Tag Archives: Movie

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

Only Yesterday – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Omoide Poroporo

 

Similar: Millennium Princess

5 Centimetres per Second

The Ocean Waves

Whisper of the Heart

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Slice of Life Romance Drama

Length: 1 hr. 58 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • The childhood scenes.
  • Depiction of children.
  • Pleasant art and music.

Negatives:

  • The adulthood scenes.
  • Pretty boring unless you strongly relate.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Now for something a little different from the usual Studio Ghibli fantasy fare. Fourteen years delayed in receiving a Western release, Only Yesterday is a nostalgic story of a ‘typical office lady’ returning to her hometown in the Yamagata countryside, where she will rediscover herself. Familiar places bring back memories of her childhood, relating in particular to the fifth grade and her strict father.

The primary story is her adult life and romance to an old acquaintance, with the childhood advancing pieces at a time as triggers recall the next step of the story. Only Yesterday is simultaneously charming and boring. The charm oozes from the childhood story. The adulthood story, on the other hand, is dull. I wonder if they could not have found someone with a more interesting life story to tell. Genuinely, nothing remarkable happens to this woman. She goes to the country, meet an old friend, chats a bit, works on a farm, chats some more, and experiences little conflict. This would be fine if we received a character study instead of this honest, yet unengaging life. Watching this woman was like listening to a stranger on the train tell you about their life, when you are too polite to tell them to you want to sit in silence. They aren’t rude or anything – I simply wouldn’t suggest they make a film of their story.

The childhood is a different matter. It should come as no surprise that Ghibli’s superior child representation manifests beautifully in Only Yesterday. The school scenes had me smiling ear-to-ear – when someone reveals their crush on you, or when complaining about having to finish ALL your lunch (“Who drinks raw milk? Yeuch!” – little me), and that goody-two-shoes classmate we all had that wanted to introduce more rules (you know who you are).

Conflict arises through her troubles with learning maths and her abusive (in my opinion) father, who berates her without making an effort to help her. This conflict is a relatable example of how children see the world as unfair. Sometimes they are right; it is unfair, but once grown, we do also realise our parents may, perhapspossibly, you know, have been right…a little – on occasion.

It is my understanding that the childhood scenes come from the source manga, whereas the adulthood scenes are additions by Ghibli to tie the childhood together without having to detail every scene in between. I have to admire this approach. It certainly works, never feeling fragmented. If only the grown up story was more engaging. Apart from one heart-warming scene where she sees spectres of herself and classmates as children around her, it doesn’t quite have the charm to match.

If you can relate to someone travelling back through childhood, you are more likely to enjoy Only Yesterday. For better personal rediscovery movies, see Millennium Princess and Bollywood film Three Idiots (a must watch).

Art – High

High quality art and animation, but there isn’t much to see. I like the storybook watercolours used for childhood scenes.

Sound – High

Only Yesterday has a good multinational soundtrack and good acting, save for the adult protagonist’s stiff delivery in English.

Story – Medium

An office lady takes a sabbatical to the countryside, triggering a flood of memories from her childhood and questions about her path in life. Only Yesterday is a realistic and accurate portrayal of childhood and reminiscence. That doesn’t make it particularly interesting, however.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it if the story sounds relatable to you. If you can’t directly relate to her journey, Only Yesterday is unlikely to elicit the emotions required to keep you engaged to the end.

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

Positive:

Fluid Animation

Negative: None

Children Who Chase Lost Voices – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Hoshi wo Ou Kodomo

 

Similar: Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Princess Mononoke

Spirited Away

The Place Promised in Our Early Days

Brave Story

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Adventure Fantasy Romance

Length: 1 hr. 56 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Gorgeous art.
  • Creative environments and creatures.

Negatives:

  • No foundations.
  • Never gets going.
  • Flimsy ideological conflicts.

(Request an anime for review here.)

After watching Your Name in the cinema recently, I went back to Makoto Shinkai’s previous feature-length film, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, to complete the collection. With his ability to distil human emotion into the magic of animation, it comes as a surprise to receive such a dull story and ultimately disappointing film from him.

Asuna hears strange sounds and unearthly music on her crystal radio. In her eagerness to decipher these phenomena, she stumbles into an adventure of monsters, a handsome stranger, and a lost civilisation. A school professor shows her how to reach the magical land underground.

This premise sounds very Indiana Jones, yes? Well, to best summarise Lost Voices, imagine Indiana Jones without any of the charm, wit, and action that made those films great – more importantly, fun. For a story with so many magical elements, Lost Voices has no magic to it.

I want to step back to the start for a moment. We open on Asuna in her ordinary life – as is expected for the genre – doing ordinary activities like eating food and cleaning the house, but we don’t see much of a hint at the magic in her future. In these ‘ordinary person thrust into supernatural world’ stories, great writers will include out-of-place details to draw the eye and foreshadow what’s to come, even if the character doesn’t notice. The best example of this is in Harry Potter’s first chapter.

Harry’s uncle Vernon Dursley is off to work for another ordinary day – Rowling even emphasises how ordinary the day should be in the opening line: ‘Mr and Mrs Dursley were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’ However, after only a paragraph cementing their normality, the hints of extraordinary begin to drop – the never-mentioned Potter relatives, an owl in broad daylight, odd people in robes, more owls, a stranger mentioning a Potter boy, yet more owls, etc. We, the audience, stand in the realm of ordinary with Vernon yet catch glimpses of the extraordinary realm to come. This technique prevents boring the audience in the first chapter.

