I have written at length about the OVA as a unique form that has all but died out...there's little need to repeat myself. While as a harried parent, husband, and pastor I enjoy the short story length of an OVA, it's true that it's very little time in which to work. Granted, I've seen two-hour movies that should have been twenty minutes long, but that's beside the point. Short anime films are dead. Or are they? Because within the last three weeks, I've seen two shorts -- Noiseman and Pale Cocoon -- that have reminded me just how good a brief animated film can be.
Pale Cocoon stands out as the first major work of writer/director Yasuhiro Yoshiura. Like the acclaimed Makoto Shinkai before him, he has created a unique sci-fi world in less time than your average sitcom, and he is responsible for the vast majority of what you see onscreen. But whereas Voices of a Distant Star was a gorgeously-rendered nostalgic piece on love and time and distance, Pale Cocoon is elegaic and brooding, a study in shades of darkness and grey in more than just its color palette.
Ura is an archivist. In the 26th century, the Earth is a dystopia, where environmental factors have made the planet all but uninhabitable. Ura's job is to review and research the myriad pieces of information left from earlier eras. At one point in time, the Archive Excavation Department was teeming with those determined to understand humanity's history...but as the job uncovered layer after layer of our collective misery and destructiveness, the work became a study in depression. Now Ura is one of the few remaining. Riko, Ura's...co-worker? lover? girlfriend?...sticks around because he's there, but she's lost all hope in making sense of all the data left to archive. Days and nights pass by one after another, all the same...and yet, Ura has found a video fragment that the system is restoring, a video that might unlock some secret to the world in which they now live...
Those willing to invest the twenty-three minutes of Pale Cocoon's running time will find that this is not the most comforting place to be. The enormity of the archive department contrasts to the smallness of our characters, giving a cavernous sense of emptiness. The corridors and rooms are barely lit, making the viewscreens and monitors the major source of light. There are times when the light is intentionally too bright, highlighting the deep darkness of this existence. It's an industrial complex out of The Matrix or Aliens, yet far more banal -- there is no fear here, only loneliness.
That sense of despair is evident in our characters, which creates a distance between them and the audience. I wasn't hopeful that anything good was going to come out of Ura's work -- the tone was too melancholy for that. There are some moments of light, and the ending has a certain note of possibility, but the bleakness makes it difficult to connect. I wanted to like these characters, and I did...but I can't say I felt emotionally attached to them. In fact, the show's only real weakness is its detachment.
On the more positive side, the show is techically excellent. There isn't a terrible lot of animating here, but what's here looks great. Character designs are interesting without looking overly familiar. The use of shading and color is often brilliant. There are moments when I questioned what I was seeing...are they floating through stars, or is it snow?...and those wound up being the most poignant, memorable spots in the feature. From a plot perspective, everything works, and while there is plenty of ambiguity, I welcomed it. As I mentioned, had I felt a greater affection for the characters, I would have really loved Pale Cocoon. (And while environmental doomsaying is a part of the storyline, it was not so strong as to be overwhelming.)
As it is, Pale Cocoon stands as a dark but promising start to a career. I'm curious to see what Yasuhiro Yoshiura will do next, and I plan to watch his follow-up Time Of Eve soon. If experience improves his raw ability on display here, he could very well be our next Mamoru Oshii. And if not, Pale Cocoon is worth a view just to see that individuals with a dream can still make incredible animation without a major studio's backing.
Pale Cocoon -- nothing objectionable, though not for children -- A-