Friday, 30 December 2016

The Secret Life of Pets

There was quite a lot of marketing for The Secret Life of Pets in Japan, and I was tempted to go, but ultimately it wasn’t a must-see, so I let it pass me by. It wasn’t even a priority film to watch on the plane – it only made it to my return journey! Still, it was a fun, simple animated movie that followed a formula and had some entertaining moments.

The plot is more or less Toy Story with pets. When the owners are out, the pets will have fun gatherings and parties. Chubby-faced Jack Russell terrier Max loves his owner very much, though. When a big, tough, brash new dog arrives on the scene, he’s very jealous. That jealousy leads to the two getting lost together, having a lot of scrapes, meeting a lot of rejected pets and ultimately learning to love one another. Yes, the parallels to Toy Story are hard to miss.

Otherwise, it hangs on its characters. Silly fluffy pom Gidget comes close to carrying the movie, by turns adorable, insane and hilarious, but the central duo are mostly on the dull side, the comedy tough-guy rabbit is an overdone joke by this stage and the funny old Pops was an enjoyable character but very one-note.

The film stays entertaining but never tugs at the heartstrings or evokes more than a small chuckle. Bland, derivative and thoroughly mediocre, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a refreshing, inoffensive watch. 

Monday, 26 December 2016

バケモノの子 / Bakemono no Ko / The Monster’s Child / The Boy and the Beast

Kimi no Na Wa has changed a lot of things in the anime scene. Until it took Shinkai Makoto to his new elevated place as the perceived successor to Miyazaki Hayao, it was Mamoru Hosoda who looked to be able to take that title, and indeed remains in my view the more established and consistent of the two.

And while not the smash hit of Kimi no Na Wa, this movie made a big stir in Japan. It was well-marketed and well-received, with strong box office figures and positive critical response. It also seemed like my sort of movie, a coming-of-age tale about an acerbic young lad taken in by a monster to train in martial arts.

Yet it didn’t have the resonance that Kimi no Na Wa is enjoying, nor was it a breakthrough. Anime fans enjoyed it, but it didn’t go much beyond that. And having seen it now, I think that’s appropriate. There’s a lot here that works very well, a lot of heart and a lot of imagination, but it falls well short of Summer Wars and remains too distant and too by-the-numbers to inspire love from a wider audience.

The story is simple – little 9-year-old Ren runs away from home after his mother’s death. His father is missing and he dislikes his guardians, so becomes homeless. Fortunately for him, he’s spotted by Kumatetsu, a powerful but irresponsible beast creature, and taken in on a whim as a disciple. Taken in as a lonely human in a world of beasts, with a monkey and pig advising him and giving something of an echo of Journey to the West, Ren is given the new name Kyuuta and eventually becomes formidable. Unsurprisingly, he’s not the only one with a similar background, though, and might have to confront the darkness in the hearts of others.

The core of the movie, the squabbling, eventual respect and finally strong bond between Kumatetsu and Ren, works very well. They argue, come to understand one another, and finally rely on each other to be complete. Unfortunately, the rest of the story hung around this core doesn’t cohere nearly so well. The love story is tepid and slow, Kumatetsu’s rival doesn’t get the development he needs and the antagonist is much too remote and peripheral to carry a meaningful climax to the story. There’s also no big pay-off here: it essentially feels like Ren ends up turning his back on everything that makes him who he is, and there was way more scope for examining how he could find a unique place in the human world afterwards.

Ultimately, unlike Summer Wars or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and even more so than Wolf Children, the film doesn’t manage to clearly stamp its identity throughout its running time, and thus falls short of hitting hard and being truly memorable. If he wants his Studio Chizu to be a new powerhouse, Hosoda is going to have to up his game – especially with Shinkai now a few steps ahead.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

ハイキュー!! / Haikyuu!! Season 3

Given how much can be covered in an entire series of an anime, it feels almost redundant to write about 10 episodes of a sports anime covering just one volleyball game. The previous seasons have been 25 episodes, so this felt more like a series of specials than a full season. However, following the underdogs as they go up against the formidable Shiratorizawa was certainly fun.

Tragedy hit the series as Tanaka Kazunari, voice actor for coach Ukai, passed away during the production of this season. He delivered some fantastic final lines and his replacement of course doesn’t sound quite as he should, and it’s a poignant note to remember this production by.

This season is focused on the single game, but succeeds very nicely in the two core strengths of Haikyuu – bringing new light to the established cast, and introducing some highly compelling oddballs on the rival side. The intrigue of Shiratorizawa comes not through the powerhouse giant Ushijima, but the bizarre-looking jester-like Satori. Sports anime and manga have long thrived on being able to pitch the heroes against oddballs, be they the super-powered children of Inazuma 11 and Saki or the tactical mind-game masters of Hikaru no Go.

But this season is effectively Tsukishima’s time to shine, which is great to see. From detached, sarcastic cynic too afraid to commit his all, he’s become the team’s strategic cornerstone. It’s pretty great to see that change, while retaining his bluntness.

Hinata remains the reason I watch the show, though. With his boundless enthusiasm, determination, ability to shock and occasional blind luck, he’s what gets under the skins of the opposing team and what makes Karasuno an oddball team. He’s everything I want from a shounen protagonist and I have to say that I can’t get nearly as interested as the rest of the fandom in all these random captains and setters when they just don’t seem nearly as compelling as what’s at the centre of this story.

Catchy opening and ending songs, solid production, a pretty aesthetic and very strong vocal performances made for ten enjoyable episodes that are guaranteed not to be the last in this story. And I’m very pleased by that.

僕だけがいない街 / Boku Dake ga Inai Machi / A Town that Lacks Just Me / Erased

Anime by and large has been lacking ambition lately. Possibly it’s just that I’ve been watching less of it, but there are relatively few titles that people bring up as challenging or sophisticated these days, in a world of fanservice and idol anime. But there’s still noitaminA, the programming slot that usually at least attempts to do something a cut above the average.

And so it was with Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, which takes a more serious seinen tone with its murder-mystery storyline and brings together themes and modes of a variety of recent hits. Directed by Itou Tomohiko, buoyed up by his successes with Sword Art Online but having rather more in common with his breakthrough work with Hosoda Mamoru – in particular TheGirl Who Leapt Through Time, this series was also well-marketed. My own interest was piqued by a large and attractive poster for the show in Shinjuku station. It looked like a cute coming-of-age story and over this Christmas break, I binge-watched the 12 episodes very quickly.

To be honest, it’s not what I hoped it would be. It aims for the cleverness and paranoia of Monster with the mind games of Death Note and the cute, smart kids in peril of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 and some of the glib, vaguely Murakami-esque detached observations of Bakemonogatari. While there are some superbly-done parts of Boku Dake ga Inai Machi, ultimately I don’t think it hangs together nearly well enough, nor are all the extraneous parts necessary.

In a convoluted time-travelling plot, our hero Fujinuma Satoru has a magical power. When something terrible is going to happen, he inadvertently goes back in time a few minutes so that he can put it right, saving lives and avoiding disasters. This is presented in a very direct echo of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time using film effects. When a far more dramatic crime erupts, he is sent back much further, to his elementary school – where the events that led to the recent crime were set in motion. This is an interesting, if not particularly original, set-up – Satoru is a 29-year-old in a 10-year-old’s body and must investigate a set of child abductions to save himself and his loved ones in the future.  

However, this whole section didn’t ring true at all. Satoru doesn’t have much personality beyond an endearing tendency to speak his thoughts out loud and then get embarrassed, and there’s no exploration whatsoever of the strangeness and hilarity that must come from a 29-year-old, with the mind of a 29-year-old, going back into his 10/11-year-old body. Indeed, the kids around him, with only a couple of exceptions, all speak in the weirdest artificial diction, almost all of them preternaturally smart and basically miniature adults.

The pacing of the series is all off-kilter because the set-up is saving the first child who will be abducted. This not only rings false when the danger to one of Satoru’s closest friends who will be the second victim is barely even raised, but creates an awkward set of overlapping arcs where even if the problem is solved we then lose the sense of triumph and get an uncomfortable jolt of then moving to the next stage of the plan because the murderer hasn’t been dealt with. The romantic undertones are half-baked because the script calls for a cute budding love story but also occasional reminders that this is a 29-year-old mind starting a romance with a 10-year-old girl. And ultimately there’s only so much satisfaction that can be derived from a crime detective story where ‘How can you predict what’s going to happen?’ can only be answered with ‘Because of my magical time-travelling powers.’ The idea of eyes flashing red with fury or malevolence doesn’t work either, and there’s no attempt at sophistication when giving the bad guy motives.

There are things I certainly much admired here. The show does an amazing job of examining mother-child relationships, with some of the warmest moments are simple family affairs. There’s at least an original, if unlikely, ending arc to finish things off and further complicate the timeline. I enjoyed the dynamics of Satoru’s gang of schoolmates and wanted to see them developed more. And I did enjoy how the series was drawn and animated, which was very reminiscent of A1’s big-screen debut, Welcome to the Space Show. But I have to say, I hoped for much more, and feel that the same things have been done much better elsewhere. 

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Inside Out

I doubt Inside Out will be remembered as one of Pixar's best. Certainly I didn't see it in the cinema and unlike Wall-E or Up or Finding Dory, I barely saw it discussed on social media or amongst my friends. There was some merchandising about, but the colourful stylised designs of the film translated to some ugly toys.

Personally, I took a bit of a dislike to the concept, because it's so unoriginal. The idea of little people inside a person's head controlling them isn't new - for one example, I used to read The Numskulls first in The Beezer and later in The Beano.

But I watched this expecting Pixar to take the concept and make it into something really fantastic, and they certainly managed that. For this concept, there are some very beautiful sections of this film.
11-year-old Riley is a happy kid who loves her family and sports, until a move to the city uproots everything. Her inner life goes awry as Joy, hitherto the main driving force of her life, and Sadness, until now only seldom influential in a young life, end up on a quest through the often bizarre inner life of a young girl, finding both adventure and tragedy on the way as a difficult time threatens to change a little girl's personality forever.

While it's a staple of manga and a bit of a cliché, self-sacrifice always gets strong emotions from me, and a very fine example features here, a single moment with unlikely characters that significantly raised my impressions of this story. Joy, rather Tinkerbell-like by design and capable of a full range of emotions (who's controlling the controllers?) is a likeable central character, and especially the dream sequences have some funny moments.

The small stakes here and lack of epic scope limit the universal appeal, but like Cars and Ratatouille, this is another Pixar film that manages to be strong despite not having such a strong concept, manages to be highly entertaining.