Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Aporon)

Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Aporon) 2012

No preamble here, just two (and a half) reasons on why this short series joined my top ten the other month.

Kids on the Slope is a great romance with very few instances of manufactured drama, which is really nice in a genre that sometimes suffers from such contrivances. In a way, the series is almost about the cruelty of youth, where the sweeter, coming-of-age elements are contrasted with the mistakes that are all too easy to make when you’re trying to figure things out.

I found myself quickly invested in the lives of Kaoru, Sentaro and Ritsuko, and I wanted them all to end up happy. (I was even able to almost remember how it felt to be that young and unsure).

The second reason will probably be no surprise: the music – both literally, and the way it forms part of the storyline and a bond between characters. If you enjoy jazz, especially (but not only) Hard Bop or the Cool sub-genres, along with the piano of Bill Evans, this will definitely appeal. And yep, Kids on the Slope is another collaboration between Shinchiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno, but the OST isn’t as eclectic as say, their work on Cowboy Bebop.

Instead, I think Yoko Kanno looks after most of the incidental music and motifs, whereas a pair of young (certainly back in 2012) musicians perform the jams and standards. And the rotoscoping really shows fantastic fluidity in the performances – I’ll share one of the highlights at the end, but maybe if you want to see this series skip the youtube clip because it’s far better in context. (Elsewhere, the story really captures what it’s like to play in a group, another memory the anime managed to activate for me.)

And finally the ‘half’ reason!

Most of what I’ve talked about seems to be nostalgia, but it’s not just my own I guess – Kids on the Slope takes in a historical setting: sea-side Japan in the 1960s, and is fairly dripping with a nostalgia that I obviously cannot truly experience, but which seems to be captured so well in the settings.

5 Stars

RahXephon

[Spoilers abound!]

RahXephon (2002)

Today I’m starting with a thank you to In Search of Number Nine because I think that without these great posts, I would not have been introduced to a classic mecha show that I’d somehow missed over the years 🙂

As fans of RahXephon certainly already know, narrowing the series down to just a couple of genres, say ‘mecha’ or ‘science fiction’, clouds the fact that the anime is one of those killer shows with variety – and it’s happy to slow down and explore its characters through romance, intrigue and betrayals.

Now, I know I was already pre-disposed to enjoy RahXephon because I like Chiaki J. Konaka’s writing a lot, but also because this series has a mystical/ethereal feel, and I think those elements are pretty interesting to see in mecha. I was quite transfixed by hints of mysteries not explained in the narrative too.

One of the other aspects I really enjoyed was the tension-building throughout – which, unsurprisingly, is linked to the characters, many of whom have motivations that are kept from the viewer for many episodes.

Thinking about the series now, months after I finished that first time, I realise that as much as the action sequences do stand out in my memory (for their otherworldly nature especially) they’re mostly memorable due to how connected they are to the characters who go through them.

Here, I guess I’m thinking mainly about Hiroko’s death or maybe Elvy’s dogfights or even when Haruka is trying to defend and impress Ayato in those opening episodes, because especially upon second viewing, these moments with her strike me as quite sad. It feels like everything she tries in order to recapture the past just falls so flat.

RahXephon can feel down-beat – but there are moments of levity and action and mystery to go with it; and also some great detail to the Mu and the connected world-building. It’s exactly the kind of series that I reckon you’d enjoy even more upon a second viewing.

As I sometimes do, I want to quickly jump to some random dot points:

