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Director: Hiroyuki Okiura
Release date:
September 10, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★★★
Review:

To me the Japanese Production I.G. studio is a company hard to grasp what it’s about. Since 1987 the studio produces television series, OVAs, feature films, video games and even music. With its vast production quantity seems more important than quality, and production more important than vision or style. For example, of its fifty plus feature films only a very few created a stir in the West, and these are as diverse as ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995), ‘Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade’ (2000), ‘Giovanni’s Island’ (2014) and ‘Miss Hokusai’ (2015).

Of all these ‘A Letter to Momo’ comes closest to an author film. The film was conceived, written and directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, after he had directed the widely acclaimed ‘Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade’. The whole film took a staggering seven years to make, but the amount of work visibly pays off, because ‘A Letter to Momo’ can be placed among the best films ever to come out of Japan, being on the same level as the best from Ghibli, Momaru Hosoda or Makoto Shinkai. It’s therefore highly incomprehensible that the film remains Okiura’s only own creation.

‘A Letter to Momo’ takes place in one hot summer on the island, and tells about Momo, an eleven year old girl whose father has unexpectedly died, and who moves with her mother Ikuko from buzzling Tokyo to the place of her mother’s roots: a quiet rural town on the remote Osaki Shimojima island, somewhere Southeast of Hiroshima in the Seto inland sea. Both events are clearly traumatic experiences to the young teenager, who remains shy, stubborn, withdrawn, and taciturn, despite her mother’s efforts to befriend her with the local children, who surely are willing enough to let her join their group. These early scenes are shown on a leisurely speed, depicting Momo’s boredom, isolation, and loneliness very well.

But things get worse, Momo’s new home turns out to be haunted: there are voices in the attic, and some vague creature seems to follow her mom when she’s off to work. Soon, a trio of goblins manifest themselves to the young girl, and she has a hard time getting used to their presence. During the movie she must learn to live with them, and she finally figures out why they are there in the first place.

The fantasy sequences with the three dimwitted goblins are fun, but throughout the movie Momo’s emotions remain central to the story, especially the loss Momo experiences after her father’s death, her relationship with her mother, who’s also grief-stricken, and her slow opening to the island children. A recurring metaphor of Momo’s transition from being shy, miserable, and scared to a teenager capable of enjoying life once again is shown in a few swimming scenes, in which the island children jump from a high bridge into the sea.

The human drama and the fantasy finally come together in a breathtaking finale when a typhoon visits the island. This sequence is the most Ghibli-like of the whole film. This is the dramatic highlight of a film that otherwise remains modest in how it tells its sweet and moving tale.

The looks of ‘A Letter to Momo’ are no less than gorgeous. The film boasts a rather unique style, with a very high level of realism. The drawings are exceptional for their surprisingly attractive and very thin line work, and the animation, supervised by Masashi Ando, is no less than excellent. Especially, the command of the human form is breathtaking. It apparently took four years to animate the complete film, but every animation drawing of Momo and her mother is a beauty to look at, and absolutely conveys a wide range of emotions and expressions, rarely resorting to anime cliches, if ever. For example, it’s startling to watch someone cough as realistically as Ikuko does in this film. ‘A Letter to Momo’ is also one of those rare Japanese animation film in which the characters actually do look Japanese, with black hair, porcelain to yellow-brown skins and eyes of more realistic proportions than usually encountered in anime.

The background art, supervised by Hiroshi Ôno (who previously worked on ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’) is gorgeous, too. It does not deviate from artwork of other Japanese animation films, but again, its level of realism is staggering. The documentary on the Blu-Ray I have of this film shows pictures of the real thing, and the film makers have captured the island of Osaki Shimojima astonishingly well. Moreover, they’ve managed to do so, while keeping the background paintings very attractive and always in service of the animated action. There’s a small dose of computer animation, which always remains modest and functional (a boat, a fan, some moving background art), and which doesn’t disrupt the graphic quality of the film.

In all, ‘A Letter to Momo’ is a heart-warming tale on loss and grief, very well made and one of the most gorgeous animation films to come out of Japan to look at. Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer for ‘A Letter to Momo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Letter to Momo’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Oh Sung-Yoon
Release date:
July 28, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★
Review:

I once grabbed a copy of this film from a Tesco’s in Northern Ireland because it looked visually interesting. But I must be one of the very few people who have seen this movie: the film remains totally obscure: I’ve never encountered this feature on any animation festival, review site or such, and it’s not even getting 1000 viewers on the IMDb. This film certainly deserves better, as we shall see below.

‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ turns out to be a Korean film: it was made by Lotte Entertainment and Myung Films, both based in South Korea, and indeed the film’s visuals are a strange mix of Western and Eastern tropes. Especially the character designs are a mixed bag, with some animals looking very Disneyesque (e.g., the little Duckling), others genuinely Asian (e.g., the barnyard ducks and the otter mayor). Most ridiculous is the heroic gander Wilson, who’s a strange combination of a duck and a handsome anime hero, with a waving hairdo.

Nevertheless, ‘Daisy a Hen into the Wild’ is a very attractive film to look at. The coloring is bold and glowing, with bright oranges and greens popping from the screen. Moreover, all characters have an airbrushed coloring, rendering them soft and rich in color. Even better is the background art, which consist of soft, poetical story book-like painting, unlike anything you’ll encounter in either American or Japanese cinema. In fact, the background painting style reminded me most of Jimmy Murakami’s films based on Raymond Briggs’s stories. Some of this background art is extraordinarily beautiful and a real feast to the eye. The animation is of a high level, too, if not too outstanding, often strangely blending naturalism with both Disneyesque character animation and Japanese anime animation styles. There’s a splash of functional computer animation, most interesting when showing moving sceneries.

The story is very surprising, too, and unlike any American animation film. The story takes place within one year, and tells about Daisy, one of countless hens in a battery cage. Daisy’s clearly pining away in this depressing environment. At the start of the movie, she looks sickly and sad, and yearning for the outside world, especially that of some prime fowl that can walk the barnyard freely. At one point she plays dead to escape. The escape succeeds, but if you’d think this would be a film on freedom, you’re mistaken.

It soon becomes clear the loud and naïve Daisy is ill-suited for the outside world. The barnyard fowl expels her and there’s a one-eyed weasel roaming about. Luckily, the gander Wilson helps her, as does the otter, mayor of a large pond, even though the waterfowl despise the newcomer, too. Then things take an unexpected dramatic turn, and the Daisy’s tale becomes one of motherhood, selflessness and even sacrifice.

It’s best not to reveal too much, for this film’s story takes surprising directions up to a final twist unheard of in any animation film from the Western world. For example, Daisy faces some real limits to her possibilities in the outside world, so unlike the limitless American Dream so often depicted in American animated cinema. Even if she wanted to, she can’t be everything she wants to be, and part of the film is about making brave decisions, nonetheless. The only cliché part all too familiar to Western eyes is that of an outsider winning an important competition.

The story is surprisingly serious, and the film contains very little comic relief (only in the form of the otter and some of the barnyard fowl). The Korean makers don’t shun the cruelty of nature and show that every creature has its own very good reasons for what it does, even if it’s killing other species. And they’re able to do so in a moving tale with an attractive visual design.

In all, ‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ is an original and unconventional film that deserves to be seen more. The movie shows that South Korea can have a strong own voice in the animation world, independent of either Western or Japanese animation traditions, or least blending these to a unique style of its own.

Watch the trailer for ‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Daisy, a Hen into the Wild’ is available on DVD

Director: Koji Yamamura
Release date:
September 17, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★
Review:

‘Muybridge’s Strings’ is Koji Yamamura’s ode to the great Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), pioneer of recording of movement and (thus) of cinema.

