The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) 2016

It’s always exciting to see animation helmed by folks from beyond Japan and the US, since those are the two production locations I’ve been most exposed to.

Having said that, Studio Ghibli is a co-producer but the look and feel of this feature film definitely reveals more of Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit’s hand, and an overall European aesthetic. For me, with my limited knowledge of animation in the wider world, I saw hints of Herge in the character designs but that’s not really important.

I’m trying to be brief for a change (hahaha), so instead, let me leap to a bit of plot – this is a fantasy, but chiefly a drama about a man stranded on an island and who encounters a curiously belligerent (it seems) red turtle. (Thematically, it’s more nuanced than that however).

Switching to the tone of the story I think you can’t go wrong by saying that it can be described as a cross between Castaway and a fairy tale. Yet The Red Turtle is ultimately more uplifting than the Tom Hanks film. Still, it’s fairly downbeat – but I remained enthralled by the visuals once a central mystery was resolved perhaps halfway through.

Focusing on the visuals, aside from the ‘line and dot’ look of a lot of the film, it’s an explosion of light and colour without being gaudy; it remains so natural, becoming almost hyper-natural in some ways. From the sand, water and forests, it’s like a work of art. There’s also a lot of dramatic composition too, with wide and sometimes extreme establishing shots to really drive home the idea that humanity is just one part of the world. Yet it’s hardly a preachy film, considering one feature is a lack of dialogue.

Very much worth seeing if you’re a fan of the art of animation.

4 Stars

Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai)

Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai) 2011

One day I’ll run out of shows I’ve seen and then I’ll have to focus more on new stuff – but until that moment, here’s another ‘older’ series. And for a change, I’ll try and keep this review succinct!

Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day is a definition tearjerker, so if that’s not your thing steer clear perhaps. Otherwise, if you’ve never seen this one get ready for a fairly full-on drama that follows young adults as they struggle to come to terms with the death of a childhood friend from their past, Menma. On the surface it sounds like a straight forward drama but there’s a few supernatural aspects, since Menma is kinda haunting the main character of Jinta in the present-day.

Of course, she generally does it in a cute way – except for in the first episode. I nearly gave the show a miss because for some reason she’s shown grinding on Jinta over breakfast? That bizarre attempt at fan-service(?) aside, the story is a good mix between mystery and character, with some truly antagonistic friends coming together to try and figure out the right thing to do. And yeah, as expected, super-bittersweet ending – even melodramatic, but still overall a good series.  

Clannad is mentioned a lot in terms of a general comparison to Anohana, so that might be another marker to help decide whether to watch. As I’ve said many times about most modern productions, visually everything is bright and clear and the character designs are distinctive enough, which is always welcome.

But the real highlight is probably the charactarisation for me.

4 Stars  

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka)

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka) 1988

I wanted to watch this again before writing a new review… but I just couldn’t manage it, the story is too harrowing.

And I guess, due to that fact, I believe the film does work as an anti-war statement – despite that not being the intent of the movie. (Director Isao Takahata mentioned that he does not see Grave of the Fireflies that way and I certainly won’t argue that he also succeeded in critiquing the follies of pride so, so well).

5 Stars

Robot Carnival (Robotto Kānibaru)

Robot Carnival (Robotto Kānibaru) 1987

This anthology really started something great and while for me, it’s not as strong minute-to-minute as one of Otomo’s later anthology-releases Memories, it’s still a must-see for fans of anime history, or science-fiction anime.

Just like with all anthologies out there, not everyone will enjoy every single short in the collection, but out of the nine here you’ll definitely find something to like if you dig robots. For most people, a short called Presence tends to be the favourite but I’ll come to that in a little while.

Instead I’m going to quickly mention (with spoilers for shorts 4 and 8) something from each of the other pieces, some of which basically focus on the exploration of the medium and technique, rather than narrative (but that’s not necessarily a negative at all):

1 Opening

At times, the Opening (and Ending) evokes a demented, terrifying Fantasia and as impressive as it is, it’s a kinda depressing first note.  