Shinkai did not employ this technique well.

The only real oddities in Lost Voices’ opening are the noises on the crystal radio, though since they have no meaning for some time and are distant to the protagonist, they aren’t enough to grip you. My attention faded before even reaching the Inciting Incident.

Most shocking of faults is with the…romance, if you could call it that, between Asuna and the mysterious stranger that saves her from a monster attack (not as exciting as it sounds). If there’s one aspect Shinkai knows how to do it is emotion. And yet, here we have a girl fall instantly in love – not a crush or fling – with this stranger and would do anything for him with nary a conversation between them. Did I miss a scene that established the relationship? The setup is so weak that I spent thirty minutes trying to figure out if a romance was the intention. Even with later developments, it has zero impact.

So the first act is boring, the romance is as empty as the Bebop’s bank account, which leaves us with the adventure of no charm or fun. Children Who Chase Lost Voices settles itself comfortably in the worst category of all: boring. We need characters and story to engage us below the pretty surface. This anime is better left unplundered.

 

Art – Very High

Gorgeous art and animation from Makoto Shinkai, as usual – those colours!

Sound – High

The acting is good, but better in Japanese for some characters. Pleasant music.

Story – Medium

A girl hears the sounds of a strange creature from below and investigates the legend of a lost civilisation. Lacking foundation, Children Who Chase Lost Voices gives little reason for engagement in its rather standard adventure narrative.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Don’t bother. Children Who Chase Lost Voices is gorgeous to look at, certainly, but the story is too uninteresting to be worth seeing over other anime of similar premise. I would recommend worse yet more engaging anime before this.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Kiki’s Delivery Service – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Majo no Takkyuubin

 

Similar: Spirited Away

Little Witch Academia

Flying Witch

Howl’s Moving Castle

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy Adventure Comedy Drama

Length: 1 hr. 45 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Sweet depiction of teenage growth.
  • Charming little details.
  • Natural characters.

Negatives:

  • Not enough ‘witchy’ stuff.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Every witch, once at a certain age, must leave her hometown and fly on her own to find a place in the world. Most witches don’t stray far from home, but a mishap sends witch Kiki from countryside burrow to seaside city, where a witch hasn’t set broom in a long time. No flying in town! Accompanied by her cynical black cat, she drifts in this alien world until a kindly baker offers a place to stay in exchange for work. Kiki soon has the idea for a delivery service of baked goods and private parcels.

Okay, Miyazaki, this is, what, the thirtieth time you open a story with moving house to a distant place? Is this some recurring nightmare of yours? Or are you trying to signal us that you’re trapped and wish to move from your current location? Is it Yubaba? Does she have your name? Wait! Are you not actually named Miyazaki? Dun, dun, DUN!

While we uncover Miyazaki’s curse/dream, let’s discuss Kiki’s Delivery Service. I like it, but not as much as I could have.

First, the scene when she leaves home is perfect. “You grew up so fast.” “You can always come back if you don’t like it.” “—as a failure, euch!” It’s like the team saw my departure from home – minus the witchery, of course. Miyazaki’s ability to capture these small moments brings his stories to life.

Similarly, I love how Kiki bumps into buildings and has to kick off walls when flying with a heavy package. They could have had her fly normally and it wouldn’t change the story at all, yet with these details, it instantly connects us to the situation, for we believe that’s how it would happen as though we have flown brooms with heavy packages. The detail of her landing at the front gate and knocking rather than flying straight into the garden is charming as well – highly Japanese.

Kiki’s challenges are light-hearted, for the most part, such as recovering a dropped toy from a murder of crows – her cat has to act toy-like for the customer until then, to humorous results. When she faces her greatest challenge, involving stress and boy from the city, it lacks gravitas. For one, the boy isn’t a particularly interesting character and a stranger could replace his involvement, but more importantly, the incident doesn’t seem personal enough to Kiki. If you look at My Neighbor Totoro’s equivalent high-stress scene for the climax, it has impact because it hits the protagonist’s core. Extreme emotion isn’t compulsory. However, when the incident has a personal connection, the audience can feel its importance.

My words make it sound as though I am laying into Kiki’s Delivery Service, when really, the finale is fine and the growth it brings is valuable. It’s just that when you have Studio Ghibli, you know they can elevate it further. Also, there isn’t enough witchiness in this adventure beyond the broom flying and talking cat.

Art – Very High

Ghibli quality – detail, animation, colour, you know the drill by now, all excellent.

Sound – High

Good acting in both Japanese and English. I love the pleasant music and ambient sounds such as birds chirping in the morning and rain falling outside.

Story – High

A young witch ventures out on her own for the first time to face life’s trials and tribulations. Kiki’s Delivery Service delivers a great coming-of-age story, but it could do with a little more ‘witch’ in it.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Though not a must watch, especially if familiar with Studio Ghibli’s other works, Kiki’s Delivery Service is easy to recommend for all ages. Kiki’s character arc and charm are reason enough.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive:

CharmFluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative: None