When you think of Japanese animation it’s all big eyes and inappropriate panty shots, which is why director/writer/editor Ujicha’s VIOLENCE VOYAGER is completely out of the ordinary in every… single… way. No, this isn’t a typical anime, it’s something very different: it’s a no holds barred, surreal horror flick that just happens to be animated like a children’s storybook. By that I mean it’s as though the characters of an illustrated Roald Dahl book stepped off the page and started moving around their bizarre, twisted environments.
VIOLENCE VOYAGER isn’t animated in the traditional sense – the characters are rendered in detailed, hand-painted cutouts and “puppeteered” in a technique called “geki-mation”. It takes a moment to get used to, but once you’re in the groove, it works magnificently and gives the film a unique look and feel.
The uniqueness doesn’t stop in the presentation, with the story following Bobby – a young American boy living in Japan – who goes on a quest to climb the mountain outside town with his friend, Akkun. On their journey, they discover a mysterious theme park hidden in the woods. The owner, Koike, lets them in for free and equips them with water pistols to fight off the “robot invaders” that populate the facility. They soon run across a group of children trapped in the park whose bodies appear to be undergoing unexplainable, nightmarish changes. To Bobby and Akkun’s horror, they find the exits sealed, and the children must band together to escape.
Between the art design, the creepy music, and an overall sense of dread, VIOLENCE VOYAGERis a really impressive piece of work that managed to take even me – someone who feels like they’ve seen it all when it comes to horror – off guard. It’s truly twisted in a way that only the Japanese seem to pull off, and the disconnected-from-reality animation allows it to go places live action never could.
The crudely depicted but graphic violence (against children, no less) is grim and unsettling, and I loved it. I didn’t know where Ujicha was taking me, but I was strapped in for every chicane and hairpin he barrelled me around. This is what I’m looking for in horror: something that takes me to the edge of what’s acceptable, something that shows me things I’ve never seen before and presents them in a unique way. VIOLENCE VOYAGER delivers!
And in being such a unique work, it restricts itself to what I could only imagine is a niche audience. If this thing made it to the mainstream of Netflix, the chorus of indignant cries would be deafening. Beyond the disturbing nature of the story, there’s a decent amount of child nudity, and even though they’re just drawings, they’d no doubt send the wowsers* into a frenzy.
I personally wasn’t bothered by any of the questionable material. After all, it’s just animation. Or, should I say, geki-mation? If I had to nitpick at anything, the narrative leaves more than a few questions, but it’s so batshit AND apeshit (in fact, an ape and a bat fight alongside the main characters at one point) that it really doesn’t matter. I feel like there are some references that were lost in translation here and there, but I was having so much fun that I wasn’t bothered.
I’m sure Ujicha has hidden metaphor in there somewhere too. I’d hedge my bets on it being about puberty and coming of age – I mean, the characters’ bodies undergoing radical changes and shooting wads of white goo all over the place has gotta mean something. But then again, it could just be pure insanity.
If I had to pitch VIOLENCE VOYAGER to a studio exec, I’d say it’s Stand By Me, mixed with Pinnochio, mixed with Jurassic Park, mixed with Battle Royale, mixed with The Human Centipede. Yes, that’s right. It’s all those things and more. Hunt it down if you know what’s good for you.
VIOLENCE VOYAGER is part of the Fantasia International Film Festival’s 2018 lineup.
* “Wowser” is a term that originated as a slang expression; it is most commonly heard in Australian and New Zealand English. “Wowser” refers to a person who seeks to deprive others of behaviour deemed to be immoral or “sinful”. I’m not just making shit up over here.