Tag Archives: Movie

The Boy and the Beast – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Bakemono no Ko

 

Similar: Wolf Children

Sword of the Stranger

Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Adventure

Length: 1 hr. 58 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Good humoured fun.
  • Fluid animation.

Negatives:

  • Main antagonist out of nowhere.
  • Feeble setup.
  • Characters are rather shallow.
  • World left unexplored.

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So far, Mamoru Hosoda has been two for two with me on his films, Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt through Time. Can he hit the hat-trick?

Nope.

At its core, The Boy and the Beast is a story of two externally different people that share the same internal strengths and weaknesses. One is a boy, the other a beast.

Kumatetsu is in line for the throne after the current beast lord ascends to godhood. Kumatetsu’s chances don’t look good, however, with his anti-social behaviour and being weaker than his rival, who is loved by all beasts. He sets out into the human world to find an apprentice and prove he is worthy. For no real reason, he chooses runaway Ren, who lost his mother in an accident and whose father has dropped all responsibility, and renames him Kyuuta. They return to the beast world and begin living together as dysfunctional roommates while one tries to teach the other to fight.

A lack of thought shows itself early in The Boy and the Beast. Our first introduction to Ren/Kyuuta is of him wandering around Shibuya, angry at the world and everyone in it. He yells in the middle of the street about hating everyone. ‘Cringelord’ comes to mind. There is no subtlety to the conveyance of his emotions and personality. This introduction screams of a writer trying too hard to tell us what we should think of his character.

What follows is the pairing between Kyuuta and Kumatetsu, which has no ground to stand on. We never see reason as to why Kumatetsu chose Kyuuta. Yes, later it shows us that both share much in common, feeling like outcasts from their societies and without much to be proud of. However, Kumatetsu knows none of this on first meeting. For all he knows, Kyuuta could be a kid separated from his mother while shopping. He just declares Kyuuta as the best candidate for apprenticeship.

After this bad start, the story improves greatly with its chemistry between the boy and the beast. Now is where I can see the Mamoru Hosoda that made his previous films great. The constant back and forth, balance-counterbalance dynamic of two delinquents getting on each other’s nerves, yet still feeling camaraderie works perfectly. It’s believable, engaging, and funny. A highlight is the first sword-training lesson from Kumatetsu. “You grip it and bang! That’s it.” Instant swordsmaster! “What?” Great lesson there, mate.

The Boy and the Beast is a tricky beast – pardon the pun – for its faults aren’t clear until the film is almost over. You start with these questions and unresolved threads, which is to be expected of course, assuming the story’s direction is to answer these questions and resolve those threads. Not until the finale do you realise none of those questions had answers and the threads they started aren’t the ones they ended. The worst of this is the villain. He comes out of nowhere in the finale. When he popped up, I thought he would be a throwaway before the real threat takes the stage. But no, he is the villain. That’s what you were building up to all this time? He is irrelevant.

The third act retroactively crushes The Boy and the Beast. Other than the villain, you realise Kumatetsu and Kyuuta have no payoffs to their arcs, missing that seal to justify all that came before. Oh yeah, whatever happened to that girl back in the human world? Then you realise we saw little of the beast world and how its society works. Why do these kings need an apprentice to claim the throne? If it’s a test to cure Kumatetsu of his anti-social behaviour unfit for a king, why is that necessary? He would be king, not your best bud. How does any of the beast world operate? Why does the lord need to retire? Not all of these questions need answers, but you do need to give something for the audience to latch onto.

In the end, The Boy and the Beast leaves me with nothing. I will forget this film in a week.

Art – High

The animation is fluid and the environments gorgeous, but the characters’ lack of shading is a noticeable during day scenes.

Sound – High

Solid music and acting. The dub doesn’t shove in celebrities, much like other Mamoru Hosoda works, so it’s good in either language.

Story – Low

A beastman takes in a runaway boy to raise him as a warrior in a fight for the throne. The story sadly doesn’t dive deep enough into its world or characters to create a meaningful connection with the audience.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. The Boy and the Beast isn’t good enough to be necessary viewing, nor is it bad enough not to warrant a chance. You may find more value its good qualities than I did.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: 

Fluid Animation

Negative: 

Hollow World Building

Akira – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Akira

 

Similar: Ghost in the Shell

Spriggan

Serial Experiments Lain

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Action Horror

Length: 2 hr. 4 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • The art, especially the backgrounds.
  • World design.
  • That thing in the finale.

Negatives:

  • Vague research subplot.
  • Clumsy dialogue.

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There was a time when if you mentioned you were into anime, Akira was one of the first anime others asked if you had seen. Akira, Akira, Akira! It was everywhere. As it happens, I had not seen it until having been into anime for several years. Overhype resulted in a letdown. Then again, no one ever actually told me why they recommended it. Most anime at the time was recommended simply for being anime. We didn’t have a large selection.

In the year 2019, Neo-Tokyo has not yet recovered from the devastation of World War III, where an explosion had torn the city apart. Terrorism and riots are routine. Haneda is the leader of a bike gang, whose job seems to be clashing with a rival gang. One such clash leads Tetsuo, the smallest of the gang, to crash into a child that looks 100-years aged. This child is an esper with devastating psychic ability. Soon, Tetsuo starts to develop powers of his own.

The story is a simple one to follow – a psychic kid runs from the government as his powers develop faster than he can handle. The change in Tetsuo from a little kid who looks up to Haneda with the cool bike into a brat with a god complex is an interesting one, plot-wise. This arc raises the stakes to apocalyptic degrees, so tension isn’t lacking in Akira. Character-wise, it doesn’t give us much. Personality and depth are in short supply, rationed out like food after the war. Everyone in Haneda’s gang combined make up one whole character and the government officials and scientists merely fill the roles given. If Tetsuo were a robot slowly going out of control, there wouldn’t be much difference. Akira is no Ghost in the Shell.

Now the action, that’s more interesting. The destruction caused by the psychic powers looks fantastic thanks to the animation. When every surface crumbles away from Tetsuo, you can feel the invisible force pushing out in all directions. It’s visceral. Each action scene is more intense and crazier than the last, culminating in one of the most famous finales in film. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re in for something different.

In truth, the art made Akira the famous anime it is today, and made me appreciate it more on further viewings. The parallax scrolling alone is worthy of an award. When you come across a long shot of the city with a character going across the screen, rewind to admire each background layer moving at a different speed, creating that visual depth you rarely see in anime. It’s not just the number of layers, but the attention to detail on each. Surely, Akira must have a ton of AMVs that take advantage of these scenes. I would be surprised to learn otherwise. Even if cyberpunk depresses you or if the premise bores you, give Akira some of your time to appreciate its artistry.

Art – Very High

Every long shot of Neo-Tokyo is a marvel. The depth of field obtained from parallax scrolling deserves praise. The animation is great too, except for the mouths, which are over-animated and don’t sync in any language.

Sound – High

The music and sound design are the notable parts of the audio. The clumsy dialogue doesn’t allow the otherwise good actors to get into the characters. Watch this is Japanese, but if you watch Akira dubbed, go with the 2001 Pioneer version, not the original from the 90s that exemplifies bad dubbing.

Story – Medium

A teen of psychic ability starts to go mad amidst a city in chaos. The straightforward story doesn’t flex its muscles, instead giving us characters with little exploration and a vague sub-plot about research involving the Akira entity.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch for classic anime fans and lovers of art. Akira isn’t worth your time for its story. Instead, stay for the art and the spectacle of it all, the third act in particular.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Fluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Whisper of the Heart – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Mimi wo Sumaseba

 

Related: The Cat Returns (spin-off)

Similar: From Up on Poppy Hill

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

The Garden of Words

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Slice of Life Romance Adventure

Length: 1 hr. 51 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Beautiful small character details.
  • Full of heart.

Negatives:

  • Empty first act.
  • Ends just as it gets going.
  • Doesn’t give characters the whole stage to perform.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Shizuku loves books more than anything else in the world. Peculiarly however, in the borrowing card for each book she reads, someone else had borrowed them from the library before her. Who is this Seiji Amasawa? He must be a wonderful guy.

One day while going about her easy life of books and snacks, she follows a cat on the train, who leads her to a workshop of antique wonders and classical instruments run by an old man. He turns out to be the grandfather of the boy who makes fun of her at school. Worse yet, this boy is her perfect match in literature!

Whisper of the Heart is another lite-n’-easy film from Studio Ghibli, similar to the likes of Only Yesterday and From Up on Poppy Hill. But where I found those two rather dull with little to recommend themselves in terms of engagement, I enjoyed my time with Whisper of the Heart because of its characters. And just as it was drawing me in close, it ends. The first act being so empty made this more frustrating. What amounts to the equivalent of Chihiro and her family driving to the fairground in Spirited Away (several minutes) requires half an hour in Whisper. It takes too long to get to the point.

I like the scenes with the grandfather in the workshop, but these are rare. Most scenes involve Shizuku doing ordinary every-day activities like household chores or attending school. The first act has enough of these ‘nothing’ scenes to fill an entire film, so having even more than that makes the film feel like half filler to reach feature length. If Makoto Shinkai had directed this film, which is in his wheelhouse, he could have conveyed the same story in half the time with more said by the end.

