The first soundtrack I ever owned was for Pokémon: The First Movie on cassette. It was all I played on my Sanyo Walkman for months. Listening to a particular song was a challenge, as I had to fast forward and guess when to stop. Nope, too early – still on ‘Don’t Say You Love Me’. Oops, too far. Screw it; let’s just go back to the Pokémon Theme. Only good song on the list anyway. (Man, I’m glad I live in the future.)
The release of Pokémon: The First Movie was a major event in the West. Pokémon was at the height of popularity with the trifecta of games, anime, and trading cards. We kids went nuts for a movie featuring Mew, the rarest Pokémon. Would we receive the adorable monster in game and in card from at last? (Spoiler: No. Nintendo hated us. Bastards.) To see Pokémon on the big screen was mind blowing to the child mind. What about all these years later, though?
You know what, it ain’t bad.
The story centres on Mewtwo, clone of the ancient Mew, believed to be the most powerful Pokémon. Breaking free from the shackles of his creator, Mewtwo seeks to prove his superiority over humankind and all Pokémon by inviting the best trainers to the ultimate challenge on his island. Of course, Ash Ketchum, who has actually never won anything meaningful in his Pokémon trainer career, receives an invitation – ‘cause protagonist. Little do he and the other trainers know that Mewtwo has sinister plans for their Pokémon.
The First Movie was refreshing at the time for having a plot with serious stakes – the end of the world and all natural Pokémon. The main series suffered from endless low-stakes episodes, usually undermined by Team Rocket. Ash had never faced a challenge. In fact, the series hated challenging him so much that in the Pokémon League, the final test for a trainer, he lost not because another trainer bested him, but because his Pokémon doesn’t listen. Super lame. The First Movie had weight, which holds up today.
It’s also great for fan service, bringing together most fan favourites such as Charizard, Venusaur, Blastoise, and Gyarados in one place for an epic battle. Let’s not forget Mewtwo, the star of the show. He is a great villain. You don’t expect a Pokémon villain to have good and bad qualities in conflict within himself as he seeks a purpose. And he delivers one of the deepest lines in history. (I hear Gandhi rose from his grave upon hearing Mewtwo’s words.)
Mew plays well off Mewtwo. I love how Mew cares so little for Mewtwo’s bravado, more interested in playing around like a cat distracted by yarn in the face of destruction.
Team Rocket is a pleasant surprise too. As funny as Team Rocket can be in small doses, having them appear every episode to derail the plot grew tedious. In The First Movie, they’re hilarious and complement the film rather than get in the way. Meowth has always been the best character and he has some great lines in this, and the fight against his clone is great. There’s something amusing about Meowth chatting with his clone while all around them Pokémon are stomping the life out of each other.
Pokémon: The First Movie won’t hold any interest if you aren’t a fan of the franchise. This is aptly described as the best episode of the original series rather than a standalone film. But if you do have any passing interest in the franchise, even if purely through the games, Pokémon: The First Movie is the perfect trip back to childhood.
Art – Medium
Though Pokémon: The First Movie looks much better than the series, it still barely reaches the standard for good anime visuals of the time.
Sound – Medium
I can’t watch Pokémon in anything but the dub – I don’t even know most names in Japanese. Meowth is always the best voice, but Mewtwo has the best dialogue this time. The soundtrack is mostly pop songs that haven’t aged after their populist inclusion in 1999. They don’t fit. At all.
Story – Medium
The ultimate Pokémon invites the best trainers to his island for a test of strength, where he can cement his dominion over mankind. Mewtwo’s villainy and the ultimate lesson of Pokémon: The First Movie make it one of the franchise’s best stories.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: A must for Pokémon fans. Even if you aren’t a Pokémon fan, The First Movie is an enjoyable ride down nostalgia lane.
I used to hate Neon Genesis Evangelion – hate with a burning passion, which I alluded to in my ‘Former Favourites’ list. The hatred was so strong that it was part of my core as an anime fan. When I brought up Evangelion to my friend the other day, the first thing he mentioned was my hatred of the series all those years ago.