Yamamura adopts different techniques to tell his tale, using pencils, pens, and paint to a mesmerizing effect. His film style is surreal, non-linear and associative, and very hard to follow indeed. I’ve learned from this film that Muybridge shot his wife’s lover, but there also images of a woman and a child, often with heads as clocks, which are more difficult to decipher. I guess Yamamura wants to say something on the passing of time, but then the connection to Muybridge is loose and vague. Nevertheless, the film is a marvel to look at, and the sound design, too, is superb.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Muybridge’s Strings’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Muybridge’s Strings’ is available on the The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 9

Director: Gorō Miyazaki
Release date:
July 17, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★★
Review:

Like ‘Ocean Waves’ (1993) and ‘Whisper of the Heart‘ (1995) ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ is one of those Ghibli films that could do well without animation. There’s no fantasy or metamorphosis around. Instead, the film is a modest little human drama. In fact, the film has much in common with the two earlier Ghibli features. Like ‘Whisper of the Heart’ ‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ has a female teenager star, and like ‘Ocean Waves’ there’s a strong air of nostalgia pervading the movie, especially in the gorgeous and evocative background art.

‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ takes place in harbor town Yokohama, somewhere between 1961 and 1963, before the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and after the release of the melancholic song ‘I Look Up as I Walk’ by Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, which is heard several times during the movie, and which even became famous in the West back then, with the silly and out-of-place title ‘the Sukiyaki song’.

‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ focuses on teenager Umi Matsuzaki who lives with her grandmother and little brother at a boarding house with five female boarders, for whom Umi cooks breakfast and dinner. Umi’s mother is a professor, who’s abroad most of the time, while her father, a seafarer, has died in the Korean war (1950-1953). Each day Umi raises some signal flags in remembrance of her father. These are seen by Shun Kazama, a schoolmate who works at a tugboat. Both Umi and Shun thus are hard working children, so typical for the Ghibli studio.

The story focuses on the love that grows between Umi and Shun, and some unforeseen complications it raises. But there’s also an important subplot in which Shun and his fellow students try to protect their old club house called ‘The Latin Quarter’ against demolishing. Only when Umi starts to help, leading an army of female students, the protest gains momentum. The clubhouse scenes provide some comic relief in an otherwise emotional deep and heart-breaking story of friendship, love, and loss.

It’s impressive how the film makers show the emotions in the subtlest of ways. For example, at one point Shun evades Umi’s presence, but we see her reaction to this neglect only sparingly on her face, and with the slightest of actions. Thus, when Umi finally lets her emotions flow, it hits the viewer all the harder.

Hayao Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki does an excellent job as a director, and the animation is top notch, especially on the main characters. There are a few flashback scenes and there’s a short dream sequence, but otherwise there’s a strong unity of time and place, with all the action taking place in only a few settings and in a limited time frame. The film thus stays focused all the time, even when showing minor deviations from the main plot, like one of the boarders leaving the house.

In all, ‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ may be a modest film, in its emotional depth it’s in no way less impressive than the studio’s more outlandish masterpieces like ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) or ‘Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea’ (2008). Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer for ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Eric Khoo
Release Date: May 17, 2011
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The film ‘Tatsumi’ celebrates the work of Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi (1935-2015). Tatsumi is the inventor of the gegika manga style, a grittier, more alternative form of manga for adults. The film re-tells five of Tatsumi’s short stories in this this style, all from 1970-1972. These stories are bridged by excerpts from his drawn autobiography ‘A Drifting Life’ from 2008.

Thus, the film is completely drawn (only in the end we see the real Yoshihiro Tatsumi), but to keep the manga style intact the film was animated with Toon Boom Software, specialized in ‘animatics’, which brings story boards to life. Thus, full animation, although present, is rare, and most of the motion is rather basic, often lacking any realism of movement. The animation is enhanced by limited digital effects, and the first and last story are digitally manipulated to make the images look older.

The complete film thus is little more than slightly enhanced comic strips. One wonders if this is the best way to present Tatsumi’s work, as most probably his stories work better in their original manga form, but of course the movie is a great introduction to his work, which without doubt is fascinating and original.

Tatsumi’s manga style clearly deviates from his example, the great Osamu Tezaku. Tatsumi’s style is more raw, sketchier and knows nothing of the big eyes so common in manga. All but one story use a voice over narrator. And all but one are in the first person. The stories themselves are gritty, dark, depressing and bleak. The second story, ‘Beloved Monkey’, in which a factory worker falls in love with a girl at a zoo, is particularly bitter. The outer two take place just after the end of World War II and show the effects of Japan’s traumatic loss. All are about the losers in life, struggling at the bottom of society. As Tatsumi himself says near the end of the movie:

“The Japanese economy grew at a rapid pace. Part of the Japanese population enjoyed the new prosperity. The people had a great time. I couldn’t bear to watch it. I did not share in the wealth, and neither did the common people around me. My anger at this condition accumulated within me into a menacing black mass that I vomited into my stories.”

Surprisingly, the protagonists of all first-person stories, including the autobiography, all look more or less the same, as if Tatsumi couldn’t create more than one type of hero. Only the third story, ‘Just a Man’, the only one to use a third person narrator, stars a different and older man, while the last story, the utterly depressing ‘Good-bye’, is the only one to have a female protagonist. Tatsumi’s own life story is told in full color which contrasts with his short stories, which are mostly in black and white. Tatsumi’s autobiography is less compelling than his story work but adds to the understanding of the artist and his work.

Surprisingly, for such a Japanese film ‘Tatsumi’ was made in Singapore and animated in Indonesia.  According to Wikipedia Singaporean director Eric Khoo was first introduced to the works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi during his military service, and immediately was stricken by his stories. When ‘A Drifting Life’ was published in Singapore in 2009, Khoo realized that Tatsumi still was alive and wanted to pay tribute to him. Tatsumi himself was greatly involved in the film and narrates his own life story. The movie is a great tribute to one of the more original voices in Japanese manga, and well worth watching, if you can tolerate a dose of sex and violence.

Watch the trailer for ‘Tatsumi’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Tatsumi’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Makoto Shinkai
Release date: May 7, 2011
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

After the intimate and realistic ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ (2007) director Makoto Shinkai embarked on an ambitious, long and way more fantastical project, which is ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’. The film remains an oddball inside Shinkai’s oeuvre and shows a huge Ghibli-influence absent from his other films.

The film starts realistically enough, with little schoolgirl Asuna exploring some gorgeous nature at the other side of a railway bridge and visiting a secret hideout there. But the fantasy immediately kicks in when she brings forth a strange radio-like apparatus based on some sort of crystal. The use of this device triggers a series of events that eventually leads her to no less than the boundary between life and the afterlife.

‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ knows high production values. Like ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ the background art is no less than stunning to begin with, especially the views of and from Asuna’s hill are gorgeous pieces of mood and light. Other scenes are perfect renderings of a hot summer. And like in the previous films, some of these intricate background paintings are only visible for a few frames. Typically for Japanese films some shots are just short mood pieces, in this film surprisingly often depicting insects, like dragonflies and cicadas.

The animation, too, is excellent, as is the shading on the characters themselves. The character design, on the other hand, is less original, and remarkably reminiscent of Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s work at the Toei Studios during the 1970s.

