Category: Festivals and Conferences

Tanaka Kinuyo will not appear at Locarno

One of the promising highlights for 2020 was the Locarno Film Festival’s intention to screen a retrospective of the work of Japanese actor and director Tanaka Kinuyo. I have long been a fan of this talented and pioneering film-maker so I was working on plans to be able to attend. The arrival of the pandemic torpedoed this prospect. However, the Locarno Festival postponed the retrospective to 2021. Now, whilst only a possibility, there was a prospect of being able to enjoy this programme of films in the summer; 35 titles including a large number in 35mm prints.

Locarno to fete Japan’s Kinuyo Tanaka in first retrospective devoted to female filmmaker.

The Locarno Film Festival will celebrate the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka at its upcoming 73rd edition (August 5-15), in its first ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.

Tanaka (1909 –1977) was a pioneering figure in Japanese cinema throughout her 50-year career, appearing in the films of legendary directors Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi before striking off to direct her own films.

“This is the first time that the festival will be dedicating its retrospective to a female director, after 73 years,” said Locarno Film Festival artistic director Lili Hinstin, who is embarking on her second edition at the helm.

At the same time, she added, it also raised the question of how an artist like Tanaka – with such “an original and exciting filmography” had been overlooked for so long.

Tanaka first rose to fame in the 1920s, initially working under contract for the Shochiku Film Company, the film department of which is celebrating its centenary this year. There, she collaborated with Japan’s best-known “modernist” directors such as Heinosuke Gosho, Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu.

In the years immediately after World War Two and the 1950s, her striking screen presence became a hallmark of some of the best work by directors of the golden age of Japanese cinema, including Keisuke Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse and Kaneto Shindo.

She also renewed her collaboration with Ozu but her most important artistic partnership was with Mizoguchi, with whom she made 14 films, including the 1952 drama The Life Of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna), which premièred at the Venice Film Festival, winning best international film.

Around this time, Tanaka also started going behind the camera to direct a number of films of her own with various studios. At the time, she was only the second women in the history of Japanese cinema to direct after Tazuko Sakane.

Locarno described her six features films as “innovative portraits of women’s roles and conditions in the changing social environment of modern Japan”. The retrospective will screen Tanaka’s complete filmography as a director as well as a selection of 250-odd films in which she appeared.. (Melanie Goodfellow, 23rd January 2020).

Then a friend informed me of the bad news; set out in a report in Screen Daily:

The Locarno Film Festival will turn the spotlight on the work of late Italian director Alberto Lattuada for the retrospective of its 74th edition, scheduled to run from August 4- 14 this year.

The programme is the first element of Locarno’s 74th edition to be unveiled by the festival’s newly appointed artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro.

Plans have been dropped for a retrospective celebrating the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka, which was announced by Nazzaro’s predecessor Lili Hinstin for last year’s cancelled edition as the festival’s first-ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.

Regarding the decision to cancel the Kinuyo Tanaka retrospective, a spokesperson for the festival said: “The programme was a personal choice of [former artistic director] Lili Hinstin. Therefore, in respect to her work and despite it is a great programme, we have decided to propose another author to our audience for the next edition of the festival.”

My thoughts are best summed up by a borrowing from Oscar Wilde:

“To lose one female artist, dear festival, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.”

I also realised how fortunate I was that in 2012 we had a small but very fine retrospective of the work of Tanaka Kinuyo both as an actor and as a film director at the Leeds International Film Festival.

” Retrospectives has an especially strong selection this year. The ‘special focus’ is a profile of the Japanese actress and filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka. She worked through several different periods of Japanese film and with three of its greatest masters, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. Her scene at the end of Sansho Dayu (1954) is one of the most sublime endings in World Cinema.  She was also a pioneer woman direction in the Industry. There are six of her films, all in either 35 or 16mm. And there is a workshop on November 3rd at the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds.

