A Fish out of Water
Ponyo is written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and stars the voices of Tomoko Yamaguchi, Kazushige Nagashima, Yūki Amami, George Tokoro, Yuria Nara, Hiroki Doi, Rumi Hiiragi, Akiko Yano, Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Tomoko Naraoka. The English dub stars the voices of Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, and Betty White.
The track record of Studio Ghibli suggests that the studio is quite adept with crafting children's films, ones that treat children with the utmost respect and believe that imagination and curiosity know no bounds in the mind of a child. And while the vast majority of American children's films sadly don't share this belief, it does warm the heart to know that the good people of Studio Ghibli will always be a bright light in the dark pit of misery that sometimes is the world of children's films. The magnificent charm of Ghibli children's films such as My Neighbor Totoro and the film we'll be talking about here, Ponyo, reinforce the rather unpopular opinion that children's films should be held to the highest standard in film-making and not the lowest.
The inspiration for Ponyo came from Miyazaki's interest in The Little Mermaid from Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, which we all might know as being the inspiration for Disney's The Little Mermaid. Both Ponyo and The Little Mermaid rely on traditional hand-drawn cel animation, though I would argue that Ponyo's animation is softer and bouncier, with textures that are as child-friendly as any texture in animation. Some characters like Ponyo and the various sea creatures that we see are animated like squishy toys that we could poke and stretch with playful glee, which is not exactly what we would think of if we could physically interact with Ariel and Ursula. But anyway, the point being that Miyazaki allowed himself the freedom to draw the sea and the waves, a freedom reminiscent of the freedom a young child enjoys while drawing with markers, crayons, etc. Not that Miyazaki was trying to act like a child while drawing, but rather, in order to help Ponyo come to life as a children's film, Miyazaki approached the animation with a type of flexibility that allowed him to be put in the right sort of creative and imaginative mindset, one that a child can have when given enough freedom.
So, who exactly is Ponyo? Ponyo is one of many daughters of Fujimoto (George Tokoro/Liam Neeson), a human magician/scientist who lives underwater. Ponyo's birth name is actually Brunhilde, but that all changes when she decides to sneaks away and ends up on the shore of a small fishing town. A young boy named Sosuke (Hiroki Doi/Frankie Jonas) finds Brunhilde, believing her to be a goldfish. Sosuke gives her the name Ponyo and promises to take care of her. However, Fujimoto finds Ponyo and takes her back underwater with him. Ponyo begins to refuse to be referred to by her birth name, while also declaring her desire to become human. Ponyo is able to escape and use her father's magic to become human, eventually making her way back to Sosuke. Ponyo joins Sosuke and his mother, Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi/Tina Fey), at their home. However, Ponyo inadvertently uses too much magic while escaping, causing a tsunami in Sosuke's fishing town and the natural world to become imbalanced.
- The gentleness of Ponyo and the fact that it's fully respecting its target audience makes it a very sweet-natured film that is bound to warm hearts of all ages. Absolutely nothing about this film is pretentious or cynical in any conceivable way, offering a fantasy world that, while not the most original idea you'll ever see, is one that welcomes you with open arms and is perfectly suitable for the soft, squishy animation that Miyazaki and company concoct. The animation for the water differs from the animation for dry land, which is much more sturdy and in place. Miyazaki, however, is able to magically blend these two animation textures together like peanut butter and jelly, and the film is that much more of a visual delight because so.
- I will always advocate for a notable soundtrack in a movie, and a notable soundtrack is what we get here from composer Joe Hisaishi. There may not be a memorable theme song, but Hisaishi's score is constantly humming throughout the film, enough to make its presence known and not sound like generic background noise.
- The only real problem with Ponyo is that it plays things a little too safe, so much so that there's no true antagonist and no true conflict. The natural world becoming imbalanced is the closest thing we get to a conflict, but the movie never creates any real stakes to make us fear for any of the characters and believe that any of them are in danger. Ponyo may be a children's film, but it doesn't have to be shy about the topics of death and suffering when appropriate. Disney's been showing us death and suffering for decades, and they turned out alright.