But this is only one of the obvious Ghibli-influences. Asuna herself is almost a typical Miyazaki-heroin: living without a father and a largely absent mother she’s depicted cooking and caring for herself and doing all the household work. She’s thus one of those working children that crowd the old master’s films. She’s joined by a cat called Mimi, which immediately brings Jiji to mind from ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (1989). There’s a villain that echoes colonel Muska from ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ (1986), and there are some God-animal hybrids seemingly coming straight out of ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997).

Shinkai absolutely succeeds in painting Asuna’s world. It’s a pity that most of the film takes place in Agartha, a mythical place underground the design of which is less compelling and even disappointing. When compared to the fantastical works of Ghibli’s ‘Laputa: The Castle in the Sky’, ‘Princess Mononoke’ or ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) Shinkai’s worldbuilding clearly is subpar. For example, this subterranean world knows blue skies, sunlight, clouds, and rain, which all go unexplained. Apparently, there are no stars, but that’s about it. The underworld characters live in some quasi-medieval society, but this too, is hardly worked out or explained to the viewer. Shinkai’s erratic handling of the underworld seriously harms its believability. After all, it’s hardly different from ours, and both its reason of existence and its purpose remain vague and undecided.

It doesn’t help that Asuna explores this world with one Mr. Morisaki, who is a member of some secret society, but who descends into the earth to retrieve his deceased wife. Both Morisaki’s background story and introduction make frustratingly little sense. For example, there’s a flashback which seems to indicate he was alive during world war I, and for no apparent reason and with little likelihood he poses as Asuna’s substitute teacher. The secret society is utterly unnecessary to the plot, which is too complex for its own good. Moreover, Morisaki remains a vague and unconvincing character getting much too much screen time, and he never turns into either the scary villain Muska was in ‘Laputa: The Castle in the Sky’ or one of those cleverly ambivalent antagonists of Miyazaki’s other films.

In fact, the scenes in Agartha start to drag, and the film loses focus, when leaving Asuna to concentrate on one of the underworld’s inmates, a boy called Shin. In the end Asuna is an all too will-less pawn in Morisaki’s scheme and she lacks her own clear story arc. This is in fact the film’s core problem: this should be Asuna’s story, but the film loses her halfway. It doesn’t help that Asuna’s own relationship to her deceased father is hardly developed, if at all. Particularly puzzling is a scene in which Asuna suddenly utters that Morisaki is like her father. Now where did that come from?!

The roles of Shin and the mute Manna remain vague, too, and feel half-baked. For example, Manna is abandoned halfway the film not to return. Instead, they add to the complexity of the story, further obscuring Asuna’s story arc. During the finale, in which Morisaki finally meets God (!) and Asuna is even depicted in the afterlife (!!) the last traces of believability go out of the window. Compare this rather blunt and all too direct storytelling with the Orpheus myth itself, which is clearly one of its inspirational sources, and one regrets Shinkai didn’t go for much more mystery.

The aftermath, in which our protagonists wander all the way back home is even worse, done in a short montage the story deflates over the end titles, accompanied by a cheesy song. This is a disappointing ending of an overlong and poorly timed film, indeed. Add some unnecessary gore, a plethora of unresolved story lines, three all too forced explanation scenes, and one can only conclude that Shinkai utterly fails where Miyazaki succeeds.

Luckily, ‘Childern Who Chase Lost Voices’ remained a one-time experiment. With his next film, ‘The Garden of Words’ Shinkai returned to much more familiar terrain, with far better results.

Watch the trailer for ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Tatsuyuki Nagai
Airing of first episode: April 14, 2011
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

After ‘Erased‘ this is only the second Japanese anime series I’ve seen. The two series are from the same A-1 Pictures studio, and they are about of the same quality, so how they compare to others I wouldn’t know. Like ‘Erased’ ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ deals with friendship and loss, this time featuring on a group of six high school friends.

In the first of eleven episodes we learn that Teenager boy Jintan, who has dropped out of school, is troubled by a childish blonde girl called Menma, but it turns out he’s the only one seeing her. Soon we learn that Menma is dead, and that she was part of a group of friends led by Jintan when they were kids. After her death the group fell apart, but Menma is back to fulfill her wish. Unfortunately, she herself doesn’t know anymore what her wish was…

Menma’s unknown wish is the motor of the series, as the friends slowly and partly reluctantly regroup as they are all needed to fullfil Menma’s wish. On the way we learn that each of them had a particular relationship to either Jintan or Menma, and they all have their own view on the day of Menma’s fatal death. And what’s more, there are more traumas to overcome.

‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ is surprisingly similar to the later ‘Erased’: there’s a jumping from the now to the past (although in Anohana these are flashbacks, not real jumps through time), there’s a supernatural element, there’s a group of friends, and one important mysterious girl who’s dead.

The first episode contains enough mystery to set the series in motion, but the show progresses painfully slowly, and at times I got the feeling Mari Okada’s screenplay was stretched over too many episodes. Especially episode five and six are of a frustratingly static character. In these episodes Jintan, the main character, is particularly and annoyingly passive, hardly taking any action to help Menma or himself, while Menma’s continuous cooing sounds get on the nerve.

The mystery surely unravels stunningly slowly in this series, and only episode seven ends with a real cliffhanger. Even worse, there are some serious plot holes, hampering the suspension of disbelief. Most satisfying are episode eight and ten, which are both emotional, painful, and moving. In contrast, the final episode is rather overblowing, with tears flowing like waterfalls. In fact, the episode barely balances on the verge of pathos. To be sure, such pathos occurs regularly throughout the series. In addition, there are a lot of unfinished sentences, startled faces, strange expressions, often unexplained, and all these become some sort of mannerisms.

The show is animated quite well, with intricate, if unassuming background art. Masayoshi Tanaka’s character designs, however, are very generic, with Menma being a walking wide-eyed, long-haired anime cliché. Weirdly, one of Anaru’s friends looks genuinely Asian, with small black eyes, while all main protagonists, with the possible exception for Tsuruko are depicted with different eye and hair colors, making them strangely European despite the obvious Japanese setting. For example, Menma has blue eyes and white hair, while Anaru has hazel eyes and red hair.

In all, if you like an emotional ride, and you have patience enough to watch a stretched story, ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ may be something for you. The series certainly has its merits, but an undisputed classic it is not.

Watch the trailer for ‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ and tell me what you think:

‘Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day’ is available on DVD

Director: Gisaburō Sugii
Release Date:
July 7, 2012
Rating:
 ★
Review:

‘The Life of Budori Gusuko’ is a film adaption of the novel of the same name by Kenji Miyazawa from 1932. Earlier director Gisaburō Sugii had filmed ‘Night on the Galactic Railroad’ (1985) by the same writer. Strangely, in both films, the characters are inexplicably depicted as cats. The reason of this goes completely beyond me, as Sugii does nothing with the idea of the characters being cats. They’re just humans in a cat shape.

I haven’t seen ‘Night on the Galactic Railroad’, yet, but I understand this film is some kind of classic. I wish I could say the same of ‘The life of Budori Gusuko’, but not so. This film is very disappointing in almost every aspect.

The story tells about Budori Gusuko, a blue cat, and the son of a lumberjack somewhere in the mountains. One year summer never comes, and famine comes to the land. Gusuko’s family disappears, and during the film he keeps on looking for his lost younger sister Neri. Starvation and loss presses Gusuko to leave the mountains…

The story takes place in some parallel world, but Sugii’s world building is annoyingly sloppy. The mountains in which Gusuko grows up are unmistakably European in character, but when Gusuko descends into the valley, we suddenly see very Asian rice paddies. Once we’re in the city, the setting becomes some sort of steampunk, with fantastical flying machines, while Gusuko’s second and third dream take place in some undeniably Japanese fantasy world. The volcano team, too, is typically Japanese.

