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Archive for the ‘Animation’ Category

From Up On Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara, Japan 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 27 August 2013

The house on 'Poppy Hill'

The house on ‘Poppy Hill’

The latest Studio Ghibli anime has received rather grudging reviews on the whole, being described as ‘bland’ and ‘minor Ghibli’ or at best ‘pleasant and light’. I enjoyed it a great deal but I can understand why the less enthusiastic responses have come from some fans and critics. But I should also point out that this was the biggest-grossing Japanese film of 2011, so plenty of fans did like it.

Based on a shojo manga (i.e. a girl’s comic book story), the film has a screenplay by the studio head Miyazaki Hayao and Niwa Keiko. It is directed by Miyazaki Gori, Hayao’s son, whose 2006 anime Tales of Earthsea was generally panned. This time he seems to have had a smoother ride with critics prepared to delay judgement after a film that works – “not amazing” but “simple and cute” as fans have described it. I’ll try to explain why I think it is more than that.

The beautifully-drawn streets of Yokahama with Sun and Umi on the bicycle

The beautifully-drawn streets of Yokohama with Sun and Umi on the bicycle

Umi and her sister venture into the boy's world of the 'Latin Quartier' building.

Umi and her sister venture into the boy’s world of the ‘Latin Quartier’ building.

The most obvious category/genre of the narrative is ‘teen high-school romance’. But it is also a ‘period film’ set very precisely in the port city of Yokohama in 1963, a year before the Tokyo Olympics when Japan is poised to ‘leap forward’ in terms of its modernising economy and society. The students in the last two years of high school were born in 1945-6 and they have lived through the painful and difficult period of Occupation and ‘recovery’. The central character Umi has a busy life running her grandmother’s house and catering for lodgers and her two younger siblings, having lost her father, the captain of a supply ship which sank during the Korean War. Her mother is an academic working for a spell in America. Every day Umi shops and makes food before and after school. She also runs up signal flags outside the house in memory of her father. One day she meets Shun, a senior at school who is the editor of a school newspaper. The potential romance develops (with the approval of the older women in Umi’s household) but an unforeseen obstacle lies in the way – a plot development that might surprise some viewers (and which one character refers to in terms of ‘cheap melodrama’). However, the teen romance also involves that classic high school element – saving something valuable which the school authorities want to close down. The boys occupy a rambling old house that offers accommodation for various clubs and societies, including the newspaper ‘offices’. Given the title ‘the Latin Quartier’ the building represents an old, but culturally important aspect of the school community but there are plans to sweep it away to make way for a modern building.

The ‘problem’ for fans is that this film is a change from the fantasy films usually associated with Studio Ghibli, although there were a couple of such films in the 1990s, rarely seen in the West and, most famously, Grave of the Fireflies in 1988. Miyazaki Gori’s direction is also perhaps a little prosaic but I’m not sure that this matters since I found the story to be strong. There are several themes and set pieces which bring Miyazaki Senior’s work to mind. So we see the focus on preparing meals (and shopping) and the sequence in which Umi organises the girls in the school to clean and renovate the Latin Quartier in order to impress the school administrators is reminiscent of both the cleaning of the country house in My Neighbour Totoro and the many sequences featuring the great bath-house in Spirited Away. Like these two buildings, the Latin Quartier house (built probably in the Meiji period in the 19th century) is a symbol of a Japanese tradition that needs to be preserved. This aspect of the story is potentially problematic in the context of the school.

The Japanese convention/tradition of dressing students in identical uniforms with military connotations does mean that a lively student debate can sometimes feel like a fascist rally with uniformed ranks chanting in unison. But in fact, this is all about collective action and collaboration. There is no sense that the students want to persecute others or make themselves more important. And it isn’t sexist either. In Studio Ghibli films young women are active agents. Umi has to run a household without adult males. She knows how to get things done – although she initiates the cleaning, the boys also contribute.

