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Director: Yasuji Murata
Release Date: January 31, 1933
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Larks' Moving Day © Yokohama Cinema ShokaiIn ‘The Larks’ Moving Day’ we follow a family of anthropomorphized larks who live in a cornfield.

The owner of the cornfield plans to harvest, but first asks his neighbors, then his relatives to help him. Father lark isn’t impressed: as long as the farmer keeps asking others, he will not harvest, and thus their home will not be in peril. Only when the farmer exclaims ‘we’ll do it ourselves’, the lark family moves from the field to a safer area. Thus father lark’s moral to the audience is ‘You can’t do a job, until you stop relying on others and do it yourself’.

This silent film is one of Murata’s more enjoyable films, as his elegant drawing style is on full display. The animation, too, is superb, even if it’s limited. The short shows once again that Murata was the undisputed leader in the field.

Watch ‘The Larks’ Moving Day’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Larks’ Moving Day’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’

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Director: Teizô Katô
Release Date: October 22, 1932
Rating:
Review:

The Plane Cabby's Lucky Day © Kyoryoku Eigasha-Marvel GraphSurprisingly, the story of ‘The Plane Cabby’s Lucky Day’ takes place in the far future of 1980. By then the animals have inherited the earth, as people have taken the skies. Thus the film first takes place in an urban landscape of endless skyscrapers.

Unfortunately, the aimless story of a young flying cab driver soon hits more traditional settings, when the cab driver crashes on an island with talking animals etc. Moreover, Cabby’s behavior is shown to be very traditional, as he takes good care of his mother and helps a wounded bird. The story’s moral is that charity is a good investment.

Director-animator Teizo Kato was a newcomer in Japanese animation and it shows. His animation is incredibly primitive, and akin to American studio films from the 1910s. His animation lacks all hints of weight or personality, and is tiresome to watch. The long and boring story doesn’t help either, resulting in one of the worst products of early Japanese animated cinema.

Watch ‘The Plane Cabby’s Lucky Day’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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‘The Plane Cabby’s Lucky Day’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’

Directors: Yasuji Murata & Chuzo Aoji
Release Date: 1932
Rating:
★★
Review:

Sports Day at Animal Village © Yasuji Murata & Chuzo Aoji‘Sports Day at Animal Village’ is one of several sports cartoons Aoji and Murata made together (earlier examples are ‘Our Baseball Match’ and ‘Animal Sumo’ from 1931).

In this film we watch several sports events: monkeys turning, a judo match between a tiger and a lion, several polar bears and a hippo diving, a boxing match between a pig and a kangaroo, and finally, a tug-of-war between an elephant and numerous other animals.

There’s pretty little to enjoy in this lighthearted film, but it contains one nicely staged scene of a polar bear diving from a ridiculously high platform. However, the best animation is found in the tug-of-war scene, in which Murata manages to put a real sense of weight and muscle tension.

Watch ‘Sports Day at Animal Village’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sports Day at Animal Village’ is available on the Japanese DVD Box Set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’.

Directors: Yasuji Murata & Chuzo Aoji
Release Date:
 1932
Stars: Momotaro
Rating:
Review:

Momotaro's Underwater Adventure © Chuzo AojiAfter ‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure‘ Aoji and Murata send Japan’s folk hero off in a military submarine to fight a large shark.

Like in his earlier film Momotaro is asked by others to do that, and the film vaguely seems to glorify the navy, even though it’s much less successful in doing so than Momotaro’s earlier nationalist film was for the air force: the film runs rather short, Murata’s 1920s style animation is not particularly exciting or convincing, and for today’s audiences it’s quite unsettling to watch the hero fighting a large fish with a surplus of warfare, including numerous torpedoes. The Japanese clearly had less difficulties with this slaughter. In any case, the hero, and his friends Monkey and Dog (Crane couldn’t join them as he can’t swim) are awarded as heroes at the end of the cartoon.

Watch ‘Momotaro’s Underwater Adventure’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Momotaro’s Underwater Adventure’ is available on the Japanese DVD Box Set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’.