2 Franken’s Gears

Obviously a mechanical Frankenstein – like many of the pieces here it reveals a fantastic level of detail. And, like a few of them it’s played a bit like a silent move in terms of dialogue at least.

3 Deprive

This one feels like a straight up action sci-fi (and it is) – short and to the point, I’d have loved dialogue but all the storytelling is still there and there’s some great character designs.

4 Presence

See below 🙂

5 Star Light Angel

Watching this today it kinda feels like the perfect film-clip to a city-pop love song, and the existing music in the episode already gives off that vibe, actually. Elsewhere, musical giant Joe Hisaishi ranges from action-synth or haunting piano pieces.

6 Cloud

Occasionally folks report this animated series of illustrations as their least favourite and sure, it’s not action-packed but it has the most intense visual representations of a storm; it’s worth seeing for that passage alone.

7 Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion

This one plays as a kinda goofball comedy or parody of a propaganda film (and most of the cast is amusing) but the lead hero is pretty tedious, as his answer to every problem or question is essentially to shout “shut up”.

8 Chicken Man and Red Neck

This is fairly harrowing and again evokes a more sinister Fantasia as robots in a futuristic city rise up to party during the night – it’s incredibly complex and often frenetic, and another highlight.

9 Ending

(As above :D)

4 Presence

And finally the most compelling of the stories, for me and many folks over the years it seems, which is Presence by Yasuomi Umetsu.

Now, there’s lots to like the fourth short film, from the clever introduction to the world and its robotics, to the lush colours and distinctive character design or the memorable storyline, but I think a lot of reviews miscategorise this one as a tragedy.

For me, it’s more of an extended vignette of a villain and a coward.

The protagonist is an ungrateful sap who has refused to accept the things which should make him happy, and attempts to replace his loneliness with a robot companion. Whether the girl (whose design is reminiscent of Holiday-era Madonna) provides companionship, sex or both, becomes almost incidental as the story takes a turn.

Once she dares to request a life of self-direction, he freaks out and attacks her. After this act, he seals his creation away and just returns to his life, continuing to ignore all the things he has and worse, things which he denied to the girl he built.

At the end, after a couple of time jumps, he commits his final act of cowardice and cements his role of villain, as someone truly worthy of the viewer’s contempt.

And that’s part of what makes it such a great short film – it evoked a strong response 🙂

Okay, there we go – spoilers over! And can you believe that I set out to make this a short review? I suck at that lately!

4 Stars

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind (Kumo no yō ni Kaze no yō ni)

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind (Kumo no yō ni Kaze no yō ni) 1990

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind has a bit of a history as a ‘mistaken Ghibli film’ and if you’ve done any reading about it you’ll be aware that Katsuya Kondō’s memorable character designs were a part of that misconception.

And while the animation quality is probably higher than for some OVAs of the time (especially the action sequences) I suspect where the film reveals some real flaws is in the adaptation – as it becomes extremely rushed at one point. As I’ve said about a few films here and there in my reviews, this would have been a great mini-series. Based on a historical/romance novel from the year prior, it’s a story set in the 17th century and follows a young girl who seeks to become a wife (concubine, really) of China’s Emperor.

Ginga is that young girl, and she’s a plucky lead with enough spark to be engaging. At times, the supporting cast is as good but with such a compressed running time, not many characters get a chance to be more than their single role. Worse than that, is probably the last third of the movie. After a good build up, establishing some intrigue and conflict, the film just hits fast-forward.

Events that should have massive impact on Ginga are just glossed over in a rush to the ending, which is kinda anti-climactic after the first two-thirds. I was pretty disappointed and maybe my rating reflects the hope that I’d had for Like the Clouds, Like the Wind but I do think a lot of viewers would have a similar reaction. It is really interesting to see such a cosmopolitan court featured in the film, though that aspect isn’t supposed to be the main draw.

I suspect it was meant to be more along the lines of a historical romance, as per the novel, but with only 80 minutes I just think there wasn’t enough time to show the audience everything they needed to see, especially in terms of character relationships.

2.5 Stars

Okko’s Inn (Waka Okami wa Shōgakusei!)