Watching the film, I found myself thinking about classical Japanese cinema from the 1950s and links kept popping up – the train journey into Tokyo was reminiscent of Ozu, the house on the hill and the city below form the basis of Kurosawa’s (very different) story in High and Low, also set in Yokohama. Both Ozu and Kurosawa made ‘youth pictures’ celebrating the vitality of young people. I think I’ve read that Miyazaki Hayao was a big fan of these films. I also wonder about the naming of the ‘Latin Quartier’ – is this a nod towards the Japanese New Wave cinema in the 1960s or, more likely, a reference back to the importance of European culture in the mix of Japanese education practices in the early 20th century? Most of these references won’t mean much to contemporary audiences but they point towards the care with which the best Studio Ghibli films are constructed. Contemporary Japanese politics seem to be swinging right and there are worrying signs about a revival in interest in the militarism of the 1930s and the disavowal of the post-1945 ‘reconstruction’ of Japanese identity. I hope that the investigation of tradition and heritage in Studio Ghibli films acts as a counterweight to those swings.

Here’s a very short Japanese trailer for the film. I watched the subtitled version of the film. In the UK specialised cinemas tend to show the American dubbed version in matinees and the Japanese version in the evenings. The trailer features one of the songs and I loved the music in the film which features choral singing (from the students) alongside contemporary Japanese popular songs. I’m used to Joe Hisaishi but the music in Poppy is by Takebe Satoshi.

 

Finally, here’s one of the most useful reviews of the film by Andrew Osmond (who also reviews the film in Sight and Sound, August)

http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/review/from-up-on-poppy-hill

Posted in Animation, Japanese Cinema, Melodrama, Romance | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

BIFF 2012 #14: Shorts

Posted by Roy Stafford on 29 April 2012

Morir cada dia (Dying Every Day)

Bradford International Film Festival has, for as long as I can remember, regularly included a short before each festival screening of a feature (unless the length of the feature makes this impractical). This is in addition to specific programmes of shorts, e.g. the Shine Short Film Competition. This inclusion of short films in the main festival is to be applauded but in the UK shorts have not been part of mainstream film culture for a very long time. There are certain cinemas that regularly show shorts as part of specific projects (e.g. the Virgin-sponsored shorts at Cornerhouse in Manchester) but as far as I’m aware, that is not the practice at most specialised cinemas. The upshot is that in the UK shorts remain primarily a festival experience or, since many domestic shorts receive some form of public funding they are shown at funders’ (or education institutions’) promotional events.

Shorts aren’t usually reviewed outside their own institutional context (i.e. by competition judges) and I confess that I’m not sure what criteria to use to discuss them. In the main shorts are produced by younger filmmakers as a form of ‘calling card’ and therefore perhaps we should be looking for evidence of good creative ideas, narrative control, good techniques etc. In some ways though this seems an almost impossible ask of young filmmakers. What makes a ‘good’ short? It might be a good idea that achieves its goal within its allotted time or it might be something very slight that is produced in a striking and original way.

There were nearly 40 shorts in the Bradford programme plus 18 short animations in the Chuck Jones Tribute. I saw just over a quarter of the shorts and two of the Chuck Jones animations. Two general observations: first it was clear that shorts were carefully chosen to complement the feature, either via subject matter or tone. Second, the overall quality of the shorts seemed higher than I remember from previous years. Certainly I never got that sense of squirming in my seat hoping that the short would end soon. I was intrigued by the way that ‘typical’ national filmmaking styles were so noticeable – the social realist aspects of several UK shorts, a beautiful traditional Japanese animation etc. Again there were noticeable differences in production values. The Spanish Morir cada dia (Dying Every Day) and the French Le passage were striking in this respect, the former a drama moment set at mealtime, the latter a fantasy narrative sequence – both of which could have been extracts from a feature production. By contrast, Those Who Can (UK) is clearly low budget but packs a powerful punch with its narrative derived, I think, from a real news report. I enjoyed each of these three shorts very much. It’s worth making the point here that festivals are now faced with a variety of digital formats on which submissions have been made – as well as the different formats on which they have been shot. (It isn’t always the case that the film on the highest quality original format arrives in the cinema on the best projection format.)

‘Chuck Jones by Wile-E-Coyote’ © Warner Bros, photo © Karsh

Formats were also an issue for the Chuck Jones Centenary Tribute (Part 1).  I was pleased to see this strand in the festival. The cartoons (as they would have been called on their original release) were scattered through the festival as well as being collected  together in four separate ‘Family Funday’ programmes over the two weekends of the festival. The festival brochure includes an essay by Paul Wells on Chuck Jones (1912-2002) which provides useful background detail. Jones worked for Warner Bros, home of ‘Looney Tunes’ between 1933 and 1962 and then for MGM from 1963-71, by which time the studios were in the process of ceasing production of cartoons as such.

