(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was rather detailed, to “recall someone you used to know closely but are no longer in touch with, then a job you used to have but no longer do, and then a piece of art that you saw once and that has stuck with you over time. Finally, close the poem with an unanswerable question.” I decided to adapt the prompt to the viewpoint of a character from this film.)
He made me laugh until the day He made me cry and went away. Though where he’s gone I cannot say, I like to think he rues that day.
My sister worked me to the bone When she was young and trouble-prone, But now that she is nearly grown, I hate to think of her alone.
I still recall the song he played, And when my sister can be swayed, She plays and makes me wish he’d stayed. Why can’t I let the memories fade? _______________________________
MPA rating: Not Rated (a tame PG-13)
While modern anime films are dominated by Mamoru Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai (plus the plethora of films based on existing properties), there are some underrated original gems that don’t get as much attention as they should. Her Blue Sky is yet another example of the poignancy so easily captured by writer Mari Okada, known for emotion-heavy tearjerkers like The Anthem of the Heartand Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms. This one doesn’t really aim for tears as those do, but it certainly appeals to one’s sense of nostalgia and the regret that comes with looking back at how much we change over the years.
Set in the mountainous Chichibu area (where Okada was born herself), the film focuses on a young bassist named Aoi and her older sister Akane, who has cared for Aoi alone for the last thirteen years, choosing this responsibility over running off to Tokyo with her musician boyfriend Shinno. As a music festival approaches, Aoi remembers her fondness for Shinno and is shocked when he appears in her shed, looking exactly as he did thirteen years ago. While she suspects he is a ghost, the arrival of a grown, still-living Shinno back to town catches them off-guard, and the difference between his optimistic younger self and jaded older self puts both sisters through the emotional ringer.
While some may be disappointed at the lack of explanation for the supernatural elements, especially during a climactic sequence that is both delightfully touching and a little silly-looking, Shinno’s younger self is supposedly an ikiryō, a Japanese spirit that can manifest from a living person, a bit of interesting folklore I didn’t know, much like the 1970s song “Gondhara,” which features prominently in the film. The animation is a treat, with particular detail afforded to the instrument-playing, which is so often obscured to avoid the effort of animating authentic performances, and I’ve always enjoyed the character designs of this creative team, who previously worked on shows like Toradora.
While Aoi’s moody teenager shell may seem pretentious at first, her relationship with her sister is strained but quite sweet, as are the interactions with Shinno as she questions her feelings toward her sister’s ex. Thankfully, it all wraps up in a satisfying end, which is surprising since much of that end is only suggested in still images during the end credits. Her Blue Sky isn’t very easy to find and doesn’t even have an English dub yet, but it’s a small and tender drama of music and sisterhood that is worth seeking out.
(Good Friday and work obligations sadly made me miss yesterday, but I’m back on the wagon. Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a curtal sonnet, an 11-line sonnet variant from Gerard Manley Hopkins.)
In the realm of cyberspace I hide, Comforted by anonymity. My flesh-self is content behind its smokescreen. Robed in pixels, I can roam with pride, Finding other introverts to agree, Minorities like ghosts in the machine.
Life from womb to here has left me wincing; Life since logging on is fancy-free, Far easier to spurn the cruel and mean. I’m someone else, and boy, am I convincing, As you’ve seen. ________________________
MPA rating: PG
In anime circles, a new film from Mamoru Hosoda is an event. From Summer Wars to Wolf Children to the Oscar-nominated Mirai, he’s proven to be one of the most skilled anime directors around, and Belle promised to be yet another win. A modern riff on Beauty and the Beast fusing music and social media, the film garnered a fourteen-minute standing ovation at Cannes, making me wonder if it was just a case of no one wanting to be the first to stop clapping. Belle is another strong film in Hosoda’s oeuvre, but, like Encanto, it’s also proof that a film can be good while also being deeply flawed.
In the near-future of Belle, a digital world called U has become the most popular metaverse for people across the globe to interact with avatars somehow extrapolated from their own biometrics, resulting in an array of bizarre appearances ranging from babies to superheroes to literal hands with a face on it, which no one seems to object to. Suzu is a self-conscious high school student still haunted by her mother’s death, but when she logs into U as the beautiful Bell (which is what Suzu means), she finds that the anonymity allows her to sing again and, much to her surprise, become a celebrity. As she deals with the flurry of differing opinions that come with fame, she grows curious about the aggressive avatar known as the Beast, whose unknown identity is hunted by U’s authorities.