Okko’s Inn (Waka Okami wa Shōgakusei!) 2018

I want to call Okko’s Inn a sweet film but I feel like I’ve used that descriptor far too often lately, and somehow ‘charming’ seems to have subtle hints of condescension? Equally, I reckon ‘lovely’ isn’t quite right either but if you can imagine a word that somehow evokes all three, you’ll have an idea of what I’m going for!

Kirato Kosaka directed the movie and his Ghibli-pedigree is noted on my DVD and I think I do see his influence on the character design but I haven’t checked the manga or novels to see if that’s true. And there are some clear parallels to Spirited Away with Sen working in a bathhouse and helping spirits, while here Okko works in a hot spring-themed inn and helps spirits and human guests – but I think Okko’s Inn is more a film about grief and community.

And like most modern anime, it’s beautiful and vibrant – it especially feels like extra attention to detail on the settings and costumes was clear but I guess if I had to note a quibble then it might be on some of the character design, as the kids seemed to almost too cute? Having said that, it does work – they’re cute for sure. And the story is definitely moving, with the drama taking a bigger role than the comedy or supernatural aspects.

In a little interview included as part of the special features I saw Kosaka mention that it was hard to choose and then merge a range of storylines that the novels, manga and TV series had covered, and ultimately the ones used all feed in to Okko’s emotional journey but I think I wanted a little more of some aspects and less of others… but this is not to say the movie is chaotic because it’s not. In fact, my favourite aspect aside from the main storyline was probably the side story of Okko and Glory, as I’m always a fan of mentor-like relationships.

If this sounds like your sort of genre and you’re looking for what’s probably a compressed version of Okko’s story, then this is definitely worthwhile, even if it’s a familiar tale of determination and compassion (in some ways).

4 Stars

Kurogane Communication (Kurogane Komyunikeishon)

The first thing that struck me about Kurogane Communication was how clearly it evokes great robot-focused films of the past. There’s obviously a nod to Terminator in the form of Reeves (and maybe Robocop for Honi) but Ghost in the Shell is probably the text that’s referenced most often – from Major to the Puppet Master and even to the OST at times (maybe no surprise considering Kenji Kawai was involved there).

Kurogane Communication (Kurogane Komyunikeishon) 1998

Yet Kurogane Communication is probably pitched at a younger audience – it’s far brighter visually and fairly optimistic tone-wise, and most of the violence is centred around robots. (Somehow, the show evokes Astro Boy, though perhaps only vaguely). Most interesting to me, in terms of pinning down the target age group, is the fact that each episode is around 15 minutes (a little less without opening and closing). For me, that sorta had two effects – one was to give the impression of a show built for pre-teen audiences and their (perceived) shorter attention spans and the other, it seemed to compress the storytelling really well.

Each episode is a tightly constructed with a distinct problem being introduced and solved but slowly the bigger picture is also revealed and by the last act it’s a single, larger issue that faces the team. The show does squeeze in some characterisation too, and while the leads generally embody famous archetypes, there’s an interesting touch to some of them for sure. Part of the draw for me is the post-apocalyptic aspects and the mystery there – I think I am a little obsessed with imagingings of the future, and stories where humanity manages to persist in the face of its own grievous errors.

At times I think it was clear the anime didn’t have enough screen-time to set everything up, and if you give this show a shot, you’ll noticed a fair few things that feel like plot holes or unexplained conveniences. For one thing, for a while there the plot only moved forward if Haruka just ran off into danger despite solid reasons not to – but I was able to look beyond those problems easily enough. I will say that the anime worked the ‘accidental pervert’ trope far too hard for a young lead and the other bits of fan service didn’t seem to fit the tone of the show or the given scene.

Still, despite those things Kurogane Communication has heart; Spike is cute and the ending is sweet and welcome, there’s some touching moments throughout, a compelling setting, a steady pace and Angela’s backstory was a real highlight – in fact, I’d be more than happy to see a spin-off series about her life as a duelling robot 🙂

3.5 Stars

Wolf Children (Ōkami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki)

Wolf Children (Ōkami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki) 2012

Another blockbuster from Mamoru Hosoda, though it’s far deeper into tear-jerker territory than his previous film, Summer Wars. But soon after that movie’s success Hosoda left Madhouse to create Studio Chizu, and Wolf Children was the first feature made by his new studio.

