A-Z Challenge: “O” is for Oblivion Island, Haruka and the Magic Mirror

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.

4 Stars

[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].

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

The Napping Princess (Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi no Monogatari)

The Napping Princess (Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi no Monogatari) 2017

This film was sweet and at times exciting, with great character design and some distinctive performances too (especially from Mitsuki Takahata) but overall the split storylines introduced a bit of murkiness for me.

Perhaps related to this, the tone seemed to move in an out of ‘younger viewers’ territory.

I’m certainly not claiming that films aimed at kids are bad – at all – it’s just that The Napping Princess maybe could have done a little more to show consequences of some of the big, city-wide events.

On the other hand, no matter your age, if want something that looks great and is full of cute moments and fun characters, then I think this will satisfy. It was interesting to have a car company take centre stage here too, something I haven’t seen over and over.

It probably sounds like I didn’t enjoy The Napping Princess but that’s not so, it’s just that for me it was ‘good’ but not a ‘knock-out’ and maybe I went in with some assumptions that unfairly impacted my overall enjoyment.

3 Stars