But worse than that is the story itself. The film is frustratingly episodic, with things just happening on the screen, with little mutual relationship or any detectable story arc. A voice over is used much too much, and there are three very long dream sequences that add very little to the story, and the inclusion of which is more irksome than welcome.

The main problem is that Gusuko’s life story is not particularly interesting. The character himself is frustratingly passive and devoid of character. And worse, after the dire straits in the mountains, he hardly suffers any setbacks. Down in the valley he gets help and work immediately from a friendly but rather reckless farmer called Red Beard. Only when bad harvests hit the valley, too, Gusuko is forced to leave him, too, to descend once more to the city.

Likewise, in the city, Gusuko immediately reaches his goal. There’s some vague climate theme, but Gusuko’s proposed solution is questionable to say the least. Because we learn so little about Gusuko’s motives and inner world (the three dream sequences don’t help a bit) Gusuko’s last act comes out of nowhere. Nor do we care, because Gusuko never gained our sympathy in the first place. The resulting film is appallingly boring.

It must be said that ‘The Life of Budori Gusuko’ can boast some lush and outlandish background art, qualitative if unremarkable animation, adequate effect animation, and a modest dose of apt computer animation when depicting moving doors, lamps, factory parts, flying machines and of Gusuko ascending the stairs. There’s even some puppet animation during the second dream scene. Moreover, the sparse chamber music score is pleasant and effective. Composer Ryōta Komatsu makes clever use of strings, harpsichord, accordion, and percussion. But all these positive aspects cannot rescue a film whose central story is a bad choice to start with.

Surprisingly, this was not the first animated adaptation of the novel. In 1994 the Japanese Animal-ya studio had made another adaptation. It puzzles me what the Japanese see in this terribly boring tale with its questionable message.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Life of Budori Gusuko’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Life of Budori Gusuko’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Keichii Hara
Release Date:
May 9, 2015
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

Based on a manga from the mid-1980s by Hinako Sugiura ‘Miss Hokusai’ is one of those rare animation films unquestionably directed to an adult audience. The film celebrates Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and his daughter, fellow artist Katsushika Ōi (ca. 1800-ca. 1866), whose art matches her father’s.

The film is no biopic, however, only spanning a short time, when Ōi is ca. twenty years old. Moreover, the film consists of a multitude of short scenes, mostly seemingly unrelated and hardly building a story. For example, there are two artists romantically interested in Ōi, but this amounts to no romance. Ōi seems vaguely interested in her own sexuality, but also this theme is hardly worked out.

The most substantial story line is that of Ōi’s younger stepsister O-Nao, who is blind, and whom Hokusai refuses to visit. However, there’s no real story arc, and the film fades in and out without much conflict or personal progress. Emotions remain understated throughout, and it’s telling that the film’s most delightful scene involves a boy playing with O-Nao in the snow, a scene in which Ōi hardly takes part.

It doesn’t help that Ōi mostly is a taciturn, frowning, and uninviting character, who rarely smiles. Her father is more colorful, but cold, selfish and equally clammed-up and phlegmatic. Neither of the two is very sympathetic, and the charm of the film lies not particularly with these characters, but with a series of supernatural events related to Hokusai’s art.

The other characters, mostly artists, are too sketchy to be of real interest. To Western viewers Totoya Hokkei, one of Hokusai’s students, is most interesting, for here’s a rare Japanese anime character actually depicted with slit eyes, depicting the epicanthic fold. There’s also a dog, which I guess, is supposed to be some sort of comic relief.

Above all, the film manages to paint a very lively portrait of Edo (19th century Tokyo), especially the busy Nihonbashi bridge, which is rendered beautifully with help of computer animation. This bridge takes a central place in the narrative, and the films starts and ends with it. Hokusai’s famous Great Wave off Kanagawa can also be seen briefly around the 21-minute mark. Computer animation is also used effectively in the scene in which Ōi runs through the nightly streets of Edo.

The traditional animation is fair, but not exceptional, and firmly rooted in Japanese anime traditions. The soundtrack uses very uninteresting modern music and is mostly at odds with the 19th century scenes.

In all, ‘Miss Hokusai’ is too fragmentary, too unfocused, and too bland to entertain. Both Hokusai and Ōi ultimately deserve better.

Watch the trailer for ‘Miss Hokusai’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Miss Hokusai’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director Tomohiko Itō
Airing of first episode: January 8, 2016
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

‘Erased’ (the Japanese title translates as “The Town Where Only I Am Missing”) is an anime miniseries consisting of a mere twelve episodes and telling about young adult Satoru, who’s apparently often transported a few moments back in time to prevent some horrible disaster.

This is a weird concept to start with, especially because it’s never explained nor used consistently during the series. But this is the starting point of the complete series. Anyhow, when a mysterious killer goes rampant, threatening Satoru’s own very existence, he’s suddenly sent back not a few moments back into time, but way back to February 1988, when Satoru was eleven years old. Moreover, Satoru’s transferred to a different place, as well, his childhood hometown of Chiba, near Tokyo.

Satoru, who keeps his adult mind, knows he must do something about his classmate Kayo, a girl who has visible bruises because she’s molested by her mother, but who also is the first victim of a child-abducting serial killer that terrorizes the neighborhood, something Satoru knows beforehand, because he relives the past. He has only a few days to set things right. Will he be able to rescue Kayo and the other children from the clutches of the murderer, this time?

The series thus plays with the wish to go back in time to do things differently than you have had before. Satoru certainly changes the behavior of his eleven-years old self, changing from a rather distant, lonesome child into one who becomes a responsible and valuable friend, discovering the power of friendship along the way.

Now this is the first anime series I’ve seen in its entirety, so to me it’s difficult to assess the series’ value compared to others. In the distant past I’ve seen episodes from ‘Heidi’ (1974), ‘Angie Girl’ (1977-1978), and ‘Candy Candy’ (1975-1979), as well as ‘Battle of the Planet’s (1978-1980), the Americanized version of ‘Gatchaman’, but that’s about it – the only other more recent series I’ve seen is ‘FLCL’ (2000-2001), but I’ve only seen the first couple of episodes, so I cannot judge that series in its entirety.

Nevertheless, ‘Erased’ receives a high rating on IMDb, thus is clearly valued as one of the better series. And I can see why. The series is very good with cliffhangers, and there’s enough suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat most of the time. Moreover, apart from the time travelling and killer plot, there’s a sincere attention to the horrid effects of child abuse. Even better still, the series shows how being open and friendly towards others can make a significant positive change to their lives, as well as to your own. This is a rare and very welcome message, which the series never enforces on the viewer, but shows ‘by example’.

I particularly liked the fact that each episode starts with an intro, which is not an exact recapture of events in the previous episode, but which contains new footage, subtly shedding new light on the events. Nevertheless, ultimately, the thriller plot, which its red herrings, false alarms, and rather unconvincing villain, is less impressive than the subplots on child abuse and friendship.

Indeed, the series’ best parts all play in February-March 1988, not in the present, with the gentle eight episode, ‘Spiral’ forming the series emotional highlight. The creators succeed in giving these school parts an air of nostalgia, as exemplified by the leader of the series, which is intentionally nostalgic, focusing on Satoru’s childhood, before becoming more confused, indicating a lot, without revealing anything. Oddly, the intro is accompanied by neo-alternative guitar rock, suggesting more the early nineties than late 1980s.

