Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror (Hottarake no Shima: Haruka to Mahō no Kagami) 2009
The success of Toy Story and Skrek are two CGI examples that I think of most when it comes to changing animation in America. Of course, it’s silly to point out only two examples, only two moments or studios (Pixar and DreamWorks here) as being responsible… but I think they are definitely noteworthy 🙂
Across the world in Japan, I kinda see Production IG as one similar driver of CGI integration into anime. Again, they’re obviously not the only studio doing so, but if I think of Ghost in the Shell in the mid-1990s and Innocence (among others) a little later on, I feel like there’s a clear line to 2009 when they released Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror.
Later in the review I do want to return to this rambling train of thought, but I should talk about the film itself sooner or later, huh?
Oblivion Island has a great fairy-tale feel, with perhaps a bit of Alice in Wonderland but a lot more Japanese folklore too, with a specific focus on kitsune. The hook for me was the idea that main character Haruka is drawn into a world of ‘forgotten things’, things which humans have left behind and have then been collected by fox-like creatures over the decades (and doubtless longer).
In fact, the scavengers have a motto: What You Neglect, We Collect, which is a pretty perfect description. When Haruka lands in the new world she is lucky enough to have a (reluctant at first) guide to show her around. And the Island is a pretty amazing place, where pretty much everything has been repurposed, from open books that function as seats on rail cars to gramophones deconstructed into chairs (okay, they’re both chairs :D).
There’s even a hierarchy/currency to the items, with mirrors being prized above all else – exactly the object Haruka needs to recover; her own precious hand mirror.
The story unfolds at a steady pace as the search gets Haruka and Teo (her guide) mixed up with ruler of the island, Baron. Maybe as an adult you won’t find heaps of surprises but I think kids would be delighted in all the right places, and Teo’s a cute little guy too. It’s also cool to see that Haruka is no push-over either.
If I had to single out an issue… it was just the feeling that I didn’t love the movie – I ‘only’ liked it a lot. That’s not much of a criticism, is it? Maybe the climax was actually a little long but it was usually pretty exciting.
Okay, so finally I’m going to creep back toward the visuals – which is what I was slowly, slowly leading up to at the start.
I remember a certain amount of excitement and bold predictions from the media and creators during those changes to the animation world that I mentioned before, discussing the way new technology would revolutionise things (I remember a bit of that around the time of Appleseed for one).
You can still see that excitement in occasional special features included with physical releases, sometimes it’s even the same folks looking back and reflecting on how the predictions turned out a little differently (but not ‘wrong’ either).
So, why have I also wrangled this review around to special features?
Well, I like to use them as one potential marker of the level of success a studio hoped for with a new release and I was curious about Haruka and the Magic Mirror.
Obviously, most ‘extras’ double as marketing materials but when I saw the decent list of special features included with Oblivion Island, I had the impression that Shinsuke Sato and Producton IG wanted the film to be a big hit. And of course! Why shouldn’t they? Success also keeps the studio going and making more great stuff.
So, I guess finally now to a question – did other folks like the film and its blend of traditional animation and CGI?
Oblivion Island was nominated for and won awards but I suppose if I’m interested in more than one marker of success, then I can’t ignore box office either – so, using IMDB, Haruka and the Magic Mirror had a worldwide gross of $3,171,022.
Now, to give some context I’ll try a couple of other similar-ish films released in the same year. First up, Summer Wars, which listed a fair bit more in terms of ticket sales: $18,434,328. Hosada’s film also used CGI but not in the same way as Oblivion Island and he also had a lot of anticipation already built up at that point. Something more CGI-heavy then? I’ll try Astro Boy – it took in $39,886,986 but it’s not precisely an anime film. (It was also considered a flop).
Maybe neither of my examples are totally useful as 1-to-1 comparisons, but I think I can say that audiences were still slow to warm to CGI in anime then. I know some of that reluctance lingers today, and does so within me, but again, I think I mostly complain when it seems like the blend between techniques is not great.
And I reckon Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror brings the two approaches together nicely indeed. Even if the character models have that CGI-smooth look, there’s still a lot of texture and depth to them and the backgrounds and props, and not just courtesy of the lighting either I reckon.
So, finally, I’ve finished all of my tangents – and as it turns out, it took me a really long time to say that I enjoyed this fairy-tale CGI anime and think it’d probably be pretty suitable for kids, just not the really, really young.
[This is another entry in a challenge (that I hope to one day finish), where I have set myself the goal of watching something for each letter of the alphabet – you can see the list over here if curious].