Hosoda is no stranger to virtual worlds, having previously worked with the concept in Digimon and Summer Wars, so it’s no surprise that the world of U is dazzling, an eye-popping blend of 3D and 2D animation, thanks in part to backgrounds from Cartoon Saloon. It’s easily Hosoda’s most visually resplendent and imaginative film that still carries his calling cards (he must have a thing for flying whales). The bad thing about U is that so much of it is left unexplained. While OZ in Summer Wars had several clear real-world applications, the avatars in U are never shown doing much more than floating around and commenting, though there are concerts and fighting tournaments, I suppose. Plus, it’s never clear how the real-world users are interacting with the virtual world; at some points, it’s as if their avatars are mirroring their real body’s movements, but is it like Ready Player One-style mechanics? There’s mention of sharing the senses of their avatars, so how can they see both U and the real world when logged in? Questions like that just require a suspension of disbelief that divorces the virtual and real worlds for the sake of the story.
The virtual world is ostensibly the main fantastical draw of the film, but I honestly enjoyed the parts in the real world more. The high school romance drama is nothing unusual for the genre, but the relatable supporting characters are an endearing bunch, particularly during a laughably awkward love confession. It was also a nice subversion to reveal the usually unsympathetic popular girl as a genuinely caring friend. However, the real world is also where the story falters toward the end. The revelation of the Beast’s identity is a powerful moment that speaks to the trauma of hidden abuse, yet it’s a reality for which the film doesn’t really have an answer. One culminating sacrifice hits an emotional high, but Suzu’s efforts afterward are unrealistic and absent of any long-term solution.
Belle has a lot of impressive elements in service to a somewhat half-baked plot, and the Beauty and the Beast parallels are rather incidental to the main story. Its vision of social media feeding frenzies and the online experience are timely and well-executed, while Suzu’s journey to understand the meaning of selflessness is suitably moving as well. And though the songs sometimes feel shoehorned in, I must give props to their quality, including the English recordings for the dub, and I think that the climactic “A Million Miles Away” would have been a worthy nominee for a Best Song Oscar if the Academy would look around more. Belle may not match the likes of Wolf Children, but it lives up to Summer Wars and exceeds Mirai, in my opinion. The visual splendor on display largely overshadows the plot issues, just as long as you don’t think about it too much.
I wear a weak smile With weights on each end. I faithfully labor And greet every neighbor To be a bulwark On which all can depend.
Yet what I have lost Haunts that which I’ve found. Like one stubborn ember, Your face I remember, A past that burned bright Upon life’s battleground.
They say what I know, That I have to move on. I still love the trace That remains of your face. I doubt it will ever Be totally gone. _________________________
MPA rating: Not Rated (should be PG-13 for some violent flashbacks and heavy emotional themes)
Although I love anime, I’m often not sure how to review films based on anime series. For example, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train was literally the highest grossing movie of 2020 worldwide, smashing records and becoming the first non-Hollywood film to top the global box office. Yet I don’t really know what to say about it. Because it’s a feature-length middle chapter for the Demon Slayer series, it’s hard to recommend it to those unfamiliar with the show, since a full appreciation of the film depends on some familiarity. It was exciting, eye-popping, a good continuation, and apparently a real tearjerker for some (not me), but its attachment to an ongoing TV series limits its appeal in my view. I feel the same for other anime films based on series, from the Steins;Gate sequel to the growing number of My Hero Academia features, which typically end up feeling decent but unnecessary.
Obviously, that’s not always the case. I’ve sung the praises of The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, which built beautifully on its original show, and Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, which stands on its own just as well. I suppose it’s easier when a film comes after a show ends, rather than in the middle of its run. Anyway, it should indicate my high regard for Violet Evergarden: The Movie that I’m reviewing it at all, beyond making it List-Worthy.
For those unfamiliar with Violet Evergarden, it’s a show from Kyoto Animation based on a popular light novel series about a girl in a fictional semi-Victorian country where gas lamps exist alongside advanced prosthetic limbs. Utilized as a lethal child warrior during a horrific war, the girl is taken in by a Major Gilbert, who gives her the name Violet and hates using her on the battlefield, despite her effectiveness. In the midst of a major victory, both of them are severely injured, and the Major is lost and presumed dead. With the war over, Violet is sent to a friend of the Major’s who runs a post office, and she gradually eases into the more peaceful life of typing letters for others, a job called an Auto Memory Doll (basically a transcriptionist with a typewriter). While struggling to understand simple concepts like love and pining for the Major, she meets an array of customers who help her grow as a person.