Outside the filler, we spend most time with Shizuku and Seiji growing closer. Conflict arises from his goal to become a violin craftsman, which will likely send him overseas, whereas she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She finally finds her match and now he’ll probably be gone forever. However, these plot beats pop up and dissipate without much impact.

This story gets everything right, except for the plot. Whisper of the Heart’s events aren’t as strong as they could be, don’t challenge the characters as they should, and don’t give these brilliantly written children the whole stage to work with. Their small details are beautiful, such as how a girl reacts to seeing her crush or in the way a boy goes crazy at the roundabout way girls drop hints (pro tip: hints don’t work on guys). The Miyazaki touch is clear.

The poster for Whisper of the Heart shows Shizuku flying through the air alongside a gentleman cat, giving the impression of a strong fantasy element. This is deceiving. We only get one such scene inside her imagination, which is a shame, for it is a beautiful scene. We should have returned to her imagination several times as a metaphor for her inner growth, later reflected in her outer growth. These could have added depth instead of the filler scenes that serve little purpose to character or story.

I love much about this film, characters in particular, yet I want so much more.

Art – Very High

Studio Ghibli.

Sound – High

Good acting and solid music – it is interesting to hear an American classic in Japanese (Take Me Home, Country Roads).

Story – Medium

A fateful encounter with a cat leads Shizuku to solve the mystery of who had borrowed all her favourite books from the library before her, and she may even find inspiration for a purpose in life. Whisper of the Heart’s charming character barely get going when the story ends, making one wonder why so much empty space remained unfilled.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of other light Studio Ghibli movies. If you enjoy the more slice of life-type anime movies, Whisper of the Heart is another to add to your folio.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Stunning Art Quality

Negative: None

From Up on Poppy Hill – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Coquelicot-zaka kara

 

Similar: Whisper of the Heart

Kids on the Slope

 

Watched in: Japanese, English, & French

Genre: Historical Romance

Length: 1 hr. 35 min

 

Positives:

  • Art and detail.
  • The soundtrack takes you back.

Negatives:

  • Not much story.
  • The main thread is a dud.
  • Shallow overall.

(Request an anime for review here.)

When Hayao Miyazaki neared retirement (and un-retirement every other year), it was logical for Studio Ghibli to train up a replacement, and who better than the son of your prodigy to take the reins? Thus, Gorou Miyazaki received blessing to head his own projects, the second of which was From Up on Poppy Hill.

Set in a seaside town of 1960s Japan, From Up on Poppy Hill follows high school girl Umi and her work at Coquelicot Manor, a boarding house run by her family. Her school is in turmoil as the old clubhouse faces demolition in the push for modernisation before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As Umi helps the clubs, she grows closer to one boy in particular – Shun, the cool kid fawned over by the girls – and eventually helps him find the truth about his father.

Let’s start with what I like about From Up on Poppy Hill. The atmosphere is fantastic. Old lounge music warbles as we roam the evening streets of this seaside town bathed in golden street lamps. Bikes tick past, cars rumble on, and vendors announce their wares. Can you smell the fried meats? For something completely different, we go to the school clubhouse, where dozens of clubs have carved out a niche in this ancient manor. The mechanics tinker, the chemists concoct, and the philosopher yells existentialism. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, generations of trinkets and books plaster the manor. One could get equally lost in the knowledge or in the labyrinth of junk that fills this beloved institute.

The clubhouse is the sort of place you could use as the single setting for an adventure game packed with puzzles. Professor Layton would die happy. It breaks my heart when they have to clean it up to be presentable to the committee in charge of the modernisation effort. The Ghibli magic is still here in art and sound.

When it comes to the characters and story, however, the mana pools have run dry. First, the characters: they are remarkably unremarkable – pleasant people but not compelling characters. Umi doesn’t have Sophie’s feistiness or Chihiro’s strength found in Hayao’s works. If Gorou wanted to do something different for his protagonist than his father had done, that’s fine, commendable even. Sadly, he’s removed those aforementioned defining qualities and replaced them with…not much. Shun suffers from similar problems. He’s the cool kid and kind to Umi, but nothing more. These characters aren’t bad. No, they fall under the worst designation of all – forgettable.

And so does most of the story. The main thread is the relationship between these two kids and their search for Shun’s biological father. I won’t give anything away, but let me sum it up in one word: dud. I can’t imagine how anyone saw this plotline and said, “Yes, that is engaging enough to keep everyone to the end.”

