Friday, 27 July 2018

メアリと魔女の花 / Meari to Majo no Hana / Mary and the Witch’s Flower

It’s entirely by design that everybody looked at publicity materials for Mary and the Witch’s Flower and thought, ‘Oh, Studio Ghibli have a new film coming out?’ It looks just like a Ghibli film. And so it should, with Arrietty and Marnie director Yonebayashi Hiromasa at the helm and a number of his collaborators from those films present and correct. It’s also drawn in the Ghibli house style of art that, let’s face it, is Miyazaki’s style as developed from the Toei Animation aesthetic – but was unambiguously adopted as a house style by all the other directors including Miyazaki’s great and sadly departed senior, Takahata. But Ghibli this is not. It seems like the great animation house has given up trying to create a new figurehead director and is winding up feature animation production. So the young man who got to direct two of the most recent Ghibli films and who seemed to be such a good fit because he was meek and malleable, has actually gone off to a new studio. Ghibli producer Nishimura Yoshiaki has founded Studio Ponoc, and despite having to start everything from scratch – including trying to procure funding – they have produced a film that is everything a Ghibli film ought to be. Call it derivative if you like, but I call it a logical progression. And it’s wonderful to know that a new generation will be continuing the lineage of the studio and just might live up to or even surpass the accomplishments of their forebears.

And for all its imitative qualities, this felt like freedom for Yonebayashi. For the third time, he’s adapting an old, somewhat quaint British novel for his animation – but this time it’s not so peaceful and introverted. This time it’s about witches, magic, cataclysmic spells and soaring magical flight. His light, deft touch in the previous two films was appreciated, but I get the feeling he enjoys a larger and more spectacular stage, while retaining a lot of the cute, small-scale feeling.

The source material, The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, is not a book I’ve ever come across. I don’t think it’s been in print for many years. I’ve vaguely heard of her from her books The Crystal Cave, an Arthurian work beloved of hippies, and The Moon-Spinners, which Disney made into a live-action film, but I’ve never read anything she wrote. I don’t know how closely this adaptation matches the source material, but I suspect it’s pretty close. And it’s probably a good idea to use a decades-old book as your source when you’re expecting to battle accusations of unoriginality: not only did they have to get Mary well-separated from Kiki so that this wouldn’t seem overly slavish in its Ghibli imitations, but it would be all too easy for a story about a British kid going to a school for magic and proving to be a prodigy at magic and flying brooms thanks to something her family did in the past to be called imitative of Harry Potter. Instead it might just make a wider audience realise just how derivative – or, to put it more kindly, how connected with a rich legacy of similar British works – Rowling’s books really were.

While Mary and Kiki are very little alike, there are far more connections with the Ghibli tradition here than just the fact that Mary looks like Ponyo grew up to look a bit like Arrietty. Perhaps most obvious would be the echo of Miyazaki’s passion for flight. But there’s more than that. The matriarchal figure first seen formed from a huge gush of water is very Spirited Away, while the powerful, noble, unstable and dangerous force at the end bring Mononoke-hime to mind. Mary at times gets the determination of Nausicaa or the inner strength of Sheeta. The design of the school is a little bit Howl-ish in places, while the gardens have just a hint of the world of The Cat Returns. On that note, just like in Whisper of the Heart, the cats here totally steal the show. Tib the grumpy cat was hilarious.

As with the likes of Mahoutsukai no Yome, it’s fun to see England rendered through the fanciful lens of Japanese romanticism. Once again there’s a very odd take on British food, with what looked like breaded chicken, beans, dumplings and sliced tomatoes on a plate together. But at the same time they had very clearly come to England and used photos of real Shropshire houses for their backgrounds – you could even see that they had some Celebrations ready to eat! Having only ever adapted British children’s books centred on adolescent girls, I’ll be interested to see if Yonebayashi expands from there after this. Britain has always kind of been represented as an echo in Ghibli’s works, from the adaptations of British books that had their locales stripped away or changed to Japan to the scenery based on Welsh mining villages in Laputa. But it seems like Yonebayashi actually wants to set films based on British works in Britain. And that’s very entertaining for me to see.

I’ll be following his career and the developments of Studio Ponoc with interest. I hope they make many, many classic films and soon the world will say Yonebayashi in the same way they now say Miyazaki.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover

After finally getting around to Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue as we build up to the long-awaited release of Kingdom Hearts 3, I sat down to watch Back Cover having heard pretty much only bad things. Nonsensical, boring, nothing to do with the Kingdom Hearts familiar to fans. And while yes, it has a lot of problems, I enjoyed this animation quite a bit. But I’m aware that it took very specific circumstances for me to enjoy it.

I really don’t think this would be enjoyable for someone who hasn’t played Kingdom Hearts χ or Kingdom Hearts Union χ, which is a remake of χ but removing its ending and continuing past that point (which is confusing enough as it is – I’ve only played Union χ so to get the full story so far had to go and look up the original ending). There was some suggestion that this animation would retell the story, making playing through Union χ unnecessary, but that’s not true at all. Without knowledge of the Union χ story I seriously doubt that anyone would have more than a vague idea of what’s going on here. This extended cutscene basically retells the story of the Master of Masters and his apprentices, which drives the action of Union χ but is absolutely not its story. I don’t see how anyone who only watches this would understand the Union χ storyline or have any idea who Ephemer is or what he does. It obviously doesn’t continue to the new story Union χ has continued to unfold, with the new Union leaders like Lauriam or Bl…Blay…dammit, ‘Brain’.  So basically, it’s a companion piece to Kingdom Hearts χ and it is still absolutely necessary to play it or Union χ through – or watch the cutscenes at least, to understand the Keyblade War and the beginning of the Kingdom Hearts story.

Which is not to say that this part of the story is actually good. It’s pretty poor storytelling, with the kind of annoying prophecy-spurs-action narrative that I really don’t like. The Master of Masters, who wears the cloak later associated with Organization XIII and who actually has a playful personality that is by far the most interesting writing choice in this part of the narrative, can see the future thanks to the eye he implanted in the keyblade ‘No Name’. He knows a great war is coming, so prepares his six apprentices for this cataclysm by giving them specific roles. And then of course it is their attempting to follow his guidance that leads to the war taking place. The storyline intentionally leaves open questions – who is the traitor? What’s in the box? Where did the Master of Masters go, and why did Luxu disappear too? These are interesting issues for those of us invested in this storyline, but not at all for fans who have only followed the main games, and probably mostly bewildering.

As I say, for a hardcore fan who already knew this story, and who is playing the clunky, money-grabbing browser/mobile game, this is great. We get to see in CG what was hitherto only in iffy cut-out animation. We can enjoy vocal performances and get the Foretellers with way more personality. Ava is so sweet, Gula both adorable and suspicious, Invi so much more virtuous than I read them in the game, and for me that really helps differentiate them. Ephemer is also infinitely more likeable and cute as he appears here – and of course it’s fun to see Chirithy nicely-rendered. As the first fully original animation, these impressions belong on my animation blog more than my thoughts on the movie versions of 358/2 Days or Re:Coded, even if part of a video game, and while perhaps everything is a bit overly glossy, with lots of perfectly-laundered unicorn outfits and shiny leather belts, this was a very nicely-made animation that I enjoyed watching.

Not even remotely explanatory for the uninitiated, absolutely not a replacement for playing or watching through the full story of the χ games and almost certainly just a bewildering mess to the uninitiated, for the people it was actually made for – those of us who actually play even the shoddiest spin-offs just to get the full story – this is a highly enjoyable vignette. But I absolutely understand why most people hated it.  


Just like the Studio Ghibli films, I’ve fallen behind with Pixar’s movies and can no longer say I’ve seen them all. Not only am I a year late seeing Coco, but there are the likes of Cars 3 and The Good Dinosaur that I have to catch up on at some point. Though I can’t say either of those fill me with enthusiasm.

But Coco I definitely wanted to see. Day of the Dead imagery is always fun, and I like the idea of promoting and supporting Mexican culture at a time where there’s a tendency to look at border controversies and dehumanise people. Which is not to say I support illegal border crossings. Disney also made a pig’s ear of trying to seem culturally sensitive when they attempted to trademark “Día de los Muertos”, which you’d think somebody would have realised was a bad idea before it went public. But Mexican culture is one I have only very superficial knowledge of, so it was nice to see more – even if it took an American studio to lead me there.

The set-up is neat and tidy, the kind of plot you know went through numerous writing rooms and was tightened up until it squealed. Young Miguel is the youngest in a line of shoemakers in a family where music is banned, because his great-great-grandfather abandoned the family to pursue his dreams of being an entertainer. But music is in his blood and Miguel secretly worships Ernesto de la Cruz, seemingly the greatest star Mexico has ever produced.

After a mishap in a mausoleum on the Day of the Dead, young Miguel is cursed and his corporeal form enters the realm of spirits. Only his deceased family’s blessing can take him back to the land of the living, and there’s a problem – his family want him to renounce music. Instead he sets off looking for his great-great-grandfather, and might just uncover some skeletons in the family closet on the way – figuratively speaking.

It’s a really fun adventure that’s given extra scale by the fantastical imagery possible in the afterlife. There’s the brightly-coloured Alebrije creatures, giving a fantastical touch to the world. There’s all the usual animated movie gags with skeletons being able to take off their skulls, independently move detached limbs and suchlike. There’s the piled-up colourful houses and a spectacular party, as well as a very odd but very funny take on Frida Kahlo’s artistic output – pitched perfectly to get in references to the kind of imagery Kahlo put out while still being kid-friendly. Just the right amount of obvious.

I’ll freely admit that a lot of the subtle things went over my head. I know many of the dead guests at the big party were famous in Mexico, but I don’t know who they were. But what’s fun about a film about another culture is that you learn. Now I know what an ofrenda is and something about xolo dogs. I have a new affection for the grito, which is a little different from the kind of grito I know from capoeira songs. Though I do wonder how these beliefs sit alongside Christianity, which is almost wholly absent from this story. Not that I expected a Pxar film to go there.

There were some elements that could have been improved, in my opinion. Miguel himself could have had a bit more of an interesting design, even if he was going to have his face painted for much of the film. The way modern Disney and Pixar films (see Frozen and Moana) tend to push one song with many refrains is usually rewarded with an Oscar – as was this film’s ‘Remember Me’ – but I thought ‘Un Poco Loco’ was a much more interesting and well-performed song. I feel something of a lack of closure not knowing what happened at the end of either music competition (though we at least know who won one of them, though possibly only because Miguel ‘withdrew’), and while wrapping things up with brevity made sense, I thought there might be a little more on just how the family managed to convince the world of the truth Miguel uncovers. And honestly, compared with more iconic films in the Pixar oeuvre, I don’t think this will stand out much more than the likes of Ratatouille or Inside Out.

Nonetheless, this was an expertly-crafted, beautiful, well-written, satisfying and sometimes moving story that does a good job of introducing to kids that sometimes following a dream and staying with a family can be at odds with one another. Very much worth a watch, if not rewatching over and over.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Isle of Dogs /犬ヶ島 / Inugashima

Wes Anderson's animations have developed their own very unique style. It's partly the ugliness of the stop-motion, but it's mostly the rhythms. The comic timing is the most charming thing about these films, established firmly in The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The deadpan humour is absolutely brilliant, delivered by a stellar cast including the likes of Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton and Bryan Cranston. This may be the most entertaining thing Yoko Ono has ever done, beside perhaps interrupting John Lennon and Chuck Berry’s duet with her weird croaky noises. 

This film is a strange one. Japanese dogs are sent to a trash island after paranoia spreads about canine flu. However, one little Japanese boy, ward of the mayor who masterminded the doggy exile, sets out to rescue his dog. 

Oddly, there's a lot of hilarious Japanese in this film, which is probably funny only to Japanese speakers. I loved the little montage of the scientific analyses. On the other hand, the film is mostly a somewhat condescending free-wheeling depiction of Japan, all sumo wrestlers, yakuza and taiko drummers. I don't know why they didn't bother to ask for some Japanese names - the main boy is called 'Atari' for some reason, and there's a bunch of Rexes and Spots but not a Pochi in sight. A bit bizarre given these are meant to be Japanese dogs.

I absolutely loved the adventure of the boy and the five main dogs, with their deadpan storytelling interrupted by getting each other's ticks off or sneezing. Their tendency to look at the camera sometimes is marvellous, and dogs are just inherently funny. The exchange student with the big blonde afro is much less entertaining as a subplot. The ending is also random and confused, but it's not as though the plot was the main purpose of this film.

I can't see this being a big hit. Anderson fans will of course watch it and a few animation fans will be interested, but it's probably way too weird and ugly to get a new audience on board. At least Fantastic Mr. Fox had some degree of cuteness. Well, this one does have the most adorable little puppies, in fairness. And I guess some of the other doggies are cute. Probably all Anderson's animated films will eventually become cult classics in some circles. But whether they'll be able to recoup their costs enough that many more can be made I do not know.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

ソードアート・オンライン オルタナティブ ガンゲイル・オンライン / Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online

In a season of very silly, trashy anime - I'm looking at you, Uma Musume - a new Sword Art Online spin-off suggested it might aim to be taken a little more seriously. Well, that idea was soon put to rest when it became clear the central premise would be super-cute loli characters using guns. And that's really about the extent of it. 

It's actually quite a joyful and exuberant clash. The two central pillars of the anime are pleasingly contrasted - super-cute little girls with bunny-ear hats dressed all in pink, and gun otaku writing, preoccupied with military tactics, bullet calibres, magazine capacities and suchlike. It's kind of like Babymetal - contrasting the cutesiness and the aggressive manliness is inherently absurd and fun.
And the universe of Sword Art Online is a good one for this premise. There's an acceptable in-universe reason that we have a sweet lil' girl in a gun-totin' universe - our main character in the real world is a girl with a complex about her height. She's very tall and feels as though that means she's not cute. It hurts her self-confidence, so she seeks an escape in the full-immersion VR games of this universe. However, time after time she gets rendered as some hulking Valkyrie type, which only makes her feel worse. Only when she enters shooting game Gun Gale Online does she get rendered as a little cutie, so that’s what she sticks with. Makes sense. 

Later, of course, more loli contrivance comes about as her best friend also appears as a cute lil’ loli so that they can make a lil’ loli team, and a group of big beefy women she meets in the game of course have real life counterparts who are the most adorable little girls – who by coincidence our main character knows in real life. There’s further contrivance in the final reveal of who the antagonist is, which is about the most obvious twist possible and was clearly telegraphed a few episodes in.
For all that this is a very daft anime, though, and for all I wish they’d proceeded to finally animate the only Sword Art Online arc I’ve actually wanted to see since it became clear the main show was getting insufferable partway through season 1, I enjoyed this for what it was. I liked how rather than focusing too much on real military manoeuver tactics, this show explores how the game mechanics can be exploited. The main characters were also engaging, the little loli Llenn-chan being very sweet, the antagonist Pitohui entertainingly unhinged in a very Black Lagoon sort of a way, and stoic M-san actually giving the impression of being someone who cares about the game itself.

The attempts to make the stakes seem meaningful were questionable at best, and the overall story flow was kind of poor – introduction and then two rounds of a tournament back-to-back – but this fluff was at least cute, entertaining and occasionally a little clever within its own setting. Worth watching, if not revisiting. And I guess since this is a different studio, relatively new company 3Hz, it ought not to be delaying any other SAO production.