Millennium Actress (2001)

Chiyoko Fujiwara is an actress with a long and illustrious career spanning several decades. When two reporters travel to her secluded home in the mountains to interview her they are taken on a mesmerising journey through her past. She recounts her earliest experiences on screen and the chance encounter with a runaway political activist that was to prove a formative experience. While running away from the police this rebel artist is first protected, and later taken in by Chiyoko. He gives her a key, telling her to return it to him the next time they meet. This leads her into her acting career and provides a fixed point throughout her life as she strives to be reunited with him.

Written and directed by Satoshi Kon, Millenium Actress features the same fourth-wall breaking and subjective approach that characterise his films Perfect Blue and Paprika. Similarly to Mima’s journey in Perfect Blue, Chiyoko’s story is told not only through her interview, but through a series of flashbacks which are increasingly interrupted by the journalists themselves, who appear to be recording the scenes in the past, or even appear as characters in the films. This is a novel way to tell the story and provides a great amount of humour as well as pulling the audience along forcefully with the narrative. It is one of the triumphs of the film that despite being essentially a sequence of flashbacks, it maintains a real sense of tension during the action sequences, in part by wrong-footing the viewer and blurring the line between drama and reality. The story itself is fairly straightforward and focused on Chiyoko with a fascination that is fitting for her role as a movie starlet. We are forced to concentrate due to the shifting nature of the narrative, never sure what is real or part of a film. The central love story and the mystery surrounding the key provide a rigid framework around which ideas of identity, the power of art and cinema, fame and celebrity are woven. The score is emotional and heightens the drama. As with other works by Satoshi Kon there is a great attention to detail and it is interesting to see the various periods depicted as Chiyoko works on films through the decades.

Millennium Actress is a fascinating journey through this character’s subjective reality. We are never quite sure what is happening, that heightens the importance of her emotional response to the world. It is made clear throughout that the line between film and reality, in the impact they have on one another, is blurred. This means the only thing that characters can rely on are their own feelings. The film also touches on the importance of finding this goal in leading a successful life. Chiyoko is told by her mother not to become an actress, and to settle down and start a family. This represents the traditional view of many. But it is clear that Chiyoko’s life and importance to others as a movie star vindicates her independence of thought and desire to pursue her own career and interests.

Cocolors (2017)

Fuyu and Aki are friends living in an underground community following an unknown catastrophe. All of the denizens of this subterranean city wear large helmets obscuring their faces, adding to a feeling of mystery that continues throughout the film. “Cocolors” raises a number of questions. What are they doing down here? What happened to the outside world? Will they ever return to the surface? Fuyu carries round a picture of the outside world, something he has never seen. This black and white line drawing comes to symbolise a hope that there is a better, brighter world above. Seven years later, Aki is sent to the surface and returns with coloured crayons for Fuyu to finish his drawing. As the film progresses, we slowly learn a little about their society and what happened to the world

“Cocolors” uses computer animation with a hand-drawn aesthetic that is engaging and interesting. There are a lot of little details in the backgrounds, pipes and machinery, along with the character design that add to a sense of realism. The film spends little time on explaining the world, but immerses you in the details and makes everything seem believable, drawing on elements of steam-punk and post-apocalypse fiction.

The film has a strong anti-war message about the devastation that would be caused following a nuclear holocaust. One of the great strengths is the subtlety and mystery that are sustained throughout. Especially the mystery of who or what is beneath the helmets, how they came to be underground, and what they are working towards. The film understands that most of these things are of secondary importance to the central theme of hope in hopeless situations. It certainly has a couple of head-scratching moments where reality begins to break down, something that works well with the animation style. By creating a slight sense of unreality, and keeping the characters faces obscured, the film is able to contemplate its themes without the need for the typical clichés of heroes and villains.

Battle Vixens (2003)

When a new female transfer student Sonsaku Hakufu arrives at Nanyo Academy and begins challenging everyone in the yard to fight, her cousin rushes in to help her before she causes serious damage. This is no ordinary school, and no ordinary world, as various individuals have an earring that contains the spirit of a legendary figure from the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. The ditzy, upbeat protagonist is the spirit of a legendary warrior who loved fighting for its own sake and was a champion of the period. As the story progresses the characters find themselves involved in numerous fights with other students, replaying historic battles and attempting to avoid their fates.