Director: Chuzo Aoji
Release Date:
 1931
Stars: Momotaro
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Momotaro's Sky Adventure © Chuzo AojiIn ‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ (also known as ‘Aerial Momotaro’) Japanese animation pioneers Aoji and Yasuji Murata tell a tale about that great and friendly warrior from Japanese folklore, Momotaro, who had been brought to the animated screen by Takamasa Eigasha in ‘Momotaro the Undefeated’ (1928).

Surprisingly, Aoji and Murata move our hero into the present. Momotaro is visited by a couple of Antarctic island birds who call for help against an evil (American?) eagle. Together with his loyal friends, monkey, dog and pheasant, he flies to the remote island in a propeller plane, being fueled twice by birds on the way. When the quartet arrives, they battle the eagle in the air in an overlong fighting sequence, which at times is strangely reminiscent of a modern computer game. Momotaro finally decides to capture the fiend alive, and he’s celebrated as a hero by the grateful birds.

‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ is Japan’s very first propaganda cartoon. It shows an early form of nationalism and anti-Americanism. Momotaro would grow very popular during World War II, representing Japan in many wartime films, and starring Japan’s very first animated feature, ‘Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors’ (1945), commissioned by the Japanese navy. This transformation of the folk hero into a nationalistic figure begins with this cartoon from 1931. Indeed, ultra-nationalism and militarism overtook Japan in the early 1930s, which e.g. resulted in the annexation of Manchuria in the summer of 1931.

Importantly, ‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ shows Japan’s national hero as the military strong friend of its weaker neighbors. This portrait of Japan as a benevolent big brother to all other Asian nations was played out throughout Japan’s militaristic period, and this propaganda story indeed managed to delude people like for example those Malay who, when Japan invaded their country in 1941, at first welcomed the Japanese as liberators from colonial Britain, only to find them far worse oppressors than the British had ever been…

‘Momotaro’s Sky Adventure’ is available on the Japanese DVD Box Set ‘Japanese Anime Classic Collection’.

Director: Osamu Tezuka
Release Date: 1987
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Legend of the Forest © Osamu Tezuka‘Legend of the Forest’ is Tezuka’s longest and most ambitious short film.

Like many of his films it shows Tezuka’s concern with environmental issues. However, foremost, this film is Tezuka’s answer to Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ (1940). Based on the first and last movement of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony it portraits the fight of forest creatures against the demolition of their forest.

The first movement tells about the struggle of a lone flying squirrel against one lumberjack and against the jealous fellow-forest animals. This part is the most extraordinary for its diversity in styles. It is as if Tezuka wanted to show the evolution of animation itself within his emotional story. At first, the story is told in manga-images only. There’s no movement, even though the realistic images are very lively. The next episode is in Émile Cohl’s style, followed by a very convincing homage to Winsor McCay’s ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘ (1914). This is followed by a scene in which the little squirrel looks like Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat or as an early Disney character. This episode is particularly beautifully animated. When a man comes into the forest with a chainsaw, Tezuka’s jumps to the style of Fleischer’s Popeye, including Fleischer’s tabletop-technique for 3d effects.

It’s followed by the first episode in color, in which the squirrel finds a female companion. This part starts as a clear tribute to the very first animation film in technicolor, Disney’s ‘Flowers and Trees‘ (1932), but is mostly drawn like a 1940s cartoon. The final episode of the first part, in which the man shoots his girl and the squirrel sacrifices himself, is quite Bambi-like. Interestingly, throughout the episode, the backgrounds and the staging retain a typical anime-like character.

The second part, using the symphony’s final movement, is less impressing than the first part. It starts with a very Fantasia-like fairy scene, but when we watch very anime-like breasted foxes, we know we’re in a different film. This part tells how magical forest characters (including a few dwarfs) win a war over a forest from a Hitler-like foreman. This part in particular resonates in several Ghibli-films with similar themes, like ‘Pom Poko’ (1994) or ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997).

The complete film is an original and unique statement, which deserves to be much more famous than it actually is. Tezuka’s animated output was of a high quality anyhow, but this film may stand as a particularly artistic highlight within his extraordinary career.

Watch ‘Legend of the Forest’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Osamu Tezuka
Release Date: 1987
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Muramasa © Osamu TezukaThis film is named after a medieval sword smith who made swords that were supposedly cursed, creating blood lust in its wielder and finally making him commit suicide.

