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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Japanese cartoons you could’ve seen at the movies in 2017

Originally published on Facebook on February 3rd, 2018

The 2018 Academy Awards nominees for best animated feature were announced!

Like last year no anime made the cut, but unlike last year this isn’t a surprise.

Not to imply that the nominees aren’t shocking in other ways. It may have been fashionably cynical to expect Boss Baby to appear, but nobody expected Ferdinand, and at any rate few serious and thoroughgoing industry observers expected either. No, what’s not surprising is that none of the qualified anime were nominated. Three of them are good (kinda), two had a shot at mainstream appeal, and only one was released in America by a company proven capable of mounting an Oscar campaign. That’d be Mary and the Witch’s Flower, released by GKIDS. GKIDS, however, put their money on The Breadwinner, which did indeed secure a nomination. I can’t disagree with their choice.

What interests me the most, however, is the very fact that five anime films did qualify, meaning that five anime films screened at enough theaters for long enough to meet the Academy’s criterion. That’s new. This wasn’t the case a decade ago. Anime – non Studio Ghibli anime – is regularly screening in American theaters…sometimes even in AMC and Regal multiplexes. Anime is winning, even if it’s not winning awards.

So what did screen in theaters this year? Let’s start with the films that qualified for the best animated feature Oscar.

In This Corner of the World

Lots of discourse about any movie will center around its message: its validity, and ultimately its praiseworthiness. This is fine so far as it goes, but I personally don’t sing too loudly the moral praises of a movie which can offer only a message. I hold that In This Corner of the World is a deeper kind of good, because it brings not a message but an approach.

In This Corner of the World is about the life of a young woman named Suzu, living with her newly wedded husband and extended family near the major military port of Kure, Japan. The year is 1944. Ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy are always coming and going: everything from submarine tenders to battleships. Suzu and her young niece Harumi often stop on the hills to watch, sometimes sketching their striking silhouettes. But fewer and fewer ships are returning. Friends in the Navy are disappearing, and the survivors speak morbidly. Goods are growing scarce. Japan is losing this war, and everyone knows it. Suzu can only do her best for her family, and for her neighbors. It’s all anyone can.

War movies are often about the extremes of human experience. This is natural, as war is always extreme. This goes doubly for movies about civilians in wartime. Perhaps the most famous is Grave of the Fireflies, another anime, also about Japanese civilians at the tail end of the Pacific War. It’s famously hard to watch, being more or less 88 minutes of two kids slowly starving to death. It’s a simple movie with a simple message: this is what it costs to wage total war in the modern era. Simple, and effective.

In This Corner of the World is not like those. It’s not about the biblical terror of firebombing or atomic weapons, even though both of those affect Suzu’s life. Rather, it’s about how normal people lived their lives during the war, and in turn, how normal people came to view it. Its director, Sunao Katabuchi, did a massive amount of research to make sure that he depicted life in Kure accurately and honestly, so that we may better identify with Suzu and understand her. From this humanistic approach stems a flood of unstated bitter ironies, and subtle truths about how people and societies behave. This devotion to depicting an unsensational lifestyle is what makes it great, and in my opinion, what ultimately makes it far more interesting than Grave of the Fireflies or Barefoot Gen.

This I believe is precisely the kind of movie that would’ve been a hit with the Academy, if anyone had bothered to see it. It squarely hits the middle aged NPR listener demographic – a phenomena I call “Parent Anime.” This movie is the prototypical Parent Anime:

>It doesn't look like that Pokémon stuff.
>It shows off Japanese culture – “isn't Japanese culture so interesting?”
>It's about an Important Topic.

This might be a backhanded compliment to any other movie, but not to this one. It’s genuine – the real deal. Simply, it’s one of the best movies about war I’ve ever seen.

(Just, please, don’t watch the English dub. Watch it with subtitles)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

I'm about to complain a lot about this movie, but this PV is cool as heck.

Everyone loves Hayao Miyazaki, but he’s haunted in popular consciousness by the specter of the Miyazaki Movie. It clings to his body of work like a miasma. You know how it goes. A Miyazaki Movie is full of wonder and fantasy. A Miyazaki Movie stars a strongheaded young girl. A Miyazaki Movie is warm and comfy. This idea is a phantasm, but it exists nevertheless.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Studio Ponoć tried to make a movie in the phantasm’s image. They succeeded. It is an error.

What is Mary and the Witch’s Flower? A story of a young girl: bored with her grandmother, and mildly insecure about her frizzly red hair. She comes across magical powers and finds herself caught up in an adventure. At one point, she is mistaken for a magical prodigy, and for a brief moment we see that perhaps her insecurities run deeper than at first it seemed. Is this the moment where her stressful fever dream becomes lovely? What does it mean for her when later horrors reveal themselves? It passes, this moment, without hardly a rustle.