Based on the manga by Yuji Shiozaki, and directed by Takashi Watanabe, the series contains many tropes from similar sexploitation series, going to almost any length to include upskirt shots of the girls, jiggling breasts, or sexually charged sequences. Each of the characters is given a unique personality though they remain largely surface level clichés. The conceit of the reincarnated spirits makes for an interesting story as the characters attempt to escape from their predestined paths, or relish following them. Those with knowledge or interest in this period of history may get more out of the series than the casual viewer, as each episode ends with a brief historical note on who the characters are meant to represent and what happened to them. The fight scenes are good and the humour, though broad, is entertaining. The major weakness is in the story that never really grabs your attention in the way it should. With the characters established it too often feels like a sequence of battles without a meaningful purpose. We see the rise and fall of several of the characters, but despite engaging fights you never feel a sense of danger. This is partly down to the outlandish premise that significantly impacts the ability to relate with anyone.

The central theme of the film is the idea of fate and escaping from it. Being reincarnated the characters are essentially living out another life in the modern era. This also conjures up the notion of a cyclical history where humanity is doomed to repeat its former errors and violence is an ineradicable human trait. By the end the characters do manage to change their course, but this raises the question of why they couldn’t have done this earlier. Despite a weak story the series moves quickly and does feature some exciting sequences and humour. Its main flaw is that, much like the characters, it feels as though it is going through the motions with few surprises.

The Boy and the Beast (2015)

The film begins with a brief introduction telling the tale of a fantastical land of animals, whose great warriors fight for the prize of becoming the new lord. When these animal lords pass away they become new gods. We are then introduced to a young human boy Ren, whose parents are recently divorced. Feeling frustrated he runs away and ends up living on the streets of Shibuya. Ren is discovered by an anthropomorphic bear and monkey. Following them he finds his way into the animal world. The bear turns out to be the legendary fighter Kumatetsu who must do battle with the boar Iozen. Kumatetsu decides to take Ren in as his disciple, renaming him Kyuta (a play on him being 9 years old). Kumatetsu is slovenly, arrogant and a terrible teacher, being self-centred and stubborn. However, Kyuta soon begins to learn from him, and he from Kyuta. When Kyuta returns to the world of humans he must make a difficult choice to leave Kumatetsu, his surrogate father, behind and return to his real father and his real life, or to support him in his most difficult hour.

Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children) the film is a poignant exploration of masculinity and fatherhood. Though their relationship is dysfunctional there is affection between Kyuta and Kumatetsu. Each lacks the emotional intelligence to express themselves verbally, but nevertheless they provide support for each other, complimenting the others’ weaknesses. In the case of Kumatetsu it is his inability to listen or learn from others, in Kyuta’s case it is his lack of strength or self belief. The animation in the early portions of the film takes us on a journey through the dark back alleys of Tokyo, with abandoned bikes, the eerie glow of vending machines, as well as the bright lights of Shibuya’s famous crossing. When it moves to the world of animals there is a definite shift in tone to a more lighthearted art and animation style. This works fantastically well in creating a definite intersection between reality and fable. What Ren learns in the fantastical world of Kumatetsu is a good way to explore what might be difficult themes in a human drama. There is plenty of humour and clowning here that captures a childlike sense of joy and wonder while at the same time not shying away from the seriousness of what Ren is experiencing.

The central theme of the film is that of a father son relationship. Through Kumatetsu and Ren’s fraught experiences with one another they both grow to appreciate having a surrogate parent or child. Kumatetsu’s violent outbursts are softened by his characterisation as a bear creating a safe way to explore themes of parental aggression. We learn to sympathise with both Ren and Kumatetsu and understand why both act the way they do, while also willing them to resolve their differences. At the end there are touching moments later in the film when you realise that their anger is a sign of affection. The film also deals with themes of strength and masculinity, particularly in relation to Ren’s journey to becoming a man. It asks the question of what true strength is, whether physical or emotional, and how important that is for surviving life’s hardships. This is an important film for understanding not only the stresses that divorce and separation from a parent can have on a child, but also offers a male perspective on how to deal with these issues.

Your Name (2016)

Mitsuha is a highschool girl living in a remote rural community. A conscientious girl, she takes part in the villages cultural event as a shrine-maiden along with her younger sister and grandmother. But Mitsuha dreams of moving to Tokyo away from the monotony of rural life. Taki is a highschool boy living in Tokyo, the very life that Mitsuha dreams of and the two find themselves inexplicably living each other’s lives. At first they believe that this second life is simply a dream that they struggle to remember on waking, but as the pair’s friends explain to them their bizarre behaviour they begin to understand that what is happening is real. Without knowing each other they have somehow become bound together. As the film progresses there are several twists and turns that take the story in unexpected directions as a disaster threatens Mitsuha’s hometown.

Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters per Second) has once again directed a stunningly beautiful animation. The world of the film, both rural and urban, is recreated with exceptional skill and an eye for incidental details that help bring it to life. Many of the scenes are works of art, the lakes and mountains of Mitsuha’s home are exquisitely depicted. Shinkai certainly has developed a recognizable style of his own and that is present here, in particular the use of light, with dazzling sunbeams, starlight, dawn and dusk captured brilliantly, though occasionally it becomes excessive and a more restrained approach may have worked better. You can feel the mountain air and the bustle of the city and it is a world that you could happily step right into. RADWIMPS provide several songs for the film and this seems to indicate a step to a more commercial direction for Shinkai. The piano score more reminiscent of earlier works is still here, but there are a number of up-tempo montage sequences, a focus on comedy, and more traditional relationships developed in the subplots that make this a more easily accessible work. The story does a good job of keeping you guessing. Unlike other body-swap movies where the plot is explained in the beginning, the film keeps its secrets until it is ready to reveal them. In the end everything is wrapped up more neatly than some might like, but the way it builds to that moment is so full of emotion that it is forgivable. Both Mitsuha and Taki have entertaining subplots in their own stories and characters that are enjoyable to watch.

As with Shinkai’s earlier works (Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in our Early Days, 5 Centimeters per Second), “Your Name” deals with a theme of love and a couple sundered by an impossible distance. The characters are always reaching for something that is just out of grasp. In particular when their attempts to call one another fail to connect. The film also contemplates the nature of fate and the inter-connectedness of humanity. Doors opening and closing throughout the film offer a perfect visual metaphor for the choices that guide our lives. The film largely shies away from discussing the transgender themes implied in its premise. These are largely played for laughs with the characters becoming used to each other’s bodies or acting out of character. Nevertheless, that aspect of the film is somewhat unavoidable given the story. There is so much to enjoy about the film, from the incredible animation, deep themes, humour, and a thrilling story that it is definitely worthy of the praise it has garnered.

Perfect Blue (1997)

Pop idol Mima has made the decision to leave popular trio CHAM in order to begin a career as an actress. The film follows Mima’s trials as she tries to find herself through her new profession, understand who she is and what she is doing, as well as navigating the often sordid world of fame. Her miseries seem to pile up as she attracts a stalker, who sets up a website detailing her every move, and her former band-mates become successful following her departure. Mima is also troubled by an identity crisis, as she struggles to distinguish between her life and the characters she portrays on screen, as well as between dreams and reality.

Satoshi Kon’s first feature film is a psychological thriller that breaks with convention to offer us a real look inside the mind of someone who is losing theirs. From the opening scenes, in which we see Mima performing and shopping intercut, we are presented with the idea of duality, emphasized by various shots of reflections in glass, mirrors and polished floors. The direction utilises cuts and fades to blur the lines between Mima’s acting and her reality, drawing you into her world and making later revelations in the film as confusing for the audience as they are for the character. The script was based on a novel, though many elements were changed. The story interweaves so many elements that it becomes overwhelming, again helping create an empathy with the character as you are experiencing the same whirlwind of complexity and confusion that Mima is feeling in her new career. The music, by Masahiro Ikumi, creates a sense of dread with the soundtrack occasionally imitating the sound of heavy breathing, or disjointed noises with a background buzz that might as easily be insects or television static.

The film does an incredible job of covering many themes, the central one being that of change. Mima is essentially attempting to become a new person, leaving behind her pure, virginal image as a young pop idol to become a strong confident woman. It is about the struggle of understanding yourself as much as the pressures that are applied on you to conform to a certain standard, or to people’s expectations of you. It also offers a dark commentary on the music and entertainment industry as you see how they treat people. The end of the film is ambiguous, and like many other scenes almost demands that you think about what has preceded it and try to make some sense out of this peculiar world, and the character of Mima. There is so much in this film that it deserves several repeat viewings.

Based on the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)

Following an unknown conflict, Hokkaido (now renamed Ezo) has been separated from the rest of Japan. Ezo is now under control of “the Union”, while Japan itself is controlled by the United States. High school friends Hiroki and Takuya are intrigued by a large tower on Hokkaido, that can be seen even as far south as Tokyo. They begin work on a plane that will fly them to the tower, to see what it is. They decide to tell their high school classmate Sayuri about their project, taking her to see the plane. While there, Sayuri looks out towards the tower, seeing a vision of it exploding. The film then shifts to three years later. Sayuri has not been seen for three years, Takuya is working for a government program intending to establish the proposition that there are multiple-universes, one of which is being brought into view by the tower on Ezo. Meanwhile Hiroki has fallen into a depression due to Sayuri’s disappearance.

Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has crafted a beautiful film. Although the film does involve a war and talk about multiple-dimensions, the focus is kept largely on the relationships of the three main characters, with everything else serving to move their story forward, or work as a metaphor for their hopes and desires. The animation is truly stunning, with the artists having a great eye for detail, and a real love of the quiet countryside of northern Honshu. The pacing of each scene is judged perfectly, cutting between characters and small details in the environment. There are many short scenes fading to black, which help to cover a lot of time and ground in a relatively short run-time. With minimal dialogue you have a fully realised world. The music matches the animation, transcendently beautiful compositions for piano and violin heightening each emotion.

The film is a simple love story, though using various brilliant conceits to further emphasise what the characters are feeling. The tower acts as a symbol of the characters dreams, promises (with the boys promising Sayuri that they will take her there someday), and of the unknown future. It is ever-present, though always out of reach, representing whatever it is that the young characters are hoping for. I would recommend this as a beautiful love story, with fantastic animation and score. Although it is overly-sentimental in places, it does have a huge emotional impact.

In this Corner of the World (2017)

In this Corner of the World follows the story of Suzu, an absent-minded young girl, constantly daydreaming, and drifting through life quite contentedly for the most part. Born and brought up in Hiroshima in the 1930’s, she is fond of drawing and spends her days making up entertaining stories for her younger sister. When she comes of age, Suzu is married by arrangement to a man from Kure, a nearby town and moves in with his parents. As the Second World War begins to have an increasing impact on their lives, Suzu must navigate the various relationships and trials that she encounters.

Directed by Sunao Katabuchi, the world of “In this Corner of the World” is a contemplative film about how ordinary lives are disrupted by war. Suzu is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist whom you can happily spend time with. Her daydreaming and escapes from reality are relatable and come to have a powerful significance later in the story. There is a gentle humour to proceedings, some subtle (such as her pondering the notion that caramel might soon cost 100 yen) which keeps the first half of the film quite light and enjoyable. While a story set during the war will never be entirely without tragedy, the film takes an interesting approach to the war. It looks at the everyday activities of a family that are interrupted by the war intermittently, a dark blemish on their rural idyll. There is the traditional Japanese focus on the passage of seasons, cooking, family life, and the entire film is infused with a melancholy for a lost world and that recognizable philosophy of trying to find happiness in an apparently mundane life. The animation style is gentle with pastel shades, though incredible detail in the natural world. There is an almost picture-book quality to some of the artwork, especially in scenes when the story drifts between the “realism” of what is happening and the “brush strokes” of Suzu’s imagination. There are also a couple of impressionistic techniques employed, with a shockingly effective black on white sketch-style employed during one dramatic scene. The voice cast do a great job of bringing these characters to life. The relationships between Suzu and her in-law family form several great subplots along with that of the relationship with an old school friend and even a chance encounter with another young woman in the nearby town. While introducing many characters and plots, the film is well-paced, with many short scenes strung together to give the impression of a full and vibrant world. This is especially effective when we see Suzu doing household chores and time passing. There are references to time throughout the film that take on a terrifying significance as the plot draws closer to the atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima, something of which the characters are blissfully unaware, with the periods of time growing closer together as the inevitable tragedy approaches.

The film takes an interesting approach to its story. Ostensibly about the atomic bomb and the experience of ordinary Japanese citizens during the war, it is largely about memory and loss and is effective often for what it does not show, more than what it does. The war and the impending atomic catastrophe are things that are always on the periphery and being largely ignored by the characters. Suzu is a established early on as a daydreamer, whose understanding of the world is coloured not only by experience but her interpretation of it. This theme is later emphasised when she imagines the bursting artillery fire over the town as splashes of paint. This is a more relatable way of looking at the world than an overly melodramatic approach, and becomes more effective when thinking back over the film as you realise you have almost experienced the war as many at the time would have, without the foreknowledge of what is about to happen. The horrific consequences of the atomic bomb are something that are hard to imagine and the film instead focuses upon what led up to it, so that people can understand what had been lost when the world moved into a post-atomic bomb era. A truly great war-time epic focussing on the lives of an ordinary family living through extraordinary circumstances.

Appleseed (1988)

Based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, Appleseed takes place in a future world ravaged by a Third World War. Humanity has constructed a utopian society called Olympus, ruled over by computers and bioroids (an elite of cybernetic individuals). Our protagonists are SWAT-team members Deunan Knute and Briareos, who has a fully cybernetic body. When life in Olympus is threatened by  a terrorist plot led by humans who have become disaffected living under the rule of robots, Deunan and Briareos must work to stop it.

We are thrown straight into the action with the film beginning with a suicide and a hostage situation that SWAT are dealing with. Throughout the script is incredibly efficient. Within a run-time of a little over sixty minutes it manages to establish the world, the idea of Olympus, bioroids and GAIA (the computer system that controls the city), set up several themes and ideas, and develop its protagonists. We discover that Deunan and Briarios are romantically involved as well as being partners, and while the film rarely dwells on this it is nice that they did not choose to omit complexity despite being a short movie. The film is much more humorous than later installments in the franchise, perhaps heavily influenced by the decade in which it was released. You can certainly sense the 1980’s buddy-cop vibe. It is hard not to draw the comparison with those films, which use a lot of the same material and expand upon Shirows creation. Writer and director Kazuyoshi Katayama does a good job in crafting an enjoyable science-fiction action film. Although the animation has dated a little it is still great to see this more light-hearted interpretation of the characters.

The film deals with a number of issues relating to the interplay between robots and humans in the future, something that with each passing decade becomes more and more pertinent. While most humans have learned to accept their roles in a world with superior beings, many still insist on fighting for their individuality, or belief in human dominance. There is a sub-plot involving a discussion of the rights of bioroids and also a hint towards possible psychological issues involved with an increasingly technocratic society, such as the characters feeling they are trapped in a prison, rather than having any real control over their lives. Overall, this is a great watch for Appleseed fans as it shows the first attempt to bring the characters to the screen and also features many elements that will be recognizable from later films.

One Piece Z (2012)

Monkey D. Luffy and his Mugiwara pirate crew face yet another serious battle, this time with the ex-Marine Zed. After becoming disillusioned with the Marines ability to tackle the pirate threat Zed turned his back on the organisation, taking with him his former friends, including Ai and Bins (both with special powers), and swearing to take out every pirate in the world himself, while warring with his former allies in the Marines. As they follow Zed around the world they soon discover his terrible plan to use explosives in three major volcanoes to cause untold devastation to the world.

The plot of One Piece Z is nothing special, taking elements which will be familiar to those who have seen any of the previous film. Villain established, the film revolves around a number of set piece fight sequences. There is little at stake for any of the characters as this film runs alongside the established franchise, thereby removing any tension or sense of threat. The animation is frenetic and for the most part the film is well-directed and feels “cinematic”. There are plenty of jokes and even some evocative and emotional scenes which play out well.

If you can get past the problem that the film is predictable and overly reliant on fight scenes than character development, then it definitely has it’s enjoyable moment. I think the main problem here is that this is a franchise which ran out of original ideas some time ago and for long-term fans this is very much more of the same.