I remember the 1950s experience of watching Bugs Bunny, Wile-E-Coyote and Roadrunner, how the first Hollywood cartoon characters transferred to mainstream children’s TV in the 1960s and then again how they provided the basis for new cable channels like Cartoon Network in the 1990s. The Bugs Bunny classic What’s Opera Doc? dates from 1957 but I suspect that I know it best from TV. It’s claimed as ‘the greatest cartoon short’ ever made. I can see why it is so highly thought of, but personally I prefer the earlier cartoons of Tex Avery – for both their drawing style and their subversive nature. This was one of just four of the cartoons screened from 35mm. The image looked fine on the big Pictureville screen, if a little scratchy. The Bear That Wasn’t is a 1967 production, the last cartoon short from MGM. Based on a story by Frank Tashlin this is a witty satire on contemporary US society and quite sad. I enjoyed it a lot (and the drawing style suited the material as well as evoking the period). However, like most of the cartoon shorts this had to be screened from Blu-Ray. I’ve seen Blu-Ray on a smaller screen looking fantastic, but on the big Pictureville screen it didn’t seem quite up to the job. It’s a shame that the studios aren’t releasing their cartoon archives as DCP prints – or perhaps they are but the distribution fees are extortionate? I know how difficult the studios can be about prints and indeed still images in giving permissions and charging high fees. I wish I’d had the time to watch more of the cartoons but if you feel that you have been missing out, Part 2 of the Chuck Jones tribute is promised for the Bradford Animation Festival later this year.

Posted in Animation, Festivals and Conferences, Short films | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

BIFF 2012 #3: Arrugas (Wrinkles Spain, 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 23 April 2012

Emilio (left) meets his first fellow resident at the care home.

Arrugas is the first of the ‘European Feature’ competition entries that I’ve seen in BIFF 2012. A hand-drawn animation based on a graphic novel by Paco Roca and directed by Ignacio Ferraras, this is an intelligent and carefully structured narrative that packs quite a punch. I managed to approach the film ‘cold’ and I’m glad I did because I think that if I had been anticipating events, the narrative might not have worked as well as it did. But this means I’m reluctant to say too much about the plot or the theme.

The film begins with Emilio, a retired bank manager having difficulties living with his son and his family. A retirement home beckons and Emilio finds himself ‘rooming’ with Miguel, a worldly-wise wheeler-dealer who seems far too sharp and aware to be in a retirement home like this. Audiences are probably aware that there are several possible genre narratives that might be developed from this point onwards and I won’t say too much more about what happens.

As the world’s population ages, especially in the developed world – and even more so in the case of the art cinema audience – it is inevitable that we will get more films dealing with the prospect of getting older. When you reach a certain age there is a two-pronged stab of recognition of the problem with aged parents demanding attention and the realisation that, as people live longer, children themselves are vulnerable to the early onset of geriatric diseases (which medical science can contain but not cure). It’s a sobering thought and this film certainly made me think.

The animation form gives director Ferraras the possibility of easily staged fantasy/memory sequences which work very well. I liked the simple hand-drawn style which reminded me of Studio Ghibli (but without the large eyes of manga/anime characters) – I was probably reminded of the scenes in the day-care centre in Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Japan 2008). (This link seems to be confirmed by the posting on this animation website.) The music also at moments made me think of Miyazaki Hayao’s composer Joe Hisaishi. Since voices are an important part of the narrative, I did feel at a slight disadvantage via the subtitles. They told me that Miguel has an Argentinian accent but I couldn’t distinguish the Galician speech.

Overall, this is what I would call a humanist film without too much sentimentality. The BIFF brochure describes it as a comedy, but I didn’t smile too often – it was too truthful to be taken lightly. It’s a strong competition entry and a film I’d like to see in UK distribution.

Posted in Animation, Festivals and Conferences, Spanish Cinema | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Surviving Life – Theory and Practice (Czech Republic/Slovakia/Japan 2010)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 21 December 2011

Two of the supporting cast in 'Surviving Life'

What better way to escape the madness of consumer Christmas than watching a Jan Svankmajer film? This is the potential treat for lucky filmgoers in a handful of UK cities over the next few weeks. See this distributor website for a list of cinemas showing the film. I’m usually a fan of Verve Pictures but they don’t seem to have done a great deal to promote their acquisition, despite Svankmajer’s status amongst fans of animation and surrealism.