Why the hatred? Well, it was my teenage mindset. I used to have a problem whereby one significant fault in a series I otherwise enjoyed could ruin the whole thing. My reaction was disproportionate to the fault itself. Evangelion’s fault was with the ending, and nothing has more negative impact on a viewer than a bad ending because it’s the last impression you leave with, the bad aftertaste of a banquet. It takes effort to override the feeling of a bad ending to remember your enjoyment before that moment. That was my weakness, to the point of venom.
To understand the significance of this ending, let’s go back to the start.
The world is nearing its end as Angels are descending from above to wipe out humanity. It has suffered two cataclysms already; it cannot withstand a third. The last hope lies with Nerv, a military agency in Tokyo 3 with only one weapon: the Evangelions, giant robots that can match the Angels. To unlock their full potential, they need pilots, 14-year-olds to be precise, capable of maximum synchronisation between human and machine. Shinji Ikari has been chosen to pilot EVA Unit-01, tearing him from his ordinary life to the frontlines where is father, who hasn’t cared for him in years, leads Nerv. He joins Rei, pilot of Unit-00, and Asuka of Unit-02 later.
Neon Genesis Evangelion has a perfect first episode, showcasing ‘in medias res’ (in the middle of things) with Shinji’s arrival in Tokyo 3. Misato, his guardian, is late as an Angel attacks, almost killing him, then a mine intended for the Angel detonates and rolls Misato’s car with him inside, ending the episode in him having to pilot the EVA. Rough first day. When you watch it, note how you understand the world and the situation without feeling lost, despite having zero lines of exposition. This episode and the three that follow are so strong that I watched the first DVD several times within a week as I waited to borrow the remainder from a friend at school. It sucked me into the world and I had to see more.
The first element that grabs me is the visual design. Evangelion wouldn’t have been so iconic without the unique look and feel to its world and mech designs. Everything was Gundam or a pale Gundam imitation at the time, so to see something so human and monstrous infused with mecha was revolutionary. The designs alone aren’t the reason for success. The use of the Evangelions cements them into memory. How often do you see a mech or vehicle so flashy, so overdesigned never justified by the anime? (“Why does that mech have giant spikes everywhere if it never uses them?”) Evangelions look the way they do for a reason and when that full potential blooms, it makes for the anime’s most memorable moments. That is to say, copying a Gundam design but keeping every Evangelion event the same wouldn’t have had half the impact than what we have here.
The second element of notice is the action and Angels. The action doesn’t simply look great; it’s creative. Hideaki Anno could have made the Angels straightforward Godzilla monsters that rampage about and take many shots to kill without effect on the grand plot. Instead, each Angel is creative in both design and threat. One Angel splits in two upon death only to regenerate a moment later, requiring both halves to die at the same moment, while another Angel is a nanoscopic virus that hacks Nerv’s central brains. Each encounter brings something new for the viewer and the characters. When Angels go after the mind or allies, Evangelion is at its best.
The human conflict adds a dozen layers of depth to humanity’s end. Shinji is a kid who just wants to feel needed, particularly by his arsehole of a father, though he is saving humanity, to be fair. His father has the weight of the world in his decisions. Not making him straight evil was a good choice.
Misato is another great character. She’s a total slob, drinks more beer than water and is a little pervy, but she has a good heart and cares for the kids – one of the few who does – making her the most human element of the series. Each supporting character receives enough attention for depth without breaking the hierarchy of importance to the plot.
I had it in memory that each DVD was worse than the previous until the final one nosedived. Rewatching Evangelion now though, I loved every episode until the 24th (rushed despite an amazing finale) because I can appreciate the points of view and purposes of characters I once didn’t like. For instance, I used to find Asuka annoying. She still is annoying, but I can see that she is a well-designed annoying. Perhaps it was Anno’s intent for teenage boys to find her annoying, much as Shinji does.
What turned me around on the majority of episodes was the craft that went into the mysteries that make the reader want to know more. As a teenager, I couldn’t perceive how the story metered out bits and pieces of information, foreshadowing greater reveals in the final act. Where did the technology for EVAs come from? What happened to Shinji’s mother? Who is Rei? So many questions. Study Evangelion if you want to learn the importance of mystery in narrative.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is well known for its psychological brutality and insane imagery, but there is a good amount of levity to stop the audience from wanting to completely blow their brains out quitting. Much of the humour revolves around Misato or takes place at school. She has this penguin living with her, not as a pet – maybe? More like a roommate. Who is this penguin? The strategic censorship is also funny and when Asuka moves in with Misato and Shinji, we get one of the greatest lines. Asuka wants to make-out with Shinji, you know, for fun, ‘cause that’s what girls do (?), but he hesitates and she mocks him. “I’m not afraid – pucker up!” he yells in retaliation.