Anyhow, when focusing on the relationships between the children the series is at its very best. In fact, I wonder why the creators didn’t make this series without the rather enforced killer plot. In my opinion the series needn’t any, although it certainly accounts for some chilling moments, like when Satoru becomes a victim of child abduction himself…

Unfortunately, the creators of ‘Erased’ are better in building its subplots than ending them. The last three episodes become increasingly unconvincing. They quickly lost me, making me leave the series with a rather sour taste in my mouth. The finale certainly stains the whole series and diminishes its power.

I have difficulties to say something about the design and animation. The animation, typically for television anime, is rather limited, but still looks fine, as does the staging. The character designs and background painting, however, don’t transcend the usual Japanese conventions, and are indeed pretty generic. In that respect, ‘FLCL’, the only other anime series I can say something about, is much more cutting edge.

In all, ‘Erased’ is a gripping series with a very welcome attention to the horrors of child abuse and the benefits of friendship. I’d certainly say it deserves a watch, even if it can turn out a little disappointing one, given the series’ potential.

Watch the trailer for ‘Erased’ and tell me what you think:

‘Erased’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Release Date:
June 25, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

Director Mamoru Hosoda rose to prominence with the feature films ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time’ (2006) and ‘Summer Wars’ (2009), both made at the Madhouse studio.

To make his next film, ‘Wolf Children’ he created his own studio, Chizu, allowing him to make ‘author films’. And indeed, Hosoda has proven to be a strong voice in Japanese animated cinema, especially with ‘The Boy and the Beast’ (2015) and ‘Mirai’ (2018). Many place ‘Wolf Children’ in the same league, but I’d disagree, as I will explain below.

‘Wolf Children’ tells about Hana, a student who falls in love with an enigmatic boy, who turns out to be half man half wolf. She bears him two children, who have inherited her boyfriend’s dualistic nature, but then he dies, and she must raise the two on her own. But how will she manage as her children are both human and wolf?

The film encompasses a long time period, up to ca. twenty years, and from time to time a voice over (by Hana’s daughter Yuki) takes over. The film thus is very episodic, but also remarkably low key, poetic and tranquil. Several scenes are mood pieces, only carried by music, letting the images do the work. Moreover, most of the emotions are seen from a distance, and the most dramatic moment of the movie, Yuki’s rescue of her little brother Ame, isn’t even shown.

Unfortunately, the episodic nature also means that the film lacks focus. The story doesn’t stay with Hana but diverts to the experiences of Yuki and Ame and back, story lines are introduced and dropped as well as characters. For example, when Hana moves to the countryside, several scenes are devoted to her relationship with the villagers, most importantly one grumpy old Nirasaki. But later this theme is dropped, and the characters are not seen again.

Hosoda does succeed in showing how little events in children’s lives can change their character and outlook on life forever. Indeed, Yuki and Ame go different directions in life, proving that one upbringing can have very different outcomes.

Despite the film’s interesting message, the lack of focus, the episodic nature, the slow speed, and the sheer length (the film clocks almost two hours) all hamper the film. One wishes Hosoda dared to be more concise, killing more darlings.

Moreover, stylistically the film doesn’t deviate from the general anime style. As all other anime films of the era, the movie exploits very realistic and intricate background art, and the character design feels generic and uninspired, despite being designed by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto of ‘Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water’ (1990) and ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ (1995) fame. In fact, with their rather ugly line work and flat colors, the characters contrast greatly with the often beautiful background art, and are simply subpar.

The animation and cinematography, on the other hand, are excellent, and there’s some clever use of computer animation, especially during the scene in which Yuki and Ame run through a snow-covered forest.

‘Wolf Children’ is certainly an interesting and by no means a bad movie, but for a director being able to do his own thing, Hosoda certainly could have been more daring artistically, and more focused storywise.

Watch the trailer for ‘Wolf Children’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Wolf Children’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Release Date: July 11, 2015
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

For quite a time only three Japanese author directors of animated films were known in the West: Osamu Tezuka, Katsuhiro Otomo and Hayao Miyazaki (well, and perhaps Miyazaki’s friend and Ghibli-associate Isao Takahata). But in the 2000s several others were added, most notably Satoshi Kon (who, unfortunately, died prematurely), Masaaki Yuasa, Makoto Shinkai, and Mamoru Hosoda. The latter impressed audiences with his films ‘The Girl Who Lept Through Time’ (2006), ‘Summer Wars’ (2009) and especially ‘Wolf Children’ (2012), for which he had erected his own studio, Studio Chizu.

‘The Boy and the Beast’, like ‘Wolf Children’, was made at Hosoda’s own Chizu studio. It’s a coming-of-age story, largely set in a parallel world of Bakemono, shapeshifting spirits that in Hosoda’s film have taken the shape of anthropomorphized animals. The whole concept of Bakemono is, of course, unknown to us Westerners (I, at least had no knowledge of this part of Japanese folklore), but luckily, Hosoda provides the film with an introduction, which sortly sets out this strange otherworld, and its major inhabitants: an aging Grandmaster (who turns out to be an old rabbit), and his rival successors, Iouzen (a hog) and Kumatetsu, a bear.

Then we cut to present Tokyo, where nine years old Ren wanders the streets. After the death of his mother he has run away from home and he has nowhere to go. By some strange events he enters the parallel Bakemono world called Juutengai, where he becomes Kumatetsu’s pupil.

Kumatetsu can be viewed as Ren’s counterpart: he’s alone and lonely, having grown up without parents. But the old bear is also immature, lazy, selfish, and extremely quick-tempered. In fact, he can learn something from his own young pupil, and although the two quarrel throughout the picture, it becomes clear the two recognize something in each other, and love each other for it.

On this premise Hosoda builds a surprisingly complex story about what it means to grow up without parents. In fact, despite the elaborate fantasy world and spectacular fight scenes this is a film about loss and of the empty feeling inside of having no father or mother or either. Indeed, halfway the film jumps several years forward and the now seventeen years old Ren (or Kyuta, as Kumatetsu calls him) has to deal with the emptiness inside him. He learns that this can be filled with love of others. Back in the real world, he meets a girl called Kaede who helps him to cope.

More than any of Hosoda’s previous films, this movie seems to owe quite a lot to the Ghibli studio influence: the coming-of-age story, the parallel world, children working and learning how to become disciplined, adult figures becoming quite fond of the human child in their world – it’s all very similar to particularly ‘Spirited Away’ (2001). But unlike Miyazaki’s masterpiece, ‘The Boy and the Beast’ does know a real villain, a boy called Ichirōhiko, even if his villainy is explained by loss. Ichirōhiko is similar to Ren, but he has never been able to fill the void inside him, and consequently, he’s filled with anger and hate.

Ichirōhiko provides the most surreal scene in the entire film: the shadow of a whale swimming through the streets of Tokyo. But throughout the background art and imagery is rich and colorful: Tokyo feels absolutely real, as does the fantasy world of Juutengai. As said, the story is rather complex, but it remains engaging throughout and never loses focus on its main message. The animation, too, is fine, if not exceptional, as is the drawing style, which is a little more generic than the average Ghibli product.

In all, ‘The Boy and the Beast’ corroborates Hosoda as a strong author-director. If only American animated cinema would allow strong individual voices like him!

Watch the trailer for ‘The Boy and the Beast’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Boy and the Beast’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Mamoru Oshii
Release Date: November 18, 1995
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

‘Ghost in the Shell’ was the best known anime film in the West between ‘Akira’ (1988) and ‘Spirited Away’ (2001). This was of course mainly because it was one of the very few Japanese features being released in the West in the first place. But what also helped was that the film merges science fiction, action thriller and philosophy into an entertaining melting pot, which a sexy cyborg as its main star.

