While it may be an animated film from Japan, Violence Voyager is far from the average person’s traditional conception of anime. It’s tale of two school chums who go for a hike over a mountain only to discover a rather strange and ultimately dangerous amusement park called Violence Voyager that seems innocuous enough. But director Ujichacha has this story take some bizarre and unexpectedly dark turns that plunge into territory that should make some parents hesitate with showing it to their children, lest they feel this is somehow a whimsical fantasy a la Myazaki’s Spirited Away.
Violence Voyager’s animation style may be what makes or breaks this film for some audiences. Ujichaha developed what he calls “gekimation,” a rather lo-fi approach that makes South Park’s first season of actually manipulated color paper seem to be the height of technical sophistication. But instead of characters created with construction paper, Ujichaha paints his heroes, villains and their environs on separate cardboard pieces which then appear to be positioned on various planes to give the illusion of three dimensions. It is a process that at times recalls old Fleischer Studios product, but also lets him manipulate the cardboard cutouts almost puppet-like through the scene.
The design of all this recalls garishly illustrated children’s books of the 1960s or 1970s, which is at first fitting. The story starts off as a boys’ own adventure as Bobby and Akkun start their trek through the woods and over the mountain to visit a friend who has moved to another school. Their journey is sidetracked, however, when they stumble onto an amusement park that is abandoned save for its owner, Koike, and his daughter. Seemingly desperate for patrons, the owner allows Bobbby and Akkun free reign to run around and play a paintball-like game that arms them with squirt guns against a force of “invading alien robots.”
But Violence Voyager definitely owes a portion of its DNA to Japanese science-fiction horror films of the 1960s and `70s, with the deep orange the sky turns once things start to go bad for the children a visual call out to 1968’s Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell being the most obvious hat tip.
And that first sign of things not being what they appear to be is when the boys encounter Tokiko, a young girl who entered Violence Voyager three days ago with her boyfriend, who has subsequently disappeared. Before the boys can figure out what to do, the “robot aliens” attacks become all too real with the liquid the robots squirt actually dissolving flesh! As the three try to escape they find themselves trapped by Koike and who has some decidedly lethal plans for them.
Ultimately, the film reveals a world of biomechanical body horror that suggests what David Cronenberg might have produced had he gone into Saturday morning cartoons instead of horror filmmaking. But there is also something almost naive about its gory violence, as if it is a story being told by a child who is innocently unaware of the real horror they are describing. Is Ujichaha making commentary about how the innocence of childhood play can contain an underbelly of unfiltered human id? Whether or not he is, the film’s overall aesthetics make for a nice feint before the chaotic horror of forced body modification with more than a dash of cannibalism that the film veers towards at its midpoint. There’s not too much more to Violence Voyager beyond its escape-from-Koike-the-mad-scientist premise. But again that is fitting if what we are really seeing is a story springing from child’s a imagination. They have no sense of imparting characterization beyond the barest minimum of motivation and there is really none of that here. Just a rolling snowball of adversity that Bobby and Akku confront in their attempt to get free of this nightmare-ish amusement park. For some that may be enough, but it is understandable if it is not for others.