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 for the latest review. Enjoy!
Chapter 1: Grave of the Fireflies
Director: Isao Takahata
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
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.
Chapter 3: Perfect Blue
Director: Satoshi Kon
Synopsis: A retired pop singer turned actress’ sense of reality is shaken when she is stalked by an obsessed fan and seemingly a ghost of her past.
One Word Takeaway: Blur
I wrestled with my one-word takeaway for this film, because it was difficult to sum up exactly how I felt after watching it. There are a handful of movies that get the “watch this once and move on” stamp from me, not because they are bad, but because the subject matter is so intense and moving that if watched multiple times, could lessen the impact it has. It is also incredibly hard to watch. PERFECT BLUE will live in the same category of other films such as AMERICAN HISTORY X, MISSISSIPPI BURNING, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, and CRASH. It’s a solid film because of its depiction of what happens when a person, so bent on changing her image, will do whatever it takes to do so, and the gritty animation with it’s muted color palette helps accent the tone of the overall story. At the same time, there are moments in the movie that are hard to stomach. Rape is depicted and there are two to three lingering moments of violent murders, all of which contribute to the intentional discomfort the movie is trying to articulate.
What I think the movie does really well is use the storytelling device of the unreliable narrator. The lines of reality and fantasy are blurred through the eyes of the main character, and it’s difficult (sometimes to a fault) to know what’s real and what isn’t. As an audience I need to have some kind of assurance by the end of the story that I know what’s real and what isn’t. While I feel like there is some closure here, I’m mostly left wondering.
Overall, it’s hard to say if I would recommend this movie. On one hand, it’s a solid piece of storytelling, and one that uses the style of anime in a way that rivals cerebral procedural crime dramas. At the same time, the elements of rape and violence that are depicted aren’t for the faint of heart, and it’s not one that will be on my radar in the near future.
Chapter 4: Millennium Actress
Director: Satoshi Kon
Synopsis: The story of two documentary filmmakers investigating the life of a retired acting legend. As she tells them the story of her life, the difference between reality and cinema becomes blurred.
One Word Takeaway: Motivation
If there is one thing I can say after two installments of Satoshi Kon’s work, it’s that he had one of the most creative ways of crafting his narrative. In some ways this was a serious departure from his previous film PERFECT BLUE, but in others it feels completely consistent in MILLENIUM ACTRESS. It is incredibly purposeful, in that he doesn’t want to just tell you a story. He wants you to feel like you are part of the story. And in this film, he takes that to a literal level. What starts out as TV interviewer Genya Tachibana and his camera man Kyoji Ida talking to seasoned actress Chiyoko Fujiwara about her career, soon becomes an emotional and imaginative participation in that career.
We start with a simple camera and light pointed at her on a couch as she begins her story, then we move into flashbacks with Tachibana and Kyoji watching and filming documentary style, and soon after we see Tachibana fully participating in these memories as a character in these films she is recounting. It’s a wonderful way to show us the history of Chiyoko’s career, but also how much it meant to Tachibana, as we find out later why that is.
But the most interesting thing about this movie for me is the answer to a question it asks early on through Tachibana. How did Fujiwara begin such a long and successful career? It is through a chance encounter with a mysterious man, seemingly on the run from authorities, whom she befriends and hides. After his escape, she finds out that he is heading to Manchuria, and she uses an acting opportunity (discouraged earlier in the film by her mother) to find him. This moment begins what I believe is the overall motivation for her successful career, that pursuit of love over the course of 30 plus years. It is such a beautiful way to capture. The whole movie wraps up in a way that feels incredibly complete, and in some ways brutally satisfying (if that’s even possible).
After watching this film, I’m excited to see if the Satoshi Kon narrative creativity continues.
Chapter 5: Tokyo Godfathers
Director: Satoshi Kon
Synopsis: On Christmas Eve, three homeless people living on the streets of Tokyo find a newborn baby among the trash and set out to find its parents.
One Word Takeaway: Unconventional
Honestly, I’m not intending this to become a Summer of Satoshi Kon. That’s just how the chronology and film picks are shaping up. By my numbers, I think I have one more to go but that’s not for a couple of movies down the line.
This is probably the most straight forward of Kon’s narratives, but it isn’t without its uniqueness. As an aspiring storyteller, I was reminded of how stories don’t have to be complicated to be good. They just have to be told in a refreshing way. It’s a simple story, following three homeless people, an alcoholic, a runaway teenager, and a homosexual, all living together on the streets. One Christmas Eve, they discover an abandoned baby and through this discovery, we as an audience find out more about their individual past lives and how they are connected. While the main plot centers around an abandoned child who is initially adopted and loved on by these individuals, it becomes a story that amplifies those themes within each of our protagonists. We find out more about all three of these characters, why they are where they are, and how abandonment, adoption, and ultimately an unconventional love plays it’s part to connect them together.
Though I liked the story, I found the animation to be along the lines of typical anime, with wide open mouths and over-expressions. I’m realizing that’s not a character trait I dig in this genre, but it didn’t deter my enjoyment of this movie.
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.