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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 Both events are clearly traumatic experiences to the young teenager, who remains shy, stubborn, withdrawn, and taciturn, despite her mother’s efforts to befriend her with the local children, who surely are willing enough to let her join their group.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: 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

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