Humour is important even to the darkest narratives, as it keeps the audience sustained and gives the dark moments more impact through contrast.
Evangelion reaches its darkest point in the two-episode finale, both in real life and in fiction. The original episodes 25 & 26 I still find terrible, if not worse because I can see more writing problems than before. The budget and time ran out, leaving almost no animation. Without going into spoilers, these episodes are mostly still shots of text, real life photos, and characters vomiting expository dialogue. Most attribute the poor quality to the visuals. Had the team had the budget, the episodes would have been great, they say. This isn’t true. Everything about these episodes is trash. The dialogue, the writing, the ideas, the imagery, the characterisation – all trash.
I hunted and bought The End of Evangelion after my school friends had mentioned a remake, though they hadn’t seen it. I eagerly booted it up and all seemed fixed. The visuals were back better than ever with spectacular action. The bad dialogue was gone. Each episode was double length. This was the ending Evangelion deserved. Then the climax began and threw all that the series had worked for, which to teenage me was a deal breaker, a ruiner of all good things. I hated the series since.
The climax is 20-minutes of imagery with a minute’s worth of plot. The visuals are nice and certainly better than the original version, but it’s too much when you don’t have the story to accompany it. The issue is build-up. It escalates and escalates, creating expectations that all will end in spectacular fashion. Instead…nothing. Now, a negative ending is fine but after such build-up, this just wastes the audience’s time. Five minutes of the best shots would have sufficed.
What do I think of the ending now? I don’t mind it as much. It’s still no good for the last 20 minutes, yet it no longer affects my opinion of the series prior. Simple compression would fix most problems.
And that’s where I stand today, at the end of a long journey of hate and love with a mere anime. I have debated at length with myself about where to score Neon Genesis Evangelion (one of the reasons for the review’s delay). I am still unsure. Who knows; perhaps I will change my thoughts again in fifteen years.
Art – Very High
It is incredible to think that we had such good-looking anime series in the 90s, drawn by hand. Evangelion doesn’t have the consistent animation of Cowboy Bebop, but its creative design drips with grit and atmosphere. Of course, this quality took a toll on the final two episodes. This rating assumes End of Evangelion replaces the original ending.
Sound – High
I didn’t notice until this viewing – because you often skip the ED after a few times – that the ending song changes each DVD to a different cover of Bart Howard’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ (popularised by Frank Sinatra). Some of these covers don’t work though I like the variety. Everyone knows the theme song ‘Cruel Angel Thesis’, which has become famous beyond its original use. Still a classic. The acting is where quality doesn’t quite hold up, in either language. A few examples: Asuka’s German in Japanese is…what Unit-01 does to the 13th Angel; several supporting English characters are a regular earsore; Japanese Shinji needed a male actor to pull off some scenes.
Story – Very High
Humanity faces the End Times and must place its hopes on three psychologically damaged teenagers and their mechs. Neon Genesis Evangelion never relents in punishing its characters, evoking a sense of hopeless that grips you until the finale disappoints. This rating assumes End of Evangelion replaces the original ending.
Overall Quality – Very High
Recommendation: A must watch. Regardless of how you feel in the end, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a must for any anime fan due to its importance and impact on the medium. Watch the original series with the director’s cut of episodes 21 to 24 (I insist) followed by The End of Evangelion. Return to the original ending for intellectual curiosity afterwards, if you wish (the remake reversed several decisions). Death & Rebirth can be ignored as a recap movie and the new scenes went into the director’s cut of the aforementioned episodes.
Metropolis adapts the 1949 manga of the same name from the creator of Astro Boy (hence the character designs), Osamu Tezuka, who based this story on a single image of the famous 1927 Metropolis silent film. As such, despite sharing a name and setting, the two versions have little in common.
