Life after Ghibli?

Two new trailers have been released for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the debut film from Japanese animation company Studio Ponoc.

Watch them first, then read on to find out more.

Trailer #1

Trailer #2

Studio Ponoc is a new Japanese animation house based in Tokyo. The head of the company is Yoshiaki Nishimura, who was lead producer for two Studio Ghibli films: When Marnie Was There and The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

It is clear to see the similarities with the best of Ghibli in the above clips, and it’s not just Nishimura who connects the two studios.

Hiromasa “Maro” Yonebayashi is directing the feature, having also directed Ghibli films The Secret World of Arriety and When Marnie Was There. He also worked as an animator on the likes of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Essentially, he was a key player at Ghibli. 

Maro pens the script alongside Riko Sakaguchi, the screenwriter of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, another excellent Ghibli film released in 2013 to critical acclaim.

Takatsugu Muramatsu returns as film composer, having provided the score for When Marnie Was There.

There is currently no official U.K. release date for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but it is scheduled to hit cinemas sometime in 2017. Traditionally Ghibli films took around a year to make the transition to English and finally get a release in the U.K., but who knows if the same rules will apply here.

Whatever happens, there will be a huge amount of interest in the film when it surfaces.

Film review – 아가씨 / The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2017)

Park Chan-wook’s latest release is a twisting psychological thriller steeped in eroticism and oozing class that works its audience brilliantly. The only drawback was that I didn’t have time to see it a second time.

Set in Japan-occupied South Korea, the film tells the story of an elaborate plot to rip-off a rich Japanese heiress named Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is living in an extravagant and luxurious mansion under the authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). The plot is being masterminded by a conman calling himself Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), and involves him marrying Lady Hideko and subsequently committing her to an asylum to steal her inheritance. To do this, he brings in Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), who is a professional pick-pocket, to work as Lady Hideko’s handmaiden in order to get close to her and influence her feelings towards the Count.

This fantastic plot is based on English novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. It is brought to life with perfect execution by director Chan-wook. As is typical of his films, The Handmaiden inhabits a uniquely-realised world that features traditional elements mixed in with gothic undertones. It’s a stunning visual achievement and one that is completely absorbing. 

Central to the plot is Uncle Kouzumi’s outlandish book collection, mainly erotic in nature and all extremely rare. He is producing forgeries of the books but is involving Lady Hideko in highly-exclusive book readings of the most sought-after novels, usually for an all-male audience who each will bid on the books in auctions after the readings. Whilst the forgeries provide an additional reason to hate Kouzumi – other than his generally disgusting appearance and the contents of his mysterious basement – it is the contents of the book that also serve to further the sexual drive of the story.

The scenes where Lady Hideko reads excerpts from the books whilst the audience listens intently are some of the best moments of the film, creating suspense with nothing more than an authoritative delivery from Min-hee and some attentive camerawork.

Indeed, the sly glances and subtle reactions are what makes the acting performances so believable. This is a game of tension, both mentally and sexually. The two central female characters are falling in love with each other, but they are also engulfing their desires in a sexual lust that makes Soo-kee’s original plan increasingly difficult to carry out. It is surprising as an English viewer that this traditional period drama setting doesn’t portray this desire with mere suggestion and topped-and-tailed sexual encounters. There is literally no holding back, which I’m sure many will find crass, but I found it essential to the plot and executed with enough artistic integrity to not be considered as superfluous.

This is simply one of the best films I’ve seen all year and one I can’t wait to see again once the extended cut is released on home media later this year. I can’t recommend it enough.

Film review – Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017)

When the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell was announced, the online rhetoric centred around the fact that the remake was in itself completely unnecessary, whilst also questioning why lead Japanese character Major Kusanagi was being portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. The studios’ responses at the time were that they wanted a bankable star and that was the main reason she was cast, but that word was out there. Whitewashing. Once it’s there, it’s hard to shake.

A similar issue befell the 2011 film Under The Skin, also starring Scarlett Johansson. True, there was no need accusations of racism, but Johansson was cast for similar reasons. It later emerged in an interview with Gemma Arterton that the British actress had been first choice by the director Jonathan Glazer. However, Johansson was eventually cast in order to secure the funding to complete the film to the director’s vision.

