Koji Yamamura's shorts are almost invariably masterstrokes, beautifully animated and darkly odd in a grainy, rather European sort of way. He's adapted or referenced some well known authors - but Old Crocodile, one of his most involving works, is based on an obscure French source and modelled on a certain kind of children's cartoon.
Maybe you grew up watching those British cartoons with a crisp, knowledgeable chap narrating all the events. Alright, perhaps Americans and others have no idea what I'm talking about, but Old Crocodile seems to be modelled on those pleasant, simple parables about animals that some of us may have watched in the mornings.
Only I can't recall any of those old cartoons being this unsettling. Yes, our expectations are thoroughly subverted, but never in a tiredly postmodern way - it's just another straightly presented fable, however unnerving the implications are.
If some of Yamamura's shorts are content to disturb us with their paranoid dreamscapes at the expense of coherence, this time it's the meat of the matter - the unforgiving heart of the narrative - that leaves an indelible impression.
Few indeed are the anime shorts with this focused of a story (or a story at all!) - and even fewer execute it this well.
Visually this is simpler than Yamamura's other work, though it retains a superbly vivid hand drawn feel. There's his distinctive heavy use of sepia, but that and a blacker sepia are the dominant and almost only colours used. It's very restrained stuff, lacking any overtly disturbing imagery and resembling drawings from a children's book.
One of the design choices, however, could be seen as insensitive and though I don't believe it is intended as such that is rather unfortunate.
The only significant performance is the aforesaid narrator, who speaks English (even in the original) fluently with a sophisticated English accent. His polite detachment has the manner of a children's storyteller - and is very memorable.
Simply among the best characterisation I have seen in an animated short. The titular crocodile is lazy, bored, slovenly and ruled by the dictates of his stomach. His actions can be terribly cruel, but never out of malice - merely an amoral hunger. He can like and even love you and he'll still gobble you up. How the creatures he encounters react to him say as much about themselves as his generally callous treatment says about him.
Naturally, many will find Old Crocodile dull and boring. Unlike other shorts it doesn't make a visceral impression - you won't be wowed, moved, thrilled, or disgusted. This isn't gripping or flashy viewing; it's cold, distant and more than a little dry. Yet for me it lingers on in the mind, long after a myriad of other shorts have faded away.
More than a success in animation - which many shorts are content to be - this is a triumph of storytelling. If Old Crocodile sounds interesting to you at all then I really recommend watching it, and can only hope you find the experience as rewarding as I did.
Once upon a time, there was an old crocodile who had lived long enough to see the building of the pyramids. Plagued with rheumatism, the old crocodile could no longer catch his food; and so he did the next best thing: he ate one of his relatives. After failing to kill him, the rest of the crocodile family called a meeting to discuss what to do next - but the old crocodile, in the midst of things, slipped away unnoticed. He then met a kind octopus who fetched him food and stayed as his companion; but unfortunately, the old crocodile could not fight his instincts, and slowly began to devour her legs - one each evening...