Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Combustible (Hi no Yōjin) Review

Originally posted by Justin Sevakis, Oct 31st 2012 @


Taking place in Edo in the 18th century, Combustible is the story of Owaka, the daughter of a merchant family who leads a lonely childhood, save for the friendship of the troublemaking boy next door Matsukichi. Matsukichi is fascinated by fires — when they occur, they often take out whole neighborhoods in that era, and the brave tattooed men in the fire brigade are tasked with pre-emptively demolishing buildings around the flames before the damage travels too far. Matsukichi gets a tattoo, and having been disowned by his father, he joins the ranks of the firemen.

Owaka, however, is not so lucky. Her parents are busy arranging a marriage for her. Miserable to the point of desperation, and pining for Matsukichi to come rescue her, she accidentally starts a fire of her own.


The storytelling in Combustible is nothing new — in fact, it has its roots in classic Japanese literature of its day. What is new is the novel combination of traditional emakimono — the long panoramic scrolls from which manga is descended — and new digital animation techniques. In the beginning the effect is subtle: the story begins as a pan across one such emakimono, which slowly takes on three dimensions and subtle movement, until we are thoroughly engrossed, and the only the dimmed silk embroidery that letterboxes the screen remains.

Though the tale of youth trying, with varying degrees of success, to break free of their societal constraints is nothing special, Otomo makes it compelling through heavy use of atmospherics and a quick pace. That is to say nothing of the fire itself: explosive, terrifying, and so fast that it’s hard not to think of cities of the era as one gigantic death trap. It’s awe inspiring for its sheer scale and audacity, as much so as any huge towering oddity Otomo has constructed to this point.

Although its short running time precludes the viewer from having a strong emotional connection to either character, Combustible nonetheless makes an impression. The story is familiar enough that it feels as if we’re being told a particularly exciting fairy tale, and even if we know from the onset how it will end, we still dare not look away. -JS

Photos courtesy of Fumi Kitahara, The PR Kitchen. Combustible © “Short Peace” Committee.