‘Ghost in the Shell’ is based on a manga by Masamune Shirow and tells about major Motoko Kusanagi, a female cyborg, who has to track down a dangerous hacker called the ‘Puppet Master’. But when the true identity of the Puppet Master is revealed, things take a whole different turn…

The plot of ‘Ghost in the Shell’ is complex and very hard to follow. It doesn’t help that the future world in which it takes place is introduced with a minimum of background story, thus the viewer has to grab the relevant information along the way. For example, only gradually it became clear to me that practically every citizen in this future world has augmented brains, and is therefore hackable. Or that Kusanagi wasn’t an android, as I thought, but a cyborg, although we don’t see any biological tissue on her. In fact, already within the first two minutes we see her naked, with clearly defined breasts, but no genitals whatsoever, looking strangely like a Barbie doll instead.

‘Ghost in the Shell’ is a true cyberpunk film, and revolves around the idea of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human or to be alive. Not only does the main plot focuses on those ideas, there are several, often rather pompous dialogues between Kusanagi and her partner, the muscular fellow cyborg Bateau, in which the two ponder the meaning of their own existence. A lot of attention goes to the mysterious ‘ghost’ within the wired neural networks, a word that the Japanese use untranslated, and which points directly to Arthur Koestler’s ‘the ghost in the machine’ (1967). The Japanese ‘Ghost’ is translated back into ‘soul’ in the subtitles, but its precise concept remains vague, and in the end both the story and these bits of dialogue are much too thin to call ‘Ghost in the Shell’ a philosophical masterpiece, for despite all the philosophical implications the film is an action thriller first and foremost.

Nevertheless, I suspect the feature was an influence on the makers of ‘The Matrix’, for it foreshadows some of the latter film’s themes, and ‘The Matrix’ quite clearly stole both the connection to the network by neck and the theme of green numbers filling the screen from ‘Ghost in the Shell’.

As a thriller the film delivers, featuring spectacular manhunts, several shootings and fights, a few bits of gross violence, and an exciting finale in an abandoned natural history museum, a setting deliberately chosen to enhance the movie’s theme of new developments within human and non-human evolution. The action is greatly helped by excellent staging and by solid background art, supervised by Takashi Watabe, evoking a partly drowned, and partly abandoned metropolis containing many different nationalities, not unlike the world of ‘Blade Runner’ (1982).

Also strong is Kenji Kawai’s musical soundtrack, which uses electronics, percussion and haunting choirs to a unique and unsettling effect. Around 35 minutes there’s even a more than a minute long gorgeous mood piece, consisting of townscapes and music only, which is pure atmosphere, and completely unnecessary to the plot.

Much less impressive is the animation, supervised by Hiroyuki Okiura. Compared to ‘Akira’ or contemporary output by the Ghibli studio, the animation in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ looks cheap and low-budget. There are many scenes in which there’s hardly to no animation at all, especially during the dialogue scenes, and talking is suggested by a bare minimum of means. For example, there’s a shot of Kusanagi talking that uses only two drawings in rapid succession. Even worse, the cyborgs can talk to each other without speaking, leaving several scenes totally unanimated. This is too bad, for when there’s more effort placed into the animation, it’s actually quite good. Especially a complex scene in a crowded market place stands out as a great piece of animated action, as does the final battle between the colonel and a robot tank. The 2d animation is often combined with rather primitive computer animation, which may have looked quite cool then, but which hasn’t aged very well. Most impressive is the use of CGI in the camouflage suits.

The character designs, too, also by Okiura, leave much to be desired. The characters are very generic, and rather angular, and lack the appeal of those in contemporary Ghibli or Otomo films. Kusanagi is hardly the sexy heroine she’s supposed to be, and often looks uncannily masculine. At least the Western characters are distinguishable from the Asian ones, a rather rare feat in anime.

Thus ‘Ghost in the Shell’ may disappoint the pure animation lovers, but will delight those interested in Japanese science fiction and cyborg themes. As such it’s a film that has aged surprisingly well. Even better, the feature’s relevance has only grown since then, as the real world has been rapidly moving towards the future depicted in the film.

In 2004 ‘Ghost in the Shell’ was followed by a sequel, ‘Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and in 2017 by a live action version, starring Scarlett Johansson as the major.

Watch the trailer for ‘Ghost in the Shell’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ghost in the Shell’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Yoshifumi Kondo
Release Date: July 15, 1995
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Surprisingly, ‘Whisper of the Heart’ opens with a rendition of John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ by Olivia Newton-John, implying one of those Ghibli films with a longing for the old country side. Not so. Country Roads remains the theme song throughout the picture, but the story entirely takes place inside the city of Tokyo, and completely lacks the nostalgia of ‘My Neighbor Totoro‘ (1988), ‘Only Yesterday’ (1991) or ‘Pom Poko’ (1994).

‘Whisper of the Heart’ is one of the lesser known of the classic Ghibli films. Perhaps because it isn’t directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, but instead by the much lesser known Yoshifumi Kondō, being the first theatrical Ghibli film not directed by either founder (although it must be emphasized that Miyazaki both wrote the screenplay and storyboarded the film). Or it’s perhaps because the feature’s story is surprisingly mundane when compared to contemporary Ghibli films like ‘Pom Poko’ or ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997). In fact, like the earlier TV-Feature ‘Ocean Waves’ the story of ‘Whisper of the Heart’ never really departs from reality, and has little need for animation. Only the scenes of Shizuku’s story, and perhaps the old clock and the journeys of the fat cat Muta may require the medium of animation.

The film is based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi and tells about ca. fourteen year old girl Shizuku, who is very fond of reading, but who, during one hot summer, is obliged to leave her fantasy world and enter a more mature one of love and responsibility. ‘Whisper of the Heart’ thus is a coming of age story, and we remain with Shizuku and her inner development all the time.

There are times in the film that we, Western viewers, being used to certain tropes, are misled on what’s coming. For example, at one point, the imagery certainly invokes death, but not so. Also, in a Western film we would expect to watch Shizuku and her friends performing the song they’re talking about during the whole film. Or we would expect a loyalty conflict between Shizuku and her best friend Yuko. Again, nothing of the sort. Nor do Shizuku’s parents thwart Shizuku’s ambitions.

In fact, there’s absolutely no conflict, at all during the entire movie: Shizuku can boast to have loving friends, understanding parents, and a supportive older sister. Moreover, all the strangers she meets are absolutely kind. All the conflict Shizuku faces, takes place entirely in her own head. Yet, the Ghibli studio manages to craft a surprisingly engaging and deep story out of such little material, focusing not only on the love theme, but also on how to find your own talents and what it takes and what it means to be an artist. Thus the geode allegory forms the central message of the film, a message directed to us all.

Another aspect of the film is the extraordinary attention to detail of every day life, so typical of the Ghibli studio. Thus we get glimpses of Shizuku’s family living, studying and working in their tiny apartment. We watch dogs bark from a garden as Shizuku walks by, we watch shadows of trees moving on the pavements, the sun breaking through the clouds, etc. etc. All these little details enhance the realism of the film, which only departs into the whimsical when going inside Shizuku’s story. The animation, too, is of a high realism, as exemplified by e.g. Seiji’s effort to climb a steep hill on his bicycle. Only at a few takes the animation turns comical, for example when Shizuku’s class mates spy on her and Seiji.