So while it's far from Miyazaki's best film, Ponyo is a splash of gentle sweetness and visual wonder. It's a gem of a children's film and one that people of all ages can thoroughly enjoy, a luxury that Ponyo has over far too many other children's films, particularly those released in America. There are similarities to Disney's The Little Mermaid, but because Ponyo is very loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, I think there's enough to distinguish the two films and thus not seem like you'd be watching the same movie if you watched The Little Mermaid and then Ponyo back to back. I won't say which one that I personally think is better; they're both great films in their own ways. In the case of Ponyo, it's another fine example of the masterful ways of Studio Ghibli and the talents of Hayao Miyazaki, neither of which have ever disappointed.
Grave of the Fireflies 2
In this Corner of the World is co-written and directed by Sunao Katabuchi and is based on the manga series of the same name by Fumiyo Kono.
Stop me if you've heard this one before: an anime film taking place during World War II. I'm 99.9999% sure that Grave of the Fireflies was the first film to come to your mind, with the likes of The Wind Rises not too far behind. I firmly believe that no future anime film to take place during World War II will be able to fully recapture the heartfelt emotion and gruesome consequences of war that Grave of the Fireflies masterfully stirs up. But then comes along In This Corner of the World, an anime film that has gotten a lot of love and has certainly been considered by some to be right up there with Grave of the Fireflies in terms of powerful, emotionally evocative World War II films. I regret to inform you all that I am not one of those people.
It's very easy to make comparisons between Grave of the Fireflies and In this Corner of the World, but just because one movie compares to another movie in several ways isn't automatically grounds to claim that the movie in question is bad. We shouldn't even use the world 'bad' at all when talking about In This Corner of the World, not with its elegant animation and its ambition to be a touching WWII picture. The word we ought to use when describing In this Corner of the World is boring, and, oh man, is boring the last thing I want any film to be, especially this one.
The first place to look at in regards to why In this Corner of the World is boring is its story: we have a young woman named Suzu (Rena Nonen/Laura Post). She lives with her family in Hiroshima and likes to spend her time drawing. One day, a strange young man named Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya/Todd Haberkorn) arrives, asking for Suzu's hand in marriage. Shusaku lives in Kure City as a navy civilian, and he remembers first meeting Suzu during one of Suzu's childhood visits to Kure. Suzu agrees to marry Shusaku and move to be a part of his family in Kure. All is well at first for Suzu, but as World World II presses onwards, her and her new family must deal with food rationing, preparations for U.S. air raids, and Shusaku being drafted by the navy.
As you can see, not a lot to go with. In this Corner of the World is very much one of those emotion-centric films, one where mood and atmosphere are at the forefront, and the story is progressed in only small chunks. Maybe it's more of a matter of personal taste; I desire at least a decent amount of plotting while watching movies, and that's not what I got here. The movie, with its 129 minute run time, soon turned into a grind rather than something resembling an experience.
- There can be absolutely no knocks on the hand-drawn animation, which features a variety of beautiful backgrounds and as much attention to detail as you can have in an anime film. Colors, shapes, and other basic visuals; nothing is left to chance. Even as the film's emotional state gradually descends into the anguish of war, the animation remains a pleasant sight.
- A lack of story is one half of why In this Corner of the World is a struggle to sit through. The other half is how absent-minded that the film seems to be. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if absent mindedness was something that Katabuchi did on purpose. Suzu occasionally mentions how absent-minded she can be, although this is a character trait that seems to disappear and then reappear only when it's convenient for her to say so. But anyway, the movie being absent-minded is an appropriate way of describing how there's no clear focus on anything. The conversations that Suzu has with other characters are all over the place; some of them seem as if they're going to go somewhere interesting, only to stall out and never be brought up again. As for the more uninteresting conversations, well, that's it: they're just not very interesting to listen to. When it's clear that several conversations are going to do nothing to move the "plot" forward, it becomes that much more difficult to stay alert and not check your watch/phone to see how much time is left.
In conclusion, there's not much of anything for me to really go in depth in, because there's hardly anything I can go into about the story, and the fact that I found this film boring doesn't help matters. In this Corner of the World may be a rewarding viewing for those wanting a war film that fully taps into the griefs of war, but for the people wanting that kind of film, I kindly point you in the direction of Grave of the Fireflies. In this Corner of the World would be like getting seconds after the main course. Aside from its attempts at being a moving, anime war picture, In this Corner of the World has little to nothing to offer to audiences in terms of story and character, the former being too shallow and the latter not being fleshed out enough so as to be memorable in any way. The movie is also heavily unfocused, so much so that at times that it, makes you question what was going through Katabuchi's mind. What am I talking about, though? This movie has gotten so much love and so much praise that my measly opinion isn't going to change anything. I might as well stop now, because the more I think about this movie, the more I dislike it.