My anticipation was pretty high for this film in the lead up (much like it had been with Summer Wars) and while it’s just as beautiful (and just as fraught with drama) it’s not an action film, though there’s more than enough tension mixed in with the romance and magic. The film also has a slice of life feel at times – all great things!

As is my way with these write-ups, I try not to offer too much in the way of plot but in its simplest form – this is the story of a single mother fighting to keep her family together. Hana is a good lead, determined, very human. And she faces some pretty hard times, not in the least of which being that her children are shape-shifters. (And of course, quite adorable too). Other times it is prejudice that she has to deal with or the terror of the natural world but obviously her own doubts too.

The story is wide enough to focus on both her and the kids’ storylines individually, as Wolf Children does span a few years but not in such a way that you feel like ‘I missed something here’ and so by the end it does feel a little like a saga. Regular Hosoda collaborator Satoko Okudera wrote the screenplay here and I think that’s a big part of why the film works too.

I actually hadn’t realised when I first saw it that the character design was by Sadamoto Yoshiyuki, though it will feel far closer to his work on The Girl who Leapt Through Time as opposed to Neon Genesis. But that’s more of a side note, I guess – so I’ll wrap it up now and just say that if you’ve missed this drama I think it’s definitely worth watching.

4 Stars

Porco Rosso (Kurenai no Buta)

Porco Rosso (Kurenai no Buta) 1992

Ah, the Crimson Pig – another classic Ghibli film, and another chance for Miyazaki to explore romance and the thrill of flight, along with the planes themselves too.

Having opened with that statement I’ll quickly add that Porco Rosso is still most definitely an action film but there’s a real sense of a sweeping, even war-time Hollywood romance to a lot of the story and setting, which is no surprise given the historical aspects.

Doubtless everyone is aware that this movie was based on a Miyazaki manga and commissioned (at first) as a shorter film for flights upon Japan Airlines. But it quickly grew into a full-length feature and I reckon it’s one of his best, though Porco doesn’t get the same attention as say, Spirited Away, Howls or Totoro.

In brief, Porco Rosso is the story of an Italian ace fighter pilot who has turned his back on humanity and even cursed himself into having a pig’s head. He now works the Adriatic sea as a bounty hunter and struggles to deal with his old life – perhaps chief amongst his worries is former love Gina (voiced in the dub by Susan Egan who some will recognise as Lin from Spirited Aaway).

Again, I’ll skip away from too many details of the plot but there’s a lot of comedy in the movie too, mostly provided by Porco’s rival, the ego maniac (yet somewhat honorable) Curtis. But there’s plenty of room for slapstick too and some good one-liners, and perhaps most amusingly, Miyazaki gets to expand upon the comical (even silly) fist fight routine he also used in Laputa: Castle in the Sky years earlier.

But I think most of what really enthrals me each time I see the film is the stunning scenery – it’s an idealised but still enchanting version of Europe – even with the fascists. And having Porco’s plane painted red really makes it pop against the sunny blues and greens; I guess it’s an obvious but still effective choice.

Of course, being a visual medium I’m gonna mention the actual plane designs and attention to detail there too, which seems stunning, and the dogfights are always fantastic. I wish I knew more about aviation to really appreciate the work I think Miyazaki and Ghibli put in to those aspects, actually.

But another aspect that stands out to me was the dub – it felt like, post the success of Spirited Away, Disney decided to put a fair bit of money behind the voice acting. I always feel a little sad when I don’t give the original actors enough credit, since they deserve to be heard, but I’ve grown really accustomed to Michael Keaton as Porco and Cary Elwes as Curtis (in fact, all of Cary’s work for Ghibli feels perfect to me :D). There’s even a gruff Brad Garrett right around the peak of Everybody Loves Raymond in a smaller role.

