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].

Le Chevalier D’Eon (2006)

Le Chevalier D’Eon

The first episode of Le Chevalier D’Eon offered everything I wanted – swords, magic, twists and turns, intrigue too, and all of it taking place in historical European settings!

In fact, I remember after seeing the opening being pretty thrilled, feeling sure that I’d found a show that I knew I would love. And I would definitely put the first episode (D’Eon∴ Lia) up against most of the first episodes of my other favs for sure.

And in the end, I did love the series but I hit a wall in the middle.

I think I know why – it’s the pacing.

Now, I mentioned pacing here in one of my previous ‘Abandoned’ posts – there was a point where I felt a slight drag on the forward momentum, because I knew that our four leads were going to visit a new town, catch up on local politics, help out, and then collect a few scraps of info on the main quest.

At one point, that pattern repeated itself for enough episodes to deter me, and it took a while to come back to the series, even though at the mid-way point I should have been totally unable to set Le Chevalier D’Eon to one side.

And what’s interesting to me is that I love episodic storytelling but this time around it felt like mini-arcs with not enough of the main plot woven throughout to satisfy my curiosity.

On the other hand, I certainly finished Le Chevalier D’Eon because there was so much I want to know by the end. In addition, the characters, settings and magical elements are all great – along with the swashbuckling too, of course.

But it’s not really an adventure show (despite escapes, conspiracies, monsters and swordplay etc) because as I’ve mentioned before, intrigue and politics feature heavily here. There’s even a touch of romance, but the magic (Poets and Psalms used to destroy and manipulate) are probably the main focus, along with a slew of changing loyalties.

The price of loyalty too, is a huge theme in Le Chevalier D’Eon and one that I enjoyed plenty.

I think another stand-out aspect is the range of (loose) historical elements; not just things like the various royals that our leads meet (or figures like Comte de Saint Germain and Maximilien Robespierre), but aspects that had me reading up on the real-life D’eon. In fact, it seems a shame that the existence of Lia in the anime clouds important details about D’eon.

Finally, I guess I should say, be warned, by the end there is very little left for the surviving leads to celebrate – perhaps unsurprising considering the setting.

Still, the anime was compelling for me, even when its storytelling sometimes became a little opaque or even if, as I see it, giving D’eon room to process truths about his sister is somewhat swept aside by the scope of other events.

4 Stars

(This series is sometimes compared to Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, released a bit earlier, since both are somewhat similar in themes and settings).

Kai Doh Maru (Kaidōmaru)

Kai Doh Maru (Kaidōmaru) 2001

I got the sense that Kai Doh Maru (and its focus on incorporating CGI into the storytelling) was somewhat connected to the same Production IG approach and era that included Blood: The Last Vampire.

The visual style of Kai Doh Maru is striking in a different way however, thanks to the washed out or water-colour look, an aesthetic the team use to evoke a historical feel. And it is distinctive, but watching it now… the early 2000s CGI is quite dated, at times reminding me of old architectural software, due to that flatness.

On the other hand, direction of the sharp action sequences feels great – and when colour appears it really stands out. I also liked both character design and the soundtrack but overall this isn’t one of my favourite OVAs.

The main issue I had was with the pacing and plot. Since Kai Doh Maru is around 40 minutes long, and takes on a pretty large story, there are a lot of gaps in what occurs onscreen. If I knew the Heian period and stories around the Shitennō well, maybe I’d have followed better – especially in regard to what I’d consider an abrupt ending. (And so maybe that’s not a fault of the storytelling truly, but a deficiency in my knowledge.)

Further, I surely missed many subtleties throughout due to that. I did pick up on the heavily restrained romance between Lord Raiko and our heroine of course – but having said that, the focus is on war, politics and historical details. There’s also a supernatural element too, but I won’t spoil how it’s used.

I certainly don’t see Kai Doh Maru mentioned much, even among older fans, but it’s memorable even if I don’t precisely think I enjoyed it from top to bottom.

2.5 Stars

Blood: The Last Vampire

Blood: The Last Vampire (2001)

Vampire fiction often brings an erotic sub-text along with the horror but Blood: The Last Vampire focuses on the dread. Not only because here, our vampire is a fury-filled avenger, but because the creatures she hunts are more like demons, perhaps. And not handsome ones, either.

Still, whichever name these bat-like fiends have, they’re to be hunted, and it’s up to Saya to do so. She’s sent into an air base and the nearby school for her hunt, posing as a student in part for maximum costume effect, I think. (Not in a fan-service way, but more to contrast between the look of a typical victim and hunter).

(In a different vampire story, Saya would probably be a first victim and then a villain – but this is more of a Buffy approach).

Anyway, getting back to this story; I loved every minute and was disappointed that the following ‘Blood’ movies and shows are not particularly related.

