animefringe august 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
Popee The Performer - Noh Masks and Bombs, Together at Last!

Perhaps it is the lack of completely 3D Japanese animation that gives the impression to casual viewers that Popee The Performer (also known as Popee the Clown, as it's the only English phrase in the theme song) isn't Japanese. After all, there is little to the character designs, the settings, the adventures, and the animation styles that suggest it being a part of the Japanese tradition of animated works. Probably for this reason, as well as the fact that it was shown on satellite TV rather than the more accessible broadcast stations, this show has remained a bit unknown in Western anime fandom, which, as this feature will probably show, is a sad, sad thing.

Popee The Performer is a series of shorts produced for Kids Station, one of the all-anime satellite stations in Japan. Broadcast starting in the fall of 2001, a series of five-minute episodes were shown at random times in the schedule, where I was first able to glimpse into the bizarre world. Although at the time the quick glance into Popee's adventure left me unimpressed, a recent viewing of a few episodes of this charming series quickly changed my mind, leaving me impressed by the quality of the animation and the mastery in it's direction.

The work deals with a circus that operates in the middle of the desert. Each episode deals with the small cast of characters attempting at times to rehearse their performances, but it usually dissolves into the characters trying to humorously destroy each other in the usual cartoon manner.

Popee and his assistant, Kedamono, a wolf who wears a variety of human masks to hide his true nature, train with Papi, who seems to be the owner of the circus, to practice for their big performances.

The star of the show, Popee, is a clown in an odd red-striped jumpsuit and bunny ears. He is adept at juggling, being a clown, pulling large knives and small bombs out of thin air. He is not adept at ever succeeding in his nefarious plans to hurt his poor assistant or the owner of the circus. His mischievous nature is the driving force of each episode, and the parallels between Popee and Wile E. Coyote, are, of course, natural.

Kedamono, Popee's assistant, is a wolf who, ashamed of his wolf-y nature, wears white masks with human facial features drawn on to disguise himself as just another member of the human race, even if his knees bend backward. Kedamono is easily the most intriguing, and my personal favorite, character. The masks that Kedamono wears are vaguely reminiscent of Japanese Noh masks. Surely, dear reader, you must be pondering, how does Kedamono relate his varying and troubling emotional states and desires? In probably one of the most creative and amusing cartoon devices I've ever seen used, when Kedamono has a change of emotion, his mask falls off, only to reveal a different mask, this time with the proper emotion drawn on. There is no end to his masks, although it always appears as if only one mask is present. This becomes extremely hilarious when Kedamono goes through a variety of emotional roller coasters as he tries to survive and fight back against Popee.

Also involved, though to a lesser extent, is Papi, the aforementioned apparent owner of this odd circus. Papi looks much more like a clown than dear ol' Popee, even if his headgear resembles some South American sun idol. Just as Popee tries to make Kedamono's life hell, as does Papi to Popee. Papi also drives around an odd car device, which is powered by an pink elephant head attached to the front. In an emergency, Kedamono's head suffices as a decent engine.

The physics of the world lie within the same vein as the old-school Looney Tune shorts from the Golden Age of American Cinema; the characters relying on large knives that come from thin air, to an endless supply of bombs to thwart their co-workers. However, the feel of the comedy of these five minute episodes hearken back more to the old silent comedies of the 20s as much as the old movie-house cartoons of the 40s, and with good cause.

Some cinema purists believe that audible dialogue is extraneous to the true power of film, sometimes testing a piece of film completely based on the images involved. With this purist ideal in hand, it becomes really interesting to examine Popee The Performer, as the action is pushed without any reliance on dialogue of any sort. Relying solely on the actual animation, using the music score to augment the action, director Ryuji Masuda is able to communicate these simple stories not only effectively, but also memorably.

Thus the true universality of Popee The Performer comes out. Most anyone, regardless of language abilities or cultural background, can walk into this animation and understand every short moment of it. Yes, these shorts are for the most part silly experimentations using 3D animation, but each episode exudes a certain charm that makes for a fun time. What excuse do you have to not catch an episode of two? Can't speak Japanese? For once, language isn't a barrier to fully enjoying an anime series. Take advantage of it, and fall in love with the world of Popee.