Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)

For the first post on this blog I wanted to actually jump back to a write up I did a fair few years ago – because if I’m going to review/highlight anime (amongst the other things I’ll ramble on about here) then I should start with the studio that really had an impact on me (though as a kid of the 80s I remember starting off with Astro Boy :D).

So, up first it’s Spirited Away!

Miyazaki is such a warm director that I seem to naturally gravitate toward his films. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy Takahata’s work, or the films of the other directors from Studio Ghibli, but you’ll see a fair few Miyazaki ones reviewed here over time.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
2001

Perhaps like many Western audiences, this was my first exposure to Studio Ghibli and its wonderful films – though I didn’t see this movie until about three years after it’s English-language release.

I was actually at uni and had recently borrowed the impressive 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Inside, I noticed Spirited Away and went straight to the university library where I borrowed the DVD and that was it. I was hooked.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is the story of a young girl who has to work in a spirits’ bathhouse in order to save her parents, who’ve been transformed into pigs by their own greed.

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A pretty simple description of the plot, right? But it gives an idea of the main source of tension. What it fails to show is the stunning attention to detail found in the animation (a trademark of Ghibli of course) and the great character arc at its heart. The way protagonist Chihiro goes from being basically an annoying child to a person of resolve, and one who can turn those around her into friends, is handled so well and provides an emotional core that’s a big part the reason I’ve watched the film so many times.

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But perhaps my favourite element of Spirited Away is the setting.

The bathhouse is located in an abandoned amusement park and it’s beautiful, detailed and vivid, both in terms of its social and physical structure. And part of that colour definitely comes from the variety of spirits who visit it, among the most memorable being the close-mouthed Radish Spirit and the old River Spirit, who also embodies the environmental themes Miyazaki often includes in his films.

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Another stand out aspect of the movie (and most Ghibli films) is the music. Provided by Joe Hisaishi, it’s a moving score, with so much of it feeling both magical and familiar.

An Academy Award winner and an amazing film, Spirited Away isn’t quite my favourite Ghibli movie, but I’m kicking off with it because it’s where I started and if on the off chance you’re looking to see what Studio Ghibli is like, you probably couldn’t find a better starting place.

5 Stars

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Metropolis (Metoroporisu)

Metropolis (Metoroporisu) 2001

Metropolis was fascinating and I know I’ll watch it again – mostly for the visuals and direction rather than the story perhaps (which is kinda conventional but not boring by any stretch).

But setting that aside for a moment, another aspect that I found really interesting was the many links to one of my all-time favs: Astro Boy.

Now, obviously I’m writing about a 2001 adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s 1949 manga – so his style is all over the film and the ‘look and feel’ of these 1949 heroes and villains are one day developed further when he creates Astro Boy, and then of course, used again in the 2001 film. It was nice to see a lot of those hallmarks really faithfully recreated by the Madhouse team actually, and maybe not unsurprisingly considering Tezuka’s successor/collaborator Rintaro was at the helm.

So what I got to see was something enjoyably out-of-step with the chronology; it was really fun to see a host of familiar faces – like Skunk, that seemingly immortal jerk! And of course he’s not the only one, you’ll notice Ban/Daddy Walrus, Kenichi/Astro, Duke Red/Temnu+Dr Elefun among others too (and for those like me who crave some comparison images, I’ve put a few shots below).

(I tried and failed to find a gif showing Kenichi’s bulky/Astro-like legs and even kinda Popeye arms, but you can see the development/reiteration of characters here.)

The other aspect that Astro/Tezuka fans who might not have watched Metropolis yet will notice is the way the heroes seem to be striving for robots to be treated fairly – and a common theme to sci-fi; that the villains are quick to blame robots for all the ills of society. I won’t go into the plot here, but that’s one of the key motivators for villain Rock, who is a pretty nasty fellow.

Another somewhat recurring theme I think most folks will have noticed across a certain amount of anime (and one which appears here too) is an attraction to Christian themes and symbols, and so in Metropolis there is a Tower of Babel/pride element to the film which is pretty effective and makes for a big finish too.

While I’ve been sorta rhapsodising a bit about some of the irregular things I liked, I want to say again that while the level of animation and setting detail is stunning, the story isn’t as strong. For example, I felt like the main characters (esp Kenichi and Tima) didn’t really get enough time to interact and build their relationships. Or maybe I just wanted more dialogue and a touch less CGI?

And maybe I was a bit disappointed in the story balance because Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) is credited with the screenplay – so on paper, it sounds pretty ace, huh? Rintaro directing an Otomo-penned adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s manga! With just those elements alone the film should be Out of This World Good – and in many ways it is but I dunno, maybe if it had been a little longer? Had room for just a few more scenes between characters here and there?