While Kinuyo Tanaka (1909-77) is widely recognised as one of the greatest actresses in the history of her nation’s cinema, a lesser known fact is that she was also the first Japanese woman to build a body of work as a filmmaker in her own right. This year’s LIFF Special Focus aims to remedy this by presenting two of Kinuyo Tanaka’s rarely-screened directorial works alongside a selection of her finest performances in films by three of the masters of Japanese cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. Presented in collaboration with the Centre for World Cinemas, University of Leeds and curated by Michael Smith.”

The posts on the retrospective, with plot information and the quotations from the English sub-titles, include:

A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori, Japan 1948)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/a-hen-in-the-wind-kaze-no-naka-no-mendori/

Mother (Okasan), Japan 1952

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/mother-okasan/

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, Japan 1954)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2021/03/13/sansho-the-bailiff-sansho-dayu-japan-1954/

The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, Japan 1955)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/the-eternal-breasts-i-chibusa-yo-eien-nare/

Girls of dark (Onna bakari no yoru, Japan 1961)

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/girls-of-dark-onna-bakari-no-yoru/

Festival Workshop on Tanaka Kinuyo

https://itpworld.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/leeds-iff-2012-tanaka-kinuyo-workshop/

Haruka’s Pottery (Haruka no sue, Japan 2019)

One of the aims of the Japan Foundation Film Tour is to introduce UK audiences to aspects of Japanese culture and this title fulfils that role more directly than most. The insistency of the importance of craft skills is a key feature of both Japanese arts and crafts and industry and commerce. In recent years I can remember watching films about the art of sushi preparation and achieving the perfect ramen dish. The titular character of this film is Haruka (Honda Nao), a young office worker in Tokyo who is unfulfilled by her job and her life in general. One day, accompanying her boss on a shopping trip, she is taken into an exhibition of Bizen ware pottery in a department store. Unaccountably, she falls in love with a large plate in the small exhibition and, noting the potter’s name, she determines to seek him out.

Bizen is an area in the prefecture of Okayama in the South of Honshu, the main island of Japan and some 4 or 5 hours from Tokyo by train. The main pottery centre is Imbe and Haruka decides to visit the town to see if she can find the potter Wakatake. Bizen ware dates back to the 16th century but could be linked to earlier pottery styles. In danger of dying out in the 20th century, it was maintained by a small number of potters until in 1982 it was designated a ‘traditional Japanese craft’ by the Japanese government with around 300 potters at the start of the 21st century (see Wikipedia entry). This film is a fiction but it seems to be accurate in terms of the processes and the potteries shown.

Wakatake is not very communicative . . .

When Haruka arrives she struggles in the heat of summer to find Wakatake’s pottery but by chance meets an older man who directs her to the building. She doesn’t realise it yet but the older man is a ‘National Treasure’, an official designation for a skilled craftsman now mainly retired. When Haruka meets Wakatake he is incommunicative and unwelcoming. Haruka is persistent and eventually when the ‘National Treasure’ re-appears he tells Wakatake that he will never become a great potter if he doesn’t communicate with people and express this in his work. He suggests that Wakatake should accept Haruka as an apprentice and she readily agrees although she has been treated quite rudely. Unperturbed, Haruka returns to Tokyo to settle her affairs and starts as an apprentice in Imbe.

The ‘National Treasure’ in the karaoke bar

Wakatake Osamu is a highly-skilled potter but he has not got over the deaths of his parents. His father was a master craftsman who taught his son well but the stressful life of the potter is an issue for someone with poor mental health. The second section of the film sees Haruka trying to find a way around her master’s ‘prickliness’ and refusal to teach her directly. She must watch and listen (and do the chores). It occurred to me that this is the Japanese way of learning ‘on the job’ that was used in the Japanese film industry of the 1930s and is discussed in Kurosawa Akira’s writings. In the UK this used to be called ‘sitting next to Nelly’. It’s a time-consuming process but a long apprenticeship conducted in this way can work very well. It then requires proper support when the apprentice has to ‘fly solo’ for the first time. It wouldn’t really make sense to pad the film narrative out to cover several years so I think the process we see is time-compressed and geared to the annual calendar in Imbe.

