Film review – レッドタートル ある島の物語 / The Red Turtle (Michael Dudok de Wit, 2017)

The Red Turtle may find it hard to be discovered by a dedicated mainstream market. This is almost inevitable for a feature-length traditionally-animated film that involves no spoken words at all, with a simple but thought-provoking story line. Its limited release reflects a genuine assessment of the expected appeal to the wider market. 

This is a shame because the film is a genuine triumph.

The film opens with a man being thrown around helplessly in an unnamed ocean. Struggling to fight the waves, he falls unconscious, later waking up on an uninhabited island. 

The nameless man never speaks, aside from the occasional “Hey!”, whilst his heritage is also somewhat ambiguous. Shipwrecked on an island and left to fend for himself, he busies himself with building a raft to escape and reunite himself with the outside world. However, a large red turtle prevents him from escaping, attacking the raft every time he attempts to leave. When it unexpectedly washes up on shore, he faces a conundrum – free it or exact revenge. 

If you have any fears about The Red Turtle maintaining your attention, you needn’t. It’s one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen this year.

The beauty of the film comes in its simplicity. With no character back stories, no names, no requirement to set the scene beyond the initial opening gambit, we’re left to ponder its surprisingly inspirational content.

Around halfway through the film, the man’s decision to flip the turtle on its back is doubtlessly divisive. Left without much else to focus on, my mind inevitably ended up wondering what I would do in the same situation. The turtle dies, which the man immediately regrets and feels great sorrow for. I felt equally guilty for feeling like he wasn’t completely in the wrong. A senseless murder of an innocent animal, but one that felt partly justified as revenge.

It’s a simple act that drives the more fantastical second half of the film. The lifeless body of the turtle disappears and is replaced with a young, beautiful woman, whom the man subsequently falls in love with.

Clearly, this is a film that is steeped in the metaphorical, encouraging the viewer to think about the deeper meaning of what they are seeing – and giving them the space to do so.
The turtle is a visual representation of man’s relationship to nature. Even as the stranded man fights against the tides and tries to leave the island, the turtle forces him back onto the island, on which he has everything he could possibly need to simply continue to survive. The turtle evenrtually provides him with companionship and, later, a child, this providing him with a fulfilling life too. 

It is a tale in part about man’s short-sightedness towards a nature that gives him everything, highlighting the knee jerk reaction to things he doesn’t understand. It is about the cycle of human life, about the destructive nature of humanity and about the forgiving nature of the surrounding environment – a nature that is forced to adapt to humanity’s shortcomings and still provide a platform for all life – human or otherwise – to continue.

For anyone with a passing interest in the future of the planet, beautiful animation or engrossing stories, this is a must-see.

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 – 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.

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 – 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.”

graveofthefirefliesscreenshot.png

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.

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.

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.