This girl is the image of a Miyazaki character, without any of the depth or feeling. She does not have the detail of Kiki, or of the lesser Chihiro. She is a cypher for any number of her more interesting predecessors. Her actions do not belong to her; she does things seemingly out of obligation to the unremarkable story. Her personality lacks anything that could lend her charisma. Her body language is identical to near any of her Miyazaki predecessors, although lets be real, the body language of most Miyazaki girls is the same anyway. Yonebayashi even tacitly admits this in the post-movie interview.

Our villains are similarly lacking. Yonebayashi says he likes villains whose morality reflects something in the real world – and indeed the movie has a self-conscious message about nuclear power (a Parent Anime staple!) – yet their actual demeanors are rote. I’d take fairy-tale simplicity if it came with people who were fun to watch. Nor does their worldview, comprehensible as it is, extend beyond the walls of their campus. Miyazaki villains – when he writes fantasy – have motivations which extend far out into the world, and into its culture, values, and politics. Princess Kushana is not only the hero of her own story, she genuinely is the hero in almost any other story you tell about that world! As Miyazaki is a leftist and was a union organizer in is youth, maybe this owes something to his worldview.

What of the spirit of adventure? The fantasy? The wonder? Yonebayashi and Studio Ponoć were able to call on the usual bunch of former Telecom Animation Film animators who once formed the core of Ghibli, as well as freelance luminaries like Shinya Ohira, Shinji Hashimoto, and Kiyotaka Oshiyama. Those three especially put in lots of astounding work, especially in the cold opening, which may be the best part of that movie. This is unsurprising, since Yonebayashi’s specialty has always been “dynamic action sequences.”

I should like to continue on to praise the aesthetic of the rest of the film, but regrettably its fantasy and wonder is as rote as its characters. The magic school lacks coherent design sense. It is a mishmash of colors and worn ideas, and aside from a technically quite impressive bit of animation with a water fountain, there are very few memorable images or motifs. The backgrounds, at least, are quite nice, even if on a whole the movie lacks a strong sense of time or place.

Now, all this sounds pretty harsh, but the truth is that this is an inoffensive fantasy adventure with moments of interesting animation. It’s not boring, and I didn’t dislike watching it. I’m simply frustrated that Yonebayashi and Ponoć fettered themselves to a spook and produced a lesser movie for it. Before this, Yonebayashi directed When Marnie Was There, which in my opinion punches in the same weight class as near anything Miyazaki ever made. It’s affecting, beautiful aesthetically and morally, and it inspires reflection. It has in abundance everything Mary lacks, save that it’s not fantasy. It is an extremely different kind of movie, but it shows that he and his crew have the skills to make a truly great fantasy adventure film for children.

This is not it.

If you want really spectacular anime fantasy adventure with witches and magic, go watch Little Witch Academia (2013) and Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade (2015). You may find both of these on Netflix, if I am not mistaken.

Napping Princess

Indeed, I shit you not, the end credit song for this movie is a cover of
Daydream Believer by The Monkees.

This movie is not as charming as Kenji Kamiyama thinks it is.

It tries. It really tries, and whatever its failures, you can’t accuse it of being rote, or falling for some fundamental, obvious-in-hindsight trap. In other words, I’m not about to write 762 words about it like I did for Mary and the Witch’s Flower. (I swear I intended these to be short!)

What is it? A story about patent disputes! Only, told with fantasy elements. It’s about a teenaged girl who, as a young child, was told by her father by way of an allegorical fantasy about how a car company working on self-driving cars tried to steal his late wife’s code and kicked him to the curb. Some years later, the self-driving car company – still unsuccessful in replicating the code and committed to unveiling their product for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – comes after the father. The teenaged daughter is caught up trying to protect the code and rescue her dad. She frequently dreams of the fantasy world of her dad’s story, and the movie toys with the idea that her actions in the fantasy world might be affecting the real one.

And you know what? It’s not a half-bad idea. The characters are all fun to watch thanks to the work of a very wide variety of animators, from absolute legends like Toshiyuki Inoue and Mitsuo Iso, to young foreigners like Bahi JD and Cedric Herole. There’s actually quite a bit of French influence in the way the characters move, which I think even a non animation nerd audience might pick up on. The master achievement of the production was not any of the action scenes, but the character of Watanabe, the villain. This is a ridiculous man whose way of moving and design telegraphs evil to an absolutely hilarious extent, but not the same way as any villain animated in the tradition of Western character acting might.

The rest of the film? Eh. It’s kind of a mess. It’s weirdly paced, the characters aren’t very fun, save Watanabe and young Ancien, who gets a pass mainly for being adorable. I found the fantasy world too high off its own whimsy. “A dieselpunk town devoted to making cars where the guards wear Anglo-Zulu War era British Army uniforms and they build giant magical robots to fight monsters” is the kind of thing that sounds amazing and creative and wonderful when you dream it up with your friends, yet somehow never transcends “that cool idea you thought up with your friends” in practice.

A Silent Voice

If you ask me who inspires me, I can give you a list of people who have an aspect or two I admire. If on the other hand you ask me who I want to be like, I’d have a very hard time naming anyone outside of three people, and all of them are directors: the late Noboru Ishiguro, Guillermo del Toro, and Naoko Yamada.

Yamada is a highly idiosyncratic director. She tries to put her feet in her characters’ shoes, and makes her decisions from the point of view of what best does justice to them, which she calls “method directing.” For that reason she’s very good at finding out-of-the-ordinary ways of communicating body language, and the way she blocks scenes is always tone-perfect.

A Silent Voice was an especially good fit for her; one of its most important characters is deaf and uses sign language. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the original manga is about a deaf girl named Shouko Nishimiya, whose classmates bully her in early elementary school. When the teachers finally do something, the blame falls almost entirely on the boy who (kinda) started it – Shouya Ishida – his friends unwilling to face their own guilt. He too becomes ostracized and falls into deep isolation well into high school. This is the story about Shouko and Shouya, their friendship, and all the people in their lives. Needless to say, it’s full of very difficult and complicated feelings. Misrepresenting them could be ugly. A premise like that should make you wary. Yamada herself only barely felt up to this task.

What kind of movie did she make? A strange one. She handles all these relationships and feelings with absolutely deft precision alright, to the point where you can easily fail to notice half the movie’s detail. As another review once put it, she’d rather whisper once than shout twice. At the same time, her “method directing” approach means that the movie is constantly wearing its emotions on its sleeve. It’s a subtle movie pretending to be an unsubtle one. Yamada does justice to these characters, and does it wonderfully. But if you accused it of being too neat and pretty, that’d just put you among many fans of the far rougher shod manga.

There are genuine marks against the movie too. Yamada and her friends at Kyoto Animation like to plan their work as though they were shooting it with real cameras, but here she decided to use lots of very warm light and low depth-of-field. She’ll use animated cinematography evocatively over the course of the movie too, but the first half hour or so of the movie is almost aggressively warm, and aggressively bokeh. A lot of visual cues are borrowed from the manga, but in animation they feel often too cute. Probably the most bizarre choice though was the use of My Generation by The Who in the opening, which is thematically so far out that you’d need a telescope to see it. Yamada explained that she chose it for what amount to aesthetic reasons, but even considering that she speaks little if any English, it’s odd that she seemed to give no thought to lyrics.

How does it all pan out? It’s an astounding movie, but I can’t tell you whether it’ll bring you to tears, or make you resent having to watch it. It’ll probably do one or the other. You’ll have to see. I naturally love it, and can’t wait to see it in the theater again tomorrow.

Ahh yes, that’s the best part, isn’t it? The Blu Ray is coming out soon and it’s getting another round of screenings with the English dub. Couldn’t tell you how it is, but they did get a deaf person to play the deaf character, so it’s got that going for it.

Sword Art Online: The Movie – Ordinal Scale


I didn’t see Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale. That’s because I don’t like Sword Art Online. Actually I think it’s terrible.

But that puts me in a minority. A significant one, but a minority. SAO has been popular since it aired in Japan, and even more popular since it aired on Toonami. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a beautifully produced show directed very well at times by Tomohiko Ito. I think it’s badly written, but there’s a certain innocence to it. This is the story of this guy who’s really good at video games, and he has a cool and sexy gamer girlfriend, and together they have to escape from a VR game where you die for real if you die in-game. It’d be charming if it weren’t bad. But most important of all, it’s never boring.

And none of this even matters, because SAO is popular, and it’s only one of many. If you can strike up a conversation with a nerd under like 30 about Game of Thrones, you stand like a 50/50 chance of being able to strike up a conversation about SAO too. Or Attack on Titan, or My Hero Academia. (And one of those shows is even good!)

Point is, the times are changing. Anime fandom is established in the United States as a lucrative and well-served corner of the market. The anime and j-drama streaming service Crunchyroll is in the same subscriber count range as CBS’ streaming service, only Crunchyroll gets to call that a success. Western money makes up a not insignificant amount of anime’s revenue, and western companies are funding a lot of shows. We might not grow much larger, but that’s okay too. Anime is here.

And if you’re the sort who cares about awards, consider this: the creators of Netflix’s most successful original series were inspired by Elfen Lied, of all the strangest things. If you visit any particular film set in Hollywood, it’s full of anime fans. Maybe not for a decade or so, but as the voting demographic in these awards shifts, you’ll probably be seeing way less The Boss Baby and way more…Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale?

…this is a good thing?

That wraps it for the movies that qualified for an Oscar, but wait! There’s more! We also got screenings of Kizumonogatari Part 3: Reiketsu, Your Name, and Genocidal Organ. This post is going long, so I’m going to break it into parts – for your sanity and mine. The next part will deal with them.

Spoiler: Genocidal Organ is, unfortunately, not about an evil reanimated heart that fought alongside Ustaše bandits in the Yugoslav Wars :(

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