Haiku film review #073 – Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Mary finds flower
Gains some magical power
Things don’t go sour

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Film review – 夜明け告げるルーのうた / Lu Over The Wall (Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

Japanese anime? Quirky soundtrack? Human forms an unlikely bond with a fish person? Yes, it may look on the surface to be just like Hayao Miyazaki’s 2010 film ‘Ponyo’, but Masaaki Yuasa’s ‘Lu Over The Wall’, which received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this weekend, is far from a simple rip-off.

The second release from the Science Saru Animation studio, after Yuasa’s earlier ‘The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’, centres around Kai (voiced by Suma Saitō), a gloomy and distant music-creating teenager living in a small fishing town in Japan with his father and grandfather. Kai is pestered into joining a band by two of his schoolmates. Their first rehearsal, on the abandoned Mermaid Island, awakens the interest of Lu (voiced by Kanon Tani), a mermaid who is vulnerable to sunlight but loves to listen to music and dance. Following a confrontation with bullies the band catch illegally poaching fish, Lu comes to the rescue and forms an unlikely bond with Kai and his bandmates as she joins the group and they are handed the opportunity to perform at a local festival.

This is a bizarre film that provides some genuine laughs throughout. The music is quirky, leading to some pretty imaginative reactions from the villagers when they first hear Lu singing. One suspects that this scene was exactly what the director Yuasa had in mind when he started, building the rest of the general idea towards making sure he got the best laughs out of these scenes. It’s daftly entertaining and really hits the spot.

There are more laughs when Lu breaks into a centre for stray dogs and releases them to create a wave of mer-puppies. It’s easy to imagine how much fun the animators and story writers were having when they conceptualised that.

‘Lu Over The Wall’ won the top prize at this year’s Annecy Animation Film Festival, and there is good reason. Park the inevitable comparison to ‘Ponyo’ and seek out this fun and fancy free animation.

Then spend the rest of the day trying to get that music out of your head.

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 – 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.

Top things for Westerners to know for a trip to Japan

Going to a country with an alien culture to that of your own can be unsettling and confusing, especially when the country has such a defined way of life as Japan does. On a trip there for two weeks, I came across a few things that nobody told me about before I arrived but will hopefully provide you with a head start if you’re preparing for a visit.

Note: I’m from Britain and so some of this post relates back to my own country.

Language barriers

I learnt a small amount of Japanese before I went and took a pocket book to help me. This was enough to get by, though a few times I struggled to get my message across.

Most people speak a bit of English so as long as you can indicate you speak English you won’t have much trouble. If you can learn a few set phrases at least you will show you made an effort and be looked a little more favourably on.

Japan Rail Pass

We saw Tokyo, Kyōto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Miyajima and Nara in two weeks. This was made much more affordable by having the Japan Rail Pass.

Just get it. It’s brilliant.

[Note] I should add a caveat. If you’re going to go to one city only, this might not be the best option. For example, going to Tokyo to go to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. You will probably just be based in a hotel very close to the Olympic Stadium and surrounding venues. There might be cheaper options that can be easily discovered with a bit of Googling on trips between your hotel and your destination.

Bullet Trains / Shinkansen

Yes, they are amazing. You can travel the length of Britain in about two hours. They’re always on time. They’re almost silent. There’s loads of room on them. They swivel the chairs around so you always face forwards.

That said, don’t think it’s going to be as entertaining as a roller-coaster or a trip to the cinema. Take a book or a pack of cards.

Smoking

Cigarette smoking is surprisingly frequent. The rules on it are essentially the reverse of the U.K. There are designated places to smoke outside and you are not allowed to smoke whilst walking in most places. This is good for people who are fit and healthy and get around by walking and resolves a huge bugbear of mine in the UK.

However, inside is another matter. Most restaurants still operate smoking and non-smoking areas like the UK had up until the 1990s. Some restaurants we visited didn’t even have non-smoking areas and people generally aren’t considerate at all of other people’s desire to not second-hand-smoke, meaning when we were hugely hungry we just had to deal with it.

Crossing the road

I was begging for a Kevin Keegan video telling me how to cross the road safely.

Generally, crossing roads outside of designated crossings is a no-no when crossings are available. Crossing the road when the red man shows is generally frowned-upon. Basically, pedestrian-wise you just have to be patient and sensible and do whatever anyone else is doing.

Surprisingly, if only for British residents, you can wait for ages for a green man to show, then just as you cross the road a car appears from a side road. Initially you’ll doubt yourself because it seems so unusual. Then once it’s happened a few times you’ll realise it’s because cars are allowed to enter a main road from a side road when a pedestrian crossing is on green, as long as it’s safe to do so. Don’t worry, they won’t run you over. You’ll just feel like they’re about to.

Taxis

Some of the taxis look like police cars. Specifically police cars from a 1970s American police show. I don’t know why.

Everyone is ridiculously helpful and lots of people will practice their English with you

I was in a train station looking like a tourist, with my map out, a huge rucksack on my back and a gormless look on my face. Suddenly a strange couple started approaching me and tried to say something. My immediate thought was to say “No, I don’t have any change.” Then I realised the woman was asking where I was going. She then proceeded to give me full directions then asked me where I was from and how I was finding the country. We exchanged a short conversation and then she wished me luck on my quest.