Recommend? No. Watch Grave of the Fireflies instead.
I choose you....to forever tarnish the Pokemon franchise
Pokemon: The First Movie, also known as Pokemon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back, is directed by Kunihiko Yuyuma and consists of three different segments: a 21-minute short called Pikachu's Vacation, a 10-minute prologue called Origin of Mewtwo, and the main 75 minute feature, Mewtwo Strikes Back. This review only looks at the latter two segments.
There is usually something to be said about a film appealing to a niche market versus appealing to a mass market. It's true that not every film is targeted at the entire human population; graphic, R-rated action films are not intending to draw hoards of kids into theaters, just as other films are primarily geared towards kids and not to fully-grown adults. Meanwhile, mass market films aim to provide something of value to people of all ages and all different kinds of backgrounds, with the hopes of drawing massive box office returns. Regardless, a casual film watcher has the power to pick and choose whichever films they want to watch, whether it's niche market film or a mass market film.
In the case of Pokemon: The First Movie, we are dealing with far more than just any standard niche market film (the box office returns might suggest the movie is a mass market film, but I assure you, it's not); Pokemon: The First Movie has a niche market so outrageously narrow, that anyone who is not a member of this movie's target audience will find it an appalling, cringe-worthy experience. That target audience I am referring to is not just Pokemon fans, but very very young Pokemon fans, the ones who couldn't care less about what all of the humans in the movie are saying, their only desire being to fixate their eyes solely on all of the bright, flashy Pokemon action going on. Lucky for Toho, Nintendo, 4Kids Entertainment, and Warner Bros. though, as that specific audience turned out to be large enough and passionate enough so as to make Pokemon: The First Movie number one at the box office in its opening weekend and set off the Pokemon anime film series, now at twenty-one films and counting. I grew up playing all of the Pokemon games, and to this day, I still consider myself a fan of the franchise. Seeing how Pokemon has grown into the almighty juggernaut that it is and that I am taking this month to review anime films, I figured it would be kind of fun to tackle at least one of these Pokemon anime films. Sure, I would see the film a lot differently now viewing it through an adult lens, but I had childhood nostalgia on my side, and nothing gets to your soft spot more than childhood nostalgia.
Oh, what foolish optimism...
Despite the fact that I was, at the time, a member of Pokemon: The First Movie's target audience, childhood nostalgia had utterly no effect on the way I felt watching this film from start to finish for the first time in years. I felt extreme discomfort right from the get-go, resisting the urge to write, "Why am I watching this???" over and over again in my notes as the film went along (I somehow wrote that question only one time). This was more than Nintendo and Toho and 4Kids and Warner Bros. just trying to cash in on all of the games, trading cards, and other Pokemon merchandise; this was the Pokemon franchise showing a complete disregard for anyone who didn't know the first thing about Pokemon, as if anyone who wasn't familiar with the world of Pokemon could, in no shape or form, find any intrinsic value from Pokemon: The First Movie, nor any of the other movies to follow. Hence, that is where you get your incredibly narrow target audience for not just this movie, but for every other Pokemon movie to have been made up until now. Unfortunately for Pokemon: The First Movie, the problems extend much farther beyond just appealing to a very specific audience.
I am honestly a little stumped about how to approach the rest of this review, because, dear readers, I can't assume that all of you reading this are Pokemon fans, and that I can use phrases like, "It's super effective!", "Gotcha! Caterpie was caught!", or "Looks like Team Rocket's blasting off again!" and think you know what I'm talking about. So, in order to be fair to everyone, I am going to treat the rest of this review as if no one reading this has any prior knowledge of Pokemon.
Alrighty then! So for those who don't know, the word Pokemon is the romanticized contraction of the phrase Pocket Monsters, and it refers to a series of creatures that possess a wide variety of skills and strengths. People known as Pokemon trainers are able to catch these creatures inside of tiny balls called Pokeballs, and can then train the Pokemon to become stronger, while also developing a friendship. Pokemon: The First Movie opens with a group of scientists finding a DNA sample of the most powerful Pokemon of all: Mew. They use the DNA sample in a series of cloning experiments, eventually succeeding in creating a living, breathing clone of Mew, which the scientists simply refer to as Mewtwo. Mewtwo (Masachika Ichimura/Philip Bartlett) grows and eventually awakens, learning of his origin as a clone of Mew. Enraged that he is seen as nothing more than an experiment, Mewtwo uses his psychic powers to break free and destroy the laboratory, vowing revenge on humanity.