The city of Metropolis rose to greatness thanks to leaps and bounds in technological advancements. Robots have replaced much of the manual labour and menial tasks. However, what should have been a utopia of man and machine, has turned into a class war. Robots are second-class citizens, attacked and destroyed by rioters on a daily basis. They cannot venture beyond their designated zones. Japanese detective Shunsaku and his nephew Kenichi arrive in town on the trail of an organ trafficking case, but the master of Metropolis, Duke Red, has plans involving a robot girl of his creation that throws them off track.
Metropolis draws you in with its city design. Life bustles and clanks along on every corner and in every alley, creating a sense of wonder and a desire to see more. But a film is about story, and it’s not long before you start to ask where this elusive feature has gone. Every character moves in every scene – it never stops to sit down and show us motion within characters. More scenes go towards showing us the world and all the fancy art techniques used than towards developing characters. Art came over story.
The plodding pace of the first act is manageable thanks to the world, though once in the second act and the pace is still like gears grinding together, it becomes difficult to pay attention. The heroes are your standard good guys, which is obviously not ideal, yet I believe the true problem lies with the antagonists. The Duke is your typical Big Boss Villain atop the Tower, residing in the background for the most part (why does he look like a cockatoo?). The other is his adopted son, Rock. He goes after the robot girl, intent on destroying her out of jealousy. The Duke lost his daughter and would rather create an artificial replacement over accepting Rock. His daddy issues aren’t interesting because they lack a foundation to make us care or see them as a problem. We have a few brief interactions between father and son that serve to advance plot, not deepen character. One could say the same for much of the cast. They are tools to the story, nothing more.
The third act finally gets it together to give us action atop the highest skyscraper, which makes for a spectacular and tense set piece. Emotion and character enter the spotlight as the truth behind the robot girl comes out. The Duke reached for the sun in his beloved city and it went beyond his control. He constructed his tower too high and it fell so far. You may notice this as an adaptation of the Tower of Babel, and you’d be right – Metropolis outright states this. Some subtlety would be nice.
I love art as much as anyone does, but story is more important. Metropolis has plenty of the former and mere morsels of the latter.
Art – Very High
Tezuka’s Astro Boy character art of Popeye biceps and effeminate curls on everyone has never looked good to me. It doesn’t hold up, nor does the once spectacular CG for several scenes. I was going to give the art a High rating, until the finale blew me away. It’s magnificent.
Sound – Medium
The acting is fine in either language, while the music is serviceable. The finale song is the only standout.
Story – Low
A detective and his nephew become involved in the plight of a robot girl amidst a technologically advanced city. Metropolis put nine out of ten energy cells into the art, leaving a blinking check engine light for the characters and plot.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: For art fans. Metropolis is an engaging time if great art alone can sustain your enjoyment.
Mamoru Oshii’s Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is an introspective film hinged on a metaphor of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Constable Kazuki Fuse is traumatised after witnessing a terrorist girl detonate to avoid capture amid riots in an alternate history Japan. As an officer of the panzer troopers, an armoured ground force reminiscent of the video game Killzone’s Helghast, his change in behaviour mandates retraining and puts him in the middle of the conflict between the Capital Police and ordinary police forces. During his recovery, he grows close to the sister of the very terrorist girl who died before him.
This premise of a dystopian Japan, riots everywhere, Helghast-like officers clashing with police, and suicide bombers paints an intense portrait of a film. You’re probably imagining Akira. In truth, Jin-Roh couldn’t be further from intense. This slow, methodical film set in a nation without colour, without life, wants to evoke depression inside the viewer. Once vibrant greens and reds have faded. The world feels ‘Soviet’ where the higher ups have absolute power, giving no hope to the people.
Kazuki roams with no purpose. The few glimpses of life spark during his moments with the sister, but even those are drops in the calm ocean.
I am sad to say that Jin-Roh doesn’t succeed in evoking much emotion, nor does it engage the viewer. As I opened with, the story is a metaphor for ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which Oshii handles without an ounce of subtlety, for every second scene makes a simile or draws a motif to wolves and the fairy tale. He’s so obsessed with the metaphors and motifs that he forgets to develop the characters and the world in which they live. The story never gives a sense of why anyone does their jobs or what they hope to accomplish in this world nearing anarchy.
