Blind Spot 23: Giovanni’s Island

There are some movies that have universal appeal. They move people of all races, backgrounds and religions. Then other films have more of a regional appeal, which can be valuable. While placating audiences is not a good thing, I also believe not every movie needs to be for every group. In today’s Blind Spot pick we have a movie, Giovanni’s Island, that I have a feeling appeals to the Japanese in a way that doesn’t translate super well to American audiences- or at least this American.

When I first heard about Giovanni’s Island I was hopeful it would be a new Grave of the Fireflies but unfortunately it comes across like a lightweight copy of Fireflies more than an update. It has some powerful moments and beautiful animation but it never really connected with me.

Let’s start with the positive. The animation directed by Mizuho Nishikubo is wonderful. The fantasy sequences with a ‘galactic railroad’ are particularly strong.

It also has some moments of genuine heart. The story is about two brothers, Junpei and Kanta who live on an island in 1945 Japan. The early parts of the movie show them frolicking happily around the island, going to school, meeting new Russian families including a girl named Tanya and trying to find enough food. They have a father, a nare-do-well uncle named Hideo, an old-school fisherman Grandfather and a teacher named Sawako. All of these characters play out basically the way you think they will.

The island ends up getting taken over by the Russians and the Japanese get sent away to camps. This causes the boys to go on a journey to find their father and survive the war. There are moving moments but even those can feel a bit heavy-handed and played out.

The dubbing is also incredibly bad. They don’t even bother to translate the Russian or all of the Japanese. It is extremely lazy, so I would watch it with subtitles instead.

I can imagine in Japan this piece of their history is very important and so they may be more forgiving of this films flaws. It has a nice heart to it and like I said the animation is amazing, so it is not a total loss. It wasn’t awful just nothing special either.

The music by Masashi Sada, with a mixture of Japanese and Russian themes,  is another standout.

The ending of Giovanni’s Island feel particularly mawkish and ham-fisted, but I can see how it would mean a lot to the Japanese. It was just too much for me. I’d recommend watching Grave of the Fireflies instead.

In This Corner of the World Review

‘Slice of life’ films are not for everyone. Some viewers demand a narrative with a traditional start, climax and conclusion, which I can certainly appreciate. However, some of us can sit back and let a film take us to a particular time and place and simply live with characters for a little while. I love those kind of films and the new anime In This Corner of the World is such a movie. Director Sunao Katabuchi (who I had the chance to interview for Rotoscopers.com) takes us to 1945 Japan in meticulous detail as we follow the life of a young woman named Suzu.

The film starts out with Suzu in Hiroshima in 1944. She has been assigned a marriage to a young man named Shūsaku who lives in the city of Kure. Following the custom of her day she agrees to marry and moves away from her family. This may be difficult for modern viewers to understand but it is portrayed with tact and subtlety that never endorses the practice but merely says ‘this is what happened’. Luckily Shūsaku is a nice man who is probably as nervous as Suzu and the two are able to form a bond.

Of course, wartime is going on and this makes things difficult for Suzu and her new family. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war movie that was exclusively told from the perspective of civilians. We get incredible attention to detail and particularly focusing on the food- its scarcity and how it had to be prepared during wartime.  There is even a long segment that goes through how rice was prepared to make it last extra long and feed more people.

As Suzu works hard for her new family and faces the struggles of war you see her grow up and become a more confident woman. The entire time she is also an artist and sketches what she sees. This becomes more liberating as the days go by. She must eventually decide who her family is and where she belongs.

Because she is an artist, sometimes the animation can have sketchy elements to it. I was reminded of Isao Takahata and Grave of the Fireflies while watching it. It’s not quite on that level but it was beautifully animated and took some creative risk. The music was also perfect for the simple story.

Some people will find In This Corner of the World to be boring. I can completely understand that.  There is stuff that happens to Suzu but a lot of the film is profiling her daily life. You’ll either like that style or you won’t. I enjoyed it and am glad I saw it. It’s not on A Silent Voice or Your Name level but it is a quality anime film that I am better for having watched.

And this year in animation how many movies can you say that about…

Overall Grade- B+

A Silent Voice Review

2017 has been a weak year for most of us when it comes to animation. There have been a few surprises but aside from Your Name we are waiting for that great animated film. Well, from the ranks of anime we have a contender. It’s not quite Your Name but it is really strong called A Silent Voice or Koe no Katachi.

Based on the popular manga it tells the story of a boy named Shoya Ishida who bullies a deaf girl named Shoko Nishimiya when he is in elementary school. Obviously he is an unhappy child but this spirals out of control as a teenager to severe social anxiety and even suicide. I loved the way they animated this mental health crisis with Ishida surrounded by crowds of Xs over their faces because he is constantly staring at the ground.

You might wonder how can they make the bully the hero or protagonist? Well, that’s what makes this special. They do not glamorize or excuse his behavior at all. It is painful and uncomfortable to see him attack Nishimiya and her disability is not leaned on for sentimentality either. These are two people who had this event happen to them and you follow them to see how it impacts their lives. They are lonely people who society doesnt gel well with and so in a way they need each other desperately.

Ishida ends up expelled and as a high schooler decides to reach out to Nishimiya and try to make amends for what he has done. They both get to very low places but director Naoko Yamada (female director!) does a fantastic job controlling tone and keeping it at least a little bit hopeful.

The character designs are fairly generic anime but their actual personalities are very unique. They both talk in ways I can imagine for someone that age and in that situation. It’s very moving to see Ishida learn to forgive himself and apologize and then make things right and as Nishimiya learns to forgive.

As you can see from the above images, the animation is stunning. The way nature and light is used it makes it feel like there is magic when there isn’t. Just a wonderful coming of age story!

If you don’t like anime I don’t think this will win you over. It’s not one that tries to be mainstream like some of the Miyazaki movies. This is an experimental film that plays with timelines and characters in ways I really liked but it won’t be for everyone. It’s also a very emotional film, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

I can’t recommend A Silent Voice more highly. It’s a wonderful coming of age story about 2 flawed characters that help and forgive each other. It goes to honest and emotional places no other animation is touching this year except for Your Name. It’s the kind of movie once you have seen it sticks with you and you keep thinking about it. Watch it!

Overall Grade- A-

smile worthy

Your Name in Theaters this Weekend

This weekend the anime film Your Name comes to US theaters. This was my favorite film of 2016 and I saw nearly 150 releases. But don’t take my word for it. I compiled this video of a bunch of youtubers talking about why it is so special.

And here is my original review:

At least by me Your Name is getting a pretty big roll-out and is in 4 theaters, so hopefully that is emblematic of other places across the country. If not ask your local theater to carry it. This actually can make a big difference. I communicate with my local theater all the time about releases I want to see and more often than not they end up getting them if only for one weekend.

Your Name is the kind of film that doesn’t happen very often. It has layers of enjoyment. It’s funny, sweet, tragic, exciting and everything else. The animation is stunning and it’s one that gets better each time I watch it.

If you can please see it and support it.

BLIND SPOT 16: FROM UP ON POPPY HILL

Sometimes people think I have seen every animated film but in truth there are many I haven’t seen. Particularly in anime I have many holes. Well, this month for my monthly blind spot series I am checking a Studio Ghibli film off of my bucket list. Today we look at the 2011 film From Up on Poppy Hill.

This movie was directed by Gorō Miyazaki, who I still think was treated way too harshly for Tales from Earthsea which I enjoyed. However, this film is a definite step up for him as a director. It was written by his father Hayao Miyazaki but it reminded me the most of Isao Takahata’s film Only Yesterday. Both are films about the simple stories of every day people.

From Up on Poppy Hill will not be for everyone. Some will find it’s rather mundane story to be boring. I like slice of life films that let you walk in others shoes so I found it quite charming. It does not have supernatural characters or exciting events like many of the more popular Studio Ghibli films but sometimes I like gentler more calming films.

This tells the story of Umi and Shun. They are teenagers going to a boarding school who begin a sweet little relationship only to find out they are connected in unexpected ways. They are both children of single mothers and Uni’s mother is gone abroad most of the time. It is easy to see why these two are drawn to each other and have a connection.

At the same time there is an old building on campus where various clubs and organizations meet. The school wants to tear down the building and redevelop it into something new. The students meet and voice various ways to stop this from happening. Some are anarchists, some are more democratic and some want to protest. The girls suggest they fix up the building so that there is less reason to tear it down, which is what they do.

The animation From Up on Poppy Hill is gorgeous. I loved the watercolor feel to everything and the way the characters were designed in such approachable ways. There was nothing acerbic or strange like other Studio Ghibli films. This is just an extremely gentle, peaceful film.

There are some flaws with From Up on Poppy Hill. The music is a little too ever-present and a bit overbearing at times. Also the story does fall into melodrama on occasion but I didn’t mind that. It worked for the kind of story it was. After all, life can get melodramatic at times! Especially when you are dealing with love and romance!

So I would definitely recommend you watch From Up on Poppy Hill. It’s a sweet, simple movie about likable people growing up and figuring out who they are. I enjoyed it very much and it is beautifully animated to boot.

Overall Grade- B+

Ghost in the Shell Review

Today I had an interesting experience. I finally watched the anime film Ghost in the Shell. I had been turned off in the past by the R rated material and it is there but I decided to stomach it today. These iconic anime films can be a bit overwhelming, but I wanted to watch it at least once before seeing the remake tonight. Perhaps I will do a longer review of the anime in a bit but for now I will talk about the new film and how it lives up to the classic.

I should start off this review by saying this live action Ghost in the Shell has familiar images from the anime but the story is completely different. I don’t know if it is similar to the various sequels and series but as far as the original film they have almost nothing in common. That’s not to say this is bad. It’s just different.

Like the original, this Ghost in the Shell focuses on a cyborg named Major who has a human brain but only patchy memories of her past life. She is kind of a super spy who looks into criminals for a shadowy organization.

In the original she is more of a complex character. In this version she is basically a superhero and certainly in that respect Scarlet Johansson is perfect for the role. A lot has been made about them ‘white washing’ the role but because it is more of a simplistic character it didn’t matter that much. I mean any race can be a robot after all?

The visuals and world building are the strongest part of Ghost in the Shell. Director Rupert Sanders does a great job creating a Blade Runnerish world that is bright and dark at the same time. Also the design of the various robots was really neat. For example, a geisha robot featured heavily in the trailers was even cooler in the movie.

For the first 30 minutes of Ghost in the Shell I was honestly struggling. It was pretty boring and I was getting ready to write a style over substance review. However, then it started to pick up for me and it became an entertaining action film.

Fans of the anime will be a little disappointed to see the deeper themes of the original film traded in for a revenge superhero story we’ve seen a lot, but it is executed pretty well, and like I said, Johansson is up to the task when the action is called for.  The original has a bittersweet ending and asks complex questions about what it means to be human where this is a ‘get back at the big evil corporate bad guy’ action movie. At times it almost felt like the Black Widow movie we’ve all been waiting for.

None of the side characters like Batou are that memorable here and the Puppet Master is nowhere to be found, which I thought was a strange choice. Also Juliette Binoche is very miscast as the Major’s doctor.

This version is rated PG-13 and the main difference is the women wear a flesh colored suit to conceal their bodies a little bit. There also isn’t the blood like you get in the original. But there is still a lot of action and intense moments and the body suits don’t leave much to the imagination but it is good enough for the MPAA I suppose!

Basically my thoughts leaving Ghost in the Shell is if you want to see a well made superhero movie than it’s decent. If you want something deeper watch the anime. I certainly think the visuals alone are worth seeing if you get the chance.

Smile or Frown- Smile

I’ve realized lately that there is a problem with my grading system. For me giving something a B- or C+ is a mild recommendation (equivalent of a 6 or 6.5/10) but to other people that is a bad grade. So I am still going to do my grade but I am going to let you know whether the movie made me smile or frown (kind of like thumbs up or thumbs down from Siskel and Ebert).  Let me know what you think

Overall Grade- C+

What do you think about the original anime Ghost in the Shell and does this remake look appealing to you? Does the white washing bother you? Share with me your thoughts. Thanks!

Your Name (Kimi no Na wa) Review

your-name3So today I couldn’t sleep so I decided to see the recent Japanese hit Kimi no Na Wa or Your Name for English viewers. This film has made $158 million US dollars in Japan and after watching it I can see why. It is a total and complete delight and one of the best romances I have seen in years.

Your name is by director Makoto Shinkai and it is about a girl named Mitsuha who lives in a country town. One day she laments on her boring life and how she wishes she could be a handsome boy in Tokyo. Well, wouldn’t you know the next day she ends up in the body of a boy she’s never met in Tokyo named Taki.

your-name6This starts a first act that we’ve seen before in movies like Freaky Friday but it really works. Both Taki and Mitsuha have very different lives aside from being different genders (which they mine for great comedy). They are from different classes, have different types of friends and even eat different foods. They don’t just settle for easy antics but think of small details like Mitsuha’s awkwardness paying for Taki’s expensive meals.

your-name4What also makes it very clever is they switch back and forth each day so that keeps it fresh. They start to leave notes for each other on their hands, in notebooks and on their cell phones. And through living each other’s lives they become good friends. It’s all very clever.

Then we get to the final acts and the film takes a bit more of a serious tone but I won’t give any more of that away. Needless to say both parts completely worked for me. Both Taki and Mitsuha were so likable and the tension and stress built naturally. It reminded me a lot of Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars which I also LOVE.

your-name5The animation is completely stunning with lots of emphasis on light giving a hopeful tone even when things looked grim. They also managed to make both the countryside and city look like a fantasy world because that’s kind of what it is to the characters living in different bodies.

your-name-2I know some people just don’t like anime as a rule and if that is you it’s a real shame. Because I honestly believe a movie like Your Name has something for everyone. It is funny, sweet, romantic and tense at times. It has great characters and a creative story. It’s beautifully animated and has wonderful music from a band called Radwimps.

It’s a real achievement for Makoto Shinkai who did everything from the writing, directing, editing and everything else. Wonderful!

Overall Grade A+

Miss Hokusai Review

miss hokusaiSome films are harder than others to describe and critique in a review. Usually these are the unique films that fail to fit into an easy category or genre. Such is the case with the recent GKIDS distributed film out of Japan called Miss Hokusai. It is perhaps the most Japanese movie I’ve ever seen and I think your tolerance for observing other cultures will indicate the appeal of this film.

Based on a historical manga of the same name, Miss Hokusai is about a woman in 1814 Tokyo named O-Ei. She is the daughter of a famous painter named Katsushika Hokusai. She watches him paint and instruct his 2 apprentices, on finding the passion behind the painting. It turns out that O-Ei is actually quite skilled at painting and she challenges her father and the apprentices to up their game. Her father is also very strict with her and insists she only produce the best art.

hokusai3There is a lot of fun banter between O-Ei and the other characters and it is neat to see their artistic processes unfold. At times you literally dive into the famous paintings of her day.

misshokusai_bThe movie is definitely not for everyone. It is extremely episodic, mostly a grouping of short stories. If you require a structured traditional plot than this film is not for you. It also assumes a fair amount of base Japanese cultural knowledge on the part of the viewer.  There were moments that felt a little confusing and overwhelming even though I’ve been to Japan and am decently aware of Japan and its traditions.

hokusai2O-ei figures that she wants to paint in a modern kind of way.  Part of the problem with that is her life experience is simple and naive according to her superiors. She tries to gain experience at certain points which end up being more awkward than anything else.

She does have a younger blind sister that she helps in some lovely scenes. Like in one scene she introduces her sister to the idea of snow, which is very exciting.

misshokusai_aBecause I am not an expert on Japanese culture, there were some confusing segments- such as there is a long run in a geisha house and I didn’t really understand everything that was going on with that. And the narrator doesn’t really take time to make it more digestible.

Still, it was inspiring to see Miss Hokusai continually improve and find new  art she  believes in. The visuals and the sound design are also gorgeous from every turn. You feel like you could dive into these paintings and few times you actually do just that. The main message is the piece of your soul you give up in creating art.

miss-hokusai3If you like a non-linear plot that focuses on a small number of characters than Miss Hokusai is for you. It’s emotional and will make you think about art in new ways. It’s a soft and simple film without a ton of drama or gravitas.  If you can’t watch a foreign film and really think about your life than this isn’t for you.

Miss Hokusai is not a match for the Studio Ghibli films but it stands on its own as a beautiful, simple story of a female artist in 1814’s Japan. That’s certainly not a timeframe I know much about but I think they do a good job filling in those details for the uninitiated while continuing on with the short stories.

It’s not going to be for everyone because of its pacing and episodic feel but if you want something different and have patience it might just be for you.  It’s a little meandering and all over the place, but I’m certainly glad I saw it.

There is also some mature content so adults only for this one.

Overall Grade- B

Blind Spot 8: Porco Rosso

porco rosso2We are at the 8th in my monthly Blind Spot series and this month I check another anime classic off of my list, Hayao Miyazaki’s comedy-adventure Porco Rosso. This is a completely charming, delightful and a little strange comedy!

The main appeal to this movie is the stunning animation, funny dialogue and quirky weird characters. The lead is named Porco Rosso and he has been cursed to look like a pig. The movie treats this with a refreshing candor. He’s just a pig and that’s that!

porco rosso5The setting is post WWI and Porco is a bounty hunter who relaxes on the beach and likes doing things his own way. One day he gets a call to face off some pirate gangs. This leads to his plane being damaged by a man named Curtis and him landing in Milan to get it fixed.

porco rosso12In Milan there is a girl named Fio who Porco reluctantly hires to fix his plane (all the men have left Milan to find work elsewhere during the Depression). Fio is a great character who won’t take any crap from Porco but who also is vulnerable in moments.

porco rosso19There is also Gina who is love with Porco and yes they play it completely straight that she is in love with a pig man. He’s such a rogue and so confident it kind of makes sense! Unfortunately Curtis is also in love with Gina and it brings the two into conflict.

porco rosso13Curtis and Porco end up in a bet, that ends up in a race, that ends up in a fight. Fio makes the deal that if Porco wins than Curtis must pay off all of Porco’s repair bills and if he loses than Curtis can marry her. They don’t really explain why Fio wants to marry Curtis but it works. The race and then fight go on for perhaps a bit too long but I thought they were very funny.

porco rosso14The animation throughout is either adorable or breathtaking.

Adorable-

porco rosso6Breathtaking-

porco rosso8I really enjoyed Porco Rosso. I liked how different it was and how it made me laugh. I liked the way nobody thought twice about a man with a pig face and they made it work because he was such a grumbling funny character. You could see why he was charismatic enough for people to forget the nose.

porco rosso3I also loved the female characters, Fio and Gina. They thought for themselves but they weren’t cliched warrior women. Just like Porco, I couldn’t help but like both of them.

There also is some heart to the story when you finally get to hear Porco’s backstory and a little bit of a subtle Beauty and the Beast moment that is handled perfectly.

porco rosso7But mostly it will make you laugh and you will smile at these great characters!

They had a terrific dubbing cast as well with Michael Keaton, Cary Elwes, Susan Egan, Brad Garrett, David Ogden Stiers and Kimberly Williams-Paisley in the leads. The music by Joe Hisaishi is of course great as well.

I guess Porco Rosso may not be for everyone but I would think of it as Hayao’s Wes Anderson movie. It totally has that same quirky weirdness about it. It’s great!

What do you think of Porco Rosso?

Overall Grade- A