, then I for one will be on the lookout for more of their work. Though at times they trade in anime clichés, they tend to give old ideas a neat new spin, possess a strange but likeable sense of humour and at least guarantee that you'll never be able to guess what's coming next from them.