Haruka helps out in the fields – a relief from her struggle with Wakatake’s behaviour

Each year Imbe holds a Bizen festival with demonstrations and exhibitions which has become a tourist attraction. After this in the Autumn the potters begin firing the kilns. This is particularly stressful because of the qualities of the local clay which require the kilns to reach a very high temperature but to do so gradually. They must be watched and fed with wood 24 hours a day over several days – this is when the strain becomes very great. If the process fails, the potter could lose all the pieces produced in the previous season. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but you can probably guess what happens with carefully orchestrated setbacks and later triumphs.

Haruka’s Pottery is an independent film whereas all the other titles I’ve seen on the tour have been from major studio brands or affiliated, established distributors. It was still shot in ‘Scope but with a debut writer-director and a largely inexperienced cast and crew, apart from the two actors playing Wakatake (Hirayama Hiroyuki) and the ‘National Treasure’ (Sasano Takashi). It’s also slightly problematic that there are relatively few promotional websites with details of the production or useful materials. The film actually looks pretty good with only two main locations, a brief section in Tokyo and then most of the set-ups in Imbe. The music score comprises slow and gentle piano with what sounded like folk music sequences. The narrative is fairly predictable and the leisurely running time of just under two hours could perhaps be reduced, but the main attraction of the film is the detailed illustration of the potter’s technique and the process of firing the pieces in the kiln. The human story is about how the apprentice helps to ‘humanise’ her ‘master’ allowing him to express himself through his work and to deal with the loss of his parents. There are flashbacks in which we see him as a boy with his parents. For Haruka it is a case of finding something she loves to do and finding herself through the challenges that working with Wakatake and struggling with the techniques of the wheel and the kiln that are thrown up for her. As a takeaway message about Japanese culture, the film stresses that great art needs ‘soul’ – something of the potter must be in the pot and the more the potter gives, the more pleasing the piece will be.

I did worry that this would be too ‘nice’ a film but I enjoyed it for what it is – an entertaining and informative film and a nice contrast to some of the more dramatic films that appeared in my selection from the Japan Foundation Tour.

The trailer below lacks English subs. Below it is a link to the Japan Foundation Q&A and discussion about the film.

Not Quite Dead Yet (Ichido shinde mita, Japan 2020)

The extensive cast of characters in Not Quite Dead Yet

After watching this film for only a few minutes I wondered to myself if it was going to stand as a rare stinker from the Japan Foundation Film Tour. Soon after I wondered how on earth was I going to classify it and explain why it didn’t work. Fortunately it got better and eventually began to work for me. By the end I was enjoying it, even if I failed to spot actors I should have recognised. This is actually a mainstream family comedy which is structurally quite familiar in the UK, though its comic targets are mainly recognisable as Japanese, including the whole institution of ‘death’.

The central characters are the Nobata family. Father is a research chemist who has established a successful company but in the process has alienated his daughter Nanase and lost his wife to a mysterious disease. A series of flashbacks establish an unconventional family life with pressure put on Namase to become a research scientist like her father. She, of course, will rebel – in this case by refusing to join the family firm when she leaves university and attempting instead to become a music star, fronting a ‘death metal’ band. Meanwhile, the Nobata family pharma company is being eyed up by a large corporate rival, Watson Pharma, who have placed a mole in Nobata’s senior management. A plot is hatched involving a new drug that will render Nobata Kei (the father) temporarily dead for just two days during which time Watson’s CEO has a plan to take control of Nobata.

Nanase performing

Nobata Kei (Tsutsumi Shin’ichi), worried about his daughter, has assigned a young man to follow her and report back. This character, known mainly by his nickname ‘Ghost’ because he is able to fade into any background and render himself virtually invisible will be key to development of the plot. He will be able to foil the plot with help from Nanase and finally another overlooked employee also known mainly by his nickname ‘Gramps’. Nobata Pharma’s money-making drug is an anti-ageing concoction known as ‘Romeo’ and the new drug which induces temporary death is given the name ‘Juliet’. The ‘temporary death’ plotline offers a range of gags some of which involve Kore-reda Hirokazu favourite Lily Franky who plays the ‘Sanzu River boatman’ – the Buddhist Japanese figure who ferries the dead to the equivalent of Hades. Nanase is played by Hirose Suzu who I should have recognised from the Kore-eda films Our Little Sister and The Third Murder.

