Summer of Anime

Prologue: What’s This All About

Anime has always been one of those genres that I usually avoid. Until a couple of years ago, it was seen as this obscure foreign animation where the characters had exaggerated facial expressions and actions, and the stories were generally seen as bordering on the quirky and fantastical. To get me acclimated, I was introduced to Hayao Miyazaki, as he is typically seen as the standard for what really great Anime is. Since then, I’ve not stepped out of that comfort zone, with the exception of specific recommendations by friends or the occasional subject of an episode of Feelin’ Film. Which brings me here.

This summer I’ve decided to take a look at about a dozen highly regarded anime films from a breadth of directors and time periods. My goal, less about seeing as many as I can, is more about finding out what appeals to me, what surprises me, and what kind of connection I can have to each film.

Be sure to check back each week (usually Tuesdays) for the latest review. Enjoy!


Chapter 1: Grave of the Fireflies

Director: Isao Takahata
Year: 1988
Synopsis:The story of Seita and Satsuko, two young Japanese siblings, living in the declining days of World War II. When an American firebombing separates the two children from their parents, the two siblings must rely completely on one another while they struggle to fight for their survival.
One Word Takeaway: Abrupt

The story of Seita and Satsuko is one that needs to be heard. So often I find myself exposed to stories of war and all I hear are numbers and statistics. It’s difficult to think about mass casualties because there aren’t faces with those numbers. This film gives me context into the lives of people who are affected by war while not being directly connected to it. It challenges me to connect emotionally to these two characters who, while not real, represent a group of people that were exposed to the harshness of World War II on the other side of the world. It disrupts my life for an hour or two, making me uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing.

It’s a tragic story for sure, but that’s one of the things that separates it from most other anime. As Roger Ebert said, “Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation…..[it] is a powerful dramatic film that happens to be animated.”


Chapter 2: Whisper of the Heart

Director: Yoshifumi Kondō
Year: 1995
Synopsis: Based on the manga with the same title, this animated film follows Shizuku, an inquisitive young girl and a voracious reader, who longs to be a writer when she grows up. One day she notices that all of her library books have previously been taken out by one Seiji Amasawa. Amid chasing after a large cat, befriending an eccentric antiques dealer and writing her first novel, Shizuku aims to find this mysterious boy who may well be her soul mate.

One Word Takeaway: Risk

WHISPER OF THE HEART feels like a story in two parts. In one way, it’s a story of a young girl growing up, like many kids, trying to figure out who she wants to be and what she wants to do with her life. At the same time, it also has an almost forced romantic feel to it, in her unintentional pursuit of finding this mystery person whose name has been in all of the library books she checks out. What I connected with the most was the seeing how Shizuku, through a variety of experiences, learns that she has two choices when it comes to her writing. She can continue to dream and be a lover of this “idea” that one day she will be a great writer, but never actually realize that out of fear or discomfort. Or she can take a risk, knowing she will probably fail, only to continue to get better.

Actively making a choice, and risking failure, exists in anyone who has a big idea. This film is a good reminder that we should take risks, and have permission to fail. It’s because of this resonating theme that I feel like the other half of the film, her relationship with Seiji, feels forced, at least in parts. There are some wonderful moments between them and in different instances he acts as a sort of inspiration for her to think about what could be. The romantic slant that exists feels out of place and doesn’t really serve what I consider the more important aspects of the story.

Overall though, it’s a really enjoyable film.


Patrick “Patch” Hicks calls Little Rock, Arkansas home with his family of four (his wife, son and two pets). When he’s not podcasting, he works as a multimedia designer and is also dabbling in the art of writing and directing. You can find him floating around the web on Twitter, Facebook, and his home on the web, ThisIsPatch.com.

MOVIE REVIEW: Lu Over the Wall

LU OVER THE WALL (2018)

1 Hour and 52 Minutes (PG)

Lu Over the Wall is the newest animated feature from visionary anime director Masaaki Yuasa, and tells the story of a small fishing village that is impacted by the appearance of a mermaid who comes ashore to join a middle-school band. It’s a twist on the classic fairy tale The Little Mermaid and features elements that will remind viewers of other films, too – specifically Miyazaki’s Ponyo, Best Picture winner The Shape of Water, and the under-seen musical hit Sing Street. Yes, it’s a little bit insane. But while these references seem similar on the surface, Yuasa’s film forges its own path and becomes some entirely unique.