But if you like the genre and you find this OVA somewhere, then I reckon what you’ll be watching is bit of a seminal work.

For me it is, anyway.

Or maybe that’s just my tendency to lift up something that I probably first saw in high school as a paragon (as can be all too easy to do)… but either way, Blood: The Last Vampire seems like a masterclass in lighting alone.

The whole thing is quite cinematic, really. The CGI too, is incredible, especially considering the release date of 2000. Now, lately I’ve been taking shots at older CGI left, right and centre, and sure, you’ll see a few moments here and there that don’t seem perfect, but the team must have worked so, so hard on those visual elements.

Like other examples of the genre, this short film is very much set in ‘night’ and the shadows reflect that, but it’s not an inky mess of low-key lighting that will have you squinting for detail; there’s plenty to see and heaps of variety in colour too, including a great, sickly green at times.

What also had me transfixed, aside from tantalising hints about Saya’s past, was the setting, both the time period and the location. I can’t say I’ve seen many anime films or series set in a US air base on Japanese soil, on the eve of the Vietnam War in 1966. During Halloween, no less!

In terms of the plot, there was at least one little twist that I didn’t see coming, and I thought it was pretty perfect. Aside from the visuals, what I remember most at this moment, is how sullen, angry and cold Saya is. And yeah, that’s a pun that I could have avoided 😀

But I bring her disposition up because I was interested to see whether (or to what extent) she’d warm to poor Amino, the school nurse who is, to some extent, as much a main character as Saya herself.

Connected to their reasonably brief time together is the realisation that Blood: The Last Vampire is definitely a prologue. It was envisioned as the first in a three-part tale, but perhaps because Sony was involved with Production I.G for the funding and production, the rest of the story is made up of sequel video games (and a manga too).

Having said that, this is a self-contained OVA with a resolution, but it very clearly sets up expectations and interesting hints, and functions as an excellent first bite of a longer story. And yeah, again – I couldn’t help myself with the silly pun!

5 Stars

(With an eye to please international audiences, this film has a lot of English audio and not a whole host of subtitles, also allowing some of the cast to show skills in both languages 😀 )

Haikyuu!! (Seasons 1 – 3)

Haikyuu!! Seasons 1-3 (2014-2016)

My knowledge of sport-themed anime is pretty thin but I was drawn to Haikyuu!! because I play volleyball – not during a pandemic of course, but certainly when it’s safe.

Anyway, getting back to the anime – one of the things that struck me most was that while the moves that the boys manage to perform on court (outside of the purposeful exaggeration) tend to be Olympic-level stuff, it’s not unrealistic really. And more – parts of the show are explicitly educational in terms of explaining court positions and strategy.

In fact, I’ve had students sign up at our volleyball club, telling me they wanted to try the sport out after watching Haikyuu!!, which is pretty great.

So, putting aside my excitement to watch any form of visual media about indoor volleyball, and the enjoyment I got from understanding, even from an average player’s perspective, what was happening on court – I’m aware that I wouldn’t have kept watching Haikyuu!! if the storytelling or the characters weren’t engaging.

And they pretty much all are, even in such a big cast spread across many schools. There’s heroes and villains aplenty, including those I was happy to see succeed, and others who seemed to earn their defeat. On that note, I really thought the pain of failure is shown really well, whether it’s full-on tears, bitterness or in the case of that “piece of crap” Tōru Oikawa (to quote his teammate), irredeemable jealousy.

But getting back to the series overall, it feels like Haruichi Furudate (who I believe played middle in school) did a great job with the season-long tension, and the anime itself really uses all the tools of film to keep episodes exciting, even when a single match stretches across several episodes (or an entire season). And while there are times where you think – I just saw a similar shot a little while ago, I tended not to care. I was more invested in having Karasuno grow into a fantastic team.

For these seasons, I do wish the girls had their storyline sneak back in a few times, and that we were shown a few extra details of life beyond the court for the key players, but I still love this series – and it’s been pretty uplifting to watch while I haven’t been able to play myself.

5 Stars

And quickly also, Kim Yeon-koung, Captain of South Korea’s national women’s volleyball team, watched a match and talked about how generally realistic things were, which was fascinating.

The Weathering Continent (Kaze no Tairiku)

The Weathering Continent (Kaze no Tairiku) (1992)

Lots of pastel-ish tones in this film, which really adds to the bleakness.

I missed The Weathering Continent back in the 1990s but I know it would have caught my eye if the film had actually had any chance of being screened in Australia – but then, at the time of the movie’s release I was probably watching Astro Boy re-runs (along with He-Man, She-Ra and Voltron).

And then, a few years later, by the mid-90s, it was all about Neon Genesis!

Still, I’m glad I’ve now seen The Weathering Continent because I know I’ll watch it again one day, since I enjoyed it so much.