Nanase and Ghost discover her ‘not quite dead’ father

Not Quite Dead Yet is written by Sawamoto Yoshimitsu and directed by Hamasaki Shinji, as his debut feature after a successful career in advertising films in which he won several awards. Shot in ‘Scope, like all the other features in my Japan Foundation selection, by Kondoh Tetsuya the film looks good. I think my early concerns were that the scenes may not fit together. Early flashback scenes attempt to show the pressure on Nanase coming from her father’s determination to get her interested in science. These vignettes are clever, perhaps too clever next to the ‘death metal’ music scenes featuring Nanase in the present – in performance and with her fans. The music is credited to Hyadain. I don’t know anything about the composer or about ‘death metal’ but I had some expectations and the relatively tuneful mainstream rock music that was presented didn’t seem to fit at all. I think the film began to make sense as a recognisable comic form with the introduction of the ‘Ghost’ (Yoshizawa Ryô). This actor seems very experienced with 65 credits aged just 26. His appearance and the growing realisation that he and Nanase will together fight for her father and the company presents a familiar universal comedy form – the beautiful and privileged young woman and the physically slight and bumbling young man, who is actually very bright – as is she – facing a more powerful enemy. I can think of countless examples of similar plotlines from around the world.

Some clever play with texting to the dead . . .

I’ve seen some sneery reviews about poor SFX  in the film but I liked these, with the ‘temporarily dead’ father as ghost figure materialising and trying to communicate and mother seemingly trapped in a glass case in the family shrine. The film is much shorter than the others in the Foundation Tour at around 90 minutes and rattles along nicely as the best comedies do. It’s good to have a change of mood and in the end I enjoyed the chases and the finale in what turned out to be a well-written comedy with good performances. Perhaps a little more romcom might have topped it off?

Shape of Red (Red, Japan 2020)

Adapted from the 2014 novel Red by Shimamoto Rio (one of the most celebrated and prolific younger writers in Japan), this is a traditional Japanese female-centred melodrama (directed by Mishima Yukiko, the only female director out of my first five films on the tour). I rather liked it. As with all the other offerings I’ve watched on the Japan Foundation Film Tour, it is presented in ‘Scope (1:2.35). The structure is non-linear, beginning with a phone call from a public phone by the central character Toko in the midst of swirling snow. But soon we flash back to see her in her domestic setting. The flashbacks are not signalled so it takes some time to fully understand the narrative chronology.

Toko makes a call during the snowstorm

We soon realise that Toko is married to a wealthy young man and that they have a young daughter. Toko’s mother-in-law always seems to be around and her husband Shin is very conservative, seemingly doing only what his parents decree is appropriate and this includes Toko as a domesticated housewife/mother. By modern standards Toko has accepted a role that should have disappeared years ago.

. . . with Kurata

I don’t want to reveal too much plot but, by chance, Toko meets an old flame from ten years earlier. This is Kurata, an architect who reminds her of what might have been. Despite opposition at home, Toko decides to return to work and joins the architecture and design company where Kurata has a senior position. The head of the firm, Kodaka is an interesting character who acts as a kind of agent provocateur, taking an interest in Toko and proving perceptive about her relationship with Kurata. Toko and Kurata work together on a project in Niigata Prefecture, North of Tokyo and on the other side of Honshu, towards the Western coast. This means trips over the mountains and frequent heavy snow in winter, preventing Toko from getting home on time.