Amazing really.

You can’t do everything

There are some seasonal-specific activities that you can’t do at all times of the year and even if you do try to do them you might get unlucky with the weather.

We had to weigh-up seeing the sakura (cherry blossoms to people outside Japan) with climbing Mt. Fuji. The former has a short window of opportunity that you can achieve best by visiting around the start of April. The latter is only permitted for three months a year, from early July to mid-September.

Outside that time you are only going to get to one of either the fourth or fifth stations at best, which are just essentially a café and bus stop halfway up a windy road that you can take a photo from. In hindsight the bus tour to Mt. Fuji, organised through JTB and Sunrise Tours, was very disappointing and we didn’t feel we got our money’s worth from it. It took a whole day out of our holiday and we spent almost the entire time on a bus, leaving with the feeling we could have spent the time in much better ways.

Fast-paced walking

Be prepared to walk. A lot. The subways and overground trains are fantastic and the big cities all have phenomenal networks connecting them. However, they only take you so far and once you’re near it’s usually common sense to just walk the remainder, taking advantage of the safe, clean and beautiful surroundings.

I had my sports watch on a few days and we usually clocked up upwards of 5km on each day, with a peak of just over 7km.

People walk much faster than in the UK. I am a genuinely very fast walker and rarely get overtaken in the UK. In Japan people were zipping past me all the time.

There is one exception: when they are distracted by their mobile phones… Which is about 50% of the time. The number of people who don’t have the ability to walk from A to B without spending the entire time engrossed in their phones is unbelievable and quite funny.

The reason we can’t do this in the UK is the likely possibility of standing in some unattended dog excrement – an event so likely that we have to spend most of our walking time looking at the ground. This would never happen in Japan as the residents there are far too respectful of their own country and their surroundings. Just a difference of respect I guess.

Queues

If you’re someone from Britain you might hear the words “Nobody enjoys queuing like the Japanese” and think they’re not familiar with the British way of life. Well, I’m British and I’m telling you – nobody enjoys queuing like the Japanese. People queue for restaurants over an hour before they open. People queue for curried popcorn at Disney Land. People queue for the toilet to such an amount that on several occasions I saw a man whose job can only be described as Toilet Queue Co-ordinator.

Yet these are not disorderly queues. There have never been better organised queues than the queues in Japan. I sometimes wondered if people were just queueing for the sake of queuing, or maybe to join another queue.

You’ll immediately see the benefit of this when you get on your first train. Such is the efficiency of the trains, they stop at exactly the correct position on the station every time they arrive. As a result, there are designated queuing zones that people line up in before the train arrives. People getting off the train have space to exit, and there’s no chance of pushing and shoving when the time comes to board. In quiet times it is bliss.

Rush-hour Tokyo subways are a nightmare

Everything you have heard is true. You will be shoved into the train and just as you think there is no more room, ten more people will get on. If they don’t fit, a man will come along and shove them in with a brush-like tool and make damn sure they fit in.

People are as polite as they can be, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re so tightly-packed.

Face masks

Everywhere you look you’ll see face masks. I read somewhere that it started as a fad with people trying to avoid hay fever. Then it caught on as people realised they could avoid getting illnesses on the subway (often people in Japan don’t get paid sick leave by their employers).

Nowadays you’ll probably see about 1 in 3 people wearing these on the subways. Don’t worry – you haven’t woken up in a zombie apocalypse. It’s just that they don’t want to breathe in your filthy germs.

Just try not to get annoyed at that one guy coughing and sneezing everywhere without a mask on.

Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo

As this is website is primarily a film blog, it is likely you are a fan of cinema in general. If you like films and are planning a trip to Japan then it’s likely you’ll want to take a visit to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka.

Your decision of when to visit with regards to Mt. Fuji or the sakura could be made if you want to visit the museum as it shuts in May for two months whilst the new exhibition is prepared. This was a priority for us so we opted for a March/April visit.

Massive fans of Ghibli who are here for a long time may wish to do two trips to the museum: once at the start of the holiday and once at the end. Going twice will mean you may see two different short films. It is recommended that you plan to visit it for around three hours. There is a lot to take in and it would be a shame to feel rushed whilst doing it.

Disney Theme Parks

The Disney theme parks are great for Disney fans but not so much for thrill-seekers

There are two Disney theme parks in Tokyo: Disneyland and DisneySea. If you have children then make sure you go for the former, which is essentially very similar to Magical Kingdom in America. If you’re looking for thrills then DisneySea is the better option. Contrary to most advice found online, it can be done in one day as long as you’re willing to go on a couple of rides with a single rider pass.

I wrote an expanded guide for DisneySea here as we got a lot out of it in a day.

Go and see some sumo

It’s extremely difficult to get hold of tickets to these if you don’t live in Japan. Check out BuySumoTickets.com to find the schedules for the biggest upcoming tournaments. There are six large tournaments every year: three in Tokyo, one in Osaka, one in Nagoya and one in Fukuoka. They’re quintessentially Japanese experiences and a must-do for anyone visiting Japan.

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.