First shown at Venice in 2010, this is only the second feature-length film from the director since Little Otik in 2000. I can’t claim extensive knowledge of his work but I’ve seen some of his earlier short films and Sílení from 2005 (a live action horror/melodrama drawing on both Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade) and therefore I had some idea of what to expect. The film begins with a prologue delivered to camera by the director himself in which he explains that his team were going to make a ‘real film’ but they had such a small budget that they decided to use only a studio set and photographic cut-outs of the actors which could then be animated. This is quite a witty opening but I was baffled as to why Svankmajer’s presentation was overlayed by an actor reading out an English translation (with the Czech original mixed down but still audible). I hate this practice and fortunately the film itself was subtitled.

The film overall is a mix of live action and stop-frame cut-out animation. The central character is Evzen, a middle-aged man, married for 25 years but without children and working in a boring office job. Evzen dreams – but not enough. He wants to have more dreams and to understand them. Inevitably he is sent to a psychoanalyst who attempts to explore his unconscious. These are some of the funniest scenes in the film with framed photographic portraits of Freud and Jung looking down from the psycho-analyst’s walls an reacting to what is happening. I won’t spoil the narrative by outlining what is in the dreams but if you know any Freudian or Jungian theories about dreams you’ll probably guess the kinds of characters, symbols and stories that emerge.

Václav Helsus is Evzen, the dreamer who spends much of his time in his pyjamas

The pleasures of the film for fans are likely to be in the exploration of the technique and the use of colour in particular (lots of vivid reds). It isn’t such a startling form of animation as that in the earlier stop motion shorts, though there are glimpses of the earlier style, especially in the eating scenes and the glee with which squidgy watermelons explode etc. For British fans there will be reminders of similar techniques used (by Terry Gilliam) in sketches in Monty Python and, more disturbingly, The Goodies (disturbing for the more cerebral perhaps because The Goodies was supposed to be ‘light entertainment’). This familiarity with the technique perhaps made the film less frightening and terrifying for me (compared to the earlier films). I’m happy to sit back and enjoy this kind of surrealism as comedy (Svankmayer calls it a ‘psycho-analytic comedy’) but I like to try to find some form of satitirical edge in the film. My knowledge of Czech culture is limited but this film fitted in with what I know – it felt ‘East European’ whatever that might mean. As well as the obvious discourse about sexuality and alienation for the middle-aged trapped in boring lives there are nostalgic references to food and music as well as metaphors about consumerism and the dangers of capitalist monetary policies – so something we can all relate to!

My Christmas message is to suggest that you choose Svankmayer over David Fincher or Tom Cruise. It’ll be more fun and better for you. Here’s the Czech trailer (no English subs but the techniques speak for themselves):

Posted in Animation, East European Cinema | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Films From the South #12: Tatsumi (Singapore 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 17 October 2011

Tatsumi is a rather wonderful film that was released domestically in Singapore after winning plaudits at various festivals. It’s an unusual animated film that successfully manages to combine a biography of a Japanese manga author with representations of several of his stories to produce a coherent narrative. But as director Eric Khoo remarked after its screening here in Oslo it still has to go to the Tokyo International Film Festival and that will have a bearing on how the film fares in the Japanese market. It’s due out in the UK in January 2012 via Soda and international sales are stacking up via the German agents The Match Factory.

The Oslo screening was accompanied by an exhibition of the original artwork used in the film and introduced by Eric Khoo himself.

Eric Khoo introduces his film with some of frames from the exhibition visible behind him.

Eric Khoo was once himself a comic book artist but he had not thought that he had the patience to undertake an animated production . . . until he read the autobiographical manga, The Drifting Life by Tatsumi Yoshihiro published in 2009. See this website for previews of Tatsumi’s work in new Canadian published editions. Tatsumi (born 1935) became associated in Japan with a new form of manga dealing with much more realist themes and named gekiga, a term Tatsumi is said to have originated and which was taken up by some other writers. This might be seen as similar to the development of ‘graphic novel’ as a term in North America. Khoo’s problem was that he didn’t speak Japanese and he knew he must get full co-operation from Tatsumi himself. He managed to arrange an interview via a friend at Fuji Film and managed to convince Tatsumi that any film that he made would be faithful to the Tatsumi drawing style.