Mewtwo rebuilds the laboratory and invites several trainers to the island, using hologram messages to tell the trainers that they are being invited to challenge the world's greatest Pokemon trainer. One of the invited trainers is the main hero from the anime series: Ash Ketchum (Rica Matsumoto/Veronica Taylor), who heads to the island with his best Pokemon friend Pikachu (Okue Otani) and his two human friends Misty (Mayumi Iizuka/Rachael Lillis) and Brock (Yuji Ueda/Eric Stuart). When Ash, his friends, and the other trainers get to the island and meet Mewtwo, they soon find themselves in a heated battle against Mewtwo and his Pokemon clones.
- The nicest thing I can say about Pokemon: The First Movie is that it has a killer soundtrack, put together by composer Shinji Miyazaki. It's about the only thing in the whole movie that can possibly stir up an emotion, whether its some mild excitement during one of the battle scenes or a teensy weensy sense of wonder during one of Mewtwo's brooding sessions. If only as much effort went into the writing and direction...
- Although I've discussed a lot about the film's insular marketing, I haven't even touched upon what makes Pokemon: The First Movie such an egregious affair. The movie is incredibly pretentious, highlighted by one of the most shove-it-down-your-throat messages of all time about how fighting is wrong and that nothing but pain and misery can come out of senseless fighting. It happens right at the film's climax, and it's so hilariously botched, not because of how pretentious that the voice acting and dialogue makes it sound, but because of how the message completely contradicts something that is integral to the entire Pokemon franchise: trainers engaging their Pokemon in battles against other trainers' Pokemon. Now look, it's one thing to talk about a friendly type of fighting versus a serious and more violent type of fighting, but the way that Pokemon: The First Movie puts its anti-fighting method, it's trying to condemn all forms of fighting, and everyone but the young children in the audience are bound to watch this scene as if toxic sludge was just poured into their ears. I don't want to sound like I'm making too much out of one measly scene; there are several other times throughout the movie where characters either straight up say what kind of message the movie is hoping to send to the audience, or characters sound like they're trying to have a major philosophical debate on life, when in reality, they're talking hokey nonsense. The idea of film is to show, not tell; something I guess no one working on this movie ever learned.
It is truly unfortunate that the Pokemon franchise, having one of the most innovative and talked about series of RPG games of all time, allowed a movie of such low caliber to be made and to be released in theaters, knowing full well that not one person outside of the Pokemon fanbase would have a single clue about practically anything going on in this movie. Pokemon: The First Movie makes tons of assumptions; it assumes you know who all of the human characters are and how they know one another and it assumes you know what Pokemon are and how certain Pokemon work together. This is much different than watching a sequel to a certain movie; there is so much more information required of you going in. Even if you do have all of the necessary prerequisites for watching this movie, it's still not going to be enough to get past the movie's pretentious, shove-it-down-your-throat attitude that would make all but the most die-hard of Pokemon fans question why they became a fan in the first place. The whole thing is basically an extended episode of the anime, but it's a far cry from the first couple of seasons of the anime. I've seen the first few seasons of the anime; I grew up watching them, and I still to this day find them funny and enjoyable. Having that childhood nostalgia of watching the anime is what made watching Pokemon: The First Movie recently hurt as much as it did. It is a movie that is not at all fun or thought-provoking or inspiring. It is a movie purely for young children, who want to do nothing more than watch their favorite Pokemon heroes go on an adventure. The fact that I was old enough to be a part of this film's niche market makes me feel that much more disdain.
Recommend? No. This movie is only for young children who are die-hard Pokemon fans.
Anime Body Swap
Your Name is directed by Makoto Shinkai and stars the voices of Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Masami Nagasawa, and Etsuko Ichihara. It went on to become the fourth highest-grossing film of all time in Japan and the highest grossing anime film ever.