In both cases, it is a sad reflection on the current state of cinema and its attitudes towards so-called non-bankable stars. Clearly the studios involved were nervous about a film being able to sell based on a high quality script, good direction and a solid marketing campaign. Instead they brought in Johansson, and presumably part of their reasoning was that they didn’t have faith in the audience to see past the lead character. Perhaps this is correct.

However, in neither case was the film damaged as a result of the casting. Both plots lend themselves to having an otherworldly-essence to the lead female. 

Crucially, Johansson isn’t just a bankable star. She’s a truly phenomenal actress at the top of her game.

In Under The Skin, the fact that Scarlett Johansson was driving around the streets of Glasgow and getting real reactions from the general public whilst speaking in an emotionless English accent played into her role. She was, ambiguously, an alien preying on men, so her not being British gave a mysterious element to her performance that justified her casting.

Equally in Ghost in the Shell, the fact she isn’t of Asian origin doesn’t necessarily play against the script. She is a cybernetic being, with the brain of a human inside a robotic body. This is a future where cybernetic modifications are a part of normal life. The brain inside her body is that of a Japanese girl, but her body is Scarlett Johansson. 

I don’t agree with the feeling that her casting is whitewashing of the original story. The studio saw a way to make the plot more appealing to American audiences in a way that didn’t compromise the story – the wider lead cast covers a wide variety of races, primarily either American or Asian. They would have been foolish not to go down that route.

Clearly, the Japanese market doesn’t seem overly bothered by her casting. Nor do the South Korean and Chinese markets. In China, for example, they currently have a total box office taking of $23.39m (as of 09/04/2017), approximately a quarter of the global takings. This is a total which pushed a disappointing US box office performance into a profitable outcome.

Ironically, one of the primary reasons offered by the studio for its domestic failure was that Scarlett Johansson doesn’t have an online presence. 

The humour of this entire situation shouldn’t be lost and I can’t help but feel that the backlash against this is looking for an argument where there isn’t one. At the very worst, the filmmakers can be accused of bringing in a superstar to sell the film and this deviates it from the original vision from 1996. The faithfulness to the original story is so strong though that this change shouldn’t be held against it. Certainly no complaints can be levelled at Johansson, who puts in a stellar performance in her starring role.

The environment the characters inhabit is rich and believable, with a mix of CGI and real shots used to create a new universe. It is visually stunning, a full 3D remodelling of the vision created in 2D by Mamoru Oshii and the original animation team from 1995. 

The city is modelled on Hong Kong, but it feels like it lives in the same universe as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with spawling cityscapes and futuristic advertisement boards threatening to submerge the life within it.

Indeed, the musical cues that Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe provide are clearly influenced by Vangelis. This I see as an indication of how much of an influence Vangelis has had on futuristic science fiction cinema, rather than a lazy bit of theft from the musical pairing. Mansell is very much carrying the Vangelis baton as evidenced by his excellent scores for the likes of High-Rise, Black Swan and Stoker.

If the action sequences seem a little dated, it is because Sanders has been put in a near-impossible situation by the Wachowskis. There are rumours that the only reason The Matrix was made was because they wanted to make a live-action Ghost in the Shell but couldn’t get the rights. Whilst there are similar themes in both films, it is the action sequences that were so iconic that The Matrix is remembered for. These were lifted straight from Oshii’s masterpiece. So, heaping this remake with too much of them would make casual audiences feel like they were utilising a technique that debuted two decades ago and has been parodied ever since. If anything, Sanders has probably underused it, but it is nonetheless a visual spectacle.

Taking on a film that is seen as a defining point of the genre is always going to be tough. The original really wasn’t a box office success in its original release, making just $2.28m globally. It did eventually become a cult classic. This 2017 remake has already made its money back ($130m and counting), but will doubtless also be considered a box office flop by its detractors. 

This is not a masterpiece of a film, but it is extremely impressive and engrossing. Arguably, the plot is much clearer than the original too. It’s a shame that it looks unlikely to be given a chance by most a large portion of the potential market.