Oshii’s masterpiece, Ghost in the Shell, has one of my favourite introspective moments in anime when Motoko Kusanagi glides through the streets of New Port City, so one would imagine that a film with more of this reflection would be a personal treat for me. What made that moment in Ghost special was its placement among scenes of intense action and intrigue. The story slowed down with a purpose. Jin-Roh is perpetually slow.
You could take almost any scene from this film and it would be interesting when seen standalone, similar to watching that scene from Ghost by itself. It’s once you realise that the film has almost nothing but this sluggishness repeated for an hour and a half that it becomes boring. It needs balance.
Rather than make me care for Kazuki’s plight, Jin-Roh had me crossing my fingers for another riot.
Art – High
The art is effective at evoking a dystopian atmosphere, but the much-muted brown palette becomes dull when it’s all there is. Characters could use more detail. Most of the animation budget went into people being riddled with bullets.
Sound – Medium
Voice work – fine. Music – lovely, tragic.
Story – Medium
A special unit officer reconsiders his position in life after witnessing the suicide death of a terrorist girl amid enforcement politics. Jin-Roh’s sacrifice of everything to convey its ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ motif limits its appeal and quality.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: For fans of the slow and introspective ONLY. Seriously, if you don’t love, and I mean love, slow pieces with near-no story, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade will bore you to death.
Tales from Earthsea is often the lowest rated feature film by Studio Ghibli on anime database sites, sometimes by a significant margin. This discrepancy for such a venerable studio has always made Tales from Earthsea stand out to me. It looked like a Ghibli movie, so what could be wrong?
The world is deteriorating. A division of desires between dragons and humans has thrown nature off balance. Archmage Sparrowhawk goes on a journey to find the cause, meeting Arren, young prince of the kingdom, who has just killed his father and is on the run. The prince harbours a darkness within that grants him both strength and cruelty. The sorcerer Cob sees Arren’s weakness as an opportunity to tip the balance further and open the gate to immortality.
Confusion. I characterise Tales from Earthsea best with the word ‘confusion’. The above plot outline isn’t clear until the movie is almost over. The storytelling is so vague. It doesn’t lay out any clear information at the start. You don’t know what any character wants, where anything is going, or why anything is this way. In any story, you must give the audience something to care about from the beginning, whether it is a character motivation, a goal, or an ideal. You wander aimlessly through Tales from Earthsea. I paused several times to watch a YouTube video out of boredom. I care nothing about this film.
Sparrowhawk is a one-note noble wizard, Arren doesn’t have anything going for him outside of these visually intriguing nightmares, and Cob is just Evil Guy 63728. His subordinate slaver is more interesting. We don’t receive reason to care for their actions or their fates. Lacking are the ‘human’ moments that make us love Ghibli’s other characters. How charmed are we by Howl’s first interaction with Sophie? How lovable is Chihiro within minutes? Who could say no to the fluffy Totoro after a single yawn? How strongly did we feel for Seita’s predicament before we even knew his name?
The world of Earthsea almost made me care. When the main characters reach the town of Hort, it’s a magnificent sight, hinting at a deeper world. A back alley shows us citizens crippled by an opium-like substance. A slaver insinuates he will sell a girl into sex slavery. Drugs, slavery, and other dark elements speak of a depth created by the novel’s author, yet not translated by the film studio. These dark elements don’t matter in the movie.
I can see why praise is scarce for Tales from Earthsea with so little to recommend itself. With the basics of storytelling and characters missing from here, there’s no point commenting on the higher layers, such as the scene-to-scene. It’s a waste of time when every problem could be summed up with, “You need to go back to the story/character and fix it first.”
Tales from Earthsea was the first feature film directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro, and he hadn’t grasped the Ghibli magic that made the studio’s films stand out.
Art – Very High
Even with a bad story, Studio Ghibli delivers quality art. The shot of the city impresses me in particular, as does the cinematography on the dragon’s back in the opening scene.
Sound – Medium
The acting is decent. The dub needs more energy, especially from the girl. In the dub, Willem Dafoe replaces a Japanese woman as the sorcerer, oddly enough.
Story – Low
A boy combats his inner demons as an evil sorcerer seeks immortality. Tales from Earthsea lack direction, foundation, development, and depth to make a compelling story.
Overall Quality – Low
Recommendation: Don’t bother. Unless you must watch Tales from Earthsea to complete the Ghibli library, there is no reason to waste your time on this film.