Kodaka provokes action by Toko

The ‘red’ of the title is a melodrama symbol for passion, danger and even directly for blood. The film’s dialogue and mise en scène also have a number of important symbolic references. It’s not giving much away to reveal that Toko and Kurata become lovers. He reveals how important the book ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Tanazaki Junichiro is to him. This particular book is about Japanese and Western aesthetics and their possible influences on architecture. But Tanazaki, one of the biggest names in ‘modern’ 20th century Japanese literature, is also associated with novels about adultery, desire and eroticism. The couple also had a favourite album when they were together earlier, an LP by Jeff Buckley. Buckley’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is their favourite track. It’s a much misunderstood song about desire. The film’s title is underlined by a red cloth tied to a protruding cargo of wooden poles carried on a truck the couple are following in a snow storm – which eventually blows off and lands in the snow. Toko’s story – that of the repressed woman restricted to housework and childcare – is directly referenced when she is told, accusingly, “you are not in the Doll’s House”, citing the Ibsen play from 1879. This kind of European play was influential in ‘modernising’ Japanese ideas during the Meiji period. There is definitely an ‘excess’ of symbolism. I particularly like the architectural model house which Toko and Kurata create. Toko then feels that the main window should be larger so she can see out more.

. . . a bigger window for their ideal house

I’ve read all the reviews I could find on this film. Many fall into the opposing camps of an old-fashioned story that is now out of date vs. this cruel woman who would leave her beautiful little daughter and comfortable life for a selfish romance. There is an interesting feature in the Japan Times in which the director and co-scriptwriter (with Ikeda Chihiro) Mishima Yukiko explains that she thinks that many women in Japan are trapped like Toko in marriages in which they feel pressurised to conform and not think about what they really want. Mishima is an experienced filmmaker who clearly knows the power of traditional melodrama and feels that she knows ‘what women really want’. The Japan Times review by veteran critic Mark Schilling, however, suggests that there is already a “thriving subgenre of Japanese films about women who leave their ruts and find their grooves” – and Red looks by comparison like a “frustratingly retro drama”. Schilling suggests that Toko is too weak a character – a charge also made by Toko’s mother. I can’t claim any real knowledge of contemporary Japanese society but I would expect that Toko’s ‘entrapment’ is an issue in upper-class conservative households but not so prevalent for young educated women outside that group. Overall though I’m with the director. I did notice that the taboo of divorce and single parenthood features in several ways in this film, including the scene in which Toko is late picking up her daughter Midori from school with shaming consequences. I liked that Toko later reminds her husband that Midori has a father as well as a mother.

Shin, the conservative husband

Two other notable points about the film are the references to food, including Toko’s love of ‘simmered taro’, a form of yam-like root vegetable in broth and a typical food of Niigata, ‘noppe stew’. Early in the film there is a clash of dishes from Toko and her mother-in-law to be served to Shin. Like Miyamoto earlier in the tour, there are a couple of contrasting scenes of sexual activity in the film, carefully shot and edited but still deemed worth mentioning in the Japan Times review as relatively new in Japanese mainstream cinema. The performances from Kaho as Toko, Tsumabuki Satoshi as Kiruta and Emoto Tasuku as Kokada are excellent. Mamiya Shotaro as Shin is very well cast – I could see this actor playing a week young Emperor or Shogun, he exudes a certain kind of privilege. I’d like to see this film on a cinema screen but I fear that it would be difficult to put into UK distribution. Contemporary Japanese melodramas seem to appeal only to a minority of cinephiles here and that’s a shame.

Our 30-Minute Sessions (Sayonara made no 30-bun, Japan 2020)

The band

Because the Japan Foundation Film Tour online has proven so popular I just booked whatever was still available. I have since been surprised to discover that the pairs of films I watched seem to have quite specific elements in common. This oddly-titled film has several elements in common with Hello World, although they each have a different appeal. Like the anime, this features an introverted young man who will be surprised to be brought out of himself by a ‘double’ and the twin characters will end up both protecting and in a sense competing for the attention of a young woman. Those are important elements of a narrative, but the two films turn out rather differently. The opening of Our 30-Minute Sessions introduces us to a high school/college band in the process of forming after meeting up at a festival in 2013. There are four guys and a girl. Later the lead singer/ band leader gives the girl a Walkman-type cassette player and a mixtape and then a montage shows the years passing quickly until 2018 when the band are due to perform at the same festival. But an accident means that the bandleader Aki is killed and his Walkman lost. A year later the Walkman is found by Sota, a young man in his last year at university who is struggling to get a job because he always fails to impress at interviews.