Note: the version watched was 3D IMAX.

Secret Cinema X 2017 – Another successful guess!

So the truth is finally out there. The Handmaiden was this year’s Secret Cinema X film, as predicted in an article published here a month ago.

The official Twitter account finally announced the truth in a reveal video here. I’m gutted I didn’t get chance to go but it looked absolutely amazing. I’ll make do with Moulin Rouge next week instead.

I managed to watch The Handmaiden earlier today and the film is simply a must-see. Park Chan-wook is a masterful director and he has produced another work of wonder with his latest film. Check it out if you can!

You can order Secret Cinema X exclusive poster prints here, including the one featured in the header of this article.

Film review – Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2017)

For much of Silence, Martin Scorsese’s Japan-set epic about Christian missionaries in the 1600s, I was desperately trying to enjoy myself. Eventually I did, but that was only when I realised how much Andrew Garfield looked like a young Barry Gibb and I started to re-imagine the plot as a bizarre Bee Gees origin story.

Andrew Garfield stars as Barry Gibb

The film maps the journey of two young Portuguese Jesuit Christian missionaries: Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver). In 1640 they travel to Japan in the hope of finding Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), their teacher and mentor that they have learned has apostatised and converted to the Japanese way of life and assumed a Japanese identity.

The first thing that will disappoint you when you watch the film is the ridiculous decision to have the actors speaking in English throughout. It makes no sense. Why get English-speaking actors in and have them speak with a decreasingly dedicated accent? Why not just get a Brazilian or Portuguese actor to take the role? What we end up with is a couple of  vaguely Spanish voices, that slowly drift in and out of authenticity.

It eventually comes to a head with a hilarious low point when Garfield shares a scene with translator Tadanobu Asano, who is of course speaking in English but with a Japanese accent. If you’ve got two characters deciding to speak in Portuguese but doing so in English before carrying on in English, then you’ve got a problem. It’s simply crazy. I’d much rather the filmmakers have some faith in their viewers and play to the story’s authenticity rather than this lacklustre compromise. At least Liam Neeson had the guts to “pull a Connery” and stick to his own accent.

The other letdown is the overall pacing, which felt like it was deliberately slow. I put this down to Scorsese’s closeness to the project (he originally acquired the rights to Endo Shusaku’s book in 1989 during the making of Goodfellas). At 161 minutes long, there must have been some scope to reduce the total running time. Arguably this is an expansive story that needs time to breathe and the slow pace as Rodrigues gets drawn away from his faith is perfect for the story. It’s just not all that enjoyable.

It is a film of juxtapositions. The beautiful cinematography captures the landscapes of rural Japan in a way that transports you straight backwards 400 years, but there are some suspicious CGI moments that felt out of place. The wonderful costumes aren’t matched by some of the hair and make-up efforts. The quality acting is lost amongst the tangled web of accent approximations.

It feels epic, but the reality is nothing but a disappointment.

Film review – 君の名は。/ Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016)

It is very unusual for a Japanese animated film to make it beyond the smaller art house cinemas littered around the country. Most don’t make it that far. Even the most recent Studio Ghibli releases – When Marnie Was There and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya – failed to ignite the chain multiplexes, despite a global popularity that is unrivalled for world cinema.

It is strange then that Your Name has found itself in amongst the blockbusters at Showcase Cinemas in the UK this week, alongside the likes of Strange Beasts and Where to Find Them and Doctor Strange. No doubt many cinema goers will be nonplused that a weird Japanese film is taking up one of the screens, blissfully unaware that neither Cumberbatch nor Redmayne stand a chance of usurping Makoto Shinkai’s romantic fantasy anime to top the annual box office charts this year in Japan. As of 21st November it has taken 189.8m USD, making it Japan’s seventh highest grossing film of all time.

Films that are popular in Japan, of course, don’t always transfer to the global market, as exemplified by the rest of the all-time top ten films in terms of box office takings. Five are Japanese (of which only one is live action). No Japanese film bothers the equivalent top 100 list for global takings.