It really walks the line between creepy and haunting so well, aided by a barren but not empty setting. The story follows three wanderers as they traverse a wasteland-like Atlantis, but it’s not a quest to discover ancient wonders – it’s more like a struggle to survive an ancient, cursed place.

I’m not sure I should try to categorise The Weathering Continent as ‘cult’ or ‘overlooked’ and I’m not coming up with a lot of info re: how it was received upon release, but I know it did have a theatrical run, though it’s not ‘feature length’ at 50-odd minutes. This anime is not something I suspect you’ll be able to stream easily, but I found a DVD via good old ebay, and it has a great, landscape sleeve:

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51AGu829N7L._SX425_.jpg

Anyway, it was of course easy for me to learn that the film is an adaptation of a light novel series by Sei Takekawa (illustrations by Mutsumi Inomata) and that it was directed by Kōichi Mashimo. Mashimo’s name caught my eye because of Eat-Man and Noir, so it was interesting to see that same moodiness from the first Eat-Man here. However, unlike Noir the action is sparse in The Weathering Continent.

But when it occurs it certainly looks good – this is from Production IG before they changed their name, and character design stands out to me as well, obviously very 1990s. But above all, it is the city where the bulk of the story takes place that enthralled me, and yes the architecture and use of mostly sombre colours and detail is great, but the inhabitants themselves were what had me hooked, those masks and costumes!

Again, I wanted to share a lot more shots of the masks and the city but I restrained myself

I’ve had to fight the urge not to screen-cap the hell out of this one, because on the off-chance that you might want to see this film, I don’t want to spoil too much, yet I want to evoke enough to get you curious at least 😀

That’s probably enough rhapsodising from me, I think – basically, if you’re in the mood for a sword and sorcery anime that is also heavy on atmosphere (but a fairly light on plot), then this lesser-known film from Mashimo should satisfy.

4 Stars

Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet (Suisei no Gargantia)

Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet (Suisei no Gargantia) 2013

Once again, I’m going to fight my urge to ramble here – so, that means just a few paragraphs now, focusing on Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet this time.

If you’ve never come across this series I think I’ll mention that it stands out in the mecha genre a bit, in no small part due to the amazing setting. For me, I could have watched ten extra episodes more in line with the first half of Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, which had a fun slice-of-life feel at times, as the characters go about their business upon a verdant and vibrant, connected fleet of ships. Likewise, I could have enjoyed the scenery just as long – it’s bright and textured, yet didn’t feel repetitive; I left off sure that we could have explored a lot more.

The show delves into the requisite fan-service at times, but the main focus in Gargantia… (aside from the eventual re-emergence of the science-fiction) is probably pilot Ledo’s faltering attempts to understand a new culture. I really enjoyed seeing his trials there, both with language and ideology, but for action fans you’ll be given more battles and violence in the last few episodes. There, a lot of the warmth is jettisoned, along with lead character Amy’s role but I suppose in exchange for that you do get some development from a different character – the somewhat dubious Pinion.

In some ways this is like two halves of a longer series condensed into one short series, where the ‘science-fiction space war’ part is mostly placed aside as the hero adapts to his new circumstances. Seen that way, I think Gargantia… has a fair bit in common with the First Contact sub-genre, only it’s one kind of human meeting others.

The anime looks great of course, with Production IG at the helm, but if you were hunting down the works of Gen Urobuchi don’t expect something like Pyscho-Pass… though there is a sub-plot featuring a cult here that would have fit into that dystopia. If you like mech design for salvaging as much as for fighting, and if you want some comedy and a fresh setting to go with your science-fiction, then I reckon you’d enjoy this despite some uneven aspects for me.

3 Stars

Ah, yes – the time-honoured tradition in anime of having animals resting on the heads of characters.

Jin-Roh (Jinrō)

Jin-Roh (Jinrō) 1999

Jin-Roh is another film that ticks a lot of boxes for me, but if you’re unsure about watching this lesser-known classic, keep in mind that I have my biases and I probably enjoyed this more than folks who maybe consider themselves ‘general’ action fans.

I say that because one of the things that I’m predisposed toward enjoying is an alternate history story and that’s definitely one way to describe Jin-Roh. And based on the pacing alone, perhaps don’t go in expecting a blockbuster-action movie.

Jin-Roh is a little more measured and could be described as character-focused, without being ‘slow’ either, I reckon.

Set in a troubled postwar Japan, with the 1950s rioting as part of the backdrop, there’s a lot of what I think is period-appropriate detail to the setting, contrasted with the almost futuristic armour worn by the Kerberos Panzer Cops. Our hero is Corporal Fuse, a member of the elite anti-terrorist force trained in the use of such heavy-duty armour. His story begins when he fails to shoot a young terrorist beneath the city.

