Animated samurai adventure has us thinking big picture#
Two souls sit in the midst of a desert, the sand painted silver by moonlight. The young samurai sighs. His companion - an elderly man with mechanical legs - stares straight ahead, his face partly obscured by a shock of grey hair. “Some people can’t see a good thing when it’s right in front of them,” he says, quite suddenly. “They’re too busy focusing on something else.”
The ronin’s eyes widen, pupils moving slightly as he takes this in. The night sky blazes bright with stars. And then there’s a winching sound as the elderly man adjusts a leg, and lets out an emphatic fart.
Weirdly enough, this scene in the first episode Noguchi’s Bell represents the winning juxtaposition in Cyber Sheep Film’s creative approach. This international group of indie filmmakers has written, directed, scored and animated a pilot that exceeds the quality of many mainstream productions with far larger teams - and has done so entirely in Dreams. There are many moments during its 20-minute runtime where we find ourselves so transported by its technical brilliance, our eyes full of those stars, that we forget we’re watching it on a PlayStation. Yet it’s also wonderfully down to earth, punctuated at every turn by funny little flourishes that remind us of the individuals behind it.
The story - set to play out over a series of 20 episodes - follows upstart ronin Noguchi Michio as he embarks on a journey for answers. Answers to what, you may ask? Well, we’re not quite sure yet. A clue lies in the small golden bell he’s carrying with him, a relic of a recent past that hints at tragedy. Indeed, everywhere in Noguchi’s Bell - Episode 1, it’s detail that speaks volumes.
When Noguchi encounters a mysterious noodle stand in the midst of the desert, much of the interaction plays out not through words, but through body language. The facial rigging - courtesy of kollwitzer - is astounding, with multiple moving sculptures conveying the subtlest of eyebrow-twitching, lip-curling expressions. The shopkeeper’s craggy profile, in particular, is a triumph: every line and wrinkle works together as he and Noguchi barter over oddly delicious-looking bug ramen (watch for the brief appearance of a very familiar face!) for a crucial piece of information. Hackjaz’s sound design offers yet another way into the story for the audience, from the sophisticated bell-chime that signals a sudden recognition in one moment, to the gratifyingly gross pop of earwax acting as comedic relief in another.
All this - combined as it is with some inventive framing, smartly timed close-ups and focus pulls - would be impressive enough, but the team at Cyber Sheep has also managed to cast the speaking roles perfectly, with Thomas Prater playing the naive and determined Noguchi, and Steven Planp turning in an unforgettable performance as the noodle vendor.
A later fight scene is a chance for the formidable animation skills of Michael Pachidamrong (also director and writer, and known in-game as thrjoker594) to shine in a completely different context - and dazzle they do. The martial arts magic of the scene bodes well for episodes to come: this confident first installment proves Cyber Sheep has the range to execute on ambitious ideas with professional rigour, down to the very last fleck.
Still, as Noguchi’s eclectic new acquaintance points out, it’s all too easy not to see the forest for the trees. Noguchi’s Bell - Episode 1 is not just an astonishingly well-made short in its own right. This is a new benchmark for quality animation in Dreams that will surely inspire many other creators to push at the limits of their ability, to team up with like-minded talent in the Dreamiverse - and, above all, to have fun with it.
VERCDICT: Technically brilliant and delightfully tongue-in-cheek, this is a mind-blowingly accomplished animated short that is a credit to its creators - and to Dreams.
(Requires that you own Dreams)
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