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 Both events are clearly traumatic experiences to the young teenager, who remains shy, stubborn, withdrawn, and taciturn, despite her mother’s efforts to befriend her with the local children, who surely are willing enough to let her join their group.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

Directors: Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman
Release Date:
June 10, 2012
Rating:
 ★★★½
Review:

It’s hard to call ‘Brave’ the first Pixar letdown, that questionable honor goes to ‘Cars 2’ from the previous year, but the film certainly is a disappointment, not delivering upon its potential.

The film had a rather troubled production, with writer/director Brenda Chapman being replaced halfway by Mark Andrews, and somehow it shows. ‘Brave’ is arguably the first Pixar film that comes across as a half-baked product, with story ideas not worked out to the max.

The film’s premise is good: ‘Brave’ is the first Pixar film with a female protagonist, a princess even, surprisingly placing the film in a long Disney tradition. But Merida is not your average princess. The Scottish red-haired girl is a feisty character, a talented archer, a lover of action and adventure, and bound to step in her father’s footsteps, who’s a great warrior himself. Unfortunately, her mother stifles her into a more traditional role of womanhood, constantly telling her what a princess ought and not ought to do. Even worse, her mother prepares Merida for marriage, with several suitors coming over to compete for her. Unfortunately, not one of them is suiting marriage material (for example, one talks unintelligible, without any obvious reason), and Merida isn’t interested in this prospect, anyway, so she plans to compete herself, as she’s by far the best archer of the lot, repeating the arrow-splitting act of ‘Robin Hood’ (1973).

So far so good, but then the tale suddenly abandons the archery subplot completely. Instead, it dwindles away into a tale of magic, in which Merida deliberately poisons her mother, changing the poor woman into a bear. Unfortunately, at this point the story of independence is abandoned completely, as Merida now must bond with her bear-mother and to protect her against the men, who gladly would kill the beast. Sure, Merida’s mother now learns what Merida has learned outside the castle, but Merida’s insight in her mother’s ways is less worked out, and there’s a very unconvincing scene in which she steps in her mother’s footsteps, addressing the men, guided by her mother’s gestures. Anyhow, as soon Merida’s mother has turned into a bear, her problems are obviously bigger than Merida’s own, and thus the attention naturally shifts from the curly teenager to the poor woman, which contributes to a lack of focus, which permeates the film anyhow. I believe the very idea of turning Merida’s mother into a bear is a fundamental problematical one, a mistake central to the film’s story problems, especially when compared to the similar ‘Brother Bear’ (2003) and ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000) in which the main protagonist himself turns into an animal.

At any rate, after the archery scene the story begins to falter, leaving an awful lot of plot holes open. For example, there’s an ancient legend on four clans, but this idea is worked out badly, and hardly connected to the main story. The function of the killing of the giant bear Mor’du is puzzling – wouldn’t it have been better to show that only united the clans could be able to defeat the bear?

‘Brave’ also wastes an opportunity to become a real feminist film. First, in spite of it all, Merida still is a princess, and thus far from an ordinary woman – and her plight is slight when compared to that of her (invisible) less high-born sisterhood. If one compares her burden to that of Robyn in Cartoon Saloon’s ‘Wolfwalkers’ (2020) the difference becomes clear. Robyn is depicted working all day, shut off from the real world, while Merida at least can practice archery and such. Second, the role pressure solely comes from her mother, not society – and it’s even implied her father couldn’t care less whether Merida behaves like a princess or not. I think it would have served the film better if Merida’s plight were compared to that of a brother, but the film makers gave the princess a triplet as siblings, which are too young for comparison, and whose only function in the story is as comic relief. At one point they too turn into bears, but nobody seems to care…

No, it’s not the story, nor a feminist message that defines ‘Brave’, it’s texture. The Pixar studio made tremendous progress in depicting cloth and hair in this film, advancing computer animation once again. Merida’s extremely curly hair stands out as particularly well done, but so do the tartans of the tribes, which for the first time look like real fabric. Strangely, the building and rendering of the nature settings has aged less well – the light often is too sharp, leading to overexposed settings, especially on the sunlit grass and leaves. Moreover, the trees are too obviously generated, and look pretty fake. Luckily, the story is entertaining enough that this is soon forgotten.

Another design choice that I like less is the magnification of human sexual dimorphism: Merida’s father is almost three times the size of her slender mother or herself. Unfortunately, this depiction of men and women only diminishes the possible message of equality. Even worse, all the men are depicted as dim-witted and fight-ready, leaving the queen as seemingly the only sane person in this world.

‘Brave’ may be a disappointment, the film still is very well animated. The voice acting is superb, too, starring several Scottish and English actors, so no fake accent can be heard. The soundtrack is fair, with its quasi-Celtic themes, and the cinematography is excellent, but all this cannot rescue a rambling story, leaving ‘Brave’ a film as excellent as it is unsatisfying. A studio like Pixar certainly could and should have done a better job.

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

‘Brave’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Bob Hatchcock
Airing Date: April 17, 1995
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

This episode starts with Aunt Bernice finding a crystal in her own backyard and taking the family to a new age fair to let it examine.

Against all odds it’s Duckman who gets the most spiritual journey of his life, when he talks to his late mother, who has reincarnated as a highly infectious germ. It turns out that Duckman was heavily neglected by his mother during his childhood, and in a flashback we see some rare footage of Duckman as a kid. Duckman’s mother explains her son that it’s all about karma, which prompts Duckman to better his life in his own unique way, by stuffing his kids full of bad food, by bribing their teachers, and by building a baseball field right on a railroad track.

Duckman’s encounter with his mother forms the heart of the episode, and this part is surprisingly sincere, despite the occasional joking, making this one of those welcome episodes exposing more of Duckman’s emotional side.

Watch ‘The Germ Turns’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 19
To the previous Duckman episode: America the Beautiful
To the next Duckman episode: In the Nam of the Father

‘The Germ Turns’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

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:

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