This review originally ran on the now-defunct site Birth.Movies.Death in 2018.
Oh, Junk Head. How I do love thee.
Animation is hard. Really hard. It’s a slow, laborious process that can take full-scale professional teams years to output a movie. So when you hear about something like Junk Head – a two-hour dystopian sci-fi epic created via stop-motion animation by one fucking person over seven years – you sit up and take notice.
Junk Head is the brainchild of Takahide Hori, whose journey to feature animator came entirely thanks to this movie. Hori spent years writing and sketching ideas for his sci-fi dream project, unsure of which medium – comic? novel? video game? – to turn it into. Ultimately, he settled on stop-motion animation, despite having zero experience in the field, and set about turning his dream into reality. Seven years later, we have Junk Head.
That’s all good and inspiring, but happily, Junk Head is also a freaking fantastic movie. Set hundreds of years in the future, where humanity has exchanged reproduction for immortality via gene manipulation, it follows a researcher sent into a seemingly bottomless underground to discover the reproductive secrets of the subterranean mutant clones populating it. The movie takes an easygoing approach to its plot: our protagonist quickly gets diverted from his goal, by virtue of being swiftly turned into an amnesiac head encased in a cobbled-together robot body. We then follow the meandering adventures of “Junkers” as he meets strange characters and creatures in the underground, getting drawn into their own weird dramas along the way.
Junk Head‘s tone and style are so odd and distinctive and pure, it could only have come from a single, undiluted vision. Junk Head is as unsettling and gory as Cronenberg and as grand and sad as del Toro, with creature design that brings to mind H.R. Giger. Paradoxically, though, it’s also as cheery and cute and hilarious as Wallace and Gromit. This is a movie shot through with with deep existential anxiety, yet it’s not above dick jokes, slow-motion action beats, or downright absurd character and story choices. Each new episode in Junkers’ underground odyssey is more endearing than the last, whether it’s being worshipped as a god by rotund hunters in gimp suits, fetching disturbingly penile “mashrooms” for the put-upon husband-slaves of boiler-room matriarchs, or forging a friendship with a young orphan and her creepily tentacled protector. It’s an absolute delight.
It also looks amazing. Junk Head is an intimidatingly impressive achievement in animation – not as spectacular as something like Kubo and the Two Strings, but astonishingly thoroughly-realised for what’s mostly a one-man project. Every character and creature is full of personality, both in design and animation, and every location feels real and lived-in. Hori fills his world with details but leaves them unexplained, stimulating the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps with their own ideas. It’d be a staggering achievement even for an experienced animator; that Hori managed it while essentially learning on the job is nothing short of a wonder.
Not only is the animation technically impressive; cinematically speaking, it’s remarkably confident in construction. Action sequences have a clear sense of geography and choreography, with artful, energetic character blocking and camera moves. And though the story structure is loose at best, it’s paced phenomenally well, constantly showing the audience new sights, coming together to a satisfying climax of sorts while also feeling as though it could keep going forever. So good is the world-building that in a just world, Junk Head would inspire comics, games, books, and more. This is Hori’s Star Wars, make no mistake.
Unfortunately, if you don’t have a chance to see Junk Head at a festival, you basically just don’t have a chance to see it right now, thanks to somewhat opaque and frustrating rights-holder issues. That’s something of a travesty, because it’s a staggeringly likeable movie that would almost certainly garner a sizeable cult following if it had a chance. I, for one, will be proud to count myself a member of that following when it emerges.