Shelter tells the story of Rin, a 17-year-old girl who lives her life inside of a futuristic simulation completely by herself in infinite, beautiful loneliness. Each day, Rin awakens in virtual reality and uses a tablet which controls the simulation to create a new, different, beautiful world for herself. Until one day, everything changes, and Rin comes to learn the true origins behind her life inside a simulation.
A-1 Pictures get a lot of flak from the more ‘critical’ side of the anime community. From angst at the popularity of SAO to Youtuber Digibro’s well-documented hatred of the studio’s work, there’s a lot to debate about their artistic vision and how much commercial tunnel-vision they often suffer from, especially in their light novel adaptations.
But after seeing their short film for Porter Robinson and Madeon’s song ‘Shelter’, I can no longer entertain the idea that they’re the ‘McDonald’s’ of anime. Shelter is short, but it’s no fast food meal. It’s a precious example of everything that can be done when anime deviates from its commercial angle – the kind of storytelling we saw from the video to Teddyloid’s ME!ME!ME!, from Space Patrol Lululco, Eve no Jikan and other oddball, oddly-produced projects. It combines all I’ve grown to love about Porter’s musical direction with the beauty of animated narratives which have given birth to so many experiences I’ve never had in Western storytelling, and furthermore to the sakuga community documenting the craftsmanship of the great animators we have today.
Like all good speculative science-fiction, the story of Shelter takes itself far beyond the confines of Rin’s living technological tomb. Every shot of breathtaking scenery is permeated by loneliness, as the girl either watches it all form around her pseudo-bedroom, or adventures through it barefoot, with no change from her sleep-wear. It’s a constant juxtaposition of living and sleeping, progress and death, the kind Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lovely Bones failed to realize by both expecting CGI to do the work of fantasy, and by using sub-par CGI on top of that. Porter understands that we relate to dreaming by how we see the dreamer; Rin’s happy apathy connects to the words of the song: how she “left behind the home that you made me but… will carry it along”. We see her both abandoning her bedroom but taking it with her, venturing into what she draws with her tablet still in hand, a constant reminder that it is all only artifice.
Likewise does she take her memories wherever she goes; she can’t resist drawing her past, and all her drawings can only spring from a previous world. This populates her world with more than herself, but at the same time reminds her of her loneliness. I’m reminded of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby feeling both within a party, and in the position of an onlooker upon himself; both within and without. Rin feels trapped inside her world, but with shots of her father looking down upon her, it also feels like she can take the position of her protector. The words of the song ring true to this theme; remembering her father this way, she can grow up fostered by the benevolent intention to secure life, rather than waste or destroy it. It’s easy to assume the best as viewers for this moe girl, but without this memory of her father, discontent with her world could run rampant in her mind.
Instead the world she is able to draw, again and again, is her father – that creative drive to preserve beauty. The pre-chorus cries, “I’ll give them shelter like you’ve done for me”, and we can agree that in some possible, reawakened future – the kind Sad Machine’s lyrics might suggest as being a sequel to this event – Rin can take humanity, or whatever it has become, along with her on her journeys of child-like celebration of aesthetic: a “hundred leaders will be born” of her father’s ingenuity having been passed down to her.
The greatest fear of the post-apocalyptic is the loss of creativity; the greatest joy, perhaps, is the relic of it. But Shelter suggests that even greater – the bittersweet happiness of the story that reduced me to a tearful mess by the end – is that no matter what is destroyed from our lives, if we have the sentiment to protect creativity itself, it can be reborn from no matter what is left of the world.
There’s little difference between playing with sand, scribbling on a tablet, and giving birth to a whole new world. Porter Robinson’s narrative reminds us that artistic creation comes from the simplicity of the heart of a child, and he naturalizes technology – so often the cause for an apocalypse in fiction, so often feared as a deviation or destruction of the natural in literature – into just another extension of the eternal hope we should all have: that art will remain alive.
A-1 pictures give us the thrilling visual narrative needed to soberly celebrate that hope. As lacking as some viewers may have found their storytelling at times, we can’t deny how well their art executes Porter’s narrative in this musical short. In the times I haven’t enjoyed A-1’s work, I’ve always leveled it at individual staff, and not at the studio as a whole. Frequently it feels like their talents are wasted by sub-par storytellers only looking to milk a market. But Shelter is as far away from that as we can get. As I hope for the reawakening of Rin, so do I hope this marks A-1 awakening anew as well. If the animators they use devote their abilities to stories like this, that unearth fundamental human truths about ourselves and art in emotional masterstrokes, their name could be received so much better by critics at large.
I look forward to more collaborations between Japanese animators and the artists they inspire. Shelter has crossed the gap between Western fans and Japan’s modern multimedia culture, and unified us all in remembering how important it is that the creative children within all of us stay scribbling forever, even if it feels like our own universes have collapsed. Fantasy exists to give hope to reality, and this short video has made me sure that we can look forward to great things from A-1, and Porter himself, in the future.