Still, despite my gripes – it’s a modern classic, no arguments from me, and one that brings together that Golden-Age* Science-Fiction feel, social issues and a Film Noir aesthetic (right down to its jazz OST) really well.

5 Stars

Quickly, I’m mentioning again how much I enjoyed the direction – I’m really curious as to how much storyboarding was inspired directly from the manga actually, but in any event, here’s one aspect I loved: compositions like these really show the immense scale of the city and add to the kind of latent menace to the place too, and the idea that the characters are really facing something mammoth.   

* Maybe I’m a little off re: the exact era/influence here, but it doesn’t feel like New Age sci-fi of the 60s and 70s and it’s doesn’t feel like 20s/30s pulp either.

Vampire Hunter D (D Banpaia Hantā Dī)

Looking back to another classic for this review – this time it’s Vampire Hunter D which is very much a ‘monster hunting other monsters’ film but while there are definite horror aspects present, the Western and post-apocalyptic/sci-fi elements are just as clear.

Vampire Hunter D (D Banpaia Hantā Dī) 1985

So many of the story beats do read like a Western actually; you’ve got ranchers under threat, blackmail, dodgy law-keepers and a hired gun who has drifted into town to save the day… nothing groundbreaking in and of itself, but when it’s set against a futuristic/retro backdrop with Vampires and mutants, I think I see why the film must have stood out when it was first released. (And it remains engaging to me both now and when I first saw it as a teenager, though what I enjoyed most on first viewing probably wasn’t so much the cross-genre stuff as the more predictable horror/action elements I suppose: fights! exploding monsters! mysterious heroes! Etc etc).

Anyway – getting back to the actual review, as with so many of my write-ups, I can’t really speak to the quality of the film as an adaptation but if you’re interested in the genre, and if you prefer your vampires to be arrogant nobles a la the classic European style (rather than ‘animals’ or ‘sparklers’ as per some more modern texts) then you might like Vampire Hunter D. Certainly give it a shot if you only have time for a film-length anime too, since it won’t take long to watch it with a running time of only 80 mins.

However, length of the movie aside, I think it’s worth a look not only for its place in anime history, but because I really liked the ‘hard-to-pin-down-a-precise-era’ look to the character design (and some great creatures too) along with a handful of twists that kept things engaging – not to mention the titular character D himself, who’s a stoic but dependable hero. Personally, I’d have loved to see more of his internal conflict but that’d fit better in a series than a single feature I guess.

Until reading up on Vampire Hunter D for this review I’d also never realised quite how much the US was involved, with Sony Records and CBS acting as partners to Ashi Productions, which is perhaps part of why D eventually had a theatrical run in the States a few years after original release (and well before the ‘modern’ anime boom in the west.)

The OST was another element that I really enjoyed – it’s somewhat minimalist and even quite pensive at times (for a horror OST). Fans of 1980s electronic music will doubtless dig it too, but there’s still the sense of a simulated orchestra at times so it’s not ’empty’ either.

No spoilers – but this guy is a real highlight too 😀

Writer of the novels Hideyuki Kikuchi is on record saying that the look of this film is “cheap” and I think that’s somewhat misleading but not always inaccurate either, as there are some animation techniques used throughout that are probably in there to cut some corners, including the use of a lot of close-ups, but the direction is still pretty ace overall, especially with that creepy opening sequence.

4 Stars

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika)

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika)
1984

I suppose you could argue that Nausicaa is not precisely a Ghibli title, since the success of the film was part of what actually enabled Studio Ghibli to be formed in the first place, but it’s always sold and labelled as such and of course, Nausicaa features the ‘power trio’ of Miyazaki, Takahata and Suzuki, who would go on to have such a big impact on the landscape of cinema in Japan.

Folks were making Nausicaa’s glider a few years ago but I’m not sure where they’re at now: http://www.petworks.co.jp/~hachiya/works/OpenSky.html

Generally, I consider this my favourite Ghibli film despite tough competition from a few other movies, in part due to the scale but also the small moments that humanise the characters throughout.

Looking back, it’s easy to see the roots of what might now be called a ‘classic’ mix of Miyazaki themes: environmentalism, fantasy settings, war, the joy of flight, and the use of a female lead whose ability to solve conflict with kindness (as opposed to endless violence) is both a key part of plot and charactarisation.

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On the off chance that you’re unfamilair with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, here’s a tiny blurb:

Threatened by spreading toxic jungles, Nausicaa’s people rely on their own vigilance and the wind to protect their homes and people. When a ship carrying an ominous secret crashes in their valley, warring nations converge on the Valley of the Wind and it’s up to Nausicaa to save her people.

Part of why the film is so enthralling for me is due to the world-building; it’s so detailed – you can feel that there’s so much more beneath the surface, the world in Nausicaa is so interconnected, from its environment and its tensions to the prejudice of its peoples, it’s just as realistic as it is fantastical. (This is no doubt in part due to the film basis in a multi-volume manga written by Miyazaki himself). The insects especially, are impressive and varied but also complex creatures – not in the least being the almost majestic Ohmu.

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Fans of Hideaki Anno will of course be aware that he was hired to work on the film’s climax with the great warrior – this gif offers a glimpse but not the whole sequence, though it’s still impressive enough (and I won’t say ‘for the 1980s’ because that’d be needlessly reductive).

Like many Miyazaki films, there’s another beautiful soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi too, this time with an electronic feel typical of the 80s, though the opening piece to the movie is still sweeping and orchestral. Below is a live performance for the 25th Anniversary where you can see Joe leap from the role of conductor to pianist 😀

Violet Evergarden (Vaioretto Evāgāden)

Violet Evergarden (Vaioretto Evāgāden) 2018

Hopefully the awful news from Japan about Kyoto Animation isn’t the only reason you’ve heard of this series (or any of their other works for that matter) but it’s hard to talk about Violet Evergarden without the spectre of tragedy looming over – especially as much of the show itself already deals with loss and grief.

And I’m not really able to avoid it myself of course – I could have reviewed Violet Evergarden months ago but I put the review aside and have come back to it only now, not long after the attack… so I can’t help feeling like my timing has ended up being quite poor. Still, I don’t want to avoid talking about the series now because there’s a tiny chance someone who hasn’t already heard of Violet Evergarden might hear about it from this review and want to check it out.

So here we go – what kind of show is Violet Evergarden?

In brief, it’s an episodic drama interspersed with action and war flashbacks. More than that, and its core, I think it’s a love story, though one that is more married to Violet’s struggle to understand and reinvent herself, rather than a love story where two characters fence or fumble with their feelings.

In fact, Violet is a lot more robotic (at first) than you might expect from a typical leading lady but there’s a reason for that of course. And while seeing her learn how to be human again is kind of the main draw, she is at times needlessly submissive, as her ghost-writing job lands her in the role of maidservant a few times. And yet, due to her sense of duty and (generally) accommodating temperament, the series seems to romanticise that submissiveness. Maybe it’s just me? Maybe it’s the vaguely WWII-era setting that has her merely fitting the role women were forced into for much of the time.

Placing those aspects aside, I still enjoyed Violet’s trials and the colourful range of characters and places she encounters and wow, the art is so beautiful throughout; it’s clear Kyoto wanted to have the settings be just as romantic as the storylines. I’ll watch the show again just for some of that scenery (and costuming) – which I’ve not really been able to capture here but I’ve given it a shot!

Having Violet work as an Auto-Memory Doll (essentially an ‘on demand’ letter writer) was an interesting sub-plot, not something I’d seen dozens of times by any stretch, and it allowed for an equal amount of comedic and sweet moments throughout the series. At times, Violet’s personal search for her lost love wasn’t actually as compelling to me as the problems of some of the other characters she helps, but if you feel like you need a bit of action and violence to go with the drama and personal discovery aspects, then Violet Evergraden will deliver there too.

4 Stars

Jyu-Oh-Sei (Jū Ō Sei)

Jyu-Oh-Sei (Jū Ō Sei) 2006

I felt like I could always see where the storyline to Jyu-Oh-Sei/Planet of the Beast King had been compressed for the purpose of the adaptation, which is a real shame because it missed out on being ‘great’ instead of ‘good’ for me, due to that. Now, I know I’ve said this before (so it’s doubtless getting a little boring!) but if this had been a 20-something-episode series I think it would have been pretty compelling.

Despite this, I didn’t give up on the show because there’s definitely still enjoyable things – there’s a futuristic/primitive new world with an interesting society (one that has been forced into its current shape due to the harsh realities of the planet), there’s a range of nice action sequences too and the series does feature characters with both noble and unclear motives to keep you guessing, along with enough twists and meaningful character development that you’ll probably end up caring about at least some of the heroes.

However, in regards to the main character Thor… too many of the most vital and plot/life-changing decisions he makes are just thrust upon him with no or little lead-up or even foreshadowing. Due to this, such events and actions come across as quite clumsy onscreen – I’m sure the long-running manga didn’t have that problem since it benefitted from the luxury of time. One of the early decisions really gave Thor a psychotic edge which I don’t believe was the intention – it was meant to be something he struggled with.

And without spoiling some of the big reveals at the end, I see where you might argue why his actions actually made clear sense but during the opening stages of a series, show the character struggle so we can empathise, rather than glossing over the tough moments.

Just a final note, the series has a shojo target audience and maybe that feeds into the character designs but I don’t think Jyu-Oh-Sei precludes any one audience (except the quite young of course).

3 Stars

Appleseed (Appurushīdo) (1988)

Appleseed (Appurushīdo) (1988)

Some classics hold their status by virtue of reaching certain storytelling spaces early, by being perhaps more influential rather than brilliant in their own right. I’d argue that the 1988 OVA adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga fits that mold pretty neatly, since so many tropes, settings and ideas have carried forth well into the present, yet the film itself has its limitations.

Of course, the Appleseed manga is probably more key in terms of the influence I’m talking about (and obviously Akira before it) but the OVA is still part of the storytelling tradition that puts certain conventions and characters into the fore.

And while there’s certainly cyberpunk elements re: technology, rebellion in oppressive societies and augmentation, the film reads more like a Hollywood action blockbuster if you strip away those typical cyberpunk or science-fiction elements. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, that’s part of the fun for me when I watch it – it’s not unlike Lethal Weapon set in the 22nd Century!

So for me, what can I say represents Appleseed’s best parts?

Maybe the ‘time-capsule’ aspects – that ‘old-school’ anime character design which was usually a little rounder of face, with visible noses and sharper use of shadow, along with what I consider the wider, more generalised US influence – the big hair, 1980s workout-costuming, a montage sequence and a saxophone and light synth-soundtrack. Add to that robotics, guns and explosions and a clear, linear ‘police-hunt-terrorists’ storyline and you’ve got Appleseed. Even Briareos and Deunan have a bit of a buddy-cop dynamic going on – though any such character interactions/development (or exploration of the social system in Olympus) tend to take a back seat to the action and tech. (There’s bits of humour here and there too but again, it’s not the focus either).

In fact, another joy for me tends to be seeing how the future is imagined both in terms of how society is organised and how technology might evolve – and Appleseed has both fascinating ideas and amusing moments common to a lot of 80s and 90s cyberpunk: especially when it comes to the office settings or communication technology. Here, computers are massive, police still print on paper and phones have only reached ‘video’ and yet military tech and cybernetics are light years ahead. Audiences probably appreciate a good deal of familiar things in future-settings though, and predicting the future must be so, so very difficult. I tend to think speculative fiction writers do get it right pretty often too.

Where the OVA suffers in my opinion is due to some truly clunky dialogue and the missed opportunities to reveal more detail about the world and characters, something a series might have solved, but the movie still packs a lot into its runtime and I tend to prefer it over say, the 2004 adaptation, though nostalgia clearly plays into that feeling.

If you’re curious about the film’s place in the timeline of cyberpunk or maybe Shirow’s work in general, then you’ll probably pick up a few familiar themes and ideas – I remember feeling like the multi-leg tank was a clear precursor to GITS’s spider tank. And speaking of that robot design and influence, I think some Boomer designs from Bubblegum Crisis might be a nod to Landmates and other robots in Appleseed, which is the kind of detail I tend to enjoy noticing because it reminds me just how interconnected storytelling tends to be.

4 Stars

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Seirei no Moribito)

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Seirei no Moribito) 2007

I suspect some folks would have felt that Moribio was a slow series but I’m pretty comfortable dismissing that notion – character development doesn’t equal ‘slow’ for me 😀

In fact, there’s plenty of fight sequences and interesting magic too, along with enough secrets and character conflict to keep things engaging all the way through. By the end, I found myself pretty disappointed that the second novel hadn’t been animated too, actually.

Should you end up hunting this one down, I think it’ll be clear that series is adapted from a story written by a novelist – as the overarching storyline, sub-plots and character development are all handled well. Having said that, I would have loved a bit more time spent on a few characters but that’s the nature of switching mediums – some things have to be changed.

But there’s a whole lot to compensate: the beautiful colour palette used throughout, the vaguely familiar ‘historical’ setting and costuming, the music which was equally stirring and haunting, and some really sleek battles too. As you may know by now, I tend to really remember scenes that feature somewhat lesser known weapons, and here in this case, the spear fighting really caught my eye, it seemed like a perfect mix of drama and realism.

And though Moribito features a female lead don’t expect fan-service – Balsa is more like a mix between stern warrior and parent-figure, one who undergoes some soul-searching about her role in life as she strives to protect the runaway prince.

Watch this if you’re interested in a historical action/drama anime with supernatural elements and a pretty moving story.

5 Stars