And since the film uses a few thriller conventions, where everyone around Fuse is suspect, I won’t go into much more plot detail than that, and instead switch back to some of the production stuff that I tend to enjoy. Jin-Roh is based on a Mamoru Oshii work and was released post-Ghost in the Shell and so it feels like, to some extent, the team at Production I.G were still riding high and had a good budget too. The film definitely plays out that way, with high quality art and animation and a focus on character as much, or even more so than the action.

I’ll quickly note that action scenes aren’t absent either – and it can be quite ferocious, considering the Kerberos’ preference for those serious machine guns, but there’s time for Fuse to reflect and think about who he can trust too.

There’s even a lot that’s poetic about the film, from the faint ‘glow’ to some scenes, to the fatalistic attitudes of a lot of characters, or the way the Little Red Riding Hood nursery rhyme is used. In fact, in my obsession with seeking intertextual elements, I wonder if one of Fuse’s dream sequences doesn’t include a nod to a film I’ve mentioned before Don’t Look Now with the gate (and the girls themselves)?

But I’d better switch back to the visuals for one more point before I finish up, because I want to mention both the muted colour palette and how well that fits the setting, and also draw attention to the character design. If you’ve been exposed mostly to modern anime you might not be used to the realism common to various Hiroyuki Okiura designs, but I really enjoyed the variety from the director.

Finally, I want to mention the brooding soundtrack from Hajime Mizoguchi, which is another element that really sells the sombre mood of the film. In fact, it can be almost bleak and our lead is a little morose but I think, if you finish Jin-Roh you’ll see why. He is at least a little torn between his desires but it’s a very much internal struggle that is rarely played out upon his face.

So, to quickly sum up I believe this is a bit of a ‘must’ for fans of Mamoru Oshii but if you’re also interested in alternate history or a bit of subterfuge with your action then you might well enjoy this at times sombre movie.

4 Stars

(The colour of red itself runs through the whole film, with varying degrees of subtlety, but always feels effective to me)

Sands of Destruction (World Destruction: Sekai Bokumetsu no Rokunin)

Sands of Destruction (World Destruction: Sekai Bokumetsu no Rokunin) 2008

Anime adaptations of games seem generally fraught with risk in my mind – and yet I can’t actually think of a tonne that I’ve seen and disliked, and instead, one obvious success seems to come to mind whenever I do think of games and anime, Steins;Gate.

But I’ll get to Sands of Destruction now.

So, even if individual elements didn’t always feel top-notch, I definitely enjoyed the anime and like other reasonably episodic shows, I was able to watch an episode here and there between other titles and not miss a beat.

Production I.G must have faced a fair amount of restriction in terms of what they could do because the series had to be linked to the DS game, but I thought the humour usually worked and while the setting and storyline is very much ‘classic fantasy’ (with an oppressive society for the characters to rail against) that was certainly enough for me 🙂

There were a few surprises and the pacing of each story drew me along nicely – one stand out was the ‘Dr Elephant’ episode, but overall the scene-stealer was usually Toppy. A tiny, teddy-bear-looking, monologue-ing hero, he was pretty great, I reckon. Toppy also scored a lot of great lines and moments, and to my surprise, the character-affectation of adding ‘kuma’ to the end of every single sentence was not as annoying as I thought it would be.

Eventually.

At first it bugged me a bit.

Elsewhere, I enjoyed the non-human character design more than the human design for the most part, and I felt like I was craving a few extra threads from the main plot to appear earlier than they do, but maybe it’s a minor quibble. The animation wasn’t always knock-out stuff but nor was it poor – at all.

I believe that if the show’s style of humour works for you then that will be enough to lift other elements that will probably seem a little standard. If not, you might not enjoy Sands of Destruction that much.

3 Stars

Murphy’s Irish Stout: Last Orders

Murphy’s Irish Stout: Last Orders (1997)

I’m not a fan of too much corporate involvement in art.

Obviously, many studios are big corporations with commercial concerns and I’m not going to erroneously claim that popular = bad.

However, when I heard about the Murphy’s ‘Irish Stout’ advertisement Last Orders I did pause. It is a great, one minute clip with fantastic direction and a funny pay-off but again, some of the best folks from Japan’s animation industry of the day hired to make an advertisement for a drug?

Of course it’s hardly up to me to judge folks for the jobs they take on and again, this cyberpunk beer ad is pretty great. It clearly evokes Ghost in the Shell, and has that film to thank for its existence, since the UK company probably wouldn’t have commissioned Last Orders otherwise.

I only recently stumbled across the spot on Youtube and after a quick search I found some (hopefully accurate) production credits:

  • Director – Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Blood: The Last Vampire).
  • Character Design – Kazuchika Kise (Ghost in the Shell)
  • Background Art – Hiromasa Ogura (Jin-Roh)

Only takes a minute to watch of course 🙂