The story begins with Yuki, a high school student, inadvertently discovering that a schoolmate, Tetsu, keeps a shape shifting monster with him as a pet. Fascinated by this creature (named Cenco), Yuki starts to follow it and Tetsu around. When the three are suddenly attacked by another boy (Shu) who controls a similar creature, Tetsu reluctantly protects Yuki. This sparks off a rivalry that culminates in a gigantic clash between Cenco and Shu’s monsters.
Cencoroll ends up feeling like an unfinished experiment. With a 30 minute run time, I didn’t expect much story to begin with, but the short film is sparse even for those reduced expectations. What it does, though, is attempt to tell a story through its visuals and animation. Cencoroll certainly isn’t the first anime to do this, but compared to the norm, this is a refreshing change of pace.
To make sense of what I’m getting at, it might help to think about how some productions tell stories non-visually. This is usually achieved through expository dialogue or narration. If done well, the exposition is integrated into the action, hopefully motivated by some kind of plot logic. An example would be Evangelion, which sometimes gives exposition through the NERV support staff. Logically, it makes sense. The Eva pilots can’t function without the support staff feeding them information and instructions since they are vastly complex machines, and the pilots are not experienced military personnel. This exposition also ties directly into what strategies and tactics the pilots use to defeat the enemy. So by using a technique that makes sense within the context of the story, the story itself is told.
Cencoroll takes a different approach, substituting spoken exposition for visual cues for what’s going on. For example, there are a few scenes where a lock of hair pops up from Tetsu’s head, and then Cenco performs some action. Without needing a spoken explanation, you immediately understand that this is a sort of antenna which controls Cenco. Sometimes, spoken dialogue will accompany these visual cues, but the animation work is mostly sufficient to convey meaning.
Now we get to the unfinished experiment part. Certainly the short film is adept at using animation and voice acting as storytelling techniques, but there’s not much substance to the story itself. It’s structured in a very straightforward manner, with the events following a tried and true formula. Yuki meets the hero, one fight introduces the hero’s abilities, and another fight puts the hero in peril. Because of the short run time, we aren’t given any background into the fictional world. That just leaves the battles and a few brief moments of humor to justify any interest in the work. Even then, I didn’t find the action sets particularly exciting, although they were visually creative (Cenco turning into a giant staple gun was pretty sweet).
I can appreciate Cencoroll as a study of technique. But this appreciation is purely academic. The way the film uses its assets is worth reproducing in future works, but Cencoroll lacks a life of its own. It’s like a textbook on music theory, when what’s really worth experiencing is the live performance.
There are only four characters with speaking roles, one of which is pretty much an extra. Cencoroll is not exactly a character showcase, which is disappointing as it means the film doesn’t at all compensate for its lean plot. Again, this is a case of technique overshadowing substance.
Through voice acting and animation, Cencoroll effectively gives personalities to each of its main characters. Yuki, through her facial animations, expresses an inquisitiveness and slight skepticism about Tetsu’s trustworthiness. Tetsu reciprocates, seeing Yuki as a bit of a bother. He and Shu are characterized as the aloof, apathetic delinquents that show up frequently in school-life anime.
So even if you get a grip on who the characters are, their personalities aren’t very interesting – in fact there’s pretty much nothing to distinguish them from the templates they were stamped out of. Cenco, however, is slightly better to watch. His constantly weary eyes reveal a certain laziness – or maybe it’s indifference. He seems to be a creature that acts only because he’s forced to by Tetsu’s control mechanism. His one true motivation is to eat, as he needs to absorb other monsters in order to survive.
Ultimately, not even Cenco brings much flavor to the conflict that ensues with Shu. His personality doesn’t really come out in the fighting, so you’re never watching anything more than what is essentially a clash between Pokemon.
As I’ve said, even if the story isn’t entirely worth telling, the production work does a good job of telling it. The animation is rife with expression and creativity. The voice acting from Hiro Shimono (Tetsu) and Kana Hanazawa (Yuki) quickly and efficiently establish their characters. The music is minimal, but the ending theme (“Love & Roll” by Supercell) is probably the best thing to take away from the film.