To produce the film, Khoo’s company Zhao Wei films  worked with Infinite Frameworks (ifw) a company based in Singapore and the Indonesian island of Batam (only 40 miles away by fast boat) with whom Khoo had made several previous films. This local co-operation produced Tatsumi relatively quickly and inexpensively – without sacrificing any quality. They developed a very simple animation style that used Tatsumi’s original drawings as a model but also colouring some of the earlier black and white outlines. In this YouTube clip, Khoo and the animators explain how they approached the task (beware it is also an ad for Intel and Hewlett-Packard!):

Tatsumi was a young teenager in the immediate post-war period in Japan under the Allied Occupation. His first success as a manga story-teller came early and he was inspired by both competition from his brother and by meeting one of the leading manga/anime figures of the day Tezuka Osamu. But eventually Tatsumi tired of what he felt were the constrictions of manga aimed primarily at children and he developed the gekiga form in the late 1950s. Interestingly he returned to his memories of the immediate postwar period in his new work. Stories such as ‘Hell’ (the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb) and ‘Goodbye’ (about a prostitute whose clients are American GIs) set up a tone that is also present in more contemporary (i.e. 1970s) stories about alienation from work and family in ‘Beloved Monkey’, ‘Occupied’ and ‘Just a Man’. I’m fascinated by these two periods of Japanese Cinema (and literature) so I found these stories – and the surrounding material relating to Tatsumi’s struggles to get them published – very engaging. It will be interesting to see what kinds of audience reactions the film gets on its international release. I would hope that it would receive as much attention as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but I think that film has a much more recognisable story and theme. I would urge you to give Tatsumi a go. I’m sure that you will recognise some of the images from Japanese Cinema and then find the story of Tatsumi the artist as interesting as I do.

Posted in Animation | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, Japan 2008)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 10 February 2010

Sosuke and Ponyo approach a tunnel – reminiscent of Spirited Away?

Ponyo finally gets its UK release this week, eighteen months after Japan. Why do we have to wait so long? Miyazaki Hayao has to be one of a handful of major directors from the last 25 years, yet he isn’t properly appreciated in the UK – other than by the growing number of anime and manga fans.

A moan first in that the UK distributor Optimum seems to have forced arthouse cinemas into a position where they will have to show afternoon screenings in the American dub. Evening shows can use the Japanese soundtrack with subtitles. This seems to me a lost opportunity. What better chance is there for progressive parents to introduce their offspring to the joys of subtitled films from around the world than via Studio Ghibli? The problem lies with adults not children. Get them used to subs as young as possible when they are adventurous and willing to explore. A lot of fuss seems to have been made about how closely Disney have worked with Studio Ghibli on Ponyo but I’m sure that we’ve heard this before for Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. I’m sticking with the Japanese dub.

Ponyo takes us back to Miyazaki’s masterpiece My Neighbour Totoro (1988). That film was in some ways a nostalgic look at 1950s rural Japan which by the 1980s had for many disappeared into urban sprawl – taking with it several of the redeeming features of Japanese family life. Although ostensibly a narrative for small children, full of wonder and delight, My Neighbour Totoro is also stuffed with cinematic references and adult themes about rural/urban differences and the support of close communities. Its simple drawn animation style manages to create images that resonate for viewers of 1950s Japanese films. It also establishes Miyazaki’s grand themes – about ecology and the narrative possibilities of (young) female-centred stories.

Ponyo celebrates the Japanese affinity to the sea and foregrounds Miyazaki’s concerns about the pollution in the waters around Japan. It also appears to be somewhat biographical in terms of Miyazaki’s own family experiences. The narrative is a version of the Little Mermaid, retaining several features of Anderson’s tale, but transforming it through Miyazaki’s authorial concerns and stupendous artist’s imagination.The mermaid equivalent here is a rather special goldfish, the daughter of an underwater wizard and a sea goddess, ‘Granmamare’. The fish escapes the confines of the wizard’s realm and ends up in the possession of a small boy, Sosuke, who is playing at the water’s edge. The fish licks a tiny wound on the boy’s hand and the taste of human blood has dramatic effects which will in turn lead to the emergence of a little girl after a series of spectacular events. ‘Ponyo’ is the name given by the boy to the fish. Ponyo’s attempt to become human destroys the balance of sea, sky and land and threatens the existence of the coastal community (and by extension the rest of the world). Like the Little Mermaid, Ponyo will be faced with a choice which also involves something that only Sosuke can provide. The choice must be made if the world is to be saved.