‘Whisper of the Heart’ may lack the extraordinary fantasy of ‘Pom Poko’ or ‘Spirited Away’, and it’s certainly not as epic as ‘Princess Mononoke’, but it’s a moving film with a lot of heart, and certainly belongs to Studio Ghibli’s best feature films. Tragically, in 1998, Yoshifumi Kondō, who was thought of as the successor to the aging Miyazaki and Takahata, died prematurely at the age of 47, and ‘Whisper of the Heart’ remains the only film he directed. In 2002 Ghibli released a spin-off film called ‘The Cat Returns’, which incidentally became only the second Ghibli film not to be directed by either Miyazaki or Takahata.

Watch the trailer for ‘Whisper of the Heart’ yourself and tell me what you think:


‘Whisper of the Heart’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Isao Takahata
Release Date: July 16, 1994
Rating: ★★★

To start: this film is not about raccoons, but about raccoon dogs, which, despite their similarity, are only distantly related to raccoons, being more akin to foxes. The story tells about a population of raccoon dogs living on the Tama hills in Southwest Tokyo. The raccoon dogs see their own environment giving way rapidly to the ever growing metropolis, and decide to fight back in order to save their homes by reviving their old shape-shifting skills…

Apparently, the Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus) or Tanuki, as the Japanese call him, has been a subject of a long folkloristic tradition. In this folklore the Tanuki has magical powers, being able to shape-shift, but he’s often too lazy, and too distracted to use them. Another peculiarity of this folklore is the focus on the raccoon dog’s testicles, which have magical powers themselves.

These character traits are clearly visible in ‘Pom Poko’: the raccoon dogs are depicted as carefree, fun-loving characters, their testicles are clearly visible, and used in some shape-shift transformations. For example, in one scene an elderly raccoon dog transforms his testicles into a giant carpet, in another a group of raccoon dogs use their inflated testicles as parachutes.

The shape-shifting scenes lead to some remarkable sequences, some of which are very close to pure horror, like a scene in which a cop meets all kinds of people without faces. This would have been a very frightening scene, indeed, if it were not depicted rather playfully, focusing on the police officer’s rather silly-looking panic, instead of the horror of the visions.

Most impressive of the shape-shifting sequences, and the undisputed highlight of the film, is the goblin parade. Here, too, some of the images are genuinely scary, but again, the depiction remains on the light side. For example, there’s a long scene with two men discussing the supernatural at a bar, completely oblivious of the mayhem behind them.

It’s interesting to compare ‘Pom Poko’ to other environmentalist film of the era, like ‘FernGully: The Last Rain Forest’ (1992). Compared to the earlier film, ‘Pom Poko’ is remarkably mature. There’s nothing of FernGully’s magical ‘healing power’, nor does the film need a supervillain. In ‘Pom Poko’ ordinary men, none of them intrinsically mean, form a threat enough to the little forest creatures.

Soon it becomes clear that the raccoon dogs cannot win, and we have to witness several tragic deaths of these critters. Some die in one desperate last fight, others disappear on a mythical ship to the netherworld, some blend in into human society, and still others keep on living in an urban environment, scavenging the suburbs.

In the end, the raccoon dogs must admit that man’s ability to transform the environment is much greater than their own shape-shifting abilities. Yet, this conclusion comes with a feeling of sadness of what’s been lost. Like many other Studio Ghibli films, there’s a longing to earlier times in this film, and especially the raccoon dogs’ last trick, reviving the landscape of old, is one of pure nostalgia.

‘Pom Poko’ is a mature film, but it’s not without its flaws. The film is told by using the weak voice over device, and it has a rather episodic nature, covering several years. Thus the story moves on a leisurely speed, not really building up to a grand finale. Moreover, there are a lot of characters in this film, and we don’t follow one in particular, thus scattering the viewer’s focus.

Another peculiarity is that the film uses three styles to depict the raccoon dogs: first, a very realistic one, which accounts for some very impressive naturalistic animation. Second, the most dominant one, in which the raccoon dogs are depicted as clothed anthropomorphic characters. And third, a highly simplified one, in which the raccoon dogs suddenly become flat comic book characters, especially when celebrating. To me, it’s completely unclear why this third style is even present, and during these scenes the animation is often crude and repetitive, relying on reused animation cycles.

What doesn’t help is that the film is very, very Japanese: the behavior and rites of the raccoon dogs are sometimes enigmatic, and there are a lot of Buddhist and Shintoist references that are completely lost on the Western viewer. In that respect it’s a surprise that foxes have the same character traits in Japanese folklore as in Western tradition: in ‘Pom Poko’ the foxes are sly tricksters, too.

‘Pom Poko’ may not be perfect, it still is a very interesting film on human-animal relationships, it provides a small window into Japanese folklore, and it certainly is a very humane and mature film, showing us that one doesn’t need villains for destruction, and that some very valuable things are getting lost in the march of progress.

Watch the trailer for ‘Pom Poko’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Pom Poko’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Release Date: December 25, 1993
Rating: ★★★★½

Ocean Waves © Ghibli‘Ocean Waves’ was an animated feature the Studio Ghibli made for television. It’s also one of those Japanese animation films that could pretty well be made in live action.

According to Wikipedia the film was an attempt by Studio Ghibli to allow their younger staff members to make a film reasonably cheaply. So, it may not come to a surprise that the film is a little underwhelming when compared to contemporary Ghibli films like ‘Porco Rosso‘ (1992) or ‘Pom Poko‘ (1994), let alone later masterpieces like ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997) or ‘Spirited Away‘ (2001).

But taken on its own, ‘Ocean Waves’ is a very nicely told tale of high school romance, full of nostalgia, especially in its depiction of hot summers. The film takes place in Kōchi, on the Southern island of Shikoku. The film is told by Taku, now a student at a University in Tokyo. He reminisces about his high school friendship with bespectacled Matsuno Yutaka, and how he met the erratic girl Muto Rikako.

Rikako clearly is a troubled girl: she has moved to Kōchi from Tokyo, only with her mother and brother, and she hardly makes friends. Yutaka is clearly interested in her, raising jealousy in Taku, but it’s Taku who ends up in an all too improvised trip to Tokyo with Rikako, who wants to see her father again. The trip turns into a disaster, and Rikako even unwillingly manages to separate the two friends, but the film ends on a high note, even if years later.

The film’s style is very understated: only little is spoken out, and most of the feelings transgress through body gestures. Rikako remains enigmatic to the very end, and Taku blunders through his meetings with her. The film remains highly realistic, and the characters believable throughout.

‘Ocean Waves’ may not be a Ghibli masterpiece, it’s still a gentle animation film, well worth seeing.

Watch the trailer for ‘Ocean Waves’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ocean Waves’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Taji Yabushita
Release Date: September 3, 1958
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The White Serpent © Toei Animation‘The White Serpent’ (also known as ‘Madame White Snake’ or as ‘Panda and the Magic Serpent’) is a feature of firsts: it was the first feature made by the Tōei Studio, Japan’s first post-war feature, the first one in color, and the first to be released in the United States.

The film somewhat forms the herald of a new era within Japanese animation, and is sometimes regarded as the starting point of the Japanese animation industry. The Tōei studio at least had the intention to become the Oriental Disney. Indeed, the foundation of the Tōei Dōga studio two years earlier was partly inspired by the Japanese release of Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), which made an enormous impression on Japanese animators. Another catalyst was the coming of television, for which the studio could make numerous commercials.

For its feature film studio boss Hiroshi Okawa firmly preferred universal tales. As Disney already had mined the European legacy, the Tōei studio turned his attention to Asia. Thus, the film tells an ancient Chinese legendary love story, more or less immediately familiar to Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and other East Asian audiences, greatly enhancing the film’s export possibilities.