The use of body swapping in Your Name is certainly one of the more unusual ways to tell a romance story, especially a YA romance story. Normally, body swapping is a means of telling a story in which two different people somehow switch places and learn to be better people thanks to having someone else in their body for a stretch of time. You know, like the mother-daughter make up in Freaky Friday. And while Your Name has that "make the other person's life better" angle, it doesn't run with it very much so as to seem like any standard body swap film. The golden rule for any film is not what its concept is, but how the film executes its concept, and the how is what makes Your Name a memorable and emotionally touching anime treat.
The story focuses on the lives of high school girl Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi/Stephanie Sheh) and high school boy Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki/Michael Sinterniklaas). Mitsuha lives in the town of Itomori and Taki lives in Tokyo. The two don't know each other at all in person, but one day, they find themselves switching bodies. Slowly but surely, the two begin to realize what's going on, communicating by leaving notes for one another, whether it's by writing on each other's hand or by leaving text messages on each other's phones. During a day when the two are in their normal bodies, Taki tries to call Mitsuha, but he is unable to reach her, and the body swapping suddenly ends. Taki decides to visit Itomori in hopes of meeting Mitsuha in person, but the trip proves to be much more complicated than Taki could possibly imagine.
Without spoiling specific details, Your Name also introduces elements of time travel into its story, and oh boy, are you walking a very thin line when you bring time travel into your story. I mention time travel because I'm using it as a segue to mention that, as wonderful as Your Name is in certain places, it isn't without flaws. Those flaws, however, were not detrimental enough to prevent Your Name from dethroning Spirited Away as the highest grossing anime film ever, which is even more astonishing when you take into account Your Name not being a work of Studio Ghibli.
- Your Name's animation is traditional, hand-drawn cel animation, and boy does it convince you that not all great animation is CG nowadays. The visuals, especially shots of a comet flying through the sky, are melt-your-eyeballs gorgeous, the character designs seamlessly fitting into any and all backdrops they're placed in front of. There are also a series of wide, landscape shots where the movie really flexes its visual animation muscles, but the best part is that never does Your Name give you the impression that it's trying to show off, using exactly the right amount of establishing shots so as to not let the story's momentum wane.
- There is also a very strong emotional core at the heart of Your Name, with the movie doing an excellent job of showing us why it would make sense for two high school students like Mitsuha and Taki to have their lives intertwine and what the perks and setbacks would be of the two getting to go through life in the other's shoes. Mitsuha dreams of living in a big city like Tokyo, and lucky for her, Tokyo is where Taki lives. Meanwhile, Taki is at a total loss when it comes to dating and talking to girls that he likes, until Mitsuha manages to get Taki together with Miki (Masami Nagasawa/Laura Post), a girl that Taki works alongside with. The movie builds up Taki and Mitsuha enough that when the two finally do meet in person, it's a reward that the movie has earned the right to give us. This is a romance worth caring about, because the two people involved matter and the emotion behind the two meeting is as genuine as any YA romance could be. Also, for me personally, the way the story is told in Your Name reminds me a lot of Sleepless in Seattle, still to this day my favorite rom-com.
- All of the nice things that I've said already can't hide the fact that Your Name has a sloppy third act, one in how the movie keeps dragging out its ending and two in how the movie begins to stop making sense once all of its time travel components kick in. There are about three different times when the movie ends, and in the final twenty or so minutes, the thought going through your head is more of a, "What the hell is going on?" instead of a, "Oh my gosh, now I really hope the two get together!" because where exactly Taki and Mitsuha are and exactly how their timeline works by the end is about as much fun as trying to piece together the entire timeline of The Terminator franchise.
But in conclusion, Your Name is a pretty rock solid anime film that only starts to show some cracks during its third act. Spectacular, colorful animation and heartfelt emotion elevate this film to more than just a standard, get-the-job-done anime picture. The story is certainly one of the more unique ones you'll find, using body swapping and time travel to tell a YA romance story that is not the least bit saccharine. People of all ages can enjoy this film, and I have no doubt that Your Name will be an anime film that people will remember and talk about for years to come. If people like Makoto Shinkai can keep coming up with works like Your Name, then I'd say the world of anime is in great hands, even without Studio Ghibli.
Greetings any and all readers!
I am writing this post to inform you all that some major changes have recently happened in my life, changes that basically mean I will no longer have the time to post as many reviews as I have been posting before. Don't worry, I will still be keeping the monthly movie themes and will plan on seeing any and all new releases that I find worth seeing. But for the foreseeable future, do not expect as many reviews as before. I envision not doing more than 3 reviews in any given week.
