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.

Cyber City Oedo 808

Three violent criminals serving out multiple life sentences on an orbital penitentiary spaceship are given a final chance for redemption: help the police track down criminals on earth in exchange for shortened prison terms. The show pulls you in immediately with this concept. You are almost forced to root for these bad guys, as they in turn work to outrun more bad guys. They are equipped with collars that will explode if they do not complete their mission within an allocated time period. The idea is simple, but the execution is brilliant, with a fun soundtrack, lots of sci-fi elements such as cities run by machines, the evolution of technology, as well as some horror elements with references to vampires and lashings of blood and gore on top.

The main characters are likeably rude and violent, contrary to the typical image of a hero. Most of the action is set in Oedo, a futuristic Tokyo, which has been entirely overtaken by computers, everything is run by machines and there is a dark, claustrophobic atmosphere of metal walls and towering structures.

There are only three episodes of this show, with each episode following one of the main character on a mission. Worth watching, with some great animation, music, and fast paced action scenes.

One Piece: Strong World (2009)

Strong World, One Piece, Anime

The Mugiwara pirates are tricked by the powerful Shiki (The Gold Lion) and dropped on an archipelago of floating islands where the fauna has mutated to incredible size and strength. Captain Luffy and his crew must race against time to uncover and foil Shiki’s terrible scheme. A simple story, but well-paced and with ample interactions and confrontations between the hero’s and villains.

With the characters taken from the popular, long-running manga and anime series, the film wastes no time with introductions. But the plot is tangential to the main narrative arc so first time viewers can follow along with ease. The colourful characters, such as Shiki’s henchmen Indigo and Scarlet are amusing and the plot moves swiftly between characters. The film looks fantastic, especially the sunset and snowfall scenes, with crisp animation and a definite filmic quality to the framing of shots and stylish set-pieces.

The story touches on themes of environmentalism and the destruction of nature. The camaraderie of the crew is well-done and the emphasis on friendship, bravery and overcoming great odds to protect the helpless will not be unfamiliar to fans of the series. An enjoyable film for newcomers and aficionados alike.