The film starts with a prologue to a song, in which we watch a boy befriend a snake. Unfortunately the adults don’t approve, and he has to set the snake free. This part uses shadow-like cutout figures with little to no animation, and has a certain elegant cartoon modern feel to it. This is replaced by classic full animation as soon as the real story starts. For the abandoned snake turns out to be an immortal spirit, who now takes the shape of a beautiful girl, Pai Nang, and who revisits her former owner, the now adult Hin Hsien.

Unfortunately, their love is disrupted by a bonze called Hokai, who fights evil spirits and who takes Pai Nang for one. Typically for a Japanese film, Hokai is no real villain, but a man who tries to save Hin Hsien on incorrect assumptions. Also starring are a fish spirit who turns into a little girl called Hsiang Ching, and two animal sidekicks called Panda and Mimi (a fox), who seem to have walked straight from a Disney movie, although they are clearly nipponified on the way. When Hin Hsien is banished, the two go looking for him, and on the way they beat and befriend an animal gang of robbers and thieves.

The fight between Panda and the gang leader, a large pig, is one of the highlights of the movie. Another is the celestial combat between Pai Nang and Hokai, an extraordinary scene by all means, as is Pai Nang’s journey through heaven in search for the dragon ruler of all spirits.

Overall the film has a poetic and magical atmosphere, greatly enhanced by Chui Kinoshita’s evocative music, and the narrative moves at a leisurely speed, sometimes aided by a voice over. The animation varies from fair to excellent. Especially the animals are very well done. There’s no attempt at lip synch, however, and at times the voices seem detached from their animated bodies. On the other hand, this feat would have made overdubbing rather easy, and as the film was designed to be distributed all over Asia, this must have been a conscious choice.

Overall, the animation style has more in common with contemporary European products than with Disney animation. There’s a poetic elegance and naivety to it that certainly adds to the movie’s charm. Indeed, the film was a success in Japan, and attracted all kinds of animators to the Tōei studio, including a young Hayao Miyazaki, who joined Tōei in 1963.

In all, ‘The White Serpent’ is by all means a successful start of a new era, and a film that still entertains today.

Watch the 1958 trailer for ‘The White Serpent’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The White Serpent’ is available as a French DVD-release called ‘le serpent blanc’

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date:  July 1, 1992
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Porco Rosso © Studio Ghibli‘Porco Rosso’ is the strangest movie in Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography. The film eschews most laws of animated film story telling, seemingly just starting and ending in the middle of a bigger story.

Like ‘Laputa: island in the sky’ (1986) and the later ‘The Wind Rises’ (2013) the film is clearly born out of Miyazaki’s love for planes. Like ‘Laputa’ ‘Porco Rosso’ is set in an alternative history Europe (this time the Adriatic sea ca. 1930), and features flying pirates.

The title character is an ex-war pilot with the face of a pig (why this is so is never really revealed). Porco Rosso now is a bounty hunter, battling a federation of air pirates, and their leader, the American Curtis in particular, and secretly loving Gina, the owner of a hotel on an island.

Halfway the movie Porco has to take his injured plane to Milano to get it fixed. There he meets Fio, the young granddaughter of his old mecanic. There’s a vague sense of a Nazi threat, but this is hardly played out. The story evolves around Porco’s return to the Adriatic and final battle with Curtis.

The overal atmosphere is light and comical, but there are a few touching moments, especially between Porco and Fio. Typically for Miyazaki, the film features strong women, and women and children working (Porco’s plane is set together by a crew of women, only).

The animation is outstanding throughout, although it seems the animators didn’t do their best to lip-synch. Most interesting are the scenes of Porco’s take off and flight back to the Adriatic, which feature some spectacular animated backgrounds.

Watch the trailer for ‘Porco Rosso’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Porco Rosso’ is available on DVD

Director: Kunio Katō
Release Date: June 10, 2008
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The House of Small Cubes © Robot CommunicationsIn ‘The House of Small Cubes’ (better known by its french title ‘La maison en petits cubes’) an old man lives in an almost abandoned town, flooded by an ever rising sea level.

Each time the level reaches his doorstep, he builds another level on top of the former one. One day his pipe falls down into a former home. The man dives to retrieve his pipe, but also into his own memories. By diving into ever deeper levels the old man remembers his deceased wife, his former family, and even the times before the flood began.

‘The House of Small Cubes’ is a gentle and sweet little movie on memory and loss. Despite being made in Japan, nothing in the film looks Japanese, and the short’s surreal but moving story is by all means universal. The film thus rightfully won the 2008 Academy Award for best animated short film.

Watch ‘The House of Small Cubes’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The House of Small Cubes’ is available on the DVD Box ‘The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 9’ and on the French DVD box set ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e anniversaire’

 

 

Director: Makoto Shinkai
Release Date: March 3, 2007
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

5 Centimeters per Second © Co‘5 Centimeters per Second’ is a rather original love story in three parts. Central character is high school student Takaki, whose love interest Akari, moves from Tokyo to Iwafune, a distance three hours by train.

The first part consists of Akari’s voice over reading her letters to Takaki, accompanied by a lightning rapid montage of images of Takaki and his memories to his girl. When, after a year of exchanging letters, Takaki is about to move to the South himself, he decides to make a one time visit to Akari. This train journey through a snow storm, which delays him for no less than four hours forms the emotional highlight of the film. Nevertheless, Takaki and Akari are reunited in Iwafune, only to have to part again.

The second part is set in Tanegashima, a small island in the far South of Japan, and although set in October, its sunny images form a welcome contrast to the snowy images of the first part. This part is told by Kanae, who’s secretly in love with Takaki, but never able to tell him that. Like the first part, the second part ends with an opportunity lost.

The third part is set in Tokyo again. This part is the shortest, the most fragmentary, and the least satisfactory of the three. Sadly this episode shows that Takaki hasn’t really learned to love and to allow others near him, still longing for something else. Akari is seen, too, but her ‘story’ is touched on so little it could well be missed. Added to Takaki’s admirers is yet another girl, who is hardly seen, but as he declines her calls, her pain and loneliness are certainly felt. The episode ends with images set to the rock ballad ‘One More Time, One More Chance’ (1997) by Masayoshi Yamazaki, unknown to us Western viewers, but apparently instantly recognizable to the Japanese audience, and adding to the film’s nostalgic feel. The film ends undefined, and with its mere sixty minutes the feature feels a little incomplete.

Like many other Japanese anime, ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ needn’t necessarily be made with animation, as its characters and settings are highly realistic, and drawn from everyday life. But as it is animated, one can only marvel at Shinkai’s beautiful and engaging images. ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ is a story about distance and love, but despite being a story of emotions, the character designs and human animation, both by Takayo Nishimura, are not very impressive: the character designs are very generic, while the facial expressions never reach enough subtlety to draw one into the character.

No, the real emotional story is told almost exclusively by the background art. This film uses a multitude of shots, often lasting only a fraction of seconds, and in its in these extraordinarily beautiful images that Shankai tells his tale. Indeed, many of these images he drew himself. The images are highly realistic, but as Shankai tells in the interview included in the DVD, they’re drenched in emotional memory, and they’re never neutral. And neither is his staging or cutting, which are both highly original. All these background images, with their glorious colors and superb lighting (made in Photoshop) give the film its unique and poetic character.

With ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ Shankai proved to be a new important voice in the Japanese animation field, a reputation he steadied with his next films, ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices‘ (2011) and most notably, ‘Your Name’ (2016), which also deals with distance and love.

Watch ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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