One otherwise clueless US critic is reported to have written that the film is only suitable for those under 5 or on hallucinogenic drugs. Well, those two groups might indeed enjoy it most, if only because they won’t be worrying that it isn’t appropriate for grown-ups to enjoy animation. But anyone with any aesthetic sense whatsoever is likely to just drink in the wonders of Miyazaki’s imagination and the skills of his animators. I wish I understood why traditional anime look so stunningly beautiful but CGI bores me rigid. Most, not all, western animation seems to depends on narrative – the images themselves, as images, are not that interesting. Miyazaki creates stunningly beautiful images for riveting stories. There is at least one frame in Ponyo that recalls the woodblocks of Hokusai and Hiroshige.

A view of the school and old people's centre on the coast road.

Mt. Fuji from Kanaya on the Tokaido road by Hokusai

I’ve chosen the print by Hokusai above because of the angle, the effect of the hats worn by the peasants (cf the umbrellas in Ponyo) and the imaginative way in which Hokusai presents the sea. Miyazaki has similar ideas in Ponyo. The Hokusai image is one of ’10 additional prints’ added to the ’36 Views of Mt. Fuji’ in the early 1830s. Ponyo is set further south on the Inland Sea.

The triangle formed by the cliff-top house where Sosuke and his mother live, the ship at sea carrying the boy’s father and the school/old people’s centre is the centre of the world Miyazaki has created. It neatly represents the social concerns about an ageing population, an economy that still needs the resources of the seas and that perennial fascination for Miyazaki, the self-reliant children, seemingly confident because there is a community of supportive adults who are there when needed. Jonathan Ross, in one of his more lucid comments on Film Night, made the perceptive comment that in Ponyo, Miyazaki (writer and director) spends time on everyday incidents involving children and adults – such as sharing a cup of soup – in which this sense of a community of all ages, not just parents and their own children, comes across so forcefully.

In short a film for small children and adults of all ages – and for cinephiles who will really appreciate a maestro at the top of his game.

Posted in Animation, Films for children, Japanese Cinema | 5 Comments »

A critic with attitude?

Posted by Roy Stafford on 1 May 2009

Coraline – a rare female action hero?

Coraline – a rare female action hero?

There aren’t too many UK-based film critics (as distinct from scholars who write) who I look forward to reading. Philip French in the Observer is usually reliable and Jonathan Romney in the Independent on Sunday is always worth reading. But that’s about it. I was intrigued therefore to clock the occasional appearance of Anne Billson in the Guardian. Billson has been around on various papers for quite a while and her other work includes horror novels and two BFI film guides. She belongs to the ‘anti-realist/pro-fantasy’ wing of the UK critics’ community. This gives her the motivation to weigh into quite a few sacred cows. Her Guardian columns last year went onto the film blog where they generated a healthy response from readers, many of whom showed put the paper’s film writers to shame. Strangely, Billson’s recent posts have lost their comment facility – perhaps she is too effective in getting up noses? I particularly enjoyed her New Year rant in which she declared that she wasn’t interested in all the Oscar hype and would far rather look forward to The Good, The Bad and The Weird.

A few weeks ago, Billson loosed a salvo at the British film industry in general and one of its leading practitioners in particular. I was all set to join in her attack on Richard Curtis and The Boat That Rocked, except that I couldn’t face going to see the film. In the event, everyone else seems to have agreed on how bad the film was, so we can just glow in quiet satisfaction. Today Billson has returned to the fray with an attack on the dearth of proper female action heroes in Hollywood animation films. She asks why it was felt necessary to add a male sidekick to the female action hero at the centre of the new film Coraline – and goes on to point out that in French and Japanese Cinema girls get a much better deal. It’s great stuff. I don’t know why, but the Guardian‘s arts coverage has a very good team of women commenting on music, but Anne Billson’s is the only female voice on cinema. Why not give her some of Peter Bradshaw’s column inches on a weekly basis?

Posted in Animation, Hollywood | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Japan 2006)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 4 April 2009

Makoto at home (eating a 'pudding').

Makoto at home (eating a 'pudding').