The biggest thing that sets Yuasa apart from other anime giants like Miyazaki, Shinkai, and Takahata is the animation style. Visually striking and lavishly colorful in the present, it melts into an older style of animation when characters recall the past. The animation is also very busy and moves fast. At times it can be so frantic that it’s hard to follow and feels like you’re staring into a rapidly spinning kaleidoscope. Always, though, it provokes a sense of joy and wonder. Full of character designs like you’ve never seen before (mer-dogs!), if it doesn’t give you a headache the art style will most certainly captivate you and hold your attention.

As for the story, Lu’s friendship with Kai and his middle-school rock band Siren is at the center of the narrative. In this world, mermaids are attracted to music. Naturally, not everyone in the village likes mermaids. While some want to use their existence for profit in the tourist industry, others want to kill them all, and a select religious few wish to live in harmony alongside them. The conflict arises out of these differing opinions, but relational issues exists between Lu and her bandmates as well. This is where the heart of the film lies and the way it tackles feelings of depression, friendship, love, and chasing dreams is beautifully woven into this fantastical tale. That being said, for the most part it keeps things light, but there are elements of the plot that deal with some tougher emotions. In trying to juggle quite a few sideplots the film does seem to get away from Yuasa and perhaps go on a bit long.

VERDICT

Lu Over the Wall is a great reminder of why we watch movies. Yuasa is a director willing to take chances and it is exciting to participate in a cinematic experience like that. This is a beautiful film, overflowing with cuteness, and filled with solid positive messages. It is also a musical that will have you humming along and tapping your feet whether you fully follow the plot or not. Unforgettable animation is rare, but Lu Over the Wall is just that and therefore is a must-see experience.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on the emotional experience he has with a film. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Minisode 041: Grave of the Fireflies/Mary and the Witch’s Flower

In this special minisode, we kick-off Patrick’s “Summer of Anime” movie challenge by confronting the late Isao Takahata’s masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies. But to lighten things up, we also have a short and entirely spoiler-free review of the first feature film from Studio Ponoc, Mary and the Witch’s Flower. 

Mary and the Witch’s Flower Spoiler-Free Review – 0:03:53

Grave of the Fireflies Review – 0:15:27


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Music: Going Higher – Bensound.com

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MOVIE REVIEW: Peter Rabbit

PETER RABBIT (2018)

GOING IN

Oh, January. According to Box Office Mojo, there is exactly one animated film among the Top 100 grossing of all-time to release in what is widely considered the dumping ground month for film studios. Extend that to the Top 200 and you find only three films released in January. Let’s just say this doesn’t provide a huge amount of confidence in Peter Rabbit‘s breakout potential. That being said, despite my little to no interest in this live-action/CGI animated adventure, Columbia Pictures does have a history of putting out some solid animated films (Arthur Christmas, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Open Season, and the Hotel Transylvania series). I also had little to no interest in another live-action/CGI film this January. That movie, Paddington 2shocked me by being utterly fantastic. And so, Peter Rabbit. Here’s hoping for a hopping good time, but expecting nothing close.

1 Hour and 33 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

New rule: stop underestimating British comedies.

Early in the film, a narrator voice-over tells us that Peter Rabbit is “the tale of a rabbit in a blue coat with no pants.” That simple description may be true, but much like the film’s trailers, it says nothing about the emotional depth to be found within. Sure, the movie about talking animals battling with a human over control of a garden is funny as it should be, but it’s also got a lot of heart, and that is what elevates this one from good to to great.

Will Gluck’s writing in the film is wonderful. At first, the reckless and prideful Peter (James Corden) appears to just want supremacy of the garden from Mr. McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson). After all, despite it being a great source of food, couldn’t the rabbits move to somewhere less populated and with more accessible sustenance that wasn’t littered with traps? But as the story progresses, Peter’s underlying motivations are slowly revealed to be more emotionally driven, and his relationships with his family and local animal loving neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne) grow into ones that have some genuine depth. The film also uses its entertaining battles between rabbit and man to make a great point about bullying and the escalating violence it can cause. It’s not all feels, though. The humor Gluck weaves throughout the narrative comes in many different forms. There is social commentary (brief jabs are taken at electronic device addiction and the growing trend of everyone being allergic to something), fourth-wall breaking, and some great meta moments. All of the jokes feel smart and current in a way that’s different from typical American animation. Maybe I’m just a sucker for British wit, but if you are too then you’ll love what Gluck has done with this script.

The music in the film also is a major positive. It’s musical choices work great and a running gag with some singing birds definitely is a highlight. Visually, the film looks great. Colors are crisp and bright. The rabbits look appear appropriately cuddly. The interaction between live-action and CGI is fantastic, too, with Gleeson and Byrne both doing a great job of selling that they’re really communicating with talking animals. Gleeson in particular is a joy to watch and I’ve decided this type of role is where he shines most. He’s easy to hate while at the same time giving you enough charm that you feel like there’s something there to love, which is exactly what was needed for Mr. McGregor. Both he and Byrne seem to really be enjoying their roles an having a ball.

This all isn’t to say that the film doesn’t have issues. Structurally it hops around at times and is a little bit of a mess. And even though there is an attempt to round out Peter’s family with unique personalities, there’s just not enough time to develop them in a deeply meaningful way. Peter Rabbit also isn’t particularly memorable. While the emotional beats work while watching they aren’t something you’ll be considering for hours and days afterward. Still, these and other minor quibbles aside, the film is just so much fun that it overcomes them and results in a very entertaining experience.

VERDICT

Peter Rabbit isn’t by any means a perfect film. But like Paddington 2, when compared to non-Pixar/Disney American animation it really shows that there is an amazing alternative in animated comedy for audiences to focus on and celebrate. This is a film that is short, sweet and smart with some great messages about family and friendship all while being one of the most laugh out loud hilarious experiences I’ve had in a theater in ages. Its choice to go deeper than the surface by touching on themes of owning up to mistakes and forgiveness turn it into more than just a funny action adventure, and instead make it one of the better animated films to ever be released in January. Grab your blue jackets and take the family to this fun romp through the garden!

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Minisode 033: Your Name (Kimi no Na wa)

For this special minisode we are covering a film that blew us away on our first viewings, but we’ve patiently waited for it to be released on Blu-ray so that more would have the chance to see it before we had this discussion. Your Name, directed by Makoto Shinkai, is the story of a star-crossed boy and girl, perhaps destined to forever yearn for a meeting that will never come, connected across space and time by an unexplainable magic and framed against the backdrop of an but is also technically marvelous in both visuals and sound. We hope you enjoy this conversation on one of our anime favorites.

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Intro/Outro Music – “School Road” and “Date” by RADWIMPS

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MOVIE REVIEW: Ferdinand

FERDINAND (2017)


GOING IN

Someone decided that it was a good idea to take a 1936 short story about a pacifist bull and turn it into a film starring the voice talent of wrestling superstar John Cena. While I know the actor, I didn’t know of the book that Ferdinand is based on. The original story by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson was initially met with a mixture of opinions before becoming so much of a hit in the 1930’s that it was featured on several commercial products. And now here we are in 2017 to see if it can make a comeback and win over family audiences this Christmas. My expectations for this film are extremely low, but I have at least enjoyed the prior films of director Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age, Rio) and Cena’s casting does make me curious. Just another needless kid’s film, or heartfelt and moving animated story with an important message or meaningful life lesson? Time to step into the arena and find out.

1 Hour and 46 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

Well, hey, it’s another anti-bullying movie. And that’s not a bad thing. Because people shouldn’t bully others, ya know? Poor Ferdinand grows up with plenty of this from his fellow calves, who have trouble accepting a bull who just wants to smell the flowers instead of fight. Tragedy strikes while Ferdinand is still young and he escapes to the country where he takes up residence at a flower farm. Convenient since he loves flowers so much, right? And also convenient that the little girl who befriends him actually knows his name is Ferdinand, too! Yes… if there is one word that I would use to describe Ferdinand it would be “convenient.” Every plot choice works perfectly because it has to, not because it makes any kind of logical sense. By the time the animals are driving a truck during the film’s climax, I was completely checked out.

Along with its message against bullying, the film promotes accepting who you are and loving others for the same. I actually never got the sense that the movie was strictly anti-violence. It (shockingly) shows what the alternative is for bulls who don’t succeed in the arena and could be emotional for young children who pick up on the subtlety. Don’t worry, though, no animated bulls were killed in the making of this movie so they won’t be scarred for life. The irony of John Cena playing a pacifist is somewhat amusing considering his fame comes from a career spent acting out violence for the entertainment of a large ground. Not all that unlike bull fighting, hm?

Characters in the film are hit and miss. Ferdinand himself is well played by Cena. A goofy “calming” goat voiced by Kate McKinnon that plays a large role in the final third of the film has importance as a character but is so annoying that I wanted to plug my ears. The rest of the bulls are unique, have their own strengths and weaknesses, and all play a part at precisely the right time to the surprise of no one. They’re… fine. Oh, and there are also German fancy horses. Who dab.

VERDICT

There are so many better animated films to recommend over Ferdinand. The bar has been raised, and every film has a positive message so that doesn’t set this one apart. It does have some charm and Cena’s voicework is good, but an overly convenient plot that tries to balance heartfelt concern with ridiculous unbelievable antics fails to connect and barely entertains. Possibly worth a rental eventually, but with Coco still in theaters there is no reason to spend money and time on Ferdinand.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent (2017)


Occasionally, cinema will give us a film that pushes the boundaries of what has previously existed, either through technical advancement or unique narrative construction. Loving Vincent is such a film and is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. To simply refer to it as animation would be a disservice because what has been accomplished here is far more special than a single word could describe.

Loving Vincent‘s plot is a murder mystery exploring the curious circumstances around the death of Vincent van Gogh. One year after van Gogh’s death, a postman requests that his son Armand personally deliver van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. After finding Theo has also died, Armand seeks to complete the task by finding someone to deliver the letter to and in the process begins to question van Gogh’s actions, wondering if his suicide was perhaps a homicide instead. Armand discovers more information about Vincent through present conversations and dramatized memories recounted by those he meets. Ultimately, while the questions raised are intriguing, the manner in which this tale is told is quite lackluster. There are no answers here either, only general speculation from characters with varying perspectives. I’ll admit that I learned a bit about van Gogh’s past and personality, but a 94-minute film shouldn’t feel as long as this one does.

Let’s talk about that animation style, though. The story of Loving Vincent’s creation will likely be what is remembered most and rightfully celebrated. Filmmakers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman first shot the film in live-action before enlisting a team of 115 painters (the training of some which was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign) to paint over each of the 65,000 frames in oil paint using van Gogh’s signature style. The result is some of the most dazzling, visually stunning animation you will ever see. The film’s vibrant color palette and textured brushstrokes make you feel as if you’re quite literally living inside of a painting, and the transitions of color in the present to black and white during memories was a great visual touch-point for what time period the story was depicting. It all has such an incredible effect, though, that it sadly at times overshadowed the expository story to the point where I was focusing on the visuals and not paying attention to what was being said.

Verdict

Loving Vincent is a step forward for the filmmaking industry and will certainly spawn new attempts at using these methods. It is a magnificent artistic achievement and it’s disappointing that the narrative’s quality did not match the film’s uniquely spectacular animation. That doesn’t, however, mean it’s not worth seeing. If Loving Vincent is playing near you, make it a point to see this on a theater screen and marvel at the incredible beauty of something that has never been done before.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Feelin’ It: The LEGO Ninjago Movie

Mike Ward from Should I See It joins Aaron to give their spoiler-free impressions about The LEGO Ninjago Movie. Does this newest LEGO-themed feature film live up to the dynamite success of its two previous entries? Listen now to find out what we think and help you make a smart choice with your time and money.

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Intro/Outro Music – “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie

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Feelin’ It: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Welcome to our spoiler-free review where we talk about the newest DreamWorks Animation film, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. Mike Ward of Should I See It? Reviews is here for this one and we do our best to give you both our own adult impressions as well as that of our kids, who range in ages from around 10-14. If you’re on the fence about seeing this one or curious what it’s all about, this is the episode for you.

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