  • In a great cast, I found Ayato’s mother to stand out – especially when she was speaking the Mu language, as it’s this really disconcerting mix of unnerving and soothing.
  • The Futagami reveal was cool; I should have known he’d be a ‘higher-up’ 😀
  • I’d have loved a bit more time spent expanding upon the villains, as their role in the ending wasn’t quite as impactful, perhaps. On the other hand, it really allowed some of the main cast to take on highly antagonistic roles too.
  • Maybe all of Quon’s dialogue doesn’t land for me… but it’s still an important part of the show’s tone.
  • The design of the RahXephon is one of my favourite mecha designs out there, and the dolems are striking too. Related, I thought the use of song/voice added to the eerie nature so well – those first couple of episodes, where the viewer is just cast into conflict with little idea of who is who, one of my anchors was just how different it all was.
  • Loved Ayato’s 1970s-style outfit in the abandoned department store.
  • The ending theme perfectly evokes the feel of the show and it was always interesting to hear the variations.
  • Useless trivia: My DVD set has really nice illustrations (likely by Akihiro Yamada) on each disc, ones that I think were taken from earlier single-disc releases or maybe posters? But sadly, because my copy is an ‘ex-rental’, glue from the stickers that the store had used on the discs was jamming up my player. I had to use the ‘orange’ cleaner that folks in the retail industry might recall – it’s strong but not insanely so, and deals with sticker residue really well… when used on plastic surfaces, that is. When used on printed discs, it can erode some of the image itself, so a few of my discs now have what look like ‘scrape marks’ 😦

In terms of the production context, obviously Bones was a fairly new studio around 2001 – but having evolved from Sunrise, they had plenty of expertise to draw upon.

RahXephon was maybe their third TV series and they’d had a few films out already, one of which was the Cowboy Bebop movie, so it certainly feels like things were going well. The anime is also the only one (so far) to be directed by Yutaka Izubuchi, who was well-known as a designer. I really wish he’d direct again/be given the chance to direct again – but I’m glad they gave him the chair in those early years.

Back then, Bones had two teams, but I don’t know if any of the current five teams have made anything quite like RahXephon? But that could well be my ignorance at play – and in fact, if anyone knows of something approximately similar from Bones, I’d love to hear about it! [I’ll quickly add that maybe Un-Go and probably more so Xam’d are vaguely close].

It’s now been 18 years since RahXephon was released, and 25 since Neon Genesis changed so much about the genre, and I know the two shows are often compared. There are obviously aspects that are similar in tone and character but I never felt like I was watching a cut-rate clone. And in my reading for this review, I found that other folks mention Megazone 23 and Brave Raideen (1975) as being closer.

(And Yutaka Izubuchi feels the same about Brave Raideen, about wanting to bring a different sense back to the landscape of giant robots.) So naturally, I’m now curious to see a few episodes but that’s a long-term project. My knowledge of 1970s-era anime is pretty much limited to Lupin, Space Battleship Yamato and a handful of films.

Anyway, getting back to RahXephon I’ll try to finish this one with a recommendation. I think, if you’ve seen other works penned by Chiaki J. Konaka then you’ll enjoy this for sure. If you like post-EVA mecha stories with a bit of angst, then yep. Also maybe, if you’re the kind of fan that follows studios, and maybe have a soft spot for ‘early Bones’ productions, then take a look at RahXephon.

And finally, if you’re the kind of viewer who likes to be left with a few questions at the end of a series, then definitely watch this one – not sure who is streaming it at the moment, but it’s still around I’m sure!

5 Stars

Gallery time! I took around 300 screencaps and of course, have had trouble deciding which pics to highlight. Here’s some with the occasional thought here and there in the captions:

We see two shots with a lot of space between characters fairly often, from memory – and it certainly suits all the secrets it seems everyone is holding.
I like the ‘beehive’ kinda look to the edges of Ayato’s vision when he’s piloting.
There’s another shot of Quon which has me half-convinced that they gave her the umbrella (in part) because it would add to a distinctive silhouette.

And finally – the costume I mentioned earlier, which I liked well-enough for a temporary outfit, but Haruka did not:

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho)

[A couple of spoilers in this one]*.

There are a few Makoto Shinkai works I haven’t seen so far but I’m still comfortable placing this film somewhere between ‘not my favourite of his’ and ‘still beautiful’ though I’m not sure how useful those descriptors are re: ranking.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho) 2004

And maybe they’re not at all… so I’ll be more specific – basically, I was transfixed chiefly by the visuals and the use of that ‘soft’ colour that makes Shinkai works so recognisable, and the fantastic detail that really sold every single frame, in terms of the ‘alternate Japan’ setting.

After a bit of reflection I suspect what I didn’t enjoy as much was the integration of the fantastical/mystical perhaps, that and the pacing – or maybe I should say the ending. And even that’s a bit misleading, because what I wanted more of was time for the discovery, destruction and aftermath of the tower. It’s so central to the story but the climax is completed reasonably quickly compared to what I was hoping for.

