Friday, 24 November 2017

The Amazing World of Gumball season 3

Gumball is my go-to show to watch at the moment. It’s such exuberant, silly fun with such likeable central characters and such joy in the medium of animation. Not every episode is a hit but enough of them are that I’ll always have fun in any viewing session.

The season starts in a slightly sad way as the original voice actors pass the torch to the new kids. Replacing kid actors is generally necessary in these kinds of shows, though they seem to be letting Jeremy Shada keep voicing Finn long-term since he replaced his brother in Adventure Time. In fairness, by the time the voice work for Gumball season 3 started, the boys’ voices had changed a lot, even when they weren’t exaggerating it, and it was nice to even give them a send-off rather than just making the switch behind the scenes. I’m not generally that keen on meta-humour dominating a whole episode, and the season finale where the cast contemplate selling out for money didn’t work for me, but in this case it was sweet and worked well as a pretty original concept.

Otherwise, the season is mostly more of the same. The kids get into scrapes with various classmates and family members, struggle with allergies, try to watch scary movies without Anaïs, or think up an imaginary friend. The show does a great job of taking tried-and-tested concepts and subverting them, or sometimes affectionately pastiching them. The show also does the surprise anticlimactic ending even better than Adventure Time.

But this season doesn’t just coast along doing the same old things. There’s a fair bit of character development. Some background characters get more fleshed out, with Sarah and Alan getting episodes centred on them, and one episode is even centred on ‘extras’. There’s also quite an interesting side-story where uninteresting background characters disappear into ‘The Void’, with one not only being rescued from there but another becoming a much more major player when he manages to escape.

Most significant, though, is the development of Penny. Initially Gumball’s comedy crush, the two of them have genuinely gotten closer, culminating in Penny literally coming out of her peanut shell. It’s a very interesting development and it’s sweet how the couple are still so awkward and it doesn’t end up taking over Gumball’s entire life. Perhaps more interesting is the effect it has on Darwin. He’s initially very jealous and protective of his best friend being taken away from him, and his protestations of love for Gumball get pretty ardent. It walks a nice middle ground where potentially gay kids could see him as a perfectly normal boy with a gay crush (albeit on his adoptive brother, which is a bit weird), yet it’s also completely possible to see his devotion as a ‘bromance’. Religious groups can’t go crazy about it corrupting youth but at the same time it leans towards the normalisation of if not homosexuality, then dismantling the limits of what can be portrayed on kids’ TV in terms of appropriate expression for boys.

Which is not to claim Gumball is spearheading a cultural revolution. It’s just a nice background touch to a smart, entertaining and inventive TV cartoon. Which I will certainly continue to watch.  

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

思い出のマーニー/ Memories’ Marnie / When Marnie Was There

I’ve been slipping lately as a Ghibli completest. There are a few movies I haven’t gotten around to seeing in the last few years, and one of them was this, When Marnie Was There – the second movie from Yonebashi ‘Maro’ Hiromasa, who seems to be carving out a niche for himself adapting whimsical, gentle-paced English children’s books from a generation ago. With Arrietty and this movie, I thought that was simply what he was instructed to do by Miyazaki, given that those books are on his favourites list, but since Yonebashi and various others from Ghibli have fractured off to found Studio Ponoc, he seems to be continuing the trend even outside Miyazaki’s influence with Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Yes, When Marnie Was There is an adaptation of a 1967 novel by Joan G. Robinson set in Norfolk. Honestly, though it won some awards and was previously adapted for Jackanory, I’d never heard of it and it seems to have been out of print until interest was revived by this adaptation. The sample chapters I’ve read show a rather unlikeable protagonist and lots of patronising and overdone renderings of the Norfolk dialect, but presumably the protagonist gets more likeable and the story itself is a sweet and well-crafted one.

This adaptation, transplanted to Hokkaido and its comfortable-looking temperate summers (definitely considering spending a lot of time there next year), is remarkably well-done and tasteful. It doesn’t have the bombast of Miyazaki’s most prominent films and won’t make anything like their cultural impact, but it’s a wistful and sweet story in the vein of Omoide Poroporo and thus makes it into my top five Ghibli films. Yonebashi seems to have managed to capture that middle ground between the supernatural fantasies of Miyazaki and the everyday dramas of Takahata, and the film benefits greatly from that.

Twelve-year-old Anna doesn’t fit in. She’s adopted and feels distant from her family, doesn’t make friends easily, sometimes says very rude things when she feels cornered, and as a girl apparently with some foreign blood – visible mostly in her eye colour- feels like an outsider in her native land. She’s also asthmatic, and the doctor thinks the air of the Hokkaido countryside will do her good, so she goes to stay with relatives by the sea.

In the new town, she’s drawn to a strange mansion down on the marshes. She meets a girl called Marnie who is free-spirited, looks like a French doll and is virtually held as a captive in her own home by her household staff.  Anna and Marnie become fast friends, to the point they profess their love for one another and it borders on the adorably homoerotic. Anna is in some ways girlish but with her short hair, usual choice of shorts and rather headstrong attitude has very appealing androgynous characteristics. Marnie is more classically girlish, usually wearing pretty dresses and loving to dance and twirl, but also gets down to some serious rowing when she needs to. They’re lovely characters, suit one another very well and their intimate friendship is a joy to see unfolding, even after the twists are revealed and we come to understand everything.

The film is understated and beautifully-done. Movements and expressions are rendered in a lovely way and the setting is striking, even if but for a windmill changed for a grain silo, this could very easily have still been Norfolk. With a Japanese matsuri. The two lead characters reminded me strangely of Shinku and Souseiseki from Rozen Maiden, which was sweet.

I think this will mature not as one of Ghibli’s most iconic films, but one of their more mature and understated. Certainly one I’ll enjoy rewatching in the future. 

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Amazing World of Gumball: Season 2

In the five years since I watched the first season of Gumball, it got a lot more popular. Clips from the show occasionally pop up on Facebook, going a little viral. It’s fully incorporated into Cartoon Network promotional material like its 25th anniversary clip. It’s won a number of awards and generally entered into public consciousness to a much greater degree. I’m pretty sure it will be remembered nostalgically in a decade just like Powerpuff Girls and Fairly Odd Parents are remembered today.

I actually watched a fair chunk of season 2 before I stopped for a few years. Back then it was hard to find anywhere to watch the show. But I absolutely loved the episode The Job, where the show’s penchant for mixing animation styles is taken to extremes. It’s a beautiful, fun episode with a whole lot of weirdness going on, and one of the most inventive episodes of a show animation-wise that can ever have aired on TV.

Broadly, though, the show continues in the same way as the first season. Short, exuberant 10-minute episodes cover things like Gumball feuding with Banana Joe over a chewed pen, going to see the simple life of a rather Amish-esque potato or getting embarrassed over a stupid video of Gumball going viral.

The Watterson parents get more fleshed out here. Richard becomes a little less irritating and more sympathetic, even doing stupid things like getting into petty quarrels with his neighbour or being too wet to kick out the partiers who take over his house. We also get an insight into how he became the way he is, with an appearance from his overbearing mother. As for Nicole, that tough-love competitive spirit of hers reaches extremes, first in how far she pushes Gumball in a paintball game, and later in her own refusal to lose, which develops into her being some incredibly strong beast more or less unbeatable in the established world.

Other characters get more exploration too. Hector becomes more than just some feet and shins. Carrie shows more of a dark side. Insane new girl Sarah gets her introduction, though only seems a little obsessive in this season – and brings with her a very amusing set of friends from another school who look and move like 70s cartoons. Another human introduced is Santa, played with aplomb by Brian Blessed, national treasure.

Then there’s Gumball and Darwin, who were pretty well-developed from the start. They remain two of the most joyful characters to watch in any cartoon – impulsive, selfish and fun-loving Gumball paired with cute, sweet-natured, caring Darwin. In one episode they explore their dynamic, Darwin wanting to take the lead instead of following as the straight guy, and it’s an interesting examination of their dynamic. They’re still totally adorable, and their relationship is still very often homoerotic and has no qualms subverting gender expectations – the boys are quite happy to dress up as girls for their fake TV show (adorably rendered in anime style by Mike Inel online), hyperventilate into one another’s mouths or comfort each other by hugging and stroking. It’s totally adorable.

And on that note, this season pushes more boundaries than ever before. What this show gets away with is considerably more surprising than Adventure Time’s ‘Get in his pants’ joke. Of course everything is only implied – double entendres like “Did you see what he did to that guy’s cherry”, or visual boundary-pushing like Gumball and the balloon boy Alan meeting in the boys’ bathroom and Gumball having to reinflate him by, well, blowing him up. And then coming out of the bathroom looking decidedly disturbed. It pushes at what’s permissible and that’s one of its strengths.

Of all the cartoons currently airing targeted at kids, it’s the one that appeals the most to me. As an animation fan, in terms of humour, in the cuteness of the characters, in the unpredictability of the episodes and in terms of subverting expectations. The last two episodes in particular poke fun at the ideas of a whole world being made of living things and how horrific that would be, and the idea of cartoons resetting after each episode without consequences.

Funny, easy to watch, cute, likeable and inventive, I’ll definitely carry on watching Gumball

Friday, 3 November 2017

君の名は/ Kimi no Na Wa / Your Name

After a longer time than expected, I got around to watching Kimi no Na Wa, Shinkai Makoto’s breakout masterpiece. And I have to say, I see why it succeeded where his other films were restricted to fandom and, to an extent, arthouse crowds. I’ve never been a great fan of his work, which while often artful and in his early days a remarkable achievement for what was basically an individual, never connected with me emotionally.

Yes, what Kimi no Na Wa at last manages, finally launching Shinkai into the leagues of Miyazaki, Takahata and Hosoda, is to have heart. The story is a strange one and the gets bogged down in a rather artificial drama in the final act, but what really matters is that the characters are likeable and compelling – plus the setting has interesting things to say about very different lifestyles in a changing Japan.

I was a bit confused by the title of this film. Why na and not namae? I’ve heard a variety of explanations from Japanese people – ‘It’s more formal and sounds more like a real title’; ‘It has the nuance of your full name, because they only knew given names’; ‘It feels uncomfortable to say “Kimi no Namae Wa?”’ (even though that’s the climactic line of dialogue in the actual script’; and maybe most convincingly, Shinkai just used the title of an old radio drama from 1952, adapted into a movie trilogy in 1953-4 that was a huge hit back in the day.

But this is not an adaptation of an older work. It’s an original story that on the surface is about a boy and a girl who swap bodies and live in each other’s shoes for a day. Not just one day, but over and over again. At first they think they’re dreaming, but begin to communicate with one another through phone journals and other messages, and eventually try to meet one another – though there is a lot that stands in the way of their coming together.

A lot of the drama is rather superficial, with a whole lot of made-up rules for this magical circumstance that it’s implied is connected to the power of a local god. But that’s okay, because the overall narrative is really just a vehicle for two things – the exploration of two characters, and their very different circumstances. She is set to inherit the temple and trains as a shrine maiden in a somewhat stifling small town where everyone knows one another and the girls at school sometimes pick on her for having to do embarrassing things like make sake the traditional chew-rice-and-spit-it-out way. He is a busy city boy living in a small apartment and working as a waiter in a restaurant, and despite his pretty face very inexperienced with women. Judging from his reaction to an excursion, he’s also craving more spiritual experiences.

It’s oddly cute to see Taki, the boy, with Mitsuha’s feminine mannerisms, very well-observed by the animators. Interesting that we’re introduced to him like that, too. Observing gender differences is far less important, however, than observing the social differences between the very different lives these two lead.

The film is also very beautiful. There’s some slightly jarring cel-shaded CG, but mostly this is a real visual treat. Glorious panning shots, intensely detailed backgrounds, masterfully-captured natural phenomena and even some explosions make for a feast for the eyes.

And while it’s somewhat on-the-fly and arbitrary, the film’s narrative makes for some great emotional highs and lows and builds to a good strong climax. Combined with really likeable characters and meaningful stakes, the result was good.

I see that a live-action remake is in the works. Honestly, I don’t see what it would add. In fact, I suspect it will lose the beauty and the carefully-observed physical comedy. A great step forward in Shinkai’s career.