I first saw this film advertised as a DVD release in Sight & Sound, the main highbrow film magazine in the UK. It’s unusual to see an anime advertised in this way (although DVD distributors have got more savvy recently). My first thoughts were that the film must have a reputation on a par with the Studio Ghibli output and I rented it on this basis. I now realise that this is a well-known property in Japan and you can read the history on Wikipedia, which also carries some useful links. Beware, however, if you do go to Wikipedia that there is a full synopsis/spoiler that could ruin your enjoyment – I found the film’s narrative development to be quite surprising and I’m certainly glad I didn’t know what would happen.

The ‘property’ was originally created by the veteran Japanese science fiction writer Tsutsui Yasutaka in 1967 and it is interesting that he should choose a teenage girl has his protagonist. A manga ‘prelude’ based on the original, but updated, was published in Kadokawa Shoten’s Shōnen Ace magazine and then bound into a novel in May-June 2006 and the anime released in July of that year. The anime version proved to be a sleeper hit in Japan and has finally surfaced in the UK and US on DVD after occasional (and generally well-received) festival screenings.

The appearance of this story in a shōnen manga series strikes me as odd because shōnen implies a readership of adolescent boys – the equivalent for girls is shōjo manga. This probably just shows that I have an awful lot to learn about manga!

Makoto is the tomboyish 17 year-old at a Tokyo high school (the narrow streets and river walk suggest the ‘old town’ part of the city, but it looks like a spacious school with large grounds). She has a younger sister and two male friends at school with whom she plays baseball after classes. She also has an aunt – a youngish woman of indeterminate age who works as a picture restorer for art galleries. Makoto calls her ‘Aunt Witch’ and this appears to be appropriate when she is unfazed by Makoto’s revelation of her ability to time-leap.

In many ways, this anime strikes me as the perfect teen movie. I found it at once beautiful to look at and intriguing, but I confess also at first quite difficult to follow. Partly this was because of the jumping backwards and revisiting scenes that takes place in most time-slip stories, but also because I do find teen fiction difficult as I simply can’t intuit the language and the nuances of teen communication. (I was watching the Japanese version with English subs.) When I realised the full import of what was happening, I found the narrative to be engrossing and deceptively multi-layered. I’m sure that I didn’t get all of it and there were the usual mysteries. As some of the anime fan-bloggers have admitted there could be a few more ‘answers’ – but holding back some information makes for a more effective cult narrative.

It is partly science fiction, largely a teen movie/high school film, a ‘coming-of-age’ story (without a sexual relationship) and a sensitive romance element which I found affecting. Surely this must be a shōnen with a sizeable shōjo audience?

I was most taken by the drawn backgrounds (see still above) which are beautifully realised and reminded me of Miyazaki’s work. The action was sometimes very slow (I wondered if my DVD player had paused) and this allowed the eye to wander around the very detailed mise en scène (e.g in Auntie Witch’s apartment with its books and woodblock prints). By contrast, I found the characters to be all drawn as tall and thin with barely any body shape. The combination of richly detailed background and stylised characters gives the film a quite distinctive look. The music too, was at times similar to that in Miyazaki’s films. There are some songs as well, but I feel inadequate in analysing the use of music in anime. The narrative of course speeds up for the action sequences which I found original and effective. Having the hero literally run and leap in order to travel in time worked well in terms of the story.

There is an excellent review on AnimeNewsNetwork.com from which I learned that the Miyazaki references are understandable since the film was made by a Studio Ghibli refugee, Hosoda Mamoru, with other collaborators who also have Studio Ghibli experience. ‘Line artist’ Sadamoto Yoshiyuki is also very experienced. The Anime News Network Review emphasises the attractiveness of the central characters as more than simply generic characters, quoting the almost Buster Keaton-like antics of Makoto who begins her time travelling in order to put right some of her ‘accidents’. This review finds the final third of the narrative less successful – this was the part that gripped me most. Perhaps this is the distinction between those audiences with genre knowledge and outsiders like me?

I would heartily recommend this film and it would give students based outside Japan, not only an interesting narrative/genre case study, but also an insight into aspects of Japanese culture that still remain mysterious in the West. (The main one being the representation, as the Anime News Network review suggests, of the “wistful buoyancy that only the Japanese seem to be able to associate with high school”, when in reality, the Japanese education system seems to put so much stress on results for seemingly middle-class students like Makoto.)

Watch the opening here (I’d urge you to buy it, but if you can’t there are more YouTube clips available):

Posted in Animation, Japanese Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

 
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