The short 13-episode series itself is quite good, with strong characters and emotions, but its greatest strengths are the glorious, Oscar-caliber score and drop-dead gorgeous animation. It’s honestly some of the finest, most detailed animation out there, and almost any single frame could be hung on a wall as a work of art. I will say that the script can be weak at times, often ascribing great profundity to the letters Violet writes even when they’re more earnest than deep. But the film’s poignant themes grow more affecting with time, and the largely stand-alone tenth episode remains one of the most tear-jerking episodes of television imaginable. Even the thought of it makes me want to cry. The studio could have left the show alone or stopped after the spin-off film called Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll, which falls under that “decent but unnecessary” status that I mentioned before. But the studio decided to cap off the series with a finale film, despite delays from the infamous arson attack and COVID, and I’m glad they did because it’s everything I could have wanted in a conclusion (hello, 100% Rotten Tomatoes score).
It was a canny choice to frame the story as a retrospective investigation, with a young woman from decades in the future looking back on the tale of Violet Evergarden, and the woman’s connection to that moving tenth episode had me close to sobbing right from the start. The film soon jumps back to Violet’s time, after she has grown into the most popular Doll in the city, though her thoughts remain with her long-lost Major Gilbert. After accepting a job from a sick boy in the hospital who wants her help to write letters to his family once he is gone, Violet and her boss learn of evidence that Gilbert might be alive on a distant island, and they go in search of her beloved.
There were many ways that the film could have gone wrong. Would they pull a fake-out and say it wasn’t Gilbert? Would it be a tired amnesia scenario? But the way it plays out is both touching and makes sense for the characters, highlighting Gilbert’s guilt from the war and how much Violet has grown apart from him. The eventual climax is a massive tug to the heartstrings, and I felt like the film was effective in encapsulating the overarching story and its emotions, even for those who may not have watched the series. (Even so, I certainly recommend watching the show first for the full context and emotional punch.)
I’ve always thought that the concept of an Auto Memory Doll seemed odd and quaint, like something that would be unrealistic in the real world, though that view is likely shaped by the prevalence of modern literacy and easy communication methods. The film actually addresses that head-on, with the advent of the telephone threatening the entire Doll profession. One shot of a lamplighter gazing up at a newfangled electric streetlight perfectly captured the theme of technological progress. I suppose the job of writing letters for others could be compared to something like the Pony Express, short-lived but memorable, and while the story could have been antagonistic toward such progress, it manages to show the positive aspects of both the telephone and letter-writing in, of course, the most poignant way possible.
I can see how someone cynical could easily view Violet Evergarden with detachment and scoff at its overly melodramatic qualities. It can lay on the tragedy pretty thick at times and certainly falls under that category of anime that intentionally aim to bring the audience to tears, like Angel Beats, To Your Eternity, or anything from Mari Okada. But if you can truly connect with Violet’s journey to understand love, it’s well worth tears, and I like the fact that I’m not too jaded to be moved by it. I liked the series on its own, but Violet Evergarden: The Movie took the series’ strengths and elevated them with a near-perfect culmination of all that came before and left me with a precious lump in my throat. I feel sorry for those who don’t give anime a chance, because stories like this transcend the medium to be great films, period.
Best line: (Daisy, the woman learning about Violet) “If there’s something I can’t tell them in words, maybe I could tell them in a letter. I want to finally tell them my true feelings. We don’t know how long we have, so I need to tell them while I still have time.”
If pens are mightier than swords, Then speaking what they write is too. And words no pen or page records Can leave impressions deep and true While those who spoke them have no clue.
Invisible, words plant their seeds, Perhaps to not mature for years. The flowers can be choked by weeds, From tactless slurs to whispered fears That did not settle on deaf ears.
We cannot know their full result And may not live to see them grow, But whether child or adult, Our words outlive us here below. Beware the seeds that you bestow. ___________________________
MPA rating: Not Rated (a safe PG for light innuendo)
I always like to include at least one anime in my Blindspots, and this is one that I had just never gotten around to watching. The Anthem of the Heart has a strong pedigree with scintillating animation from A-1 Pictures and a screenplay from the queen of emotions herself Mari Okada (who would go on to direct the heart-shattering Maquia). It’s a sweet and sad story that ends up being much more of a teenage romance than a fantasy, and there’s something endearing about its simplicity.
When Jun Naruse was a young girl, she caught sight of her father exiting a love hotel with another woman, and he outright blames her when her big mouth leads to her parents’ divorce. Overcome with guilt, she encounters an egg-like prince who offers to curse her and prevent her from ever hurting others with her words. Years later in high school, Naruse is known in her class and neighborhood for never speaking. When a teacher encourages her and three other classmates to collaborate on a community outreach event, they end up putting on a musical, and Naruse learns that the curse does not limit her when she tries singing her feelings, which include a growing crush on one of her new friends.
Like Sunshine on Leith, I feel like this is a film I ought to love more than I did, what with the lovely animation and the plotline of putting on a musical, which includes original lyrics added to familiar tunes like “Greensleeves” and “Over the Rainbow.” There’s a half-hearted effort at planting doubt as to whether Naruse’s condition is truly fantastical or simply a psychosomatic result of her childhood guilt, and the result is underwhelming albeit more realistic. Likewise, the love triangle/square between Naruse and some of her classmates indulges in dramatic clichés while also trying to buck them in a way that does satisfy but not in the expected way, accentuating the theme that the real world is messier than fairy tales.
Nevertheless, The Anthem of the Heart had its fair share of strong and sincere emotions, with the climax giving me chills the way good musical drama does. Naruse’s concern about words hurting others affects more than just her story, and I liked the way it influences the supporting characters and helps her come out of her shell. The film ends up feeling like a small-scale story worth telling, one that probably would not have gotten as much love and detail put into it outside of the world of anime. It may not be a new favorite of mine, but I certainly hope to see more like it.
Best line: (Naruse) “Don’t tell people to disappear like it’s nothing. Words can hurt people. You can’t ever… You can’t ever take them back! Even if you regret, you can never take them back.”
(The prompt for Day 3 of NaPoWriMo was to create a “Personal Universal Deck” of self-descriptive words, so I tried to come up with some word impressions for the characters of a lesser Ghibli film.)
Waves on the beach, Wisdom to teach, Woman and leech, Scorning my speech.
Waves on my mind, Wicked and kind, Who she maligned Is no longer blind. __________________________
MPA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, very little objectionable)
I love so many Studio Ghibli films, but there are a few gaps I’ve been trying to fill, lesser-known works that have slipped through the cracks. Ocean Waves is one of them, an early ‘90s TV film based on a novel that was meant to give the younger animators a chance to show their stuff. It’s one of those subdued high school stories with a melodramatic love triangle that isn’t bad but can’t escape an overall dullness.
Told largely in flashback, the tale follows Taku as a high schooler who learns his friend Yutaka has a crush on a new girl named Rikako, and Taku is soon pulled into her life and drama more than he expected or wanted. My mom initially didn’t like Forrest Gump because of the way Jenny treated Forrest, and Rikako is in a similar mold. She manipulates, lies, uses people, and barely shows any remorse, yet her actions are eventually viewed with fondness. A high school reunion near the end hits some excellent nostalgic poignancy, but the main two characters aren’t exactly typical romance material, to the point that some have said the two male friends have more chemistry than the central “couple.”
Again, Ocean Waves is well-animated and not terrible, but it’s low-tier Ghibli with very little personality of its own and many tropes that have been done much better elsewhere. In fact, my favorite Ghibli film Whisper of the Heart has a lot of the same ingredients (high school love triangle, boy and girl who dislike each other at first) and yet has so much more character and passion to it. Perhaps Ocean Waves was just the warm-up.
Nature weeps “Farewell” As mankind bids it “Hello.” Neither understands. _____________________
Some may look at the fact that I’m only reviewing #4 of my list of 12 Blindspots for the year in October as a sign of being way behind and perhaps despair because of it. I prefer to think, “Wow, I’ll have such a great sprint of good movies around the holidays!” Either way, I’m finally returning to my Blindspot series with Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko.
I’m very fond of the majority of the studio’s work, including the heartrending Grave of the Fireflies from the same director, but Pom Poko has never gotten much of a spotlight. Even in montages of various Ghibli movies, Pom Poko is pretty much relegated to one notable scene: a comical battle between two warring tribes of tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs), which happens to be one of the very first scenes in the film. The rest of the movie was a mystery to me, so I was quite curious to see the rest of the story. Now that I have, I can see why it’s counted among the B-list of Ghibli classics, with the studio’s trademark charm and weirdness being overextended by length and repetition.
From the humorous battle scene on, the film often plays like a mythological nature documentary, explaining the many eccentricities of tanuki pulled straight from Japanese legend: their mischievous antics, shapeshifting abilities, penchant for parties, belly drumming, and…um, their prominent testicles. Yeah, more than anything else, that last point is probably why Pom Poko never hit it off in America. Folk tales tell of the many uses tanuki have for their shapeshifting male parts, and the movie runs with that (the English dub using the euphemistic “raccoon pouch”) as they’re shown expanding their “pouches” into parachutes and weapons. Just writing this feels bizarre, but hey, myths can be weird, especially considering raccoon dogs are a real species.
As with many other Ghibli films, the story is an environmentalist fable, detailing the loss of the tanuki’s forest habitat as man and technology encroach further and further. (I find it interesting that the comic strip Over the Hedge debuted just a year after this film with a similar basic premise.) Much of the movie is spent with the creatures attempting to fight back, leading to some highly entertaining sections where they use their supernatural abilities to scare the unsuspecting humans away. However, from the moment they realize mankind’s threat to the point of no return, there are far too many scenes of the leaders debating their strategy, weighing their options, and trying the same things repeatedly. At nearly two hours, I felt like the film could have easily shed a half hour with little loss.
Director Isao Takahata, Miyazaki’s compatriot in heading the studio’s early releases, won my heart with Grave of the Fireflies, but nothing quite compares with that tragic masterpiece. Pom Poko is at least a visual treat, and the character animation swings wildly in depicting the tanuki as realistic animals, anthropomorphic bipeds, or cartoony caricatures, depending on the mood of the scene. The English dub (which Americanizes the tanuki as just “raccoons”) also boasts a talented voice cast, including Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Clancy Brown, Maurice LaMarche, Tress MacNeille, and J.K. Simmons.
Aside from Spirited Away, Pom Poko might be the Ghibli film most wedded to Japanese culture; one extended scene has a master tanuki conjuring a horde of illusory yokai (Japanese spirits) to scare the humans, referencing stories that are no doubt far more familiar to Japanese audiences than Western ones. Plus, despite its cartoonish aspects, its themes and a few story elements are geared for somewhat older audiences compared to the more kid-friendly Ghibli options. Pom Poko is weird, overlong, creative, frequently delightful, wacky, and even bittersweet by the ending. It’s not likely to become a favorite, but I’m glad to have seen another entry from a legendary studio.
Best line: (Narrator, with a line you’ll never find in any other film) “They used their balls as weapons in a brave kamikaze attack.”
(For Day 1 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was for a metaphor poem comparing life to a particular action, so I took inspiration from a movie that heavily focused on a similar metaphor of surfing.)
I live upon a wooden board
That glides along the ocean swell.
So many others stood and fell,
So on my belly, safe I dwell.
My wiping out I can’t afford,
And so I hug the firm and known,
And watch the few whose comfort zone
Is so much wider than my own.
They call to me with one accord
To stand within the arching wave,
And though I fear it, still I crave
The confidence of being brave.
I close my eyes and let my board
Convey me to the tunneled tide
And find the worries, from inside,
Have dwindled down and liquefied.
MPA rating: Not Rated (should be PG-13, for some adult themes and brief nudity)
I love that the last two years, I’ve been surprised by anime films I wasn’t expecting. Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms proved to be the anime of the year in 2018, and Masaaki Yuasa’s Ride Your Wave was a similar pleasant surprise, considering I’d never heard of it until a preview before Weathering with You. Star-crossed love is a common anime trope, but Ride Your Wave puts a uniquely emotional spin on it, also standing out for its characters being young adults rather than the usual highschoolers.
Hinako Mukaimizu has just moved into a new apartment near the ocean, allowing her to regularly partake in her favorite hobby of surfing. After a fire threatens her building, she falls in love with handsome firefighter Minato Hinageshi, and their romance is wholesomely reminiscent of the beginning of Up. And like Up, it ends in tragedy, leaving Hinako alone and unable to move on. Soon, though, she begins seeing Minato in water when she sings their favorite song, leading to hilarious misunderstandings and an unhealthy situation that clearly cannot stay the way it is.
I’ve tended to steer clear of Yuasa’s other works (like Lu Over the Wall or The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl), perhaps because his unique art style didn’t seem to appeal to me, but I must admit that I loved Ride Your Wave, and it’s made me curious to check out his past work. His hyper-fluid animation really complements the prevalence of water in the film and creates some unique angles and perspectives to ravish the eye. It’s a more cartoon-ish style than Makoto Shinkai’s photorealistic scenes, but it’s still detailed and pleasing in its own way. (It’s interesting to note the coincidence of this film and Weathering with You both coming out the same year and both featuring an emphasis on water and a notable scene with fireworks.)
Beyond the technical, Ride Your Wave has real heart to it and does a great job developing its central couple, as well as side characters like Minato’s churlish younger sister. And that focus on likable characters is essential because there’s certainly absurdity to swallow here, such as Hinako walking around town with an inflatable porpoise filled with water (and Minato) in an effort to relive the days when Minato was still alive. The climax is wilder than that, so let’s just say it’s hard to imagine this film in anything but animation. It didn’t hit me until afterward, but the plot has many similarities to 1990’s Ghost, though with more of a rom-com sensibility than that film’s thriller elements. By the end, though, it definitely knows how to tap the emotions hard, even while retaining a sense of hope.
Since I can’t be all positive, Ride Your Wave is sometimes too on the nose with its blatant metaphor of learning to “ride the wave” of life. Plus, at only 94 minutes, the film’s relationships might feel too rushed to some, yet one could also say it presents what it needs to economically. I feel like Weathering with You is objectively a better film, yet Ride Your Wave made me feel more deeply, identifying at times with its exploration of grief. Yuasa’s blending of the poignant and the surreal is an unexpected treat for any fan of bittersweet romance.
Best line: (Minato) “If you stay with your head underwater, you’ll never learn to ride the waves.”
The greatest threats and greatest wonders have their source within the sky,
Tornados with their whistle cry
And rainbows ere the air is dry,
Yet next to you, the marvels there have barely even caught my eye.
The storm can crash, the thunder clap, attempting to arrest my view,
But, whether sky be black or blue,
The sun will part the clouds on cue.
The rain will never fall as hard as I have fallen now for you.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for peril and brief nudity)
Weathering with You was #4 on last year’s list of My Top Twelve 2019 Movies I Hope Are Good, so it killed me that I had to wait until 2020 to finally see it in the theater. Makoto Shinkai had one of the toughest directorial challenges of the year, creating a follow-up to Your Name, which is still the highest-grossing anime of all time. How could Weathering with You possibly match Shinkai’s last emotional, artful powerhouse? Well, it doesn’t quite, but, boy, does it comes closer than I would have thought possible, leaving little doubt that Shinkai is in a class of his own when it comes to anime.
Shinkai’s films have been notable for their amazingly detailed depiction of rain, in The Garden of Words especially, and Weathering with You fits perfectly in his oeuvre as the most rain-centric film yet. Hodaka is a teenage runaway, fleeing to the bustling metropolis of Tokyo with little plan and finding himself homeless in the midst of an extended rainstorm. After finding employment with a small-time tabloid publisher, Hodaka investigates the legend of the “weather maiden” (or “sunshine girl” in the very good English dub), someone whose prayers can part the clouds and bring out the sun once more. He finds her in Hina, a girl who helped him when he was struggling, and together they turn her ability into a business, clearing the weather for events. However, Hodaka’s past and the secret behind Hina’s ability threaten them both and possibly the world as well.
As with all of Shinkai’s work, the hand-drawn visuals in Weathering with You are absolutely gorgeous, with an attention to detail that puts most other 2D animation to shame. One sequence of fireworks is awe-inspiring. Likewise, anyone who enjoyed the soundtrack of Your Name, provided by the Japanese band RADWIMPS, will be pleased at their second team-up for a Shinkai project. I’m now used to the director’s music-video-like interludes that felt a bit jarring in Your Name, and they serve to highlight the songs, which in turn complement the visuals. It’s a common conceit in anime openings for characters to be shown falling through the sky, often for no apparent reason; Weathering with You not only gives a good reason but makes the scene a brilliant climax of emotion and, backed by the song “Grand Escape,” gave me genuine goose bumps.
Animation isn’t everything, though, right? There has to be a good story and likable characters as well, and Shinkai provides those too. Hodaka and Hina aren’t quite on the same level of star-crossed YA lovers as Taki and Mitsuha in Your Name, but they’re still a cute pair worth rooting for, while the rest of the cast are enjoyably colorful as well, from Hina’s Casanova younger brother to Hodaka’s pragmatic employer. The plot does borrow some elements from Your Name – desperate running, a climactic reunion, a sudden separation that doesn’t hit quite as hard this time, a supernatural cause based in Shintoism that isn’t explained as well as I’d like – yet it’s far from a lazy copy, more like a director in his thematic comfort zone. Shinkai has stated that the story was influenced by climate change fears, which are evident by the end even if the point being made about it isn’t exactly clear, but it’s interesting and gratifying how his characters make a case for the value of the individual over collective concerns, which he thought might be controversial.
Weathering with You’s biggest problem is that it will inevitably be compared to Your Name, and it’s true that it would probably be even more impressive than it is if it hadn’t been preceded by a record-smashing older brother. (Granted, Shinkai does lean into the comparison at times, like a wink to the fans, which made me and my fellow theater-goers giddy.) Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Weathering with You and highly recommend it, even to non-anime fans. After Your Name was spurned for a Best Animated Feature nomination at the Oscars three years ago, it’s a similar travesty that Weathering with You was also unjustly overlooked. It may be Shinkai’s third best film in my estimation, but with charming characters, stunning animation, impactful music, and a poignant story, it’s further proof of his films’ greatest strengths.
Best line: (Hodaka, to Hina) “Who cares if we can’t see any sunshine? I want you more than any blue sky.”
The depths of space have tempted man
For years while holding him at bay
Through distance, death, and lack of breath,
Insisting that we humans stay.
But mankind rarely takes a hint,
For us, a challenge is a lure,
Inviting us to sojourn thus
And learn how far we can endure.
MPAA rating: Unrated (an attempted rape scene probably would make it R, but otherwise, it’s an easy PG-13)
Unless you’re a diehard anime fan, you probably read the title of this movie and said, “What the heck is that?” Well, now that I’ve seen most of the mainstream films anime has to offer, I’m now seeking out the obscure, and I was surprised at the glowing reviews this unknown film has gotten since its 1987 release, growing into an apparent classic of the medium with 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. (Imagine my surprise when Netflix didn’t have it, but my local library did.) Royal Space Force is a hard film to categorize, but it’s undoubtedly well-made with unexpected thematic depth.
Imagine an anime mixture of The Right Stuff and Contact, and you’ve got Royal Space Force, the title referring to the poorly organized space program of the fictional country of Honnêamise. (Hun-ee-a-meece? Honey-mice? I don’t know how it’s pronounced since I don’t recall the name ever being spoken.) While no one takes the program seriously with its poor management and frequent failures, a slacker recruit named Shirotsugh Lhadatt finds a new passion and ambition for the project after a run-in with a young female evangelist named Riquinni. Despite the innate dangers of this unprecedented venture, including hostilities from a rival nation, Lhadatt literally shoots for the stars in a quest for peace and meaning.
Beyond the plot or characters, what makes Royal Space Force really unique is its comprehensive world-building. It’s not quite straight fantasy or science fiction: there are a couple futuristic machines and some unique animals, but otherwise there aren’t many fantastical elements to the setting. It’s just different, a vision of what our world might have looked like during the Space Race if history had taken a different route. Windows slide downwards; plane propellers spin on the tail of the plane; currency is made up of small needle-shaped pins instead of coins. The architecture of the cities is ornate yet believable, often a mish-mash of cultural styles that create something new. I would watch it again just to appreciate the imagination on display, the fashioning of an alter-earth with creativity sadly lacking in so many other animated films.
As someone with direct family ties to the space program, I was also intrigued at how this film would approach its version. The filmmakers went to NASA to study space flight, and their efforts at authenticity mix surprisingly well with the otherworldly setting. The training contraptions for preparing Lhadatt for his mission are more slapdash and home-made than NASA’s, but their crudeness highlights how big of a scientific leap space travel is for this world, as it was for our own. And by the time the launch day comes amid self-doubt and international turmoil, the event has a similar gravitas and grandeur as the real thing.
Another unique aspect of this film was the role of religion. Riquinni’s faith is clearly a fictional one based off a couple stories mentioned, but her discussions of God and nightly dispersal of tracts are clearly an analog to Evangelical Christianity. And unlike Contact, which annoyed me by pitting faith and science against each other as if they were antithetical, Royal Space Force depicts faith as a positive influence, encouraging Lhadatt to believe he is part of something bigger than himself and push toward a brighter future. There have been plenty of anime with Christian elements and themes, but this movie climaxes with a sincere and moving prayer that is one of the most explicit declarations of faith I’ve seen in animation.
While it’s a significant achievement in the medium, Royal Space Force does suffer somewhat from a deliberate pace and not quite enough resolution by the end. It’s not boring and has a few thrilling sections, but you shouldn’t expect constant humor or action from its grounded drama. The biggest problem is a scene of attempted rape that saps a lot of the sympathy for Lhadatt, even if he seems repentant later, and also serves no other purpose than to put the film into “mature” territory. The scene was cut in its video release, and it would have been better if the initial editors had done the same.
Now at least, I can check off another Blindspot from my list, an anime film that has held my curiosity for some time now. I think anyone interested in the development of space travel and speculative fiction would find much to appreciate, and fans of animation even more so, since this feature was the first project of Studio Gainax, which went on to the fame of producing series like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gurren Lagann. Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise may have an ungainly name, but it deserves its low-key classic status, making me wonder if the sequel that’s been rumored for years will ever get off the ground.
Best line: (Riquinni, reading from her holy book) “And you shall find that prayer is the greatest of all things, and it is also the smallest. You’ll find nothing more noble than prayer, nothing more humble.”
(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem that meditates on a strong emotion, like disillusionment with the world at large.)
The world is not the friendly place we once had promised to ourselves
When youthful optimism held some sway within our hearts.
We like to think that’s still the case, and yet the more a person delves,
The more this human-born machine reveals its sordid parts.
It’s tragedy that truly wakes our minds to darkness come to light,
That shows how cruel the world can be, with men its messengers.