Sota (Kitamura Takumi)

When Sota plays the tape on Aki’s Walkman something strange happens. There is no easily discernible sound on the tape but playing it conjures up Aki’s ghost. Sota sees himself as a body occupied by Aki. There are two Sotas, but the real one is invisible to everyone else and the other one accosts Kana, Aki’s girlfriend and fellow band member. When the effect wears off after the C60 cassette has played 30 minutes, Aki’s ghost becomes visible to (only) Sota and Sota regains control of his own body. The title now becomes clear and before I watched the film I had caught a video statement by the director suggesting the narrative idea comes from the fact that recordings on tape are never completely erased and can be recovered, although after they have been played many times they will eventually disappear. If I tell you that the band had broken up following Aki’s death and that Sota has some musical talent as well as channelling Aki’s ghost, you can probably work out the rest of the plot yourself. I don’t need to spoil any more of the narrative.

Aki (Mackenyu)

Our 30-Minute Sessions is an interesting generic mix. The narrative is driven by the idea of the double or doppelganger. I first thought of Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) but that is two sides of the same person. A better model might be Dostoyevsky’s The Double (1846) in which a clerk sees a second version of himself. Aki is more socially skilled than Sota but, as a ghost, he needs Sota’s body. Aki is not evil and doesn’t intend to harm Sota. On the contrary he wants to help him. But inevitably Sota is going to be ‘opened up’ by Aki’s behaviour, becoming more confident. While this odd haunting lasts, the two personalties need each other – but Sota has a future, Aki does not. The two main areas of interest are music, getting the band back together, and helping Kana to overcome her grief. This means that we have both a musical and a romance repertoire of generic elements and another genre structure, sometimes called the ‘coming of age’ film – or perhaps the ‘flowering of Sota’s personality’? Director Hagiwara Kentarô’s statement points to the philosophical question about how ideas and statements, feelings etc. don’t just die. They live on if others remember them. In this way the band’s music becomes richer over time as Sota’s creativity adds more layers and stimulates the others while not eradicating Aki’s original creations.

Sota with Kana (Kubota Sayu) ‘airing’ books

I enjoyed watching this film but I’m not sure how well it would perform outside Japan and its target audience, which I think might be teenage girls. We often think of popular music as linked to ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll’ but we don’t get any of that here. The romance is remarkably chaste. The band members are all attractive and ‘nice’, the music is melodic and generic but a little bland. There is no ‘grit’ apart from a few generic spats within the band. What is also sad, I think, is that Kana is the only female character of note (apart from her mother) and as in Hello World, her part is underwritten. Both Sota and Kana are missing a parent and their single parents are supportive without interfering. Again the film is good to look at, almost like a live action version of a manga. I don’t know where it is set, but it looks a pleasant place to live with familiar images of Japan at peace with the wind rustling through the leaves on the trees. All the performances are good as is the cinematography by Imamura Keisuke. The pacing is a little slow, fine for a serious drama but not for this kind of genre film? The script by Ohshima Satomi just needs a little more spice.

Here is a Japanese trailer (English subs should appear via the CC menu):

Hello World (Japan 2019)

Hello World poster

This film presented a critical challenge for me. I’m increasingly bored by the idea of ‘superhero movies’ and I haven’t watched any for several years. But I’m always interested in anime of all kinds. So how would I cope with a ‘superhero anime‘? In the event, Hello World turned out to be a science fiction-romance in which the superpower is gifted to a shy teenager lacking self-confidence. The anime also attempts a range of social comments. Not having a detailed knowledge of comic books and their filmic adaptations, I probably missed some of the familiar generic elements borrowed from other films.

