Junk Head (Japan, 2021) [NYAFF 2021]

Film is a collaborative art form, and when it comes to uniquely individual achievements, they are few and far between. Even the most singular auteurs in the history of cinema like Kubrick or Miyazaki rely on an army of collaborators to achieve their visions. Takahide Hori’s Junk Head is a stop-motion science-fiction that is as close to a true individual achievement as a film of this scale can get. Animated primarily by Hori (who also did most of the voices) and a skeleton team over several years, Junk Head is a cinematic masterclass in both stop-motion animation and modern science fiction, delivering one of the most original films of the year.

In a distant and unrecognizable future, humanity has perfected genetic engineering to the point of virtual immortality, with only one seemingly benign side effect: sterility. That wasn’t a problem until a vicious plague wipes out nearly 30% of the population and threatens the survival of the species. Faced with extinction, humans decided to turn to their long-lost relatives, the Marigans, a genetic offshoot of humanity used as slave labor. Over 1600 years ago, the Marigans rebelled and have since lived underground with virtually no contact with humanity. They are technologically inferior and genetically unstable, but they possess a unique ability the humans lack – reproduction. When the human representative takes a leap (literally) into the underground to recover a DNA sample from the Marigans, he stumbles on a myriad of deadly challenges, odd creatures, and a thriving world underneath.

The first thing that stands out in Junk Head is the incredible worldbuilding that happens in the span of just over 90 minutes. The universe that Hori presents above and below ground is both rich in detail and possesses just the right amount of the macabre for the story that the film is trying to tell. On the one hand, there’s the Wellsian genetic division of society into two strata (as in The Time Machine) that are separated biologically, socially, and physically (by miles of vertical space!). However, unlike Wells’ Morlocks and Eloi, Junk Head is not entirely defeatist in its ideology. The division is somewhat more complicated. While we see very little of the above ground humans, the Marigans are not portrayed as savages – far from it. They are a fully-fledged society with a diverse set of subcultures and communities living more-or-less normal lives. The protagonist’s precarious Odyssey through the underground, full of risk and wonder, forms the perfect cinematic vehicle to explore this brave new world.

A lot of Junk Head’s worldbuilding is also shown through the film’s mesmerizing set design with its menacing Lovecraftian shadows and steampunk-inspired machinery. The underground is a world built thousands of years ago, whose purpose even the Marigans don’t fully comprehend (a relatively common science fictional trope). In one scene we discover an old man whose job is to ensure that a mysterious lever always stays in the up position. He has no idea what the lever does, but he’s been there for 400 years performing the same function. By the end, things come full circle and we discover what the lever does, leading to some catastrophic results. It is this attention to detail and call-back to recognizable elements of SF that makes Junk Head’s universe come alive in such an effective way.

The usage real stop motion (as opposed digitally created stop-motion) gives the film its own unique flair that separates it from like-minded SF films either of the live-action or animated variety. Even the few imperfections in continuity or editing only add to the charm and DIY spirit of the film. Perhaps the inexperience of the director (being his first project) helps achieve the ragged and dynamic look that makes the film so enjoyable.

It’s not often that a film like Junk Head comes along, both redefining and re-invigorating a whole genre by a sheer tour-de-force effort. Indeed, Takahide Hori and his small team of collaborators have achieved something wonderful here, something that I hope gets the wide recognition that it deserves.

Junk Head is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 21.