The film is an illustration of this curse and of its own motto: “A man with arms which can kill people like puppets is not aware that he himself has already become a puppet”. For this dark anti-violence film Tezuka uses realistic imagery and limited animation, which make the film look a little like an animated comic.

The film’s visual language is utterly Japanese, accompanied by equally Japanese music. But its message is universal, and another example of Tezuka’s strong dislike of war and violence. Even if it is not amongst his most impressive works, the film still manages to deliver its dark message.

Watch ‘Muramasa’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Osamu Tezuka
Release Date: 1984
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Jumping © Osamu TezukaOsamu Tezuka is known as the founder of commercial animation in Japan, but he never lost sight of the artistic possibilities of animation.

No film of his shows this more clearly than ‘Jumping’, arguably the best film he ever made. In ‘Jumping’ we watch the world from the eyes of rope jumping girl. As the short progresses she jumps higher and higher, and further and further, even jumping to Africa, to a war-ridden country and into a mushroom cloud, straight into hell.

‘Jumping’ is not only strikingly original, it is very well-made with its constantly moving backgrounds, and as funny as it is disturbing in its finale. The mushroom cloud, the nightmare of man, but especially of the Japanese, the only nation to have experienced it, is a frightful sight, even in this animated short. Together with the girl, we sigh with relief when in the end of the film we return to the familiar and peaceful territory of our home street.

‘Jumping’ maybe a clear product of the cold war era, its impact is still at work today, and its message still as significant.

Watch ‘Jumping’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: various
Release Date: June 3, 2003
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The enormous success of ‘The Matrix’ (1999) not only spawned two sequels, but also a direct-to-video release with several animation films, expanding the film’s theme and providing some background history.

‘The Animatrix’ is an American/Japanese/South Korean co-production and consists of nine parts, produced by four different animation film studios (Square, Studio 4°C, Madhouse Studios and DNA). The nine parts differ a lot in style, content and quality, and the end result is pretty uneven to say the least. However, for fans of ‘The Matrix’ it contains very welcome background material to The Matrix universe.

The Animatrix - The Final Flight of the Osiris1. Final Flight of the Osiris
Director: Andy Jones
Rating★★★½

The first of the nine segments of The Animatrix is the most straightforward. It’s a dark action episode that tells what happened to the Osiris, a human vessel that shortly appears in ‘The Matrix’. The Square Studio, then already famous for the groundbreaking animation in ‘Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’ (2001), tops itself with for 2003 ultra-realistic computer animation, with human characters of a then unsurpassed realism. Especially its opening sequence, an erotic martial arts fight, is impressive and made many viewers doubt whether it was real or not they were looking at.

The Animatrix - The Second Renaissance2. & 3. The second Renaissance
Director: Mahiro Maeda
★★★½

Made by Studio 4°C and brought in two episodes, The Second Renaissance tells us what happened before the Matrix in an American anime-style. It uses a robotic female voice-over to tell us about a robotic revolution and a human-robot-war which ends in defeat for the human population, which is then used as an energy source for the robots. These episodes are the most satisfying as an addition to The Matrix trilogy.

The Animatrix - Kid's Story4. Kid’s Story
Director: 
Shinichirô Watanabe
Rating

‘Kid’s Story’ is the first of four episodes dealing with people who discover the matrix. This episode is about a teenager who doubts reality and who wakes up in the real world. The episode uses a very realistic, yet graphic style that is very American and rather ugly. Especially the animation (by Studio 4°C) is slow, unsightly and unsteady, making it one of the most unappealing parts of ‘The Animatrix’ to watch.

The Animatrix - Program5. Program
Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Rating: ★★

‘Program’ is another weak entry in ‘The Animatrix’. Animated by Madhouse Studios and drawn in a rather American comics/anime-style and using sharp shades, it tells about a treacherous character trying to persuade a girl to join him in a Japanese samurai setting (the program the two are in). The whole episode is rather melodramatic and forgettable.

The Animatrix - World Record6. World Record
Director: Takeshi Koike
Rating: ★

By far the most unappealing of all episodes of ‘The Animatrix’, ‘World Record’, by Madhouse studios, is drawn in a a gruesomely ugly comics design to tell the story of an athlete who discovers the matrix and who has to pay for it.

The Animatrix - Beyond7. Beyond
Director: Kôji Morimoto
Rating:★★★★

Studio 4°C’s ‘Beyond’ is the third of four Animatrix episodes about people who discover the matrix, and it is easily the best of the lot. Set in Japan, it tells about a young woman, who is looking for her cat Yuki, and who’s led by some kids to a house where the ‘program’ has gone haywire, resulting in some wonderful surreal effects (like objects defying gravity). Unlike the rest, the episode has a lighthearted feel to it, which is enhanced by its appealing graphic anime design and its excellent animation, which makes clever use of 3D-effects. More than in any other part of the Animatrix one has the feeling that this episode is about real people in a real environment. The short is another showcase for Morimoto’s great direction skills, which he had already shown with the ‘Magnetic Rose’ sequence in the compilation feature ‘Memories‘ (1995).

The Animatrix - A Detective Story8. A Detective Story
Director: Shinichirô Watanabe
Rating: ★

‘A Detective Story’ is the fourth and last episode about people who discover the matrix. This episode is about a private detective and it uses all film noir cliches, including a very trite voice over. The nice black and white backgrounds evoke a forties atmosphere, even though the story is about hackers and chat rooms. But they cannot hide Studio 4°C’s very limited animation or the corny story, making ‘A Detective Story’ one of the weakest episodes of this package film.

The Animatrix - Matriculated9. Matriculated
Director:
Peter Chung
Rating: ★★★★

Penned and directed by Æon Flux-director Peter Chung and produced by the Korean DNA studio, ‘Matriculated’ is the most philosophical of the nine episodes of ‘The animatrix’. The story is set in the ‘real’ world. It deals with humans who try to make robots defending them by making them dream. Although its angular human designs are once again quite unattractive, this episode’s clever story makes it one of the highlights of ‘The Animatrix’.

Watch the first part of ‘The Animatrix’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Kôji Morimoto, Tensai Okamura & Katsuhiro Otomo
Release Date: December 23, 1995
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Seven years after ‘Akira‘,  Katsuhiro Otomo returned to the animated screen with ‘Memories’, a package film, which impresses, but fails to reach the heights of ‘Akira’.

Based on his own short stories, ‘Memories’ consists of three unrelated parts: Magnetic Rose, Stink Bomb and Cannon Fodder, which are discussed separately below.

Memories - Magnetic Rose © Katsuhiro OtomoMagnetic Rose
Director:
Kôji Morimoto
Rating★★★★

‘Magnetic Rose’ starts the Memories trilogy, and it’s arguably the feature’s most satisfying episode. It is the only part that clearly deals with memories (screenplay writer Satoshi Kon’s favorite future subject). In this episode a rescuing squad of space garbage collectors is ensnared in the memories of a long deceased opera singer, who still seems alive in her remote satellite home in space, blurring the boundaries of reality.

Even though the science fiction setting with its touches of horror is typical anime, the underlying drama is very mature and quite unique. This episode’s screenplay was penned by future director Satoshi Kon. Kon certainly established himself with this screenplay, and he would further explore the theme of memory and loss in ‘Millennium Actress’ (2001), and the blurring of reality and fantasy in both that film and ‘Paprika’ (2006) with even more spectacular results. Director Kôji Morimoto, meanwhile, would prove his worth in ‘Beyond’, the best episode of ‘The Animatrix‘ (2003).

In ‘Magnetic Rose’ the characters are from all over the world, and this is one of the few anime, in which the Japanese character looks distinctively Asian compared to the European characters.

Memories - Stink Bomb © Katsuhiro OtomoStink Bomb
Director:
Tensai Okamura
Rating★★★

‘Stink Bomb’ feels like a comical interlude between the two more serious outer episodes. The story is set in present day Japan and features a very stupid, but surprisingly indestructible protagonist who turns into a nonsensical lethal weapon. The story is simple: our ‘hero’ accidently swallows the wrong pills, wich turn him into a lethal weapon, sweating poisonous gasses that kill everything in sight. Although he remains unaware of this, he becomes the cause of the destruction of Japan. This story is rather silly, and there’s a lot of broad comic acting, but the short also has some disturbing undertones, with the fear of mass destruction weapons and corrupt governments played out well.

Memories - Cannon Fodder © Katsuhiro OtomoCannon Fodder
Director:
Katsuhiro Otomo
Rating: ★★★★½

Otomo himself directed the last and most beautiful sequence of Memories. This episode has an original graphic style that doesn’t resemble any other anime. The film is ‘shot’ in one long camera take (with a little bit of smuggling, but very impressive nonetheless) and deals with an alternative, distinctively European, world where a totalitarian military regime enters every aspect of life.

In this sequence we’re following a single family. They live in a city were all work and school is directed to the war with a mysterious and unseen moving city. This war is fought entirely by using cannons. Despite the caricatured humans, the atmosphere is hardly comical, but dark and disturbing. However, the drama is less engaging than in ‘Magnetic Rose’. Nonetheless, because of its unique style, and strict control of cinematography, ‘Cannon Fodder’ is a small masterpiece.

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

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: July 20, 2001
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Spirited Away © Studio GhibliAfter several very fine films, like ‘My Neighbor Totoro‘ (1988) and ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997), Miyazaki tops himself with his masterpiece ‘Spirited Away’. This film single-handedly places him among the greatest masters of animation of all time.

The film depicts a strange and inexplicable, yet surprisingly complete fantasy world, with a conviction and originality that has rarely been seen since Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. At the same time, unlike several of Miyazaki’s earlier films, one feels that ‘Spirited away’ could only have been made in Japan. Its setting of a public bath, with its numerous gods and demi-gods, is totally Japanese.

Yet, its story about coming of age is universal as is its appeal. The little girl Chihiro (or Sen, as she’s called during most of the film) is the greatest of Miyazaki’s heroines. Like Kiki in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (1989), she matures during the film, but the fears and terrors she has to conquer are far more alarming than Kiki’s, and her growth is way more convincing. Not only has she to prove herself, she has to regain her name, and most importantly, she has to rescue her parents, who have been transformed into pigs in a particularly horrifying scene. At one scene we see her stricken with traumatic stress. In another we watch her breaking down. Despite some exaggerations (a flood of tears, for example), these scenes are so surprisingly real, they startle the viewer who’s used to the formalized emotions of many commercial animation films, whether Japanese or Western.

However, the character animation of Chihiro is outstanding throughout the film: she is a true girl and not an adult in disguise, and her emotions feel genuine and seem deeply rooted in observation of real human behavior. We identify immediately with her, and she’s strong enough a character to make her extraordinary journey in that strange, mysterious and dreamlike world believable.

Typical for Miyazaki, even in this hostile world our young heroine is not without friends, and even the most unpleasant characters (Yubaba and Without Face) are not without their weaknesses or positive character traits. On the other hand, even the good can look fearsome and unpleasant, as Yaku does in his dragon form. Also typical for Miyazaki is his depiction of children at work (see ‘Laputa – Castle in the Sky‘ (1986) and ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’). On the other hand, his recurring theme of man versus nature is less apparent in this film, although it does appear in the form of a polluted river god.

In all, ‘Spirited Away’ is a rich film of pure delight and will enchant everyone everywhere in the world.

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

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

My Neighbor Totoro © Ghibli StudioSet in the early post-war period, ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is the sister film to ‘Grave of the Fireflies‘, released on the same date as a double bill.

The film is a way more lighthearted affair than ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, however. With ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Miyazaki definitely entered the children’s world, which he had already explored a little in ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky‘ (1986). But where the latter film firmly puts the children into an adult world, in ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ Miyazaki explores the children’s world itself.

The film focuses on two little girls: ca. eight year old Satsuki and her sister, four year old Mei. They move with their father to an old ramshackle house in the countryside to be near the hospital where their ill mother is staying. In a giant camphor tree next to this new home Mei and Satsuki meet the Totoros, three forest spirits: a tiny one, a small one and a huge one. When Mei gets lost, the giant Totoro and a cat bus help Satsuki to find her.

‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is a delightful film for children and their parents. There’s no conflict or villain whatsoever, and even when there seems to be drama, when the two children think their mother may be dying, there’s really little to worry about. But like in ‘E.T.’ (1982) we share the children’s point of view, in which there really is a problem. ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ draws us convincingly and irresistibly into this magical world of children. The film knows no dull moments, and is full of wonderful scenes, the best being Satsuki, Mei and the giant Totoro waiting for the bus in the pouring rain. Its strong focus and perfect execution makes ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ arguably the best of all Studio Ghibli films.

At any rate ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ is a gem even among Miyazaki’s films, which are of a constant high quality throughout. He must have felt so himself, for it’s the large Totoro which gave the Ghibli Studio their studio icon.

Watch the trailer for ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Isao Takahata
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Grave of the Fireflies © Studio GhibliBased on the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is a strong, emotional and immensely sad film. It kicks in right away, when we hear Seita say “September 12, 1945. That was the night I died”.

What follows is Seita’s story: this boy, about fourteen, first loses his mother in the fire raid of Kobe, which destroys the wooden town completely. Then he and his little sister Setsuko try to live at their aunt’s place, but the initially kind woman grows increasingly hostile to them. So Seita decides to find his own living space for him and his sister in an abandoned shelter, first trying to get food by buying it, then by stealing. Unfortunately, Setsuko sickens from malnutrition, and while he finally has a real meal for her, she dies. Seita manages to build her funeral, but although not shown, the film suggests Setsuko’s death has broken his will, leading to his own death as depicted in the first scene.

The rather straightforward story is told with several flashbacks and flash-forwards and with a unique focus on details of everyday life, which really makes the two children come to life. The realism of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is unprecedented, the animation of Setsuko in particular being very lifelike, despite a less fluent animation technique. Never before has such a realistic and endearing child entered the animated screen.

The film’s subject matter, which confronts the Japanese viewer with the lowest point in their recent history, is daring and so is its execution, with its concise focus on human suffering, instead of heroism or action. The film makes the viewer really feel the impact of war on innocent civilians: the agony of shortages, hunger and despair, while the rest of the war remains at the background.  Takahata focuses on Seita’s love for his little sister, and his struggle to shield her from the effects of war. Seita is a sympathetic character, but not without flaws. His struggle to survive and to nurture his sister is heroic, but his decision to leave his aunt is also iinduced by pride, and it’s partly his own stubbornness that prevents him from reconciling with his aunt, which may have prevented Setsuko’s death. It’s hard to blame him, though, for he’s a child himself, after all.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is one of the most serious animation features ever made, dealing with war and death. It’s also very sad, bringing tears to the eyes of almost every viewer. Like ‘Animal Farm‘ (1954), ‘Le planète sauvage‘ (1973) or ‘Watership Down’ (1978), ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is one of the few truly serious animation features, expanding the medium’s subject matter, and it’s a cinematic masterpiece by any standard.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ was released as a double bill with ‘My Neighbour Totoro‘, which is equally classic, but very different in tone, indeed.

Watch the trailer for ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Release Date: July 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Akira © Katsuhiro OtomoIn 2019, 31 years after World War III, which destroyed the old town completely, Neo-Tokyo is even bigger and more urbanized than the old one. And more violent, too. The city is constantly on the brink of anarchy.

We follow Kaneda and Tetsuo, two members of a rough motorbike gang. When Tetsuo is hospitalized and taken away from his friend, Kaneda tries to retrieve him, while getting involved with a girl, who’s a revolutionary and whose troupe is after Tetsuo, too. Tetsuo, meanwhile, discovers he’s getting immense powers. Tetsuo suffers from an inferiority complex, and he realizes it’s payback time. He sets out to seek the mystical Akira, destroying most of Neo-Tokyo along the way. But in the end his powers take control of him, and while he and Akira merge to form a new universe in a very 2001 A Space Odyssey-like ending, Kaneda and his girlfriend Kei can look to a new future in a partly destroyed Neo-Tokyo.

If this plot line may sound a little hard to follow – it is, and I left quite some subplots out of it, too. ‘Akira’ is a violent and action-loaded science fiction film. Its plot may be vague and all too complex, the violent images never cease to impress. The film’s depiction of apocalyptic destruction, its speed, its wide range of characters, and its use of extreme camera angles are unprecedented in any animation film, and sometimes the grandness of the film’s scale is staggering. Some of the scenes are very complicated, with many people animated within one frame. And the story, too, seems to aim to encompass everything within the feature’s 124 minutes. Not surprising, considering that the film is based on a manga story six fat volumes thick.

Although Anime had known earlier masterpieces, it’s ‘Akira’, which set new standards in its home country. Moreover, it’s this film, which put the Japanese animation feature film industry firmly on the map in Western countries, which thus far practically had known the country’s television series, only. Thus, for most Westerners Japanese animation was synonymous to cheap animation, and the use of ridiculously large eyes. However, ‘Akira’ showed the Western world that Japan was perfectly capable of producing films of a high quality and stunning originality. Japanese animation has only grown in popularity since Akira’s release, and has become a major inspiration for many Western films and television series, animated or not.

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

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: August 2, 1986
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Laputa Castle in the Sky © Studio GhibliDrawing inspiration from Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Laputa, Castle in the Sky’ takes Miyazaki’s love for flying machines to the max, introducing a humongous flying island.

Its story is set in a parallel world, which has a genuinely late 19th century European feel, but where flying machines are very common. The strange machines imagined for the film are both wonderful and convincing.

We follow the two orphan children Pazu, a poor mine worker, and Sheeta, who falls from the sky carrying a mysterious amulet, which reveals that she’s a Laputan princess. Followed by the Dola clan, a gang of pirates led by an old pink-haired woman, and by the military led by the enigmatic gentleman Muska, the children seek out to find the flying island.

Unlike other films by Miyazaki, ‘Laputa’ knows a real villain, the ruthless prince Muska. While the children admire Laputa for its nature, and while the pirates and the soldiers are only after its treasures, Muska seeks the island’s destructive possibilities to obtain world power. On the way, the film moves to a grander and grander scale, with a finale on the floating island that shows us dazzling heights, and which doesn’t eschew many killings, making ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ Miyazaki’s most violent movie.

‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ is Studio Ghibli’s very first feature film. It’s akin to the earlier ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind‘ (which predates the studio’s foundation) in its focus on the importance of love and nature and its aversion to short-minded people only interested in power and destruction. Despite its violent finale, ‘Laputa’ is more overtly a film for children than ‘Nausicaä’. Its focus stays with the rather naive children, and it contains more humor, especially in the depiction of the pirates, who are almost used as a comic relief only.

In any sense, ‘Laputa’  is a powerful film: its depiction of an original made-up world is convincing, its animation is outstanding, and its message complex and far from black and white. It once again shows the mastery of Miyazaki and the Ghibli studio.

Watch the trailer for ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: March 11, 1984
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind © Ghibli StudiosAlthough the titles say ‘based on the graphic novel’, the manga of the same name was actually created to be able to make the picture.

Based on his own original story, ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ is Miyazaki’s first mature film. It’s already a typical Miyazaki film, with its strong environmental message, strong female characters, the absence of clear villains, and the setting of an alien, yet totally convincing world.

The film tells of Nausicaä, princess of a small medieval-like state in a green valley, which is threatened not only by the strange, hostile and poisonous insect world nearby, but also by other human states, especially the militaristic state of Tolmekia. The humans are more preoccupied with destruction than with comprehension. Because of this shortsighted and drastic behavior, the humans almost destroy their entire environment. It is Nausicaä, with her unique understanding of animals and her pacifistic nature, who saves the day.

‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ is an epic science fiction film, made on a grand scale, with layered characters, beautiful designs, and excellent animation. Its production led to the foundation of the Ghibli studios, which high quality standards it already meets. In no sense it feels like a first-born or a dated film. Even though it’s from 1984, it is remarkably fresh and its message still viable. In other words, ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ is the first of a long series of Ghibli studio classics.

Miyazaki would revisit the theme of a sick and angered nature in the similar and equally impressive ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997). Once again it’s a princess who saves the day…

Watch the trailer for ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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