This appears to be the second anime feature by director Itô Tomohiko, but I note that he was an assistant director on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Japan 2006) which also has a time travel narrative focus. Writer Nozaki Mado appears to have only a TV series credit, so both are relatively new to top creative roles on anime features. The plot of the film is complex and quite difficult to outline clearly. I also don’t want to give away the ending of the narrative. So here is a very brief outline. The central character is Katagaki Naomi, a boy happiest with his books who is so indecisive in every aspect of his life that he even tries to read and absorb a ‘self-help’ book. He has no real friends, although he is invited to join various groups. One day, having joined the school’s library group, he finds himself paired on a library project with a girl, Ichigyou Ruri, who is also a bookworm and very introverted, but more decisive and confident. The setting is 2027 in Kyoto, the city in Japan most often associated with history (it was Japan’s second capital city, after Nara and before Edo (Tokyo)) and traditionally where most jidai-geki (historical drama films have been made). It seems that in 2027 Kyoto is almost like a model city of the future with a huge Museum Project at its heart, presenting the city’s history. A large Google-like company has mapped the city in fine 3D detail and drones monitor every aspect of life in the city. One day, Naomi is watching a strange, seemingly natural, event when a crow flies down and steals the book he is carrying. He has just enough time to see that the crow has three legs before it flies off and he attempts to follow it. Eventually it leads him to meet a figure who will turn out to be an older (and therefore taller) version of Naomi. His future self has come back in time as an avatar in an attempt to manipulate time. (The three-legged crow is known in East Asian mythology and in Japan is known as Yatagarasu.)

The school library is where Naomi and Ruri meet most often

Manipulating time in a science fiction narrative usually suggests massive conflict and disaster, as well as posing a philosophical question far too complex for most of us to grapple with. In this case it seems to involve Ichigyou. The avatar first offers Naomi a superpower which he must learn how to use in order to save Ruri. He receives a form of energy glove which enables him to manipulate and grow any material. Eventually he will be able to produce huge boulders, miles of tarmac roads or metal structures etc. As well as creating all kinds of narrative possibilities this also gives the animators scope to create some amazing sequences to overlay the finely detailed drawn images of the city.

I won’t go any further with the plot and instead just make some observations. ‘Saving’ Ruri takes us back to ancient romance tales about the damsel in distress. Unfortunately, Ruri is rather underwritten and in contemporary terms it is quite difficult to assign this female character any ‘agency’. Also, the two young people are not presented in a family context. Naomi does have a mother, briefly represented (just as a voice, I think) in one scene. Families are important in the genre – Superman’s parents, Peter Parker’s older relatives in Spiderman etc. Or else there is an older, wiser, wizard-like advisor. but here we have just the boy and girl and the older version of the boy – at least in the beginning.

Naomi’s future self as an avatar appears in his room

I suggested that there are some social commentaries in the narrative. The title ‘Hello World’ has been taken by many reviewers to be a reference to the first line of code in a new computer program. It’s a very long time since I tried to learn any coding, but I seem to remember that ‘Hello World’ was what blogging software used to insert in a new blog as an example of writing a new post. This science fiction narrative picks upon several of our fears about the new digital ‘always on’ world. The Kyoto of 2027 is mapped by robot drones and patrolled by bots who are there to make sure nothing is ‘changed’ – manipulating time will send these bots into a frenzy. For the schoolkids, ‘joining’ groups is almost compulsory with the fear of being ‘left out’. The ultimate fear of needing to reboot your computer system when everything might not reappear is also a real worry. But the inclusion of these kinds of issues is not really enough to compensate for the thin central romance narrative. This film looks great but it doesn’t have the ‘pull’ that this kind of romance needs to generate. But I did like the three-legged crow. I’m not the target audience for this anime and it does seem to have been well received by some fans. But I can’t see it having the ability to ‘cross over’ into wider audience segments like Studio Ghibli films.

Few Japanese stories stay in one format. This anime has so far been ‘novelised’ and a TV 3 episode spin-off titled ‘Another World’ has also been produced. Here is the Japanese trailer for Hello World (no subs) which gives some idea of the anime style, but doesn’t spoil the later sections of the plotting: