Short film review – やどさがし / Looking For A Home (Hayao Miyazaki, 2006)

Looking For A Home is a short film that was written, produced and directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli. It is shown exclusively at the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, Japan [1].

The film follows a girl as she sets out from her home on a trip away from her busy city dwelling to the calmer countryside, through forests and into a tiny cottage she discovers along the way. At each point she thanks the aspects of nature she experiences (a fish, the trees, etc.) with an apple. Everything is represented by a unique human-voiced sound which are also written out on the screen to humorous effect.

This is a perfect short film to experience at the Studio Ghibli Museum for non-Japanese speakers, because the whole thing is very visual and the audio can be enjoyed without any understanding of Japanese. It is a sweet film aimed at children but, as with most of the output from Studio Ghibli, it is equally enjoyable for adults too.

[1] The Ghibli Museum has a small cinema called The Saturn Theatre. In this, they show one of nine short films for visitors on each day. Each visitor gets one ticket to the short film selected for that day so there is no chance of seeing more than one per visit. It is complete pot luck what you’ll see on your visit.

Film review – 千と千尋の神隠し / Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

Whilst Studio Ghibli has been a powerhouse of cinema in the East for many decades – since being born of the release of 風の谷のナウシカ / Nausicaä of the Valley of the Sea in 1984 – many Western cinema-goers weren’t introduced to the wonders of the animation house until 2003. This was the year that Spirited Away reached the wider audiences after being nominated and winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

Those whose interest was peaked enough were rewarded with a fantastic picture realised in beautiful 2D traditional animation. Its use magically imaginative turns that seemed uniquely Eastern mesmerised the audiences, allowing its popularity to grow through word of mouth and causing a renewed interest in the studio’s back catalogue. 

The story itself follows ten-year-old girl Chihiro who is moving house to a new and unfamiliar location with her parents (a familiar opening gambit in a Ghibli picture). Accidentally stumbling upon an abandoned amusement park, her mother and father greedily consume some mysterious but luxurious food whilst Chihiro investigates the surroundings. By the time she returns, her parents have turned into pigs and she cannot escape, forcing her to go deeper into the mysterious world to try to work out how to turn her parents back to humans and allow her life to return to normality.

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In its most basic form, it is a coming of age tale akin to Alice in Wonderland, with a setting that is just as supernatural as the western equivalent. She is forced to find her identity as an adult after having her childhood identity removed from her – including her name – and only by doing so can she bring back her parents.

Whether this means the film is set in a supernatural world, or the middle portion of the film is simply a figment of her imagination is open to debate. Certainly the possibility is there that she has slipped into a dream and this is a manifestation of her fears and resistance to growing up. However, Miyazaki clearly decided to show that Zeniba’s hair band was still in her hair after her return to the “normal” world, a move to clearly show this wasn’t a dream at all. A subtle but sweet reveal.

It was a reminder of how to do it properly. Disney was yet to move away from traditional animation in favour of the 3D animation being celebrated by the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks, instead releasing both Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Planet in the year this reached western cinemas.

In contrast, Studio Ghibli wasn’t afraid to aim squarely at a more adult audience, and hadn’t been for years. Spirited Away was just the tip of the iceberg – representative of a rich body of work but standing out as one of their greatest achievements.

 

TV review – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – Season One (Vincent Davis, 1987)

The year was 1989. Turtle Power had taken over the planet and, more importantly, my school. The turtles were everywhere. Everyone had to have a favourite of the four hero turtles (I’m from the UK so our heroes were called “Heroes” not “Ninjas”). It was not optional. Mine was always Raphael, though I had to occasionally be Michaelangelo despite not really being a party dude. Probably because I was five years old.

The appeal of the Turtles was far and wide. Initially it was just the action figures. Then it was colouring books, cereal and lunch boxes. Then it was colour-changing t-shirts, sticker books, video games and pizzas. Underpinning the whole mess of parent bankruptcy was the television show.

Cowabungaaaaahhhh!

If you were a British child at the time, you were probably introduced to the Turtles by Andi Peters from the inside of a broom cupboard. It’s more normal than it sounds. Whilst the cartoons were generally of a very high standard for the height of their popularity, often riffing in unexpected ways on old horror films, nothing ever quite touched the first season – a five-episode masterpiece that functioned as well as an episodic release as it does in hindsight as a one-off special.

The story itself is reasonably close in plot to the original Eastman-Laird comics on which it is based, only slightly softer in tone. The Turtles are chanced upon by news reporter April O’Neill, who the four heroes save from a gang attack. They take her back to their sewer-based hideout to recover and upon her waking they tell her their backstory along with that of their ninja master Splinter.

From their we follow them as they defend New York City from the evil Shredder, acting at the behest of the literal brains of the operation Krang, along with their two bumbling goons Bebop and Rocksteady and a clan of Footsoldiers and Mousers.

The standard of animation was perhaps so good it was unsustainable for a weekly animation. The show was essentially a means to peddle the merchandise and action figures, so the quicker they churned episodes out the more outfits we could see the Turtles in and the more friends and foes they could encounter. Each ended up with their own action figure – never more apparent than the Ace Duck TV hero who literally appeared on screen for less than ten seconds but was exceptionally popular as a toy.

The first season was also much darker in tone than the future seasons, at least until the popularity was faltering and they tried to take it in a new direction. Writer David Wise always preferred this earlier darker tone but the lighter and more comedic direction played into the hands of the popularity of the show. After all, the parents were the ones buying the toys.

This van runs on Turtle Power yey! Oh no wait it runs on petrol.

This five-episode story arc remained untouchable for my younger self, desperate but unable to see the sort of serious animation coming out of Japan at the time. It was an interest sparked by my brother’s subscription to Manga Mania, though we didn’t get to enjoy the Akira feature film until it aired on BBC Two on 8th January 1994.

I can’t recommend this original series enough. Almost three decades later the story and animation hold up and it brings back a heap of memories of a misspent childhood. Seek it out.

Film review – Grave of the Fireflies / 火垂るの墓 (Isao Takahata, 1988)

To be fair to Isao Takahata, writer and director of Grave of the Fireflies, he doesn’t pretend he’ll be delivering a happy-go-lucky lighthearted anime to the audience. The title hardly screams cute, the poster smacks of grimness. Then there’s the opening scene, in which the voiceover declares that he dies.

The film tells the story of two children – Seita (Tsutomo Tatsumi) and Setsuko (Ayano Shiraisha) – who are struggling to stay alive in the final few months of World War II. Their mother has died in an American air raid and their father is a captain in the Imperial Japanese Navy, meaning they have to stay with their unsympathetic aunt. However, with the continued threat of airstrikes and a growing unease with their situation, the pair decide to fend for themselves.

When discussing this film with anyone who has been lucky enough to see it, you will invariably get the same response. “Grave of the Fireflies?” Then comes the deep intake of breath. Then comes the deeper exhaled sigh. “Grim. Great film, but really depressing.”

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The film does not glamorise war in any way. It spends the entire running time delving into the relationship between the two siblings, the bond the war is creating and their resilience despite the tragedy surrounding them. The film gives an overwhelming sense of the individual impact of the war on the innocent people it affects. It doesn’t explicitly give a negative anti-war message, and it doesn’t attempt to portray the enemy (in this case the American Air Force) in a bad light. All these things are simply deduced by the fact that Setsuko and Seita’s story is so unbelievably sad.

The animation is absolutely stunning. It’s almost three decades since its release and its hard to think of a more realistic portrayal of Japan in animation. As the screenshot above shows, it is all greys and browns, though in this case Setsuko sits in the foreground in a blue ball attempting to protect herself of the reality of her mother’s fate. As Seita deals with it in his own way in the background, the effect is one of the most powerful images in the film. What else would two children do when their whole lives are turned upside down in such a catastrophic manner?

Since the release of this excellent film, Takahata has directed just four  more animated feature films, all of which were released with Studio Ghibli: Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, My Neighbours The Yamadas and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Whilst all of these are excellent films, none quite have the same impact as Grave of the Fireflies, a film that has stuck with me since the first time I saw it over a decade ago.

Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist (Joey Ansah, 2014)

Holy motors! I just watched a live-action Street Fighter movie, and it wasn’t bad. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it was… great. Let’s go back in time to justify my surprise.

The year is 1992. I’m seven years old. I’m in possession of a Commodore Amiga and a copy of Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. My brother, channelling every ounce of his O.C.D. nature, has annoyingly mastered the character of Ryu, who everyone knows is the coolest character on the game. This was no mean feat, especially on a Powerplay Cruiser. When I say “mastered”, he was actually untouchable on it. Occasionally the computer A.I. would get into hadouken competitions with him, but couldn’t keep up. He was, at this moment, the coolest kid at school, a height he wouldn’t achieve again until he accidentally set off an alarm and the police showed up at school. As we all know, cheaters never prosper. [1] [2]

This was 1992 though, and any child wasn’t worth his weight in Nerdz if they didn’t have a copy of Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. Or, later, Street Fighter II: Champion Edition. Then Super Street Fighter II. And don’t forget Super Street Fighter II Turbo, if you could convince your parents that the additional £60 spend was worth it for the “thrill” of playing as DeeJay. [3]

Sit down DeeJay. Sit down.

Sit down DeeJay. Sit down.

Unfortunately, whilst the games came thick and fast, seemingly adding lots to the gameplay and making sure the improvements were worth the extra investment, the associated media interpretations were mixed to say the least. There were some good things out there. I remember being a huge fan of the comic book, which itself was an adaptation of Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie, a decent-quality anime version of the game.

Unfortunately, all interpretations of the Street Fighter characters’ back stories were immensely overshadowed by the big-budget, star-studded and hugely hyped film titled Street Fighter: The Movie. After I got over the initial dismay at the idiotic titling of the film, it truly started to sink in – this was possibly the worst film I’d ever seen. [4]

Street Fighter: The Movie starred Jean Claude Van Damme as Guile, Kylie Minogue as Cammy, Raul Julia as M Bison in his final cinematic role and a young Ming-Na Wen as Chun Li, almost 20 years before she’d reappear on our screens as Melinda May in Marvel: Agents of Shield. This hotch-potch of acting talent was gelled together by a flimsy plot and some terrible dialogue and it destroyed in an entire generation any interest in the Street Fighter franchise outside of simply playing the games.

By 2009, studios felt safe enough to release a Chun-Li origin story starring Kristen Kreuk, but this went down almost as poorly as the 1994 movie. In fact, arguably worse. It really wasn’t worth the time and effort, but fortunately not many people put either into it.

So it’s with great trepidation with which ardent fans approach this latest offering, Street FIghter: Assassin’s Fist. It is essentially the origin story of Ryu and Ken, the main characters of the original Street Fighter game and firm favourites in the Street Fighter II series. I’m happy to say that I  wasn’t disappointed at all. I was actually rather impressed.

The story takes place in a secluded area of Japan in 1989 as Ryu and Ken learn the traditional ancient fighter technique of 暗殺拳 / Ansatsuken (Assassin’s Fist) from their 先生 / Sensei (master) 剛拳 / Gouken. Ryu appears to be achieving more than the hot-headed Ken, who is becoming increasingly frustrated by the slow pacing of the training. Through a series of flashbacks we learn the true past of Gouken and his relationship to his younger brother 豪鬼 / Akuma as they both trained in Ansatsuken.

Stylistically they get everything right, both in terms of making a good film and also in terms of being respectful to the original source material. There’s very little in terms of deviation from the back-stories generally considered to be canon, and the only extra embellishments comes in the form of explaining answers to previously unanswered questions, for example how Ken ended up in Japan in the first place.

Stylistically they get everything right.

It seems like such an obvious formula: pick out the key characters that people who played the game found interesting, focus on their back story and pick out the meatiest parts, get the story right and tell it in an interesting way. It’s a far better idea than trying to somehow piece together the fabricated back-stories of sixteen unrelated characters for the completion’s sake. This way we are able to see some good acting breathe life into the characters for the first time. It’s not Oscar-winning acting, but it is as good as anything I’ve seen in a video-game-to-film release.

The original release was actually in the form of thirteen webisodes released via Machinima, which was later edited into a full film. Such was the popularity of this, there is a planned sequel that will focus on the シャドル / Shadaloo organisation, which is headed up by M. Bison and also includes the original remaining three final boss characters of Balrog, Vega and Sagat, and the characters in the original game series that had joined the fighting tournament to bring down the organisation (Guile, Chun Li, Cammy and T. Hawk). This has a lot of potential and could be as successful as long as they give the characters as much space to breathe as in this release. Clearly having eight stories to tell is more difficult than four, and the tone of the film would be a huge departure from Assassin’s Fist should this be the route down which they choose to go.

The entire film can be watched here below, though it is also available in HD on Netflix and is available on Blu-ray.

[1] The “cheaters never prosper” line was something the Amiga version threw at you if you keyed in a cheat for invincibility. You could sail through the game but when it got to the post-game conclusion story screens, you instead were treated to a screen reading “Congratulations, but as we all know, cheaters never prosper.” It was harsh but in a way taught us all a life lesson.

[2] Another thing that spoiled my enjoyment of the Amiga version of the Street Fighter II game was that when you loaded up either Ken or Chun Li, the top halves of their bodies were a scrambled mess of pixels. I never knew why this was the case.

[3] Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers / スーパーストリートファイターⅡ -The New Challengers was released in 1994 and featured hugely enhanced graphics and four new characters: Cammy, T. Hawk, Deejay and Fei Long. Whilst it was a neat effect to bring in four new characters to milk the popularity of the existing franchise, anyone who regularly picked any of these four characters was generally treated with dismay in my group of friends. It’s a bit like saying your favourite Beatles album is “Band on the Run”.

[4] Bored of the relentless tweaking involved with each iteration of essentially the same game, we eventually tracked down a copy of the original Street Fighter on the Amiga. It featured Ryu, Ken and Sagat – all familiar – but also characters like Birdie, Adon and Gen. Inevitably none of these featured in the film. Obviously the feature film should have been called Street Fighter II: The Movie, or something similar.

かぐや姫の物語 / The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013)

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a faithful interpretation of the classic Japanese fable The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, one of the oldest folklore tales in the history of the country. It is also Isao Takahata’s fifth film as director for Studio Ghibli, following the dark Grave of the Fireflies, the fun ecological adventure Pom Poko, the episodic comic strip interpretation My Neighbours the Yamadas and romantic drama Only Yesterday.

It tells the story of Princess Kaguya, a tiny girl found inside a stalk of bamboo by an aging bamboo cutter and his wife. She rapidly grows in size into a beautiful young lady, though she hides a secret for which she must, eventually, face the consequences.

The first thing that hits you when watching this film is the breathtaking quality of the animation techniques. Putting aside the great storyline, the film is worth watching just for the fact it is so beautiful to view. It really serves to remind us how effective 2D animation can be and we’re lucky that Studio Ghibli is yet to embrace 3D animation in the same way as Disney has, all but throwing away their heritage (though nontheless still churning out mostly excellent films).

My favourite scene involved the princess running away from her adopted home in panic and fear. At this point the art style subtly changed and became more expressive and less controlled, with darker greats and blacks filling the screen, and it was an intelligent way to channel her emotions into the visuals.

There is an immediacy of beauty in the animation style.

There is an immediacy of beauty in the animation style.

The film arrives in North America and Europe with a lot of endorsements, not least the nomination at this year’s Adademy Awards in the category of Best Animated Feature (it lost out to Big Hero 6). I usually prefer the Japanese voice-overs with subtitles and was lucky to find a screening with this option, but the English-language cast is nothing if not star-studded (including Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Mary Steenburgen and Beau Bridges). I look forward to being able to hear this version once it reaches home media later this year.

At 137 minutes it might be too long for most children but if youre looking for an intelligent way to entertain your family this weekend I heartily recommend this film.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is out now at selected cinemas across the UK.

Giovanni’s Island / ジョバンニの島 (Mizuho Nishikubo, 2014)

Back in July when I initially viewed Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises, I commented that it was a story that would have been better told in live action. The subject matter was very serious, there was nothing magical required of the story. It was simply an animation that didn’t need to be an animation.

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Giovanni’s Island, the new anime release from Mizuho Nishikubo, could have had a similar issue. It is a film set on Shikotan, a small Japanese island in 1945, which tells most of the premise in itself. We follow Young brothers Junpei and Kanya Senō as they deal with the island’s occupation by Russian soldiers, the upheaval of life as they know it, their integration with Russian culture at their school and Junpei’s romantic interest with Tanya, a Russian schoolgirl with a high-level military father.

It is overall a very depressing subject matter. By this I’m talking Grave of the Fireflies sort of level of depressing. There were many teary eyes as the film reached its conclusion, and that is testament to what a fantastic job Nishikubo has done here.

The animation style was actually quite intelligent and as the film went on there was a clear reason why animation was the medium of choice to tell this tale. There are three distinct styles on show: very realistic imagery is used for all the modern-day portions of the work; a more childlike design with juxtaposing dull greys are used for the sections covering 1945; and Junpei’s dreams and fantasies are more varied, with styles ranging from basic sketches to star-filled neon visual fireworks. The decision to use all three styles to represent a now much older Junpei’s memory of the events is a smart move, especially when we see the childlike times he spends with his brother overlaying a truly grim memory of the surrounding landscapes.

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One key theme throughout is the children’s obsessions with trains and railways, inspired by the brothers’ favourite book Night of the Galactic Railroad. According to the director this book used to be extremely popular but has since become just a phrase that is used. In fact, only 10 out of approximately 100 children who auditioned for the film were aware of the contents of the book. Perhaps the choice of this particular book was a comment that the younger generations of Japan are trying to move on from the painful memories suffered by their grandparents. Or perhaps it was just a happy coincidence and I’m reading too much into it.

Nishikubo has come in for criticism for the content of the film. Some Japanese critics thought he should have used the film to make more of a political statement. I tend to disagree. It really is an important and compelling story to simply tell the experience these two young children went through, without being judgemental of any of the parties. Neither the islanders nor the Russians are particularly singled out as being in the wrong. This allows us as viewers to make up our own minds, and it’s a much more balanced approach to allow the story to gain popularity and recognition in the world markets. In so many ways, this does a far better job than being highly favourable to the Japanese islanders, who went through terrible treatment no matter which way you look at it, and I’m sure this is the conclusion most will draw.

Giovanni’s Island has a limited release in UK cinemas in 2014, including the London Film Festival (10th October onwards), Scotland Loves Anime 2014 in Glasgow (12th October), Leeds Vue in the Night (12th October) and Edinburgh Filmhouse (18th October). It will subsequently be released on Ultimate Edition Blu-ray (limited to 1000 copies) and DVD on 8th December, and standard Blu-ray on 26th January 2015. More information on all these releases can be found on the official Giovanni’s Island website.

The Wind Rises / 風立ちぬ (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

“I am talking about doing something with animation that can’t be done with manga magazines, children’s literature, or even live-action films.”

It’s that last line that really bothers me. That was Hayao Miyazaki talking, in 1978, about what animation means to him. It wasn’t a hard quote to locate. I only started reading his autobiography (of sorts), Starting Point, five minutes ago. It was right there in the third paragraph of the first page.

I don’t think there’s any denying that, when looking back at the career of one of the greatest and most imaginative directors of all time (and I’m not limiting that to animation either), he has created a body of work that surpassed that which would have been capable in any other medium. If you look at Nausicaä, Princess Mononoke, even his work on Sherlock Hound The Detective, it’s difficult to see how any other medium mentioned above could have portrayed his story any better than in 2D animation.

So when I was sat there at the cinema watching The Wind Rises, even before I read that opening quote, I couldn’t help but wish for the magic to ooze back into play. I was with a fellow anime fan and another friend who was unaware of any of his output, and we all agreed that the film could have been better served as a live-action film. There wasn’t really any call for the animation. Yes, it looked visually stunning as usual, but it didn’t add anything to the story.

It’s sad that Miyazaki has chosen to finish his body of work with this film. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely not a terrible film and it won’t tarnish his reputation. The story is solid, the characters well-realised, the backdrops deep in detail. It’s just a bit of an anticlimax after a series of such amazing films.

One for the completists and die-hard fans, but if you’re new to Miyazaki, you’d be better to start with Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away.

The Wind Rises is out in cinemas in the UK now. Reviewed was the Japanese version with English subtitles.