Thank you all for your patronage!
Tell me, what do you do with witches?
Mary and the Witch's Flower is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and is based on the novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. It is the first animated feature by Studio Ponoc. The English-language version stars the voices of Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, and Jim Broadbent.
To attempt to discuss Studio Ponoc without bringing up Studio Ghibli is a straight-up impossible task. In August 2014, Studio Ghibli announced they would be halting all future productions following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, generating fear that the studio would never produce another feature film ever again. Thus, Ghibli's lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura left and went to found Studio Ponoc in 2015, with several former Ghibli animators joining the new studio and helping Nishimura work on the studio's first feature film: Mary and the Witch's Flower. The word ponoc is Polish for "midnight", signifying, "the start of a new day." In other words, the name Ponoc is Nishimura's studio's way of saying, "Studio Ghibli is no more. We are the start of a new era for anime."
With so much of Studio Ponoc being rooted in Studio Ghibli, it's perfectly understandable that someone would mistake Mary and the Witch's Flower for a Ghibli film. It looks like a Ghibli film, and the only thing that would make someone start to question if Mary and the Witch's Flower is in fact a Ghibli film (assuming the viewer didn't see "Studio Ponoc" anywhere in the opening credits) is the fact that British actors are behind the English dubbed voices, as opposed to American actors, who have done the vast majority of dubbed voices for Ghibli films. Who knows if British dubbed voices will become a tradition for Ponoc? The again, it could the simple matter that Mary and the Witch's Flower has a setting in Great Britain.
But enough backstory. Mary and the Witch's Flower works in a lot of ways, though I wouldn't say it's any kind of smashing success. I highly doubt this will become any kind of anime classic that should be considered alongside the likes of Grave of the Fireflies and Spirited Away, because as gorgeous as the animation is, the script borrows quite a bit from earlier, fantasy-based works, giving the film a harder time trying to stave off banality. Now, don't get me wrong: this is far from a banal film. The film may use familiar ideas, but it spices them up enough to warrant a pleasant viewing and give us reason to believe that Studio Ponoc is capable of doing great things. It may take them a while to get to those great things, but for what Mary and the Witch's Flower is as an anime film, Ponoc isn't off to a bad start.
The Mary in the title refers to the young, red-haired girl, Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki/Ruby Barnhill). She moves into the British estate of her Great Aunt Charlotte, just ahead of her parents. Mary turns out to have no friends, and she frequently makes a mess of things whenever she tries to do chores. A young boy named Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki/Louis Ashbourne Serkis) makes fun of Mary for both her clumsiness and her red hair, calling her a red-haired monkey. One day, Mary finds two cats named Tib and Gib, and they lead Mary into a forest, where she finds strange flowers that glow. Mary takes one of the flowers and shows it to the estate's gardener, Zebedee (Kenichi Endo/Rasmus Hardiker), who identifies the flower as a "fly-by-night", said to coveted by witches because the flower holds magical power.
The next day, Gib goes missing and Mary goes with Tib to look for her. Tib leads Mary to a broomstick that is caught underneath a tree's roots. Mary is able to retrieve the broomstick, but she accidentally bursts one of the fly-by-night buds, releasing a gooey blue substance that sticks to the broomstick. Suddenly, the broomstick comes to life, and Mary starts to fly on it like a witch. The broom takes Mary and Tib up into the sky, eventually coming across a series of buildings. Mary crash-lands the broomstick, and encounters a fox creature named Flanagan (Jiro Sato/Ewen Bremner), who tells Mary that she needs to go the Endor College for witches. Mary goes to the college and meets the headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Yuki Amami/Kate Winslet) and the college's top chemistry teacher Doctor Dee (Fumiyo Kohinata/Jim Broadbent). The two are convinced that Mary is some kind of prodigy, as her red hair is a feature among the best witches. But Mary finds out that Madam and Doctor Dee have sinister plans, plans that involve obtaining the fly-by-night flowers.
- There are all sorts of captivating visuals in Mary and the Witch's Flower, particularly its elegant long shots of nature. Every lovely shade of green is present, whether it's in a shot of Mary running through the forest, or in a more bird's eye view shot when Mary is flying on the broomstick.