So what’s Your Name about and why is it so popular? It tells the story of Mitsuha, a high school girl living in the isolated countryside of Itomori, who makes a wish to be brought back as a handsome Tokyo high school boy in a future life. The next morning Taki, a high school boy living in Tokyo, wakes up in Mitsuha’s body, whilst she is now living in his body. It’s a classic body-swap setup that has served many good (and bad) films well in the past.

Or as it’s known by the poorly educated, You’re Name

The film may start in the most simple of ways, but as Mikota Shinkai throws a couple of devastating curveballs into the robust script to juxtapose the well-balanced comedic elements, it quickly becomes apparent where the success has come from. It’s a story driven by two characters that develop at a perfect rate to drive the plot forwards, and a serendipitous romance that is easy to get engrossed in.

Visually, the quality of the animation is very reminiscent of the best work of Studio Ghibli, particularly in the Itomori countryside scenes, away from the bright city lights of Tokyo. It’s such a relief to see something like this being released as Ghibli are finished as a motion picture production house, or at least going on a prolonged hiatus. Shinkai is being hailed as the new Hiyao Miyazaki, which seems far fetched on paper but in reality may not be so unrealistic. Unsurprisingly, he sites Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky as his favourite film. His passion and dedication to follow in Miyazaki’s footsteps is abundantly on show here, from the beautifully-realised backdrops to the organic growth of the lead characters as the story progresses.

Put simply, it’s a beautiful film with a lot of heart and an engrossing story. What more could you ask for?

Film review – キングスグレイブ ファイナルファンタジーXV / Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV (Takeshi Nozue)

The latest Final Fantasy cinematic release, titled rather awkwardly Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, sits in the Fabula Nova Crystallis universe first explored in 2009’s Final Fantasy XIII. If that opening sentence doesn’t float your boat, I’m afraid things are about to get a lot worse.

The storyline concentrates on characters we’ve previously seen in animated web series Brotherhood, and who will be the main stars of the upcoming Final Fantasy XV games that will hit the shelves in just under a week from now. It is set on Eos, an earth-like planet divided into six regions based on their historical ownership of various crystals. Central to the plot is Nyx Ulric (Aaron Paul), the main protagonist in this film but only a bit-part in the upcoming game. He is a member of the Kingsglaive, an elite guard that channel the mythical powers bestowed on them by the ruler of Regis Lucis Caelum CXIII (Sean Bean), ruler of Lucis. The military-rich Niflheim are at war with Lucis but a treaty is offered that includes as part of the bargain the marriage of Regis’s daughter to Lunafreya Nox Fleuret (Lena Headey) to Noctis Lucis Caelum (Ray Chase), the main protagonist of the upcoming game but scantly featured here.


Still with me? It sounds complex on paper but in reality the film’s pace and tendency towards action ensures it isn’t another fantasy bore fest. With a rich cast of individuals that do their best to pepper the script with flavour, it is actually a surprisingly enjoyable experience.

One aspect that is particularly impressive is the match up of the audio to the movement of the mouth, which is usually a huge problem with foreign films being dubbed into English. CGI motion capture is perhaps the only medium where this is possible and it makes for a much less distracting experience.

With all films like this, the market is very niche. A single screening in the East Midlands in a small screen and reduced price still didn’t lead to a sell-out, though this could be blamed on the fact it has been on available on Blu-ray for the last month or so.

If you get chance to see this before playing the upcoming game then it will definitely provide an engrossing way to get used to the background to the plot. If you’re not a fan of the series and don’t plan the 100-hour slog that will inevitably be demanded by the RPG, then it probably won’t give you much enjoyment. 

Film review – 偽りの隣人 / Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2016)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest release Creepy received its U.K. premiere tonight as part of the London Film Festival. It blends elements of police drama, suspense and mild horror to create an intriguing film that achieves much but ultimately falls down due to a lack of ruthlessness in editing that would have helped the pacing.

Set in approximately 2009, it tells the story of a retired policeman Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who has changed careers to work as a criminology professor at a local university. Having moved to a new part of town with his wife Yasuko (Yūko Takeuchi) and dog Max, they begin to become suspicious of the titular creepy neighbour Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa) and his daughter Mio (Ryoko Fujino), whilst Takakura attempts to solve an old case that has come out of the woodwork.

Creepy Nishino

The casting of the genuinely creepy Kagawa is a solid choice. Director Kurosawa is on familiar ground, having worked with him on 2009’s Tokyo Sonata, though this role is very much a departure from the jobless family man we saw previously. When the results are this good there’s no need to change.

Kurosawa, working again with cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa, achieves a lot with natural lighting to create darkness for the lead characters as they delve into their inner-most thoughts. This was an effective technique used previously by the pair in Journey To The Shore and is mined more subtly here to arguably better effect, especially in one particular witness interrogation scene.

However, there are flaws. The ending could genuinely have happened about twenty minutes prior to when it finally occurs, and when the story is finally resolved the relief I felt wasn’t for any of the particular characters but more for the fact it signalled the end was in sight. It’s unfortunate that the ending is so shocking and powerful with some great acting that was undermined by the preceding needless plot extension.

There were a few ideas throughout the film that seemed to fizzle out. Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi) was really prominent for a good portion of the film but was clumsily written out before the resolution of her storyline; her family went missing but she doesn’t seem to care why in the end. A police chief is written into the key part of the story to get Takakura out of a dead end in the plot. There’s a mind control element to the story that isn’t ever fully explained, instead expecting the viewer to just go with it. 

After a long setup, this film is genuinely exhilarating for about an hour. With a shorter ending and a little more clarity, it could have been much better than the final result. For me, it is a missed opportunity.

Film review – 思い出のマーニー / When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2016)

The latest film released from the Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli is also the final feature film they will ever release. At least, that’s the line they’re taking. There doesn’t seem to be any indication that this isn’t true, although secretly most Ghibli fans – myself included – hope there will be something else around the corner. 

A glimmer of hope has come in the suggestion that more short films will be produced for the Saturn Theatre, the small cinema that resides inside the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. Unfortunately for those of us outside Japan, seeing the existing ones is quite the task – you’ll need at least a return plane ticket to Japan and some forward planning to get tickets to the museum itself. Oh, they only screen one film a day and you can only see it once. There isn’t any plan to screen any of them anywhere else in the world, so seeing the sequel to Totoro might not be something to add to your bucket list.

All this sadly leaves us with only one more Studio Ghibli film to enjoy at the cinema, finally seeing the light of day almost two years after its release in Japan. When Marnie Was There is based on the original novel of the same name by British author Joan G. Robinson, with many of the details changed from the original novel. Most notably, the location has been changed from Norfolk in England to Sapporo in Hokkaido, Japan.

The storyline deals with a young girl, Anna, who suffers from anxiety and asthma. A loner at her school and lacking in confidence, she is sent away to live with family friends in Sapporo on the advice of her doctor, who suggests that leaving the city for the clearer air and change of scenery will cure her ailments.

Once there, she struggles to settle until she happens on a mysterious building called The Marsh House, inside which a beautiful young girl name Marnie is living, a girl with whom she strikes up an immediate and very close friendship.

So how does When Marnie Was There fit into the greater Ghibli catalogue? Instantly it will strike you that it’s just as beautifully animated as anything we’ve seen before, with hand-drawn drawings taking us on the typically personal, solitary journey of the main character. Animation has seldom looked this good, and I include Disney’s output in this statement too.

The storyline will be familiar to those fans of previous Ghibli works. A young girl sent away from her comfort zone to new surroundings dealing with a secretive and mysterious occurrence, via an unlikely friendship. It is ground well worn, but that shouldn’t be a reason to dismiss it. 

Anna herself is a wonderfully realised creation. The sense of isolation as she sits at school having an asthma-induced panic attack is heartbreaking and as realistic as any live-action portrayal of anxiety I’ve ever seen. This is a critical achievement – get it wrong and we’re dealing with a whiny self-obsessed teenager for two hours.

It is perhaps not as immediate as some of the more celebrated works. It’s a frustrating time to be a Ghibli fan. It’s probably the last film to hit the big screen, but it’s not the best place to start if you’re unfamiliar with the studio. If you can, watch My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away straight away, then head to the cinema to catch this before you run out of time.