As for the second thread, saving the clubhouse, it is better than the first with its greater sense of fun and doesn’t end in a dub. However, the success of this plotline is largely attributed to the art and sound qualities I talked of earlier, not the story itself. Where characters are concerned, the quirky side characters like the philosophy club president outshine the protagonists with mere minutes of screen time. I enjoyed the ensemble cast much more than the protagonists, except for when the two go into town for shopping (thanks to the atmosphere).

This story is too simple, even by simple story standards. It has everything but story and characters, the two elements Hayao Miyazaki usually does best. From Up on Poppy Hill’s greatest use is as an antidote to recover from Grave of the Fireflies when in the middle of your Ghibli marathon.

Art – Very High

The art maintains Studio Ghibli’s high standards – the evening lights evoke great atmosphere. The design and details of the clubhouse warrant full attention.

Sound – High

I could listen to this soundtrack any time I need to relax – love it. English and French voices are fine, but the Japanese is best.

Story – Low

A girl helps a boy find his true father while saving the school clubhouse from demolition. Both of these plot lines receive surface-deep exploration and the mystery of the boy’s father is underwhelming, leaving the atmosphere to almost singlehandedly carry you through From Up on Poppy Hill.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of historical Japan. From Up on Poppy Hill’s story isn’t a reason for attendance. However, if you want to relax in an atmospheric 60s Japan with light conflict and a pleasant soundtrack, then look no further.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Great Music

Negative:

Shallow

Pom Poko – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko

 

Similar: My Neighbor Totoro

The Eccentric Family

Natsume’s Book of Friends

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy

Length: 1 hr. 51 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • The tanuki crack me up.
  • The art.
  • Tanuki lore.

Negatives:

  • No surprises.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Did you know that the meteoric rise in popularity of energy drinks is because of tanuki, who drink to restore energy when shapeshifted into humans? I’m onto all of you energy drink addicts. I know what you are! This is according to Pom Poko at least. But in all seriousness, stay away from me – my uncle’s twice-removed cousin’s sister’s grandfather’s son is an exterminator (and he works for Nintendo).

Pom Poko tells of the secret tanuki world. The tanuki’s habitat has faced serious deforestation while they were too busy infighting. Now on the verge of extinction, they turn to the art of shapeshifting to interfere with construction sites. Two amongst them also go on a mission to enlist the three sages for their superior skills. Interference begins with minor jump scares and faulty equipment, but as the humans persist in Tokyo’s expansion, the tanuki get more deadly.

This is one hilarious movie. The tanuki watch human TV as part of their 5-year plan to stop urban development, but end up so distracted by the TV shows that they forget all about the deforestation! I lost it. Tanuki are so notoriously lazy that the elders pretend to be asleep when needed by others. The shapeshifting also lends great comedy. I’m sure you have all seen the gif of flying tanuki using their testicle sacs as parachutes. Pom Poko has many oddities.

It’s also a great film to learn about Japanese folk lore, as the tanuki shift into various spirits from folk tales to accomplish their goal. You would have seen some of these spirits in the likes of Persona or Yokai Watch. Unfamiliarity with the plethora of spirits may turn away some viewers however, since it could come across as nonsense.

The environmental message is not heavy-handed, in true Ghibli fashion, presenting animals that benefit from both nature and technology. Instead of taking sides, it raises the notion that true evil lies in excess. The problem isn’t humans clearing some of the forest; it is clearing too much. The problem isn’t tanuki enjoy man-made creations; it is overindulging in them. In fact, the tanuki’s greatest destruction comes from infighting. Ghibli’s mastery of ‘show don’t tell’ and the adherence to never telling the audience how they should feel always impresses me.

Pom Poko’s faults lie in the lack of surprises. Now, I don’t mean twists I predicted. There are no twists. The sequence of events and the contents of said events go exactly as you would expect, on reflection. The story never tries to throw you. So while Pom Poko is hilarious and entertaining, I find myself without a care for the story or these characters. It’s like watching a great sitcom with consistently funny scenes, but once the episode is over, you don’t care if the protagonist gets with the girl later on or succeeds at work. Still, I enjoyed my hilarious time with Pom Poko.

Art – Very High

Great as always. The environments look like Thomas Kinkade paintings (you have probably seen the puzzles of his paintings). The shapeshifting animation must have taken half the development time.

Sound – High

Good voice work. I love The Brain (Maurice LeMarche) as the narrator in English.

Story – Medium

In an effort to defend their habitat from deforestation, tanuki use shape shifting talents the scare the locals away. Though the story has no surprises, it is a lot of fun along the way.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Pom Poko’s zany humour is worth a shot. You are in for some weird times.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

HilariousStunning Art Quality

Negative: None