Remember in school during group projects when you would be randomly assigned with the worst possible people possible, and then, unsurprisingly, you end up doing all of the work? And the ensuing urge to tell the teacher as many times as you could how much of the work you did for the entire group in front of everyone? That’s what watching the credits to Junk Head feels like, without all the malicious intent. A sea of listing all that filmmaker Takahide Hori did on this largely self-made animated epic, from animation, to voice acting, scoring, shooting, editing, visual effects, production design; in essence, the works. While there are a few other secondary collaborators further down the credits list (albeit not many), it became abundantly clear to me once I finished Junk Head (ジャンク・ヘッド) that, despite any misgivings I might have about the final product, I had watched something with such a grand scale made almost entirely in the hands of one ambitious filmmaker and a few of his friends. This could’ve been the worst animated film I had ever seen and I still would’ve applauded the gumption of it all.
Luckily, it’s not. It’s just rather dense.
In a future, humans have given up the ability to reproduce in lieu of immortality and have built artificial humanoid beings called Marigans for labor purposes to explore the world beneath the earth. A revolution from the Marigans splits Earth into two separate worlds: the above world with the immortal humans now ravaged by plague and losing population fast, and the dark, industrial world of below with the Marigans. The humans send a delegate below to survey the world below to gain any knowledge of the Marigans and their ability to reproduce. The delegate, rebuilt in a new body following a catastrophic crash at the beginning of his mission, explores the world and the beings within it, seeing the best and worst that the world below has to offer, and all the ways it mirrors and differs from the human world.
Junk Head doesn’t really give you a ton to work with off the bat aside from a few sentences of text throwing you into the already very well established world. You also don’t really get answers for much of the film until the very end, filling in the gaps of what you’ve been able to put together throughout the film. While I found this frustrating at first, I found myself looking back on it and appreciating placing the audience in the same world as our protagonist, exploring a world completely unfamiliar, one that is filled with frightening, confusing things that don’t make sense, and don’t intend to at any point. In fact, much of my appreciation for Junk Head has come in retrospect as, while watching it, I often felt frustrated and uncomfortable from the whole ordeal, like the entirety of the film was merely going over my head, and while I still claim no intellectual superiority in attempting to understand all that Junk Head was looking to do, I find myself in awe of being able to simply surrender to perhaps not being able to do so in my first viewing of a film. What frustrated me in the moment is what fascinates me the most looking back on it. I could be proclaiming this as an unsung masterpiece by next week if this keeps up the pace.
And this, like last year’s Mad God from Phil Tippett (though Junk Head is a 2017-premiering film with its re-edited final cut dropping in 2021, so maybe Mad God is like Junkhead? Why must we pit powerful women against each other like this?), is a film so steeped in such surreal, violent imagery on such a massive, untenable scale that it feels completely at home in the stop-motion medium of filmmaking. Ironically, it’s said scale and imagery that makes the final product so incredibly impressive. Watching the end credits of the film, as well as the 42-minute making-of documentary included on the Blu-ray, opens up so much insight into the craft and scale of this production from the eyes of Hori. The sets and models are far larger than I ever imagined, and the detail put into the movement, while occasionally a bit jittery in the final film, could’ve looked like abject crap and I still would applaud it.
As for the Blu-ray from MVD, it’s…pretty standard. The video transfer is generally pretty stunning, though solely from its source material, is pretty gray and sterile as a whole, but still, no complaints there. The audio, however, is only a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, which I’m willing to give a bit of grace to since it is such a solo project for Hori, but I will say that I would’ve appreciated a lossless stereo mix here as standard Dolby Digital simply sounds anemic through the speakers of my home theater. There is only one special feature on the disc, a 42-minute documentary chronicling the production of the film from conception to release, and I must say, if you’re only going to include one special feature on a physical media release, this is the type of thing I want, full stop. I want to know all about the trials and tribulations of production, and in the world of streaming, so much behind-the-scenes content has been lost under the assumption that most audiences don’t care to watch these special features. These features were one of my favorite parts of exploring DVDs from my childhood, and even if it was merely the behind the scenes for something like Cheaper by the Dozen (2003) or Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie (2002), I want it. Good on them for having this.
Junk Head is imperfect, as most films are. The tone can vary wildly from scene to scene and the film literally does not have a proper ending, something that, even in retrospect, frustrates me deeply. Still, it goes without saying that despite any discomfort or frustration that Junk Head brought with it, I can’t help but be endeared by it for the deep love and care put into every frame, and its commitment to showing me something that I truly have never seen before, and will probably never see again. To take on so much for your first project, inspired by the solo work of Makoto Shinkai’s early short films (The World Be Enclosed (1998); Other Worlds (1999)), is shockingly ambitious and entirely awe-inspiring (even if the final product couldn’t be more different from the work of Makoto Shinkai). MVD’s Blu-ray release for Junk Head, while seemingly light, does focus more on quality over quantity, which is an aspect that I appreciate, even if I was let down a bit by its lossy stereo audio mix. I promise nothing when it comes to whether or not you would enjoy Junk Head, and I suppose you already know from the jump whether this is, or is not, something up your alley, but I can never dissuade anyone from trying something unique, and unique Junk Head is.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD August 15th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official MVD Entertainment Group Junk Head webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.