We’re ignorant of risk and stakes, and enter honestly the fight,
Too late to learn the world was not designed for amateurs.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (comes close to R with the violence)
I’ve been looking forward to Alita: Battle Angel for well over a year, ever since I heard James Cameron was planning on bringing the long-running manga Battle Angel Alita (a.k.a. Gunnm) to Hollywood. This movie fascinates me not only for its visually awesome cyberpunk future, but also because it owes its existence to one man’s passion project, bringing an extremely niche franchise to a far wider audience than it otherwise would have enjoyed. It makes me wish something similar would happen with Steins;Gate or Cowboy Bebop.
Adaptations between manga/anime and live-action have historically been more miss than hit, but Alita is finally the hit that fans have been waiting for, faithful to its origins in the best way. I, for one, have not read the manga that so enthralled James Cameron, but I have watched the 1993 OVA (Original Video Animation), which is basically like a direct-to-video anime. At only 55 minutes long, it was an imaginative if brutal sci-fi that I definitely recognized had plenty of potential for the big screen. And now that it has, I’m thrilled that such potential was not wasted.
The manga/anime/film tells the story of the cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar), a girl whose head is discovered in a trash heap by cybernetics expert Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz). Finding her human brain still active, he rebuilds her body and introduces the amnesiac girl to the cutthroat world of Iron City, a sprawling dystopia patrolled by cyborg bounty hunters and festering in the shadow of the floating city known as Zalem. Trying to regain her memories, Alita becomes a Hunter Warrior herself as she falls in love with young Hugo (Keean Johnson) and navigates the plotting of Ido’s rival Dr. Chiren (Jennifer Connolly), the villainous Vector (Mahershala Ali), and his killer henchmen.
As it is, Alita might bring to mind several other films, such as Elysium with its floating city of higher class exploitation or the cyberpunk aesthetic of Ghost in the Shell, but I can’t help but feel that, if Alita had come out twenty years ago, it would be blowing people’s minds left and right. Yet the manga predates most of what it seems to borrow from, though the sport of Motorball definitely seems inspired by Rollerball.
I’m glad, though, that Cameron wasn’t able to make Alita when he first wanted to back in 2003 because the visuals wouldn’t have been this good. Alita: Battle Angel is a sci-fi action treat, with visual effects that have a good shot at an Oscar next year. Alita herself is stunningly realized, with Rosa Salazar providing a strong motion capture performance, augmented by the effects team with those anime-sized eyes that aren’t as hard to get used to as you might think. There are a few hiccups in the animation early on that threaten to be distracting, but by the time Alita starts kicking criminal butt, she’s seamlessly a part of this world.
The live-action Ghost in the Shell was distracting for me because it was a mish-mash of various plot points from the anime film and series; Alita, on the other hand, might be the most faithful adaptation I’ve come across. Nearly everything in the anime is also in the movie, sometimes even shot for shot (like Chiren squishing a bug while telling Ido she’ll claw her way back to Zalem), though the movie’s greater length allows it to expand on many plot elements, such that watching the anime is like a highlight reel of the film. Considering how anime adaptations have flopped so hard over the years, the film’s faithfulness to its source material is laudable and likely credited to the efforts of Cameron himself as a fan of the manga. Interestingly, I understand that some differences from the manga were actually borrowed from the anime; one villainous character is killed in both versions but apparently survives much longer in the manga.
That’s not to say there aren’t other differences; the source of Alita’s name and body is given more emotional weight in the film, and Ido’s former relationship with Chiren is explicitly romantic where it wasn’t before. And the film throws in entire sections that I can only assume are drawn from the manga since they weren’t in the anime, like the deadly sport of Motorball and the glimpses of Alita’s forgotten past. For me, these additions only added to the epic dystopian world-building that I so admire.
One thing I was concerned about the adaptation was just how violent it would end up being, and I was relieved that it earned a PG-13 rating and the wider audience that that entails. Don’t get me wrong; Alita: Battle Angel definitely pushes the boundary for a PG-13 film with multiple heads and limbs sent flying, but the anime is certainly more violent and bloody. The movie may have its brutal moments, but I was glad it was largely bloodless, leaving out the anime’s brief nudity and leaving some cruel moments mercifully offscreen.
While Alita was a pleasure to watch on the big screen, I find myself struggling with how to rank it. I’m still not a fan of the mostly bitter ending common to both the anime and film, but I’m excited for whatever may come in the (hopefully forthcoming) sequel, which is uncharted territory for me. My ranking could easily change with time, but I’ll err on the side of caution and make it a List Runner-Up. Nevertheless, for the most part, Alita: Battle Angel was pure effects-heavy coolness and as good as I’d hoped it would be, proving that Hollywood can make good films based on manga/anime. Perhaps it simply takes someone like James Cameron to steer them in the right direction.
Best line: (Alita) “I do not stand by in the presence of evil!”