Aside from the adventure, romance and aerial battles, this might be Miyazaki’s most intertexual film for Ghibli, since it comes jam-packed full of references – I’m sure I’ve missed some but it feels like there are so many: Hollywood-style movie posters, Gina’s lounge-singing scene, the Disney and Betty Boop homages in the cinema, the historical context of course and the haunting Roald Dahl scene to name a few. I guess there’s also a few in-jokes, and maybe Fio hearkens back to Nausicaa somewhat, in the way that the fist fight looks back to Miyazaki’s earlier work too. In fact, there’s one of his quotes that I found when I went digging:

“When a man becomes middle-aged, he becomes a pig”

And I wonder if middle age (I guess he was around 50 at the time) influenced a lot of the nostalgia found in the movie? (As opposed to Miyazaki claiming that he himself was a pig).

The richness of the allusions continue to Joe Hisashi’s soundtrack too – which is perhaps not as lush as that of Howl’s Moving Castle, but when I listen to it now I wonder if it isn’t more romantic? So much is beautiful:

But there’s also the moments like this, to circle back to the allusions, where it seems Hisaishi is channeling Flight of the Bumblebee:

And I’m sure there are other aspects I missed there, but since this ended up being far longer than I first imagined, I think I’ll wrap it up now and just say that I love this movie 😀

5 Stars

Stein’s Gate (Shutainzu Gēto)

Stein’s Gate (Shutainzu Gēto) 2011

Game adaptations that work exceptionally well as film or longer narratives feel rare to me – but maybe that’s a reflection of my limited knowledge of animation that falls into that range?

Either way, I think this series is outstanding.

It’s rightly considered a classic of speculative fiction and anime; it features a compelling cast, premise and execution – and I mention that last aspect because for me, I can enjoy a show with fascinating ideas and give it a bit of a pass if the execution doesn’t quite match up, but I know not everyone is as forgiving as I am!

However, I don’t really feel Stein’s Gate has too many flaws – I mean, it panders with the harem aspects and main character Okabe has a moment of rage that stretched my ability to go along with him, but other than those two aspects I think the series will be well-regarded for decades.

Here’s a quick Wikipedia plot summary:

[Stein’s Gate] follows Rintaro Okabe, who together with his friends accidentally discovers a method of time travel through which they can send text messages to the past, thereby changing the present.

So, with that simple description comes a whole lot of tension and trauma as Okabe finally finds meaning through his discovery – only for his obsession to quickly pull his friends into life and death situations that soon keep compounding until Okabe is driven right to the very edge in his frantic efforts to right the wrongs he’s largely responsible for.

And yet, there is romance, friendship, comedy, conspiracy and alternate timelines aplenty, twists and welcome surprises too – all explored in a very intimate setting that is beautifully realised; the Akihabara, Tokyo that it depicts seems to strike a perfect balance between hyper-realistic and anime-romanticised.

The writing too I found to be top-notch – it’s self-aware without bludgeoning the viewer with the fact, generally where Okabe’s friend Daru takes the lion’s share of the one-liners or general wit. In fact, more often than not we’re encouraged to laugh at Okabe and his delusions of grandeur, something that will either become a source of fondness if you make it through the whole series, or which will drive you batty and force you to maybe walk away too soon, as I nearly did.

Having said that, I think that the science-fiction elements are both front and centre, but it’s still a drama and boy, at times it really made me feel for the characters. Okabe certainly puts himself through the ringer and part of the cleverness of the writing is that one of his friends, Mayuri, is such a sweet girl that his fear of making her suffer becomes a powerful storyline indeed.

Perhaps it’s not a revolutionary move in terms of storytelling – I mean, I don’t care so much if a villain suffers – but she’s so without guile that Rintaro’s mistakes really pack a bigger emotional punch than they otherwise might.

Anyway, enough rambling – I’ll close with a note that I think if you like time travel, drama or romance you’ll enjoy Stein’s Gate a lot, but a quick note: my dvd came with an OVA but presented it as episode 25 and to be honest, I don’t think it has the same impact as a final episode. If I was able, I’d jump back a bit in time and not actually watch it 😀

5 Stars