Wide shots we see of Endor College also show off terrific color schemes and well-detailed backdrops that make the entire frame a spectacle to the eye. The animation is so good that there was one scene where I was convinced for a few seconds that the movie all of a sudden became live-action: a tight shot near the end, showing little more than a few blades of grass. It was the most realistic looking grass that I have probably ever seen in an animated film. No matter where a scene is taking place, the movie is going to provide you with magnificent visuals. It's better for me to say as little as possible, so that if and when you decide to watch the movie for yourself, you can get as much of an experience from the visuals as possible.
- While there are some issues with the script/plot, Mary and the Witch's Flower's story is memorable in that it turns normal fantasy conventions on their heads by refusing to play along with the, "embrace your destiny" story line that Mary has going for herself. Mary does not ever fall in love with riding on the broomstick, nor does she ever take great joy in learning magic spells. Instead, Mary is put into situations where she has to use magic, not because she's trying to prove anything to anybody, but because others are in danger and Mumblechook and Doctor Dee will succeed in their evil endeavors if she doesn't use magic. Mary never takes the time to learn the ways of a witch nor go through some montage where she becomes more acquainted with her ability to cast spells and act like a witch. She has no witch mentor either; she just is told that she has the characteristics of a witch. Mary simply chooses not to accept her witch potential. Destiny? What's that?
- The issues of Mary and the Witch's Flower that I've been alluding to are specifically about characterization and certain parts of the writing. To start with, Endor College might as well be Hogwarts for college-level wizards and witches, certain details coming straight out of the Harry Potter novels. Doctor Dee's chemistry class might as well be Snape's Potions class, and when Mumblechook brings Mary inside the college for the first time, we see stairwells that look just like the ones inside Hogwarts. Screenwriters Riko Sakaguchi and Yonebayashi don't seem to be making any real effort to keep Endor College as disparate as possible from Hogwarts and the world of Harry Potter.
As for characters, the motivation behind Mumblechook and Doctor Dee's evil scheme never becomes fully clear, as the movie spends a great deal of time telling us what Mumblechook and Doctor Dee are going to do, but not exactly why they are going to do something bad. Mary; the extent of her characterization is that she's a little clumsy and has no friends, but neither of those two traits are explored in any meaningful capacity. Maybe every one of Mary's school mates finds her red hair unusual, making Mary a target for bullies. Except, that never happens, as does a scene in which Mary questions why she has no friends. Those two bits for potential character development are simply dropped into the beginning of the film and then forgotten about later on. None of the other characters are worth discussing in length, 'cause none of them have much of anything worth saying.
In conclusion though, Mary and the Witch's Flower makes up for most of its shortcomings with character and plot with visuals that are maximum level eye candy and a more unconventional approach to its overarching "this is your destiny" fantasy story line. It's a good opening act for Studio Ponoc, and assures that they have a bright future ahead. I, myself, am looking forward to seeing what Ponoc will come up with in the near future. Hopefully one day they can start making masterful works right up there with what Studio Ghibli has already created. Mary and the Witch's Flower has put Ponoc on the map, and soon we'll see which direction that Ponoc decides to go.
Recommend? Yes. This is nothing groundbreaking, but it's an anime film that is worth a watch.
The early works of Studio Ghibli
Grave of the Fireflies is directed and written by Isao Takahata and stars Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara and Akemi Yamaguchi. It is based on the 1967 short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka.
By 1988, Studio Ghibli was still in its early stages, having released just one film (Castle in the Sky) prior to Grave of the Fireflies. Some may consider 1985's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to be a Ghibli film, but that's a topic that would go into considerable length and one I'm not going to waste time mentioning here. Grave of the Fireflies was released in the same year as My Neighbor Totoro, and though both films are nearly complete opposites, they did assure that Studio Ghibli had a bright future ahead. Early on at least, Grave of the Fireflies seemed like a bold endeavor; animation is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind if we're talking about war films. But the fact that Grave of the Fireflies is a war film, and a highly successful at that, we might say that Grave of the Fireflies is something of an achievement in not just anime, but all of animation worldwide, having the guts to address more mature ideas and assure that animation isn't just fluffy kids stuff that needs to be brightly colorful and cheery all the time.
