Anime Review: Your Name (2016)

TL;DR – Body switching, time travel, and a race to save a town from destruction. If there is Makoto Shinkai film to watch, this is it.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Comet Tiamat passes earth causing weather reporters, astronomers, and night gazers to look up at the skies to view this incredible phenomenon. A piece of the comet breaks off and enters the earth’s atmosphere. Instead of burning up, it pierces the clouds like a runaway fireball and looks like it will land somewhere in Japan. This is the opening scene of Your Name and the comet fragment is central to the events that follow.

Mitsuha and Taki are about to experience some existentially weird stuff. Their lives are as opposite as can be even though from the outside they look like normal high schoolers.

For starters, Mitsuha is a girl living in a country town, Itomori, and there is little do. Surrounded by lush mountains and a beautiful lake, Itomori is steeped in Japanese tradition. They have autumn festivals, a Shinto shrine, and Mitsuha performs duties as a shrine maiden by conducting the ritual kuchikamizake (a process of creating sake using one’s own saliva to trigger fermentation).

Taki, on the other hand, is a boy living in the big smoke, Tokyo, and there is plenty to do. In fact, there’s too much to juggle for Taki who tries to keep up with the constant rush that cities exude. From school studies to holding down a part-time job at an Italian restaurant, when Taki does find any spare time, he does sketches and hopes to one day be an architect.

From the get-go, the weird stuff happens when Mitsuha wakes up in Taki’s body. She thinks she’s dreaming and just goes along living out a day in the life of Taki. Little does she know that her behaviour makes Taki appear like a totally different person and Taki’s school friends and co-workers at the Italian restaurant notice. Likewise, Taki finds himself in Mitsuha’s body and fumbles his way through one of her days. It is only when they return to their bodies and wake up the next day that they slowly come to piece together the passages of time that are unaccounted for. Messages that they write down in each other’s notepads and on their phones confirms that their body switching experiences are real and not a dream.

If that is not existentially weird enough, as they get to know each other, not just physically being in each other’s bodies, which leads to some hilarious biological explorations, but also on an emotional scale, they begin seeing through each other’s eyes and giving each other advice to help provide direction and confidence. This leads to Mitsuha (in Taki’s body) asking Miki (a girl that works at the Italian restaurant) out on a date. Taki has long since had a crush on Miki, but when they finally go out, Taki realises his feelings have changed. He has developed a connection with Mitsuha that runs deeper than swapping bodies. Likewise, Mitsuha comes to admit that she also has feelings for Taki even though she does what she thinks is the ‘right thing’ for him by setting him up on a date with Miki. Describing this (confusingly) in words doesn’t do this sequence of events justice as the film depicts this beautifully leading to Taki trying to call Mitsuha on her phone. However, to his surprise, the phone number has been disconnected.

And then the body swapping stops…

Taki is confused as to why they have suddenly stopped switching bodies and is frustrated that he cannot contact Mitsuha to confess his feelings to her. This is when the existential weird stuff goes up another level.

Taki goes about trying to find where Mitsuha lives. He doesn’t know the name of the town and can only go on the sketches he has made from memory. With the help of Miki and school friend, Tsukasa, he sets out to find the country town.

What he discovers is that the town has been destroyed by the comet fragment. The same comet fragment that broke off from Tiamat three years ago. Yes, not only has Taki and Mitsuha been switching bodies, but they have also been switching time. Taki time travelled backwards to when Mitsuha and the town of Itomori were alive in 2013, and Mitsuha has time travelled forward into Taki’s body in 2016. The moment that Taki no longer swaps bodies with Mitsuha (the moment he tries to call her phone) is the moment that Itomori becomes obliterated by the comet fragment, killing everyone in the town including Mitsuha.

This revelation spurs Taki to try to go back in time again to warn Mitsuha and involves him venturing to the Shinto shrine and consuming the sake that Mitsuha created through the kuchikamizake ritual.

Director Makoto Shinkai wrings out every bit of emotion and by the end you’ll be exhausted, but he does it in such a way that investing in the journey will be worth it. The ending is typical of Shinkai’s films (i.e. plenty of tears) but Your Name is by far the most complex story Shinkai has undertaken compared to previous works. As the viewer, I was most impressed that he did not lose me in the telling. The story is revealed in a way that is coherent if you pay attention, and you don’t need a master’s degree in theoretical physics or knowledge of quantum mechanics to understand what is going on. Another bonus is that Your Name has splashes of humour; something that is often absent in Shinkai’s films.

Beyond brilliant.

10 out of 10

Anime Review: Weathering With You (2019)

TL;DR – Hina is the ‘sunshine girl’, a person with the power to halt the rain. She meets Hodaka and together they earn a living bringing sunshine to people requesting fine weather for events. But Hina hasn’t told Hodaka that using her power comes at a cost and that eventually the price that she will pay is her life.

Review (warning: spoilers)

In a hospital in Tokyo, Hina Amano sits next to her dying mother who is hooked up to a ventilator and bedside monitor. The rain pouring outside reflects the sadness inside the room, but as Hina looks out the window she spies a ray of golden sunlight that splashes across the rooftop of a building like a beacon. Drawn to the phenomenon, Hina rushes outside, umbrella in hand, and locates the building. She ascends to the rooftop and discovers a garden shrine with a Torii gate. With heart in mouth, she clasps her hands together in prayer and walks beneath the Torii wishing she could make the rain stop so she can take her mother outside in sunny weather.

Her prayer is answered but not probably in the way she anticipates. Hina becomes the mythical weather maiden. She has the power to bring about fine weather for brief periods of time, but the rain will continue to fall over Tokyo until she sacrifices her life. The more she uses her power the more her body turns to water until she disappears completely. Only then will the abnormal rain stop and Tokyo’s weather return to normal.

Enter high school student, Hodaka Morishima, running away from home. He heads to the big city but is unable to find work. To make matters worse, the city seems to be against him. Though he tries to mind his own business, strangers try to talk to him, a pair of police officers try to question why he is alone in the city at night, another man trips him causing him to stumble into a rubbish bin, and as he pick up the rubbish, he finds a gun in the trash. Everything about Tokyo yells danger and scares him, making Hodaka wonder whether it was wise to run away.

He winds up in a McDonalds restaurant, hungry and broke. There he meets Hina, who happens to work there. Seeing the pitiful state Hodaka is in, she gives him a burger on the house though she shouldn’t be doling out free food. This act of kindness renews Hodaka’s decision to go it alone. Their paths will cross again as Hodaka seeks to navigate how he will survive and make a life in Tokyo.

Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, the animation is a feast for the eyes as is expected if you have seen Shinkai’s previous films. I’ve also concluded that he has an obsession with rain. The Garden of Words and to a lesser degree, Your Name, both have significant scenes involving rain. Perhaps he knows that animating rain is atmospheric, but clearly for his last few films, it is a key motif in his stories.

Shinkai also has a particular view (or dare I say connection) with characters that are torn apart or experience forlorn love. How much of this comes from his own personal experiences, I don’t know, but his body of films commonly centre around two characters who feel connection when they are together and disconnected and broken when they’re apart.

Voices of a Distant Star, 5 Centimetres per second, The Garden of Words, Your Name, and now Weathering with You all tell stories along these lines. However, even with this familiar formula, when combined with the outstanding animation, you still end up with an evocative and moving film.

When you discover that Hina is trying to take care of herself and her brother because her mother has passed away, and Hodaka is trying to escape his own circumstances at home, you know that they’re kindred spirits. When Hina reveals her powers to Hodaka, he sees a way for them to earn a living by setting up a website to hire out their services to provide good weather for events such as weddings and flea markets. Of course, Hina doesn’t reveal to Hodaka that using her sunshine powers comes at a cost until it’s too late.

When Hina disappears into the other world in the sky (as goes the mythical story surrounding the tragic fate of the weather maiden), Hodaka seeks to enter that other world and save her. He manages to achieve this through a crazy series of events including police chasing him and him firing the gun he found in the rubbish bin. The animation when Hodaka enters the sky world and the music that follows this sequence is magical stuff. And though he succeeds in bringing Hina back to earth, it results in rain falling in Tokyo for years to come causing flooding and much of the city to become submerged. In addition, Hodaka and Hina are separated (Hodaka’s parents filed a missing person and the police arrest Hodaka and take him home). For three years, they are apart as Hodaka serves his probation but they reunite at the film’s finale. It leaves an ambiguous end for the fate of the city but the fate of our pair is secured.

8 out of 10

Anime Review: Arrietty (2010)

TL;DR – a journey into the lives of the Borrowers, tiny humans that seek to survive in a world where practically every other creature is a predator including adult sized humans.

Review (warning: spoilers)

What are the things we take for granted? Do we appreciate what we have? These are the questions that are examined by plunging you into the world of Arrietty, a hand-sized girl who lives with her equally tiny parents. Collectively, these miniature individuals are known as Borrowers.

Through Arrietty’s eyes we gain a perspective of what the world would be like when you’re four-inches nothing tall. The challenge of taking a tissue from a tissue box, securing a sugar cube, and ‘borrowing’ other items in a human household. How one can survive when you can be squashed like an ant or carried away by a crow are all real dangers captured in this film.

While a Studio Ghibli production, Arrietty was not directed by the legendary Hayao Miyzaki. Instead, this was the directional debut for Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Miyazaki was involved in the screenplay adapted from the children’s book, The Borrowers by English author, Mary Norton). A visual gem of a film, both adults and children alike will wonder at the beauty, colour and detail of every frame, and it should ensure that when you place your head on your pillow, you will dream wonderful dreams of tiny adventurers.

The story is simple and aimed at children. A boy, Shō, visits his mother’s home. He has some sort of health condition that causes him to be bedridden most of the time, and he witnesses Arrietty trying to take a tissue, which startles her and causes her to drop the sugar cube she is carrying. Arrietty’s father, Pod, helps her escape back to their underground home even though Shō had no intention of harming them.

The same can’t be said for the housemaid, Haru, who has heard legend of the Borrowers and ends up capturing Arrietty’s mother, Homily, by placing her in a jar. Through Shō’s help, they rescue Homily and eventually escape in a teapot that floats down a rivulet (that to Arrietty and her family is like a river). Shō gives Arrietty a sugar cube and expresses how much having met her means to him. He sees in her this immense courage and realises he, too, will seek to overcome his illness and be stronger also.

The magic in the film are the interactions between the human sized characters and the Borrowers. At one point, Arrietty discovers a doll house that was made by Shō’s ancestors who believed in the Borrowers’ existence and built the house for their use. Shō attempts to place the kitchen from the doll house into Arrietty’s home but causes quite a bit of destruction and triggers Arrietty’s parents to say they have to leave. The sequence of Shō’s hand placing the kitchen into their tiny home is a brilliant sequence of animation.

In the end though, it does lack the layers of other Ghibli films that will draw adults in. Being a children’s story, it doesn’t compare to the more epic and adult themed films such as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Laputa: Castle in the Sky. It is more akin to Tonari no Totoro and Ponyo but for all its beauty, Arrietty lacks a certain something. There is a magic and mystery in Tonari no Totoro and Ponyo that is missing in Arrietty. Call it Miyazaki magic but his direction seems to elevate these films to greater heights (both Totoro and Ponyo were directed by Miyazaki). Yonebayashi does an admirable job, but it is not quite the same.

7.5 out of 10

Anime Review: The Garden of Words (2013)

TL;DR – two lost and lonely souls meet during the rainy mornings at a national park in Tokyo. There they learn from each other how to grow. A visual feast of a film that doesn’t deliver on the potential depth required of its two main leads.

Review (warning: spoilers)

The Garden of Words is an ephemeral story surrounding a student and teacher who meet several times at Shinjuku Gyoen (a national park in Tokyo) during the rainy season. It is an atmospheric tale about life, love, and loss. It is as much about the trials of navigating being a teenager as it is about navigating adulthood, and how both periods of time can feel similar.

For Akizuki Takao, he has identified his passion already even though he is only 15-years old. He wants to be a cobbler and design shoes for a living. He skips class and ventures to the park to sit under a gazebo doing sketches while the rain falls.

For Yukino Yukari, she has already found her lot in life as a 27-year-old teacher of classical Japanese literature. But she is ignoring her job responsibilities and spending time at the park drinking beer and eating chocolate. Why she is shunning her teaching duties is revealed later in the film.

Both are lonely and feel isolated in their lives. Through their encounters, Takao becomes drawn to Yukari in a way that a young teenage boy would towards an attractive older woman. The fact she shows interest in his sketches and allows him to design shoes for her transforms Yukari into Takao’s muse.

Yukari’s time with Takao makes her forget of the demons she is facing at work. Turns out that she is being bullied by students who are jealous of her beauty. Instead of standing up for herself, she flees to the park with beer and chocolate in hand.

Their connection grows with each rainy morning that passes until eventually Takao confesses his love for her. Yukari, initially, does not return his feelings stating she is a teacher (and inferring their age difference) but she also realises deep down their connection and tells him that the time they have spent together has saved her.

In terms of story, The Garden of Words had the potential to delve into the myriad layers of what constitutes intimacy, connection and love (forbidden or otherwise). It could have transcended romantic drama tropes and shown connection without a confession of love. It could have examined the idea of how two disparate individuals (not just in age but in overall outlook on life) could impact each other in unexpected positive ways.

Attempts are made to do this. Yukari communicating to Takao through Japanese poetry, the way Takao does his sketches using Yukari and the park as his muse, the breaks in conversation leading to the pair absorbing the moment and the beauty of the ongoing motif of rain. However, there is an over reliance on the animation and setting to convey its messages. More on the visuals in a bit.

The story lacks the drive required for a plot that is dependent on its two main characters. I don’t mean that Takao and Yukari need to be emotional thunderstorms, I mean that their personalities, backgrounds and how they came to be in the position they find themselves is never explored beyond scratching the surface. In terms of depth, Takao is probably captured better when arguably Yukari is the more tortured soul.

In the end, The Garden of Words relies heavily on the stunning animation. And let me just say that the combination of hand drawing and CGI is truly exquisite. However, we are meant to draw symbolic meaning behind what we see. For example, the rain (uncontrollable like love), creating shoes (teaching how to walk), and drinking beer and eating chocolate (an odd combination representing Yukari’s emotional instability).

There is nothing wrong in the subtle and using visuals to convey messages is a tool that allows filmmakers to subvert expectations. But the visuals need to complement not carry the main characters. In the end, the emotional bind being experienced by Takao and Yukari lacks depth because we only catch glimpses of who they are deep down.

Like a passing shower on a sunny day, this film will largely be remembered for how beautiful it looks but the story won’t leave behind any significant impression.

6 out of 10

Anime Review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)

TL;DR – When Mary discovers a flower that gives her witch powers, she begins an adventure that will see her grow from shy sapling into a beautiful blossom.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is Studio Ponoc’s first feature film. From the movie poster, you would be forgiven for thinking this is a Studio Ghibli film. The art and style are similar, and Studio Ponoc happens to have been founded by Studio Ghibli lead film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura.

The film opens with a series of buildings, built atop a giant tree, on fire. A red-haired girl is trying to escape with a pouch that contains flower seeds. Her pursuers wear masks and use purple balloon-like weapons that look like they contain magic. She runs to the end of a tree limb and is trapped until a broom comes whipping by that she has summoned and jumps on. She flies away, but the masked pursuers transform into weird silver flying dolphins and chase her.

A devastating bluish explosion destroys the buildings and envelops the flying dolphins. The explosion’s shock wave causes our red-haired witch thief to fall unconscious. She topples off her broom, her red hair turning brown (as if to indicate she has lost her powers) and releases the pouch containing the seeds. They land in a forest and immediately activate causing plants and trees to grow at lightning speed, the foliage enveloping and hiding the broomstick.

We then meet Mary, who has come to visit her aunt in the countryside. Full of energy and always wanting to help, we discover she is a bit of a klutz and tends to break things. She tries to help with the gardening but ends up with a basket full of leaves dropping on her head. This happens in front of Peter, a local boy from the town, which causes significant embarrassment. Feeling somewhat useless and bored, she wanders to a spot overlooking the countryside and eats some lunch. There she is visited by a black cat and laments that she can relate to being viewed as ‘unlucky’.

She follows the cat and finds a glowing blue flower known as the ‘fly-by-night’ which bestows temporary witch powers and only appears once every seven years. Mary’s world then opens to unexpected adventure involving the discovery of a witch college run by Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. But all is not what it seems. The Madam and Doctor have been seeking the ‘fly-by-night’ and wish to unlock its magic by transforming a human into an unlimited source of power.

Everything comes full circle as it is revealed that Mary’s aunt was the red-haired witch at the beginning who stole the ‘fly-by-night’ seeds from the Madam and Doctor. She wanted to stop the experiments on animals and humans concluding that the seeds were too powerful to be harnessed in such a way. When the Madam and Doctor kidnap Peter to use for their experiment, Mary is spurred into action to save him along with all the animals that have been transformed into strange and mystical beasts.

Visually, the film is a feast for the eyes. The attention to detail warrants repeat viewing. And the story is based on “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart. However, I can’t help but feel that Mary and the Witch’s Flower falls short.

It took some time for me to figure out while I felt this way. And then it dawned on me. Many of the of the story elements and the way they have been adapted in animated form comes from a range of Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli) films.

Mary’s interactions with flying a broomstick, and the broomstick itself displaying a personality is similar to Kiki’s Delivery Service, where the main character is a young witch who isn’t that great at flying a broomstick. Both Mary and Kiki have a black cat involved as their familiar, which is a common trope of witches. Further Mary is not initially enamoured by Peter and the same happens in Kiki’s Delivery Service between Kiki and the main male character, Tombo. However, as the story progresses Mary comes to like Peter and wants to save him from Madam Mumblechook’s clutches just as Kiki comes to like Tombo and rushes to save him (the climax involves Tombo holding on for dear life from a crashing airship, and Kiki is trying to use a broom to fly over and save him).

Then we have this discovery of a magical world which reminded a little of Spirited Away. The main character in that film, Chihiro, is also a young girl, who is awkward and lacks confidence, not dissimilar to Mary. There’s even a scene where Mary attempts to climb some stairs attached to a cliff face leading up to the college of magic, the stairs don’t have any railing so Mary clings for dear life against the cliff as she slowly makes her way up the stairs. A similar scene is in Spirited Away, where Chihiro has to descend a rickety wooden staircase attached to the side of a mountain with no railing.

And then there is a point where Mary doesn’t ride a broomstick and instead finds herself riding an elk among all these other animals that she has freed from magical transformation. This reminded me of Princess Mononoke, where the main male character, Ashitaka, rides Yakul, an elk mount.

Having not read “The Little Broomstick”, I am unsure what elements have been faithfully adapted from the book and what has come forth as story telling mechanisms by Studio Ponoc. But in the end, it felt like they had taken a bunch of different elements from Studio Ghibli films and mashed them together in Mary and the Witch’s Flower. What worked for Studio Ghibli will surely work for Sudio Ponoc too right?

Perhaps, if I had never seen any Studio Ghibli films, I would not judge Mary and the Witch’s Flower so harshly. As it is there was nothing fresh in Studio Ponoc’s debut feature film and the main character, Mary, lacked a certain level of depth. Hopefully, Studio Ponoc will dare to explore beyond their comfort zone in their next project.

6.5 out of 10

Anime Review: Blue Period (2021)

TL;DR – when living life is bland and boring and you stumble upon something that ignites the flame inside, pursue it through the fears and doubts. This is what Yaguchi seeks to do as he strives to become an artist.

Review (warning: spoilers)

It is not uncommon for anime to tell stories about anime or manga artists or writers. Bakuman being one of the most popular that comes to mind and which you can read my review here. However, Blue Period is probably the first anime I’ve seen that focuses on traditional art (e.g. sketching, painting, sculpture etc.) and the many facets, techniques, inspirations and doubts that come with pursuing this form of creative expression.

The main character, Yatora Yaguchi, is an intelligent student with a lacklustre attitude. He doesn’t know where he is going in life or what he wants to do. However, this all changes when he sees a painting of an angel done by an arts club member at his school. Something sparks inside, and he finds himself staring out at the city of Shibuya, seeing its beauty, and wanting to capture it on canvas. What he creates is a painting of Shibuya in many different shades of blue. He is thrilled when he receives praise for his work, and thus starts down a path to becoming an artist, much to the concern of his parents who can see his earnest passion but fear he will live a hard life as a result.

Yaguchi aims to be accepted into Tokyo University of the Arts (TUA), considered the most prestigious arts school in Japan. TUA only accepts one in two hundred applicants into their arts program, so Yaguchi understands he has a mountain to climb. What follows are the trials and tribulations of pursuing the craft, and Yaguchi encounters a wide range of other students and teachers with their own strengths, idiosyncrasies and unique views on art.

What made the anime interesting to me was that the series is willing to delve into the technicalities and tools used by artists (some may find this aspect boring), but this lends to an authenticity that combines well with the human element, emotion and interactions that Yaguchi experiences. He feels he is behind the eight ball and has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with other students who have spent years honing their artistic skills. This leads to the understandable self-doubt that plagues him and the building of his own character and perseverance.

The animation is impressive. How they manage to animate brush strokes, mixing of different coloured paints on a palette, and the finished piece of art on canvas are all done realistically, and you take it for granted that someone or some team of animators had to animate these things. They even animate an image of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” to a solid degree of efficacy, so kudos to Seven Arcs production studios.

All in all, Blue Period is an enjoyable story that seeks to show anything worth doing will not be easy and should be done wholeheartedly and with perseverance.

7.5 out of 10

Anime Review: Spirited Away (2001)

TL;DR – Miyazaki’s seminal work that is an “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” journey set in traditional Japanese culture.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Chihiro is moving house and she is not happy about it. Clutching a farewell bouquet of flowers from her friends, she lies in the back seat of the family sedan forlornly wishing to return to the familiar surrounds of her hometown.

As they journey on, the father makes a wrong turn that leads to a dirt road winding into a mountain forest. Thinking that it is a shortcut, he forges on, and Chihiro spies discarded stone shrines and moss-covered statues. They eventually arrive to the entrance of a long tunnel. Chihiro gets the creeps, noting that the wind is going in the tunnel as if trying to draw things into it. She protests that they should drive back, but her father is curious. Clinging to her mother’s arm, Chihiro reluctantly traverses the tunnel with her parents.

Upon exiting, they see an empty village, which the father believes are the remnants of an abandoned theme park. Crossing a dried riverbed, they enter the village as delicious smells waft in the air, and the parents discover a restaurant laden with food. They call out but no one responds. Chihiro appears to be the only one with common sense as she tells her parents they should leave and not eat the food. But the smells are too tempting, and the father says he has his credit card and cash and can pay for their meals later. The parents sit down and start gorging on the food, stuffing themselves silly because everything is delectable.

Chihiro leaves them to explore the rest of the village and finds a bridge leading to a giant bathhouse. There she meets a boy named Haku who is surprised to see her. He tells her she shouldn’t be here and urges her to cross back over the river before nightfall. With the sun setting, Chihiro rushes back into the village as lights begin to illuminate and shadows of spirits start forming in the restaurants. She finds her parents still pigging out only to horrifically discover that they have turned into pigs literally. This would understandably freak out any ten-year-old child and Chihiro races through the village calling out for her parents. She reaches the river but is unable to cross as it has now become full of water. In the distance she sees a large boat filled with lights approaching. From the boat, spirits and gods exit to enter the village and the bathhouse.

Thus begins Chihiro’s adventure into the spirit world where she will gain employment within the bathhouse and attempt to pay off her parents’ debt (they ate food of the gods) and have them changed back to humans. Along the way she meets all manner of characters that seek to either help or hinder her.

Spirited Away became the first non-English hand-drawn animated film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and has received numerous accolades worldwide. It is considered by many to be Hayao Miyazaki’s greatest film.

While the messages in this film include environmentalism and consumerism (messages often ingrained in Miyazaki’s films), at its heart Spirited Away is a coming-of-age story of a young girl set against the backdrop of traditional Japanese folklore.

The highlight of the film for me was when a sludge monster spirit arrives at the bathhouse. Cinematic storytelling at its finest, the sludge monster oozes decay and stink causing most of the employees to flee. But Chihiro sticks it out and discovers the sludge spirit is actually a river spirit that has become so polluted that it has corrupted into sludge. Through Chihiro’s bravery, she manages to dislodge the handle of a bicycle which in turn unplugs a torrent of rubbish and turning the river spirit back to its original form. This animation sequence is pure Miyazaki magic.

There are so many wonderful characters including Haku, who is also a river spirit and water dragon; Kamaji, the six-armed boiler room operator; the insanely large headed Yubaba, the primary antagonist and owner of the bathhouse; and No-Face, a lonely spirit that can take on the characteristics of other spirits that it swallows. Chihiro encounters all these and more in her quest to save her parents and return to the human world.

Chihiro’s transformation is subtle. She starts off not even capable of descending a long flight of stairs attached to the side of the bathhouse (admittedly, there is no railing and if she falls, she will almost certainly die) to gaining the courage to face Yubaba and saving not only her parents but also Haku.

There is much to love about Spirited Away and it is deserving of all its accolades. Yet, I have been spoiled for I have seen virtually all of Miyazaki’s films leading up to Spirited Away’s release.

In truth, I would rate Tonari no Totoro, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, and The Castle of Cagliostro above this movie. All these films are very different, so to compare them is an exercise in futility. But in terms of pure enjoyment, those four movies would rate higher than Spirited Away because I enjoyed the story and adventure of those four far more. It’s splitting hairs, but I have to split them somewhere, and in terms of ranking the monumental body of work Miyazaki has created, I will stand by what my heart tells me.

8 out of 10

Anime Review: Dororo (2019)

TL;DR – A supernatural period drama showing the brutality during medieval Japan. Little thief Dororo meets Hyakkimaru, a rōnin whose body is made up of prosthetic limbs. Together they go on a journey to uncover the origins of Hyakkimaru, which will lead them to discovering demons and humans who have given themselves over to hell. Will their own souls remain beacons of light, or will they be overcome by the darkness?

Review (warning: spoilers)

Dororo has an interesting history. The manga was created by Osamu Tezuka way back in 1967, subsequently cancelled by Weekly Shonen Sunday magazine in mid-1968 and then was able to conclude in Akita Shoten’s Bōken’ō magazine in 1969. In that same year, a black and white anime version of the manga was released and had additional content and original stories added that were not in the manga.

I did a bit of digging and found the manga online and examined the art. There was something distinctly familiar with the way the characters were portrayed, almost old-school Disney cute in some respects, yet the manga does not shy away from violence as the story is set during the Sengoku period when civil war was constant and samurai and rōnin spilled blood over Japan. It was quite a contrast seeing these almost lovable comic characters erupt into ferocious battles with monsters, demons and other samurai.

It was then it hit me. The character art reminded me of arguably one of the greatest animes that was ever created and became a worldwide phenomenon that reached English speaking shores.

That anime was Astro Boy.

The connection piqued my interest even more, so when I discovered that the 1969 anime version of Dororo had been remade and released in 2019, I was keen to check it out. From my research, it should be noted that the 2019 remake has distinct differences from the source manga. This being an anime review, I have not read the entire manga series and am basing my thoughts solely on the 2019 anime.

I discovered that Dororo falls into a very rare category for me when it comes to giving it a review score out of ten. For those who read my reviews, I place a significant amount of weight in the writing and the story. An anime that does not have an interesting layered plot is one that I will struggle to get through and score highly. There are exceptions to this rule, and they generally apply to slice-of-life animes that are layered in their simplicity and do not rely on a complex plot.

So, does Dororo have a weak plot? Absolutely not. The initial episodes open to a feudal lord, Kagemitsu Daigo, who makes a pact with twelve demon gods in a temple known as the ‘Hall of Hell’. The land he rules has suffered from famine, pestilence and disease, and he promises to give anything to the demons in exchange for power and fortune. The deal is struck and Kagemitsu’s lands become rich and fertile. When his wife gives birth to their first child, they discover the baby is without limbs, skin and eyes; the demon gods have exacted their price. Kagemitsu wishes to kill the baby against his wife’s protests and a midwife steals the child away and abandons the baby in a boat to sail down the river.

The baby is found by Jukai, a surgeon and alchemist who is adept at making prosthetic limbs. He saves the child using healing magic and creates artificial limbs and special swords that can be unsheathed when he removes his arms. The child grows up to be a rōnin named Hyakkimaru, capable of seeing demons and slaying them with superhuman skill.

We are then introduced to Dororo, a little girl thief who insists she is a boy. She teams up with Hyakkimaru and seeks to help him. The dynamic between the pair is key to the story and evokes wonderful empathy that makes you invest in their journey. Dororo learns that as Hyakkimaru kills certain demons he slowly starts acquiring bits of his body again. This includes ears so he can hear, a voice so he can speak, and legs so he can walk. At the same time, the statues of the demons in the Hall of Hell temple begin to crack.

This leads to Kagemitsu’s pact with the demons slowly breaking, and his lands begin to experience the struggles of famine and pestilence once more. Kagemitsu’s second son, Tahomaru (perfectly healthy with no limbs missing), initially struggles with what his father has done but chooses the people and their land over his older brother and pledges to kill Hyakkimaru in order to reinstate the demon pact.

So, if the plot is solid, what is this ‘very rare category’ that I am talking about? The category is an anime where I feel let down by the animation. Normally, if the anime has a good enough story then I can overlook any shortfalls in the animation. But the style of animation used in Dororo did not grab me. The animators have definitely made the characters more ‘modern’ and do not follow the ‘Astro boy’ style of character design used by Osamu Tezuka. But even with this modern flourish, it didn’t engage me.

Action sequences, which are critical in this series, look clunky as if shortcuts have been made. When it comes to sword fighting whether it be between rōnin/samurai and monsters, or between rōnin/samurai and other rōnin/samurai, the animation lacks the level of fluidity and realism that gets the adrenalin pumping.

I confess to being spoiled because I have compared the action in Dororo with other great period animes such Samurai Champloo (the sword fights are exquisite) and Kingdom (battle scenes are epic). Given Dororo is a period drama set in the Sengoku period and has the added twist of dark fantasy in the form of grotesque demons, it had the potential to be mind blowing in the art department. Perhaps, my mind wandered to the sword fights and battle scenes in Attack on Titan and found Dororo fell way short. Dororo sadly delivers demons and monsters that look silly (like Pokemon on steroids), and the physics of the fight scenes appear to go downhill the more you get into the series.

I still place substance over style and in terms of story there is plenty of substance. But in this rare instance, I found myself wanting more style to match the substance. Had it done that, this series would have easily hit a perfect score.

7 out of 10

Anime Review: Giant Killing (2010)

TL;DR – East Tokyo United is facing relegation in the Japan premier league. Enter ex-player and new head coach, Tatsumi Takeshi, who will look to turn around the club’s fortunes by unconventional means.

Review

No, Giant Killing is not some spin-off on Attack on Titan. There are no cable slinging, rocket shooting soldiers looking to defend a multi-walled city from titan attacks. This is an anime about soccer.

All the elements that make a good sports anime are present and accounted for in Giant Killing.

  • Team of underdogs? Check.
  • A team that has a history of greatness but is now falling down the ladder into mediocrity? Check.
  • Coach with unconventional approach to teaching? Check.
  • Players with various egos that don’t get along? Check.
  • Other players with no egos and no confidence? Check.
  • Animated action that reflects the sport accurately? Kind of.

As a seinen anime, Giant Killing does a decent job in delivering thrills and humour that should propel anime fans of soccer through to the final episode. Keeping in mind this was released in 2010, the animation itself is decent but not as sophisticated as more recent animes like the great volleyball anime series Haikyuu!! or even the popular basketball anime Kuroko no Basket. Still, there’s enough here that brings a certain level of excitement that is essential for a sports anime.

Probably what is more unusual is the focus is largely on new coach, Takeshi, who goes about transforming East Tokyo United (ETU) into a competitive group capable of success. It is more about his journey than the team, and the methods and strategies he employs to turn the club back to winning ways.

The matches are entertaining and you wonder whether ETU will get a win or come away with a loss. In true anime fashion, the opposing team players are examined and given background that adds the necessary layers to make the match more interesting.

However, what Giant Killing lacks is that one or two characters that you want to cheer on no matter what. For ETU, I think it is meant to be Daisuke Tsubaki, a young player who has come up from the reserve team. He’s a very fast runner but lacks confidence. Coach Takeshi utilises Tsubaki in many of his strategies to cause the opponents problems during matches. However, Tsubaki is not a well-rounded character and lacks depth.

In Haikyuu!! it is Hinata and Kageyama that you fall in love with. Their characters are wonderfully distinct and they convey in their own ways the love for the game of volleyball. This is an important ingredient in sports anime. You need characters that are interesting on their own (without the sport) but make the sporting games all the more interesting when they are involved.

In Kuroko no Basket, it is Kuroko and Kagami that you cheer on and the anime is made stronger by the focus on the opposing players who once played with Kuroko.

In Slam Dunk it is Hanamichi and Rukawa that are the primary characters that are intriguing. Arguably, Slam Dunk has multiple characters that are all interesting with their own backgrounds and this elevates the story ten-fold. To me Slam Dunk is the basketball apex to Haikyuu!! is with volleyball.

Giant Killing has nothing of the depth of character compared to those listed above. You do get to know all the players of ETU and their strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies (if only at a surface level). You also get to know key players they compete against. But in reality, it is only the character of Coach Takeshi that comes close to the complexity and multi-layers of characters in Slam Dunk, Kuroko no Basket and Haikyuu!!

So, in this regard, it falls short of scoring the necessary goals.

7 out of 10

Anime Review: Yuru Camp Season 2 (2021)

TL;DR – The camping adventures continue for Rin, Nadeshiko, Aoi and Chiaki in season 2. Rin goes on a solo-camp to the sea but her attempts to return home are stifled when the weather turns bad. What was meant to be a two-day camp turns into a longer stay involving sight-seeing, more camping, visiting friends and family and discovering all the wonders of Japan.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Mid-way through season 2, Yuru Camp focuses on Rin’s friends Aoi, Chiaki and Ena. They have ventured to Cape Ohmama in winter and set up camp by Lake Yamanaka. Chiaki puts together two compact chairs and turns it into a hammock, which all three of them take turns in trying out. Each expresses how divine it feels and how they don’t want to move. The animated bliss on their faces says it all and you can’t help but feel how the simple pleasures can be the best. It is the little things that sums up this slice-of-life anime series, and it does it in fine form.

Enjoying the outdoors, drinking tea, the accomplishment of cooking one’s own dinner on a portable gas light stove, embracing the fresh air, and living in the moment are what makes this anime beautiful. The characters are cute, which I don’t think is particularly necessary, but their interactions lend to funny moments that add to the overall contented feel of this series.

All is not smooth sailing, however, as setbacks and unexpected problems arise that allow the viewer to learn quite a lot about what it takes to be a camper and what you should be mindful of. For example, the Cape Ohmama episode sees our trio of girls discovering it is much colder where they are than where they have gone on previous camps. Turns out the Lake Yamanaka campsite is 1000 metres above sea level. Their mobile phones have drained of power due to the cold, and by late afternoon it is already minus-two degrees Celsius. The girls thus have to figure out how to adapt, and it is an insightful and interesting look into the challenges of winter camping.

Campfires, hot pots, sleeping together in tents, using cardboard beneath their sleeping mats, and using hand warmer patches in their sleeping bags are all ideas the girls come up with. Some of these don’t come to fruition, however, and it is only with some luck that they don’t end up packing up all their things and heading home in the dark. Luck in this episode comes in the form of a couple of fellow campers who have properly prepared and invite the girls in to keep warm and eat with them. I don’t know how anime does it, but whenever they depict food, it always looks delicious.

The adventures still focus primarily on Rin and she is the quiet star of the show with the more gregarious Nadeshiko also getting decent air time. Rin has the most knowledge of camping and the places she goes to will make you want to explore Japan’s camping sites and have you jumping online to purchase innovative camping products and equipment. Either that or you will, at least, want to visit the hot springs Japan is famous for and lounge in these places without a care in the world.

Yuru Camp does a good job of being a tourist poster for the country even if it is unintentional. It is a lovely look into how we should all slow down and not get sucked up into the rush of busy lives. The age old adage of ‘stop and smell the roses’ never more evident than in Yuru Camp, or perhaps it is more ‘stop and cook yourself a winter curry while staring up at magnificent Mount Fuji.’ Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily but definitely achieves the same end goal.

9 out of 10