On the other hand, cinematically it’s great to see the change in colour and intensity in those moments, actually. I also really liked the design of Hiroki and Takuya’s airplane and maybe that (and the science-fiction(ish) elements of this film) will bring Voices of a Distant Star to mind. In a similar way, I think if you’ve not seen this one, the downbeat, bittersweet tone of Shinkai’s first feature film will be familiar enough if you’ve seen his others.

And to compare The Place Promised in Our Early Days to Voices… once more, one of the things that is so impressive about this movie is that Shinkai was involved in so many aspects in terms of conception and production. This time around it’s not quite a one man show but wow, it’s abundantly clear that he is one talented artist and filmmaker.

Definitely worth watching if you’re a fan of Shinkai and haven’t seen this one yet but if you’re new to his films then this is not the best entry-point I reckon.

3 Stars

*I’m a little pressed for time lately so I wasn’t able to go screencap happy today, and instead sourced these images from google.

Ocean Waves (Umi ga Kikoeru)

Ocean Waves (Umi ga Kikoeru) 1993

Ocean Waves is a teen romance with a love triangle, which is where much of the drama comes from, though there are a few comedic moments too (like the bathtub-as-bed offer).

Compared to other Ghibli films it’s perhaps a little slight, being a bit shorter (as most TV movies are) and having a fairly narrow focus in terms of its story, but it’s still quite lovely visually.

Usually that’s enough for me to really enjoy an animated work on at least some levels but I can’t help but think of Rikako as a villain in most ways, which marred my enjoyment. Sure, it’s a story about teens and the things that hold them back from being honest… but still, I didn’t end up seeing her as someone Taku or Yutaka should have fallen for.

Having said all that, Ocean Waves is by no means a poor film and many folks regard it as an underappreciated part of the Ghibli catalogue. I guess it is in a way, since fewer people tend to mention it and I don’t believe it’s had a dub just yet. The ‘fathers’ of Ghibli were looking to develop successors in the early and mid 1990s and they had Tomomi Mochizuki in to direct Ocean Waves, and I recently learnt that other studios were involved in the actual production too.

Definitely worth a look for completionists perhaps, or maybe folks interested in 1990s Japan as there’s a bit of slice of life detail too.

3 stars

The Girl who Leapt Through Time (Toki o Kakeru Shōjo)

The Girl who Leapt Through Time (Toki o Kakeru Shōjo) 2006

Before moving to Madhouse, Mamoru Hosoda worked a lot in franchises like Dragonball Z, One Piece and Digimon but for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time he created a loose sequel to the novel of the same name by Yasutaka Tsutsui (who is also the author of one of my favs, Paprika).

In many ways The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is tonally quite different however, being far less surreal for one. Instead, this film mixes time-travel, romance, comedy and school drama really well – using its science-fiction elements to serve the character development.

I think most folks recognise this as the ‘breakout’ film for Mamoru and fans will certainly know he went on to direct a whole lot of other top notch movies but what I find most interesting from a reviewing standpoint is that it’s also the beginning of a three-film partnership between Mamoru and Satoko Okudera, who wrote this adaption.

To me, her work seems to be a really important factor in this mid-late 2000s period of his filmography and the progression of personal stakes and great dialogue seemed key to how I always respond to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Together, Okudera and Mamoru really put Makoto through the emotional wringer as she tries to ‘time-leap’ her way out of trouble, most of which she brings upon herself during the course of battling through the ups and downs of young love.

As a minor note, something I noticed that The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (and many anime film and series) does so well is romanticise the Japanese summer, especially with the giant cloud/blue-sky/cicada scenes that I seem to enjoy. And I know I’ve added mostly production context here instead of discussing the meat of the film itself, so I apologise but basically to finish, I really enjoy this movie and I think most folks would find the characters compelling and the storyline engaging, and of course, it’s full of beautiful visuals too.

5 Stars

Aladdin (1992)

Aladdin (1992)

Disney has seemingly always lumbered along plundering fairy and folk tales, sometimes egregiously and other times in a more transformative, artistic manner, and they’ve been a giant in the animation world for probably more than 70 years* now.