One major question surrounding Grave of the Fireflies is if the film is an anti-war film or not. Director Isao Takahata has denied the film being anti-war, and if the director says no, then it would seem the answer to the question should be a clear, "No." So if Grave of the Fireflies is not supposed to be an anti-war film (certainly, it can't be a pro-war film), then what sort of themes are inherent to the film? According to IMDb, Takahata wanted the film to express the lives of a brother and sister who are isolated from society, with the intention of invoking sympathy in younger people, particularly those in their teens and twenties. So based on this desire from Takahata, it would make sense to view Grave of the Fireflies as a film about survival: a battle that many war-time victims throughout history have had to fight.
The brother and sister that I brought up are the two characters at the heart of Grave of the Fireflies' story. A teenage boy named Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi/J. Robert Spencer) and his younger sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi/Rhoda Chrosite) are living in Kobe, Japan in the final months of World War II. Their home and most of Kobe are destroyed in a firebombing, and their mother dies from burns. The two move in with a distant aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi/Amy Jones), but tension rises between the two children and their aunt as rations diminish and more refugees come into the home. Seita and Setsuko eventually move out, finding a new home in an abandoned bomb shelter.
- This movie is a mere 89 minutes long, and the plot is pretty short on details. And yet, there is more honest emotion and heartbreaking realism in those 89 minutes than in several two hour war films. It's not just the fact that the movie centers on two young siblings who do everything they can to find food and shelter. It's also that Takahata treats the film with a special sort of tenderness, a kind of tenderness that implies that Grave of the Fireflies has absolutely no interest in chauvinism or in mawkishly declaring that all war is wrong. It's a movie about the survival of pure innocence: Seita and Setsuko are two innocent young children who have no control of when and where firebombings will occur; life for them turns into a matter of survival, survival in a setting where death and destruction are inevitable.
The movie opens with Seita dying of starvation in a train station, so right away, we become aware that not all will end well for Seita and Setsuko. Their journey is like the life of a firefly: their brightness and joy in this messed up world are short-lived. Setsuko asks her brother, "Why must fireflies die so young?" Seita and Setsuko share several happy moments like enjoying a bath together and singing while Seita plays on a piano. These moments are them lighting up their fires. But eventually, food is almost impossible to find and Setsuko falls ill. There's a moment where Setsuko crushes an innocent firefly in her hand the first time she tries to hold one. This moment is a microcosm of Seita and Setsuko trying to survive: they are the innocent fireflies, and the hand is the harsh realities of their war-torn Japan. No kind of patriotic preaching nor graphic pictures of war could create a microcosm that effective.
- It almost seems like sacrilege to try and speak badly of Grave of the Fireflies, and no, I'm not even going to entertain the thought of even trying to write bad things about the movie. The only disappointment comes from me: it didn't hit me right away how powerful this movie is. I had to sit down and take a bit of time to fully process everything that I saw. Of course, I think watching this movie reinforced my belief that some of the best movies out there take time to understand and fully appreciate it. For Grave of the Fireflies, it's a movie you can't just watch on a random Friday night and forget about the following Saturday morning. A film of this magnitude, one that makes you feel practically every emotion imaginable, is a work of animation that ought to immediately come to mind whenever the topic of greatest animated movies comes up.
The only thing I think left to discuss is the question of, "Why make this movie animated as opposed to live-action?" Surely, this movie wouldn't lose all of its emotional heft had it been live-action. What might the answer to that question be, dear reader? I bring back up what I said about how much more emotionally powerful this movie is because of how it centers on two innocent children. That sense of innocence just wouldn't be there had this movie been live-action. Whoever the child actors would be, we would run the risk of having seen them in other movies, a mental barrier that could hinder how effectively we could get invested in their performances in a live-action Grave of the Fireflies. But with animation, Takahata and Studio Ghibli have the power to craft their animated characters and give them expressive looks that can convey the kind of innocence needed for this movie to work so well. And you better believe that's exactly what Takahata and Ghibli do.
Being a movie that takes place during World War II, it would seem that Studio Ghibli was going for a "make it or break it" type of anime film, especially because of how young the studio was back in 1988. But any and all risks involved with making Grave of the Fireflies paid off, assuring that Studio Ghibli was an animation force to be reckoned with in the years to come. Thirty years later, and Grave of the Fireflies remains one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking films to tackle any subject related to war. It's almost shocking to think how short the movie is, and what it is able to achieve in such a short amount of time. Never underestimate the power of Studio Ghibli.
Recommend? Absolutely. This is essential viewing for all animation enthusiasts.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: