Anime Review: In This Corner of the World (2016)

TL;DR – a story of how war can shatter lives but not the human spirit.

Review (warning: spoilers)

On 6 August 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima killing over 100,000 people, most of whom were Japanese civilians. Three days later another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and six days after that Japan formally surrendered. Thus signalling the end of World War II.

In This Corner of the World (aka Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni) is the story of Suzu, a Japanese girl, growing up during a time of war and depicts the events primarily leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima.

War drama films are always going to be a bit of a hard slog. Japanese anime does not shy away from violent depictions and adult themes and explores genres on every part of the spectrum from real life events to complete fantasy worlds.

Having seen Graveyard of the Fireflies, another war drama anime film that left me in a puddle of tears and scarred me deeply, I had left In This Corner of the World on my to-do list for some time. When I finally watched it, I was surprised at how poignant and moving it was not just in a war torn horrific way but also in a ‘human spirit will rise’, hopeful way.

The main character, Suzu, is quiet and unassuming and has a passion and love for drawing and art. She’s a bit of a day dreamer, go-with-the-flow kind of girl and enjoys the simple things in life. Living in a small, seaside town called Eba (close to Hiroshima) in the 1930s, the beauty of the country is captured in a way that can’t help but move you. The people who live there are going about their lives in peace, and seeking to embrace the joys of their existence.

As the viewer, I raised the defences around my heart knowing this was the calm before the storm. I didn’t want to fall in love with the people or the place knowing the devastation that would come around the corner, but as the animation continued, I could not help but fall in love with Suzu, those close to her, and the town she lives in.

It is somewhat cruel that the animation style of the characters in In This Corner of the World look so cute. Even the adults look small. It reminded me somewhat of Charlie Brown & the Peanuts gang comic strips written and illustrated by Charles M. Schulz. A kind of anime version of it where every character is short and child-like even if they’re adults. When Suzu looks abashed for being caught day dreaming, her head turns and leans to the side in a way that you can’t help think she looks adorable. Like you want to pick her up and cuddle her.

This makes Suzu and all the people we see in her life look more vulnerable. As the air raids commence leading up to the Hiroshima bombing, and the food rationing comes into force, every moment they continue moving forward, there is a silent dread that eventually, the wave of war will come crashing down.

The bonds that Suzu develops shows she is always trying to do her best to be a good person and make the most out of a deteriorating time caused by war. An arranged marriage sees her move to Kure, an hour or so train ride outside of Hiroshima, and learning to be a responsible adult and good wife to Shusaku (who genuinely loves her and treats her with respect even if, at times, he seems like he doesn’t know how to connect to her). Likewise, Suzu learns to love her new family, even Shusaku’s sister, Keiko, who treats Suzu with a kind of tough love. Keiko’s daughter, Harumi, has an especially strong connection to Suzu and the pair enjoy spending time together and laughing. I think Suzu sees a little of her young, care free self in Keiko, and thus this is why they get on so well.

From an animated point-of-view, it is remarkable how well production company MAPPA is able to animate Suzu creating her art. One scene where she paints the coast of Eba and turns the white frothing waves into rabbits is stunning. Animating Suzu’s hands as she holds a pencil and does sketches of a building are seamless and inspiring.

You connect, even if you don’t want to, with everything Suzu experiences, and the movie succeeds in getting you to invest your emotion knowing full well what is to come.

But what surprised me is that even when the horrors happen, Suzu is still able to see the beauty in the world and the people in her life. Even if her heart breaks, and her mind tries (and fails) to process the tragedies of war, she continues to live her life.

Ironically, it is not the atomic bomb going off that struck me hardest. It was the moment when Suzu and Harumi are walking hand-in-hand down a road and see a crater. Suzu realises too late that there is a time-delayed bomb in the crater, and though she survives, Harumi is killed in the explosion and Suzu’s loses her right hand (which she uses to draw her art).

The ensuring scenes where Suzu has to learn to do everything with one hand; the anger, tears and accusations hurled at her by Keiko; and the pure strength of will that Suzu has to muster to continue moving forward are all heart wrenching as well as inspiring.

I am thankful that, even after the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, Suzu survives with her husband Shusaku, and they lean on each other and strive to rebuild their lives. When a little girl, her mother died due to shrapnel shortly after the bomb, crawls up to Suzu seeking food and help, the pair don’t even question who the girl is or where she is from. Her physical state and expression says it all, and Suzu and Shusaku take the girl into their home and adopt her.

From the ashes of such immense tragedy, life goes on, not just with hope but with light. In This Corner of the World is essential viewing.

9.5 out of 10

Anime Review: Ni no Kuni (2019)

TL;DR – there is a magical world connected to our own that has people who are similar to us, and when something happens to that person in the magical world it can impact the equivalent person in our world.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Haru, Yu and Kotona are friends. Kotona is outgoing and sporty and both Haru and Yu are clearly attracted to her. But Yu, who is a paraplegic and stuck in a motorised wheelchair, never expresses his feelings as 1) he feels Kotona doesn’t see him as anything other than a friend and 2) he can tell that Haru likes her.

One day after school, Kotona invites them to go to a café, but when they arrive, she sees that they have to ascend a long flight of stairs to reach the café, and Yu can’t get up there because of his wheelchair. Kotona is apologetic and suggests they go to a different place, but Yu feels like the third wheel and says they should go ahead without him.

Later, Kotona is walking home after parting ways with Haru and senses someone following her. She calls Yu for help (Haru isn’t picking up because his phone is in his bag, and he can’t hear it ring) and Yu rushes to Kotona only to witness her being stabbed by an unknown figure. Yu lunges from his wheelchair to attack the assailant who runs away. Holding a now stabbed Kotona in his arms (unable to do anything else because his legs are useless), Haru arrives on the scene and blames Yu for not stopping the attack. Haru lifts up Kotona and carries her to the main street looking to hail a taxi and get her to a hospital. In an attempt to flag down a taxi, Haru runs out into the middle of the road with Kotona in his arms. Yu sees that they’re going to be hit by a truck, so he rushes over in his motorised wheelchair to push them out of the way. They scream as automobiles race toward them and then everything goes white.

Haru and Yu wake up wearing medieval clothing in a town where humans and magical creatures co-exist. A world called Evermore. Kotona is nowhere to be seen, and Yu discovers his legs work and he can walk without any aid.

As events unfold, they discover that Princess Astrid at Evermore castle has been wounded by a curse. The boys discover that Astrid is strikingly similar to Kotona, and when Yu manages to remove the curse, the princess is saved. Yu develops a strong connection with Astrid, but Haru believes that everything they are experiencing is just a dream.

When they manage to return to the real world, the pair discover that Kotona is unharmed. Yu believes that by saving Astrid, they also saved Kotona and that there is a connection between the two worlds.

This leads to a conflict between Haru and Yu as to what is going on. When Kotona later reveals she has been diagnosed with an incurable disease, Yu believes that this means Astrid is in danger and that in order to save Kotona, they need to save Astrid.

However, Haru believes that it could be the opposite. That so long as Astrid lives in the other world, Kotona is fated to die in this one. This is confirmed in Haru’s mind when the pair are transported back to Evermore. Haru appears (separated from Yu) before a castle ruled by the Black Banners who are in opposition to the current king and father of Astrid. The Black Banners convince Haru that the only way to save Kotona is for Astrid to die. Meanwhile, Yu is appointed as Astrid’s protector and will fight in the king’s armies against the Black Banners where he will likely confront Haru.

Ni no Kuni examines the lengths a person will undertake in order to save the ones they love. Friends become reluctant enemies and the balance of two worlds appears to be at stake.

This anime had plenty of potential, but I struggled with how the story unfolded, identifying gaps that ultimately impacted my enjoyment and resulted in a flawed movie. Visually, Ni no Kuni follows the same style as Studio Ghibli films but is clumsy in parts especially with the action sequences and the animation is not nearly enough to alleviate from its other shortfalls.

The bond between Kotona, Haru and Yu is not developed enough. Three friends that apparently are close are too easily brought into conflict. When Haru blames Yu for Kotona’s stabbing, it is ludicrous because how is Yu meant to stop anyone when he’s in a wheelchair?

When Yu saves Astrid by pulling out the cursed shadow blade, he and Haru are later believed to be working with the Black Banners and are tested in an arena against a bunch of gladiators with the king and his advisors in attendance. The king’s main advisor posits that the two boys are responsible for the shadow blade and are working as spies; the removal of the blade by Yu being a means to gain the king’s trust. It makes no sense that the king agrees to this theory and wishes to test their fighting skills in gladiatorial combat. What a way to say thank you for saving the his daughter, the princess.

And then in the arena, somehow Yu and Haru are expert swordsmen who have the knowledge to fight against a dozen or more seasoned gladiators and defeats them?

Though Yu admirably stands by Haru in Evermore, and they work together to return home, Haru then loses it when Kotona reveals she will die soon from some illness and gets angry at Yu for theorising that they need to save Astrid again. Even though just a day ago they fought together as brothers in arms.

These are some of the examples that make for a flawed story, and took me out of their plight. By the end, I was no longer invested and struggled to see it through to its end.

4 out of 10

Anime Review: Dorohedoro (2020)

TL;DR – ultra violent mayhem between sorcerers and the denizens of the hole.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Caiman is hunting down the sorcerer responsible for casting a spell that transformed his head into a lizard’s. To make matters worse, he has no memory of his true identity and who he was before acquiring a reptilian head.

The above is the short plot description for what is actually a complex and possibly one of the most original animes I have seen in some time.

To add layers, Dorohedoro throws in the following craziness:

  • Within Caiman’s reptilian mouth (or more precisely his throat) is a human head, which later we find out belongs to a guy named Risu. Whenever Caiman hunts down a sorcerer, he chomps down on the sorcerer’s head and Risu emerges to tell the sorcerer trapped in Caiman’s mouth whether he is the one who transformed Caiman into a reptilian-headed human. Caiman then releases the sorcerer from his bite, asks the sorcerer what the guy in his mouth said, and when the sorcerer tells him that he’s not the one who cast the spell on Caiman, Caiman ends up killing the sorcerer anyway.
  • Caiman’s close friend is an ass-kicking girl named Nikaido who owns a gyoza restaurant. She helps Caiman hunt down sorcerers so he can get his memories and human face back. Caiman and Nikaido have a strong affection for each other especially since she is more than happy to feed him gyoza, which he demolishes by the dozen. Little does Caiman know, however, that Nikaido is also a sorcerer who sought to escape the sorcerer world. And not just any old sorcerer, she has the rare magical ability to manipulate time.
  • En is a powerful sorcerer and crime boss. His magic causes anyone who inhales his magical smoke to turn into a mushroom. For a long time, he has been searching for a sorcerer to make his partner, and he has one requirement of the sorcerer he is after. He or she must be able to manipulate time.
  • Shin and Noi are two of the most deadly enforcers / sorcerers that work under En. An incident in their past, tied the pair together resulting in Noi developing an attraction to Shin.
  • A large cast of supporting characters that includes a giant cockroach named Jonson, a sorcerer named Turkey that can create ‘living dolls’ of people out of food, and Kawajiri, a devil who has close ties to Nikaido.

This crazy collection of characters is set against the backdrop of three worlds:

  • The Hole, a sprawling district of slums where non-sorcerers reside including Caiman. The Hole is where Nikaido escaped to and set up her gyoza shop.
  • The Sorcerer’s world, a rich and vibrant land where En rules as crime boss.
  • Hell, an underworld where dead sorcerers go to and where devils reside.

The anime successfully mixes crude humour and brutal violence with a plot driven around the mystery of Caiman.

The animation is striking with a level a detail that makes you feel like you are constantly fighting against corruption. All three worlds are cut throat. The weak rarely survive, and the filth pervades through every episode. Blood is spilt in litres in every action scene and somehow the animators are able to animate blood that has spattered on clothing and skin with alarming accuracy. To emphasise the uncleanliness of it all, many characters wear jumpsuits and masks as if expecting bloodshed, guts and grime around every corner.

Based on the manga of the same name by Q Hayashida, how she imagined such a story and its worlds is both impressive and alarming (I wonder what she eats before going to bed).

I was captivated throughout the first season as we follow the motivations and drivers and the slow unveiling of backstories behind our main cast. Probably the only unsatisfactory thing about the first season is that it ends without you getting any closer to solving Caiman’s mystery. While it appears you do find out who was responsible for Caiman’s transformation, the more incessant question of why is left unanswered.

They better make a season two.

9 out of 10

Anime Review: Levius (2019)

TL;DR – Steampunk anime about a boy seeking to survive in a war torn world through boxing.

Review (warning: spoilers)

This is the story of a boy named Levius Cromwell, whose mother became a human shield in order to protect him. During a time of war, Levius lost his right arm and now has a replacement cybernetic one. His mother lies in hospital in a coma, and his father has already been killed in action.

Thus, Levius finds himself in the care of his uncle, Zacks, who initially can’t connect with the boy. Listless, lifeless, Levius displays no inclination to do anything. That is until, he stumbles on an arena where he witnesses for the first time metal boxing (i.e., boxers with cybernetic arms). Searching for meaning in his existence, Levius starts training to be a metal boxer with his uncle, who used to be a boxer and now owns a gym.

The underlying plot revolves around the mystery of Green Bridge where Levius experienced the devastation of war and witnessed the apprehension of children at the hands of giant mechs owned and operated by Amethyst STEC (Steam Technology Enterprise Corporation).

Amethyst is run by Dr Clown, a masked individual, who has knowledge indicating that the children of Green Bridge are able to utilise and withstand the strain and pain of using steam technology longer than other people due to the type of water that ran through that town. Dr Clown is a Machiavellian sociopath who seeks to “collect” Levius and have him fight in the boxing ring to create beautiful music (i.e., Dr Clown sees metal boxing as an artform that can create a symphony only he can hear even if it results in a boxer’s death).

One of the children Amethyst kidnapped is named AJ Langdon, a young girl who cried out for help to a young Levius who was hiding behind some debris at Green Bridge. When Levius discovers AJ has now been turned into one of Dr Clown’s puppets and is an elite metal boxer, Levius vows to save her.

Initially, I was not sure if I could it make it through this series. The anime uses extensive CGI, which made me wonder whether this was going to be a series purely about how cool it looks with no decent story.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Visually, the boxing scenes are stunning, and I found the attention to detail surrounding the steampunk technology used in metal boxing fascinating. The skills required in boxing, along with the enhancements of armour and technology, are adrenalin pumping, and the anime could have easily fallen into the trap of making the technology override boxing skill. Thankfully, it does not and the anime is better off.

However, these visuals would not have elevated the anime above the average if not for an interesting plot. While standard tropes are used in terms of character design, they don’t detract from being engaged with their plight.

Levius’ opponents have back stories that are revealed through this first season that generate the necessary empathy to show they are layered characters and not mere fighters who only think about boxing. The cast includes:

  • Malcolm Eden – a demoted grade III fighter who continues to get steampunk enhancements to his body to compete even though he is past his prime.
  • Hugo Stratus – the number one ranked fighter in grade II, who is scheduled to face off against Levius for promotion to grade I. However, in a “warm-up” match he is defeated unexpectedly by AJ.
  • AJ Langdon – the girl Levius could not save during the Green Bridge war. She is now a metal boxer that is mind controlled and used by Dr Clown.

Dr Clown, the main antagonist, is suitably unstable with megalomaniac desires that your focus will be wanting to see his demise. A small quip is that it is never revealed in the first season why Dr Clown is the way that he is. His origins remain a mystery, so I did feel he was one-dimensional in his motivations.

The supporting cast around Levius – Zacks (his uncle and trainer), Bill (his engineer) and Natalia (his sparring partner) – are solid if stereotypical.

The season ends, as expected, with Levius successfully defeating AJ while saving her from Dr Clown. Levius gets promoted to grade II boxing ranks, and AJ joins the Cromwell family. Dr Clown escapes with his motivations still a mystery.

There is enough unexplained to warrant a season two, and I hope it does come around.

8.5 out of 10

Anime Review: Modest Heroes (2018)

TL;DR – Three anime shorts that contain visual magic but need a strong story to support them.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Modest Heroes tells three short stories from anime production company Studio Ponoc.

The first is called “Kanini and Kanino”, a story about two water breathing siblings the size of gold fish, who live underwater in a forest stream. Their pregnant mother, Kaka, went to the surface (not really clear why) and hasn’t been back in some time. Their father, Tata, gets caught in a strong current and gets taken away, leaving Kanini and Kanino fending for themselves. The pair go searching for their father and eventually find him wounded. They face off against a fish that seeks to eat them and is only saved when an Egret bird traps the fish with its dagger-like beak. Demonstrating the many dangers that face these tiny water breathing humans. They make it home to discover Kaka has also returned with five new-born babies in tow. There is next to no dialogue other than when the characters call out to each other by their names.

The second is called “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose” which focuses on a a boy named Shun and his mother. Shun is faced with the challenges of growing up with a severe egg allergy that can cause anaphylaxis, hives and possibly death. He has to carry an epi-pen, and his mother is always having to check foods to see if it contains eggs. Flashbacks reveal previous incidents where Shun has had to be rushed to hospital for touching or consuming something that has eggs (e.g. a piece of cake that was used to celebrate a classmate’s birthday). One day, Shun is riding home on his bicycle after baseball practice and sees a dead pigeon lying on the ground. He arrives home and pulls out his vanilla ice-cream, which isn’t meant to have eggs, but he discovers to his horror that they’ve now added it. He manages to call his mother and gets the epi-pen and survives.

The third and final short is called “Invisible” and opens to an invisible man getting dressed and brushing his teeth. The invisible man works at a car dealership, and he is overlooked by his colleagues both literally and figuratively. He carries around with him a fire extinguisher, and wears clothing, glasses, and shoes but for some reason is like a ghost to everyone around him. At one point, he throws the fire extinguisher in anguish and freaks out at what he’s done. We discover the extinguisher ensures he stays grounded to earth, and without it, he becomes weightless causing him to be caught up in the air by a gust of wind and fearful of disappearing into the stratosphere. He manages to secure the weight of a pick axe and becomes grounded once more just as a storm unleashes its fury. As he sits in the rain, hungry and miserable, a blind man and his guide dog come up to him. The blind man apparently “sees” the invisible man and hands him a sandwich while asking him the question, “Are you going to stay, or are you…?” (I imagine he was going to finish the question with “float away”). The invisible man gratefully accepts the sandwich and without words, you can tell he is going to fight to exist. He then sees a baby pram rolling down a hill as a truck comes speeding by. The invisible man springs into action and manages to save the baby.

The animation is exquisite, and it is clear that Studio Ponoc aspires to be considered in the same category as Studio Ghibli. There is also a sense that these short stories are meant to conjure similar magic to Pixar shorts.

Short stories are a skill that needs to tell a tale that captures you in a limited number of words. Likewise, animated short stories have a restricted timeslot and the visual needs to do more than simply look good.

Out of the three short stories, I found “Life Ain’t Gonna Lose” to be the most effective. Having a son that has food allergies, I can relate to the challenges that Shun’s mother faces.

However, “Invisible” was probably the most captivating with the idea of an invisible man seeking to exist. If you watch the credits there is an end scene where the invisible man appears visible riding his scooter as you can now see his hair, which makes you wonder if the man was visible all along but to himself, he felt invisible.

The weakest of the three was “Kanini and Kanino”, which lacked any sense of actual tension. The story itself is straight forward and there were no twists. You don’t have to have a twist in a short story, but there was not enough emotional pull for me to empathise with the diminutive beings. I felt Studio Ponoc was relying on their visual wizardry to keep me captivated in this one without success.

An interesting experiment and from what I can tell the first volume in a series of short story volumes from Ponoc. There is definite potential for greatness after their debut feature length film Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but I daresay they still have a long way to go before reaching the dizzying heights of master storytelling that the likes of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have achieved.

6 out of 10

Anime Review: The Wind Rises (2013)

TL;DR – A fictional re-telling of real-life aeronautical engineer, Jiro Horikoshi.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Director Hayao Miyazaki’s vast body of work explores many themes centred around humanity, and what he sees as the direction humanity is taking. A outspoken pacifist, Miyazaki often contrasts the beauty of creation against the horrors of violence in many of his films. He also has a distinct fascination for flight.

The ability to fly must be something Miyazaki sees as achieving freedom. Freedom from gravity, freedom from the weight of human failings, freedom from artistic restrictions, freedom from the boxes we are often forced into.

Whether it is a witch flying a broomstick (Kiki’s Delivery Service), flying castles (Laputa: Castle in the Sky), pigs in seaplanes (Porco Rosso) or riding dragons (Spirited Away), it is clear that Miyazaki’s passion for flight is not a mere motif in his films, but something that he sees as incredibly beautiful.

The Wind Rises is as literal as it gets to Miyazaki exploring the theme of flight. But this movie also expresses his immeasurably disdain towards violence and war. Set in the years leading up to World War II, the film tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, a real-life aeronautical engineer, who designed and built fighter planes for Japanese Imperial Army.

Horikoshi was strongly opposed to the war, and it is clear that Miyazaki saw a kindred spirit. The Wind Rises is an unapologetic telling of how Horikoshi’s love for flying was used by political powers and the military for war much to Horikoshi’s heartbreak. He never sought to build planes to kill people, he built planes as an artistic expression of beauty, and The Wind Rises demonstrates that beauty in animated glory in a way only Studio Ghibli could deliver.

The dream sequences that Horikoshi has interacting with Italian aircraft designer, Giovanni Battista Caproni, are marvellous, and Miyzaki has not shied away from going into the technical challenges Horikoshi faced in building airplanes.

The Wind Rises also introduces the fictional love interest, Naoko Satomi, who Horikoshi eventually marries. However, she dies from tuberculosis, which somewhat mimics the overall tragedy Horikoshi experiences towards his planes being used for war.

The messages are much more blunt in The Wind Rises, which I imagine was intentional as this was meant to be Miyazaki’s final film. However, I have since learned that Miyazaki has come out of retirement to direct How Do You Live?

As an artistic work, I can appreciate The Wind Rises but I confess that I found other Miyazaki films more poignant and enjoyable. For example, Porco Rosso which tells the tale of an Italian World War I fighter pilot cursed as a pig far more moving and dramatic.

Nevertheless, The Wind Rises is yet another film from Miyazaki’s heart (and likely to him, the most important), and it is a heart that is filled with art and beauty and desire for peace. You cannot help but be moved by that as you experience The Wind Rises.

8 out of 10

Anime Review: Bubble (2022)

TL;DR – Inspired by the story of The Little Mermaid, Bubble tells the story of a boy named Hibiki who lives in a flooded and abandoned Tokyo and meets a mermaid. But wait, viewers should be warned this is not some traditional fairy tale but instead meshes it with sci-fi elements and a potential apocalypse surrounding the city. Crazy premise? Yes.

Review (warning: spoilers)

A strange phenomenon has occurred that causes Tokyo to be flooded and sink into the ocean while also being enveloped in a bubble where gravity has gone funky. The phenomenon is literally an invasion of trillions of bubbles that fall from outer space. Buildings and bridges have collapsed, there are dangerous energy whirlpools, and floating (smaller) bubbles permeate the atmosphere.

Tokyo becomes a no-go zone. But some teenagers, who have lost their families in the bubble disaster, have chosen to stay along with a small number of scientists who seek to unravel the mystery of the bubbles.

From the rubble, a sport called ‘Tokyo Battlekour’ has arisen that involves two teams competing in parkour to reach a flag. Teams bet daily necessities for survival. The decimated city of Tokyo has become the perfect playground obstacle course, and the film opens to a team called Blue Blaze (BB) competing against another team to capture the flag. We are introduced to Hibiki, the ace of BB, whose parkour style and athletic ability allows him to traverse the floating bubbles in a way other athletes cannot. He’s not much of a team player though as he gets to the flag first, winning the round, then disappearing leaving his teammates to celebrate without him.

The story focuses primarily on Hibiki, who was present at Tokyo Tower when the bubble phenomenon hit. The tower has now split in two, its upper half defying gravity and floating above a cosmic cloud of red bubbles from which Hibiki periodically hears a female voice singing.

In an attempt to find the source of the voice, Hibiki uses parkour skills to climb the tower only to be prevented by the cosmic cloud and thrown back into the ocean. He almost drowns but is saved by a blue bubble, which combines with the bubbles of his final breath to form a human girl (or mermaid as viewed by Hibiki before he falls unconscious). The girl joins the BB family, and they give her the name Uta.

For those of you who have read “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, Bubbles draws inspiration from this material and even goes so far as to have one scene where one of the scientists reads to Uta the same fairy tale. Uta doesn’t know how to be human but slowly learns to speak and eat. She has a natural ability for parkour, likely attributed to her bubble form, and she falls in love with Hibiki who she sees as her prince. And just like “The Little Mermaid”, Uta’s family (i.e., the cosmic cloud surrounding Tokyo Tower) is none to pleased and wants her to abandon the human world and return home.

An inciting incident occurs when one of the scientists of the BB family is kidnapped by a rival parkour team known as The Morticians and used as part of the prize for whoever captures the flag. The BB team race against the Morticians and succeed to get to the flag first, but in the process Hibiki grabs Uta’s hand and we see it starts to turn to foam. This reflects the tragic ending in the fairy tale where the mermaid transforms to foam when she returns to the sea.

After the Tokyo Battlekour, Hibiki confronts Uta and gives her a seashell pendant. There he confesses his feelings to her, which causes the cosmic cloud to be none too happy and commences a repeat of the bubble phenomenon seeking to sink the rest of Tokyo into the ocean.

The climax involves Uta willing to sacrifice herself, return to the cosmic cloud and preventing any further devastation. Of course, Hibiki and the rest of the BB team look to save her. And although Hibiki manages to reach her, escaping with her in his arms, the rest of Uta slowly begins to turn to foam.

Uta ultimately prevents the cosmic cloud from destroying Tokyo, and the giant bubble enveloping the city evaporates. In the aftermath, Hibiki has to watch as Uta turns completely to foam but not before she thanks him for giving her the chance to be human. To have a human heart that can feel love and loss. When she disappears, all that is left behind is the seashell pendant he gave her.

The ending sees the city commence rebuilding. Tokyo Battlekour lives on and Hibiki and company continue compete in matches. Blue bubble remnants still float around the city and the song that Uta sang can be heard by Hibiki indicating that her spirit lives on.

Overall, the story is rather abstract and the invasion of bubbles is never explained. My view is the bubbles are sentient aliens, but why they came to earth is unknown. Not that it needs to be explained because it is more about what it means to be human and to experience feelings, which is represented by the bubble-turned-Uta character.

In a way, she ends up being more human because Hibiki spends most of the movie as a stoic character who doesn’t seem to want to spend any time with anyone. We later discover that as a child, Hibiki suffered from hyperacusis; a type of auditory hypersensitivity meaning ordinary sounds are too loud and cause discomfort and pain. Living in a big city like Tokyo meant that a trip outside would be overwhelming. His mother tried to find a cure for him but failed, and Hibiki interpreted these events as meaning that he had failed his mother. He now wears headphone earmuffs to dampen outside noise. When Tokyo was abandoned and encased in a giant bubble, it became the perfect place for him as all that noise disappeared.

The fact that Uta teaches him about the good things being human and to accept that painful things will also happen in life is the transformation that Hibiki undergoes by film’s end.

The animation from Wit Studios (who also brought us other great anime like “Attack on Titan” and “The Great Pretender”) is nothing short of astounding. The parkour action scenes are thrilling and the character animation (especially close-ups of their eyes) are exquisite. The colour is vibrant and even though the idea of bubbles invading a city is absurd, there is no denying the animation is beautiful.

In the end, you need to dig deep to see the meaning behind the story, which is a shame because you really want to feel the meaning and not have to try to decipher it all afterwards.

Bubble is a visual testimony to the greatness of animation in anime even if the plot is somewhat weak.

7.5 out of 10

Anime Review: From Up On Poppy Hill (2011)

TL;DR – the story of a post-war Japan focusing on Umi and Shun, two teenagers looking to understand their pasts while also trying to look forward to their future.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Kokuriko-zaka Kara (aka From Up On Poppy Hill) is an atmospheric tale animated with love by Studio Ghibli, scripted by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, and directed by Goro Miyazaki.

The film opens to a new day dawning on Poppy Hill overlooking a seaside port, and we watch high-school girl, Umi Matsuzaki, awaken and commence her morning routine. The sense this is a bygone time in Japan is confirmed as we watch her work in the kitchen preparing breakfast for her siblings and grandmother. The rice cooker, gas stove, kitchen layout, and how Umi goes about washing clothes, all evokes a time period before the wonders of computers and appliances became common place. Among her duties, she also walks outside to the front of their boarding home, Coquelicot Manor, to raise signal flags every day.

My kids would still be asleep by the time Umi has finished her morning chores, demonstrating a maturity beyond her years. She then gets dressed to go to school. When she arrives, a friend in class shows her a newspaper article (yes, this is definitely an era before smart phones and internet) of a poem that talks about a girl who raises flags every morning to the boats that pass by. Umi is surprised and a little embarrassed by the attention, all the more so because the poem asks why she sends her thoughts up to the sky.

At lunch time, the boys at the school unfurl banners around an old house known as the ‘Latin Quarter’ that is part of the school and used for club activities. The Latin Quarter is scheduled for demolition, and certain students are protesting. Thus, we meet Shun Kazama , who performs a stunt by jumping off the old house into a small pool while his classmates take photographs. Shun works on the high school newspaper, is attempting to prevent the demolition, and seeks to build awareness that people shouldn’t solely focus on the future and forget the past.

This is something that Umi can relate to. Her father was a sailor, the one responsible for teaching her how to use signal flags, and when she was younger, she raised these flags to help guide her father home. However, during the Korean war, his father’s ship sank after hitting an underwater mine, but Umi has continued to raise the flags ever since. The importance of holding onto and honouring his memory lies within her.

Umi suspects that Shun is the one who wrote the poem, but initially is unable to find a moment to ask him. Instead, she ends up being enlisted to help the newspaper to help transcribe articles for print. Through these interactions, a growing attraction builds between Umi and Shun.

The scene where Umi returns home late to prepare dinner and discovers she is missing pork for the curry she wants to make results in Shun giving her a lift on his bicycle down to the bottom of Poppy Hill where the markets are. It’s a lovely scene in a film that has all the trademarks of the Ghibli detail.

From these opening events, I thought the story would be straight forward. The club students rally together to try and save the Latin Quarter and, in the process, Umi and Shun would fall in love. And indeed, when Umi suggests that they clean up the old building to demonstrate to the principal it is worth keeping and still holds cultural and historical significance, the scenes of the student body undertaking the Latin Quarter makeover is spectacular and a feast for the eyes.

The soundtrack also aids in the feel of the film as the songs and music reminded me of that era; a time when life was, in a sense, simpler.

However, an unexpected twist manifests itself when Umi shows an old photograph of his father. Shun looks at the photo and clearly he knows something that Umi doesn’t. The next day, Shun completely ignores Umi, much to her confusion.

Eventually the change in Shun’s demeanour is explained. Shun confronts his father, Akio Kazama, with the assertion that Umi’s father, Yuuichirou, is actually his biological father, which would make Akio his adoptive father.

Akio Kazama explains that shortly after the end of World War II, he and his wife lost their newborn child. Yuuichirou turned up at their doorstep with baby Shun and the Kazamas adopted him.

So, now it appears that Shun and Umi are actually brother and sister, which would make all previous attraction very icky indeed. When Umi is presented with this revelation, it confuses her but Shun says they must find a way to only be friends.

You can’t help but feel for Umi. She’s caring, a hard worker, and has held the pieces of her heart together as best she can since her father’s death. Just when you think she might open her heart again, it gets dashed against the rocks. Much to her credit, she perseveres and seeks to be Shun’s friend even with these tumult of feelings playing around in the background.

But wait, it gets more complicated. When Umi’s mother, Ryouko, returns from America, and Umi asks her about Shun, she reveals that Shun is actually the son of another man, Hiroshi Tachibana. Hiroshi and Yuuichirou were best friends. Hiroshi died in an accident aboard a repatriation ship, his wife died in chidlbirth, and all of Shun’s other relatives perished when Nagasaki was hit by the nuclear bomb. Yuuichirou did not want to give Shun up to an orphanage, so he gave him to the Kazamas.

I was relieved at this outcome because prior to Ryouko’s explanation, I was thinking that Yuuichirou wasn’t the ideal father that Umi made him out to be. What father gives away their newborn son to another couple? Turns out Yuuichirou wasn’t the biological father, which means Umi and Shun aren’t siblings.

The Latin Quarter ends up being a side story and thankfully is saved from demolition. It is a lovely sequence when Tokumaru, the school board’s chairman, is convinced to visit the renovated building and is impressed by what the students have done. He chooses to build elsewhere to preserve the Latin Quarter, and the students celebrate.

When Umi and Shun get called away to meet a captain of a ship who was friends with both Yuuichirou and Hiroshi, he confirms what Ryouko said. Though we don’t see Umi and Shun fall in love, we can safely assume they decide to take the next step knowing that they are not at all blood related.

Beautifully animated, and with a surprisingly more complex plot than I anticipated, From Up On Poppy Hill is a moving story capturing a post-war Japan and the impacts World War II had on the generations that followed.

8.5 out of 10

Anime Review: Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

TL;DR – When three homeless citizens of Tokyo discover an abandoned baby in a back alley, a chain reaction of events is triggered revealing their lives and regrets. And quite possibly a path to redemption.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Like many of the largest cities in the world, Tokyo is a place where those that wish to disappear can do so with barely anyone batting an eyelid. And if you’re the homeless then you end up invisible and forgotten trying to survive on the streets.

Stories about the homeless are generally sombre affairs, so I was somewhat hesitant to pick up Tokyo Godfathers. If you ever watched Grave of the Fireflies, then you will understand what I mean. But I have to say that Satoshi Kon’s film is not only full of surprises, but it also conveys a sense of hope that is not mired in saccharine ideas of what constitutes a ‘happy family’.

To point, there is no such thing as a ‘happy family’. Families are messy, relationships can be filled with emotional struggles that can result in drastic (and often tragic) choices. But families can also be filled with a sense of love, understanding and forgiveness that comes about through genuine connection (and often struggle).

Such is the story in Tokyo Godfathers which introduces us to Gin (an alcoholic), Hana (a transgender woman), and Miyuki (a runaway teenage girl). Their humanity, flaws, idiosyncrasies, and histories of how they ended up living on the streets of Tokyo are slowly brought to light for the viewer as the film progresses.

Set on Christmas Eve, our trio are rummaging through garbage only to discover an abandoned baby that they name Kiyoko. The elements of dark humour, mainly through the banter and interactions of our trio, will draw you in as we watch them fumble and debate what to do with baby Kiyoko. The sensible decision is to deliver the baby to the police, but instead Hana insists on keeping the newborn and finding her parents.

The story moves along through a series of coincidences that one can only construe as fated and results in many revelations about our trio’s past.

We learn that Miyuki ran away because her policeman father was overbearing, and when her cat went missing, she believed it was her father that got rid of it. This resulted in a violent altercation where Miyuki stabbed him and then ran away. She now feels she can never return home.

Hana used to work at a club as a singer and became violent towards a drunken patron when he criticised how awful her singing was. She then quit and left with her lover, Ken, but when he died from slipping on a bar of soap (I kid you not) she found herself on the streets.

Initially, Gin tells Hana and Miyuki that his wife and daughter are dead. This turns out to be a lie. He had a gambling problem and drove his family into debt. Ashamed he ran away even though his wife and daughter tried unsuccessfully for several years to find him.

Along with our trio, we learn about the many broken lives and families that are somehow intertwined with them or with baby Kiyoko. This becomes a central motif. Tokyo Godfathers is not only a film about people without homes but also people without families. And how Gin, Hana and Miyuki come to be a family unit in their own right even if they argue, bicker and, at times, hate each other.

Coincidences throughout this film are intentional, and a way to show that whether we know it or not, we are all connected in some way by the thinnest of threads.

The funny and dark comic moments (the scenes where Hana gets a taxi driver to pursue a truck stolen by a woman who has Kiyoko is hilarious) are offset by depictions of humanity’s failings towards the homeless. For example, there is one scene where Gin gets beaten up by a bunch of teenagers just for kicks. Another where the three are on a train and all the other passengers are holding their noses because of the stink and attempting to ignore them.

The story is packed full of threads that all eventually tie together in the end, even if its a ragged tapestry as opposed to a beautiful quilt. In a way, the film is all the better because of its imperfections.

As I watched Tokyo Godfathers, there’s a real Cowboy Bebop feel to the animation. The characters especially are not your stereotype big-eyed anime characters but are grounded more in realism. Yet, there are scenes that are distinctly anime and are very well done. For example, when Hana lets loose at Gin in front of his estranged daughter about all his lies, her expressions are priceless. Viewers have to pay attention as much to the background and surroundings as they do the main characters.

Complex, rich in detail in both plot and animation, and a totally quirky Christmas tale that will have you believing in miracles that aren’t shaped as sugar cubes or tied up in a bow. It has been a while since an anime flick has surprised me as much as this one.

9.5 out of 10

Anime Review: Komi Can’t Communicate (2021)

TL;DR – Komi enters high school and immediately is the admiration and envy of every school student and teacher. She exudes an aura that causes everyone to be put in awe simply by walking into a room. The only problem is she suffers from severe social anxiety disorder.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Hitohito Tadano is average in every way. All he wants to do is get through high school without causing waves. But when he discovers in class, he is sitting next to Komi Shouko, a female student that has everyone enraptured, he becomes the lightning rod for jealousy as everyone vies for Komi’s attention.

However, Komi has her own inner struggle. She freezes and is unable to speak whenever anyone tries to talk to her or gives her attention. People interpret her social anxiety in different ways. All of them wrong.

Some interpret her silence as an ice queen views her subjects, they adore her stoic beauty and serve her willingly. Others view her silence as they are not even worthy to be in her presence and suitably scamper away after attempts at conversation with her. In virtually all circumstances, she is viewed as a goddess beyond the reach of mere mortals, and this is humorously reinforced in one episode where initially she is nominated for class president, but then everyone in her class interprets her silence that the title of class president being beneath her and instead coin her as ‘god’.

The only person that is able to get to the heart of the matter is Tadano. In the first episode, after class has finished, Tadano and Komi find themselves as the last to leave, and what starts off as an awkward exchange by writing messages on the blackboard with chalk, ends up being a confession by Komi explaining her extreme social anxiety, and how deeply she actually wants to make friends and be able to communicate.

Tadano vows to help her make one hundred friends.

As a comedy, the series reaches the point of ludicrous due to the exaggerated reactions from Komi and her classmates. Each character has extreme traits, which downplays Komi’s social anxiety disorder. A sample of the outlandish cast includes:

  • Ren Yamai whose obsession with Komi borders on the pathological, and at one point, she kidnaps Tadano who she believes is getting to close to Komi and looks like she is going to kill him and bury him in the woods.
  • Himiko Agari who is also an anxious girl like Komi but has a masochistic side to her and wants to be Komi’s pet ‘dog’. She also has a didactic (almost religious level) of knowledge when it comes to ramen (i.e. the best places to eat it, the rules and etiquette to ramen etc.)
  • Makeru Yadano who sees Komi as her rival and wants to best her in all things. This includes an eye sight test where Yadano believes Komi is cheating because she is not answering out loud (Yadano doesn’t realise that Komi is using hand gestures and can’t see them because she is standing behind Komi).
  • Najimi Osana who actually attempted to be Komi’s friend during childhood but interpreted her silence as standoffish. Najimi has a tendency to switch genders. Flashbacks show Najimi wearing boy clothing but in high school wears a girls uniform.

The only ‘normal’ person is Tadano in that he is average in every way. But we learn that this is intentional because in junior high he pretended to be a ‘cool kid’ but realised that everyone thought it was cringey.

All in all, Komi Can’t Communicate has some touching moments but does not go as deep as some of the more magical slice-of-life animes that I have seen such as Usagi Drop, Non Non Biyori, and Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai.

It seeks to insert more humour at the expense of depth, which I found watchable if silly. The end result is that this anime could have explored social anxiety disorders with much more emotional punch but instead takes a safe route to be more comic.

6.5 out of 10