Ups and downs coloured that dominance of course and Aladdin landed during one of those ‘ups’ – during a mighty resurgence in popularity after the hit-and-miss period that was most of the 1980s.

Aladdin is noteworthy in Disney history for several reasons that I’m sure everyone is pretty much aware of – featuring Disney’s first non-European Princess, home to some killer songs and the knock-out performance of Robin Williams too, and also good enough in the eyes of the bean counters to get a remake this year.

Aside from those things, it’s a great story that seems equal parts One Thousand and One Nights and Roman Holiday.There’s memorable characters (not in the least being Jafar), a fantastic fictional desert setting, top notch use of vivid colour, animation and fascinating early CGI in some parts. (I know Pixar’s Toy Story gets a lot of attention as early innovators with CGI and obviously the technology pre-dates both films but that carpet ride was a big thrill in the cinema as a kid – looking back now I can almost see the theme-park ride tie-in :D).

For me, this Disney film has a great balance between comical sidekicks, music, romance, actual heroics, sacrifice and villainy, though if you’ve never seen Aladdin you won’t find any curveballs re: the overall story nor the tone, but it just feels like every aspect hits spot on. And following the success of The Little Mermaid audiences were no doubt more than willing to give it a chance (the monster-performance at the Box Office played that out too).

But, to jump back to that magic carpet ride before I finish, I think it’s a really perfectly-executed escape scene, from the pacing to the direction, the dramatic lighting and even the little break in tension for a spot of humour when Abu is clinging to Aladdin’s face, everything works for me:

And a final note, Robin Williams reportedly improvised heaps of material, allowing the team to pick and choose the bits they liked best, but here’s a classic song from Genie instead 😀

5 Stars

*And a studio for longer, just with smaller beginnings when compared to say, the big hit that was Sleeping Beauty.

Children Who Chase Lost Voices (Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo)

Children Who Chase Lost Voices (Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo) 2011

I think Children Who Case Lost Voices stands out in Makoto Shinkai’s filmography as the one with the biggest scope. To date, it’s also his last ‘adventure’ story perhaps, since the movies that followed put relationships in the foreground.

Children Who Case Lost Voices is far more ‘sweeping’ with multiple storylines and various players engaged in big conflicts – though the narrative does mostly zoom down to focus on schoolgirl Asuna as she tries to uncover the mysteries of Agartha – the land of the dead. I’ve simplified the plot there but despite the fantastical elements, it’s still a story of very personal stakes for the lead characters.

And wow, the imagination on display here is so fantastic – I remember being so excited at the time, in part because the film was another ‘original concept’ work and I’d love to see more of them, as opposed to mostly watching adaptations. If you’ve never come across Children who Chase Lost Voices then my mini rave about the imagination of the film – things like the creepy Izoku, the Quetzalcoatl or the Ark of Life – won’t appear as more than a list of empty nouns, but so much about the story strikes a great balance between familiar and unusual, especially in regard to the setting of Agartha itself.

The flipside to all the immersive world-building is that the audience doesn’t always know what means what, when certain events happen or why characters act a specific way, and at times, rather than create a pleasant sense of anticipatory curiosity, that can set you adrift. You don’t necessarily always want to be spoon-fed as a viewer, but nor do we always want the opposite either. That happened for me at times but the visuals and the pacing kept me going and usually, within a few scenes the film gave me the context I needed.  

As with most Shinkai films, there’s a careful focus on how light appears in the natural world

Possibly my favourite Makoto Shinkai feature film but I haven’t had a chance to see Weathering with You yet so I guess I’d better reserve judgement for just a little longer!

4 Stars

Random sidenote: Not sure if I’m way off now, and I’m having to rely on my memory of the time – but I think the film comes right after emo culture peaked in many places, and to some extent the angst and deep discontent of that sub-culture seems to have fed into characters within Children Who Case Lost Voices. Again, maybe I’m reaching with that claim but I’m thinking of Shun here at least.

I think it’s also easy to see where a certain amount of anime aesthetic fed into the emo scene and vice-a-versa too, though no single culture lives in a vacuum of course. I wonder if I should do some real research and try to see if there’s anything there… perhaps one day.

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

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