Omoide no Mânî (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Here is yet another Japanese animated film that is not about action or adventure but about emotions, identity, and self-reflection. Based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson, “When Marie Was There” brings up a lot of questions and is able to answer all of them in poignant, moving, and sometimes surprising ways. By the end of the movie, there is no denying that the story is complete and the craft required to tell it has been executed as well as possible.
Anna (Sara Takatsuki) is sent by her auntie to live in a remote village after a terrible asthma attack. The hope is that Anna’s health would get better over time because there is plenty of clean air there. On the way to her home for the summer, Anna notices an abandoned building sitting on a hill and asks Auntie’s relatives (Susumu Terajima, Toshie Negishi) what it is. She is told that it is a silo and it is believed to be haunted. Speaking of haunted structures around the village, there is an unoccupied house by the marsh, completely inaccessible by foot when the tide comes in at night. From a distance, Anna sees a girl there.
The main character is given shades of complexity. Initially, she comes across simply as a shy girl who has a talent for sketching. As the picture goes on, however, we learn the self-hatred Anna feels for having been adopted. The material then continues to take risks and shows that at times Anna can be cruel especially toward the overweight girl who just wanted to befriend her. Anna’s lack of social awareness can be a source of frustration especially when she lashes out on people who genuinely mean well.
Clearly, our protagonist has a lot of unsolved issues and she is without the necessary tools to be able to handle them without support. And so we begin to feel the weight on her shoulders. It turns into an emotional experience exactly because we wish for her to find some peace even though she may not be ready. The screenplay does a good job in getting us to root for the character even though we are aware of her flaws. It does not make excuses for her.
The animation is beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the small moments. For instance, when Anna discovers the magnificent view in her room, we see people rowing their boats, birds socializing and looking for food, how the water glistens under the sun. It puts us into the sense of wonder the character feels. When she is depressed and feeling hopeless, we peer into her dreams and understand the isolation and desperation she is unable to communicate in her waking life.
“When Marnie Was There” is a cut above many stories, animated or otherwise, because it communicates using not only on the level of assertion and plot but also by way of implication. The filmmakers are able to take advantage of the medium by taking a paranormal element and underlining the humanity in it while avoiding expected trappings. Halfway through, I realized that I did not know where it was going—nor did I care. Instead, I found myself relishing the details of this world and thinking about how Anna might fare once she returns home.
Kaze tachinu (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
As a child, Jiro (voiced by Hideaki Anno) wished to fly planes but he knew his myopia would ultimately hinder him from reaching his goal. In a dream, Jiro’s hero, an aircraft designed named Giovanni Caproni (Nomura Mansai), told him that building planes was even better than flying them. Jiro will grow up to be a plane engineer whose work is to be used during World War II.
Based on the screenplay and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “The Wind Rises” is initially engaging but it turns into a somewhat drawn out picture about a boy with physical limitations whose determination overcomes his shortcomings. For the most part, it is saved by fine touches that are not found in works of its type.
Despite the medium from which the story is told, the film is a mature work in that the themes it tackles require a bit of thought, far detached from easy lessons meant to remind than to be considered carefully. I admired that the main character’s journey is not so much about how difficult it is for him to reroute his dream and achieve an alternate goal. It is partly that although his life as an aircraft engineer is more about trial and error, a metaphor for how we come to live our lives. We watch in anticipation whether his latest work will finally live up to expectations—maybe even surpass them.
The animation, as expected from a Miyazaki movie, is beautiful. During the first third, there are more than a handful of dream sequences but it takes a bit of getting used to for us to be able to tell whether what we are seeing is a dream or reality. This is necessary given that Jiro, as a boy when we come to meet him, is very much a dreamer, a kid who is thoughtful, kind, gifted, brimming with the potential to be great at something. Although the hand-drawn animation does not fill in every minute detail—say, of a face or an environment—what matters is that we are in the moment, that we are feeling or thinking what the protagonist may be going through.
Although we get to know about two important people in Jiro’s life, such as a friend and a colleague named Honjo (Hidetoshi Nishijima) as well as Naoko (Miori Takimoto) the romantic interest, the connection between Jiro and his sister, Kayo (Mirai Shida), is undercooked. There is a would-be emotional payoff involving the younger sister during the latter half but because she is not a fully established character, she comes across as an element in the plot meant to tug at the heart strings rather than someone who is completely integrated into the story’s fiber.
There are a few interesting details involving Japan being considered backwards at the time from the perspective of its subjects. For instance, oxen are required to pull on the newly built aircraft for days because the airstrip is very far from where the parts are actually put together. Another scene shows that Japanese planes are made of canvas and wood while German planes are made of metal. Jiro represents his country in more ways than one in terms of starting point and ambition.
“Kaze tachinu” is likely to disappoint those who expect magical elements expected from a Miyazaki feature film. Also, it is less efficient compared to such works in terms of emotional payoff. However, there are familiar Miyazaki elements to be found here. It is a more mature work worthy of a slower pace and contemplation.
Yume to kyôki no ôkoku (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Director Mami Sunada spends about a year filming inside the renowned Studio Ghibli, responsible for giving movie lovers around the globe masterpieces such as “Grave of the Fireflies,” “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and “From Up on Poppy Hill.” This is where the legendary Hayao Miyazaki creates his memorable works, along with the help of many animators, and the documentary also turns its attention on the process of making his final film, “The Wind Rises.”
“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” is a documentary told through a poet’s perspective. It is quite an experience to sit through because it likes to take its time drawing us into the images. For instance, when Miyazaki is working on storyboards, we see what is being drawn or colored and yet we cannot help but squint just a little as to absorb the more minute details of the artwork. I was amused by this because I had seen “The Wind Rises” prior to watching this film and yet I was still inspired to look at the raw images, hopefully recognizing the scene that the images belong to. It helps that the camera lingers for a few seconds in order to give us that chance.
It offers surprising details about Miyazaki: how he works, his perspective on life, and how others view him. For example, he admits that even though he works on the storyboards himself, he does not really know what kind of film he’ll end up with. This sentiment is particularly relevant to “Spirited Away,” understandable because that film offers so many rich, bizarre, amusing, curious images and turn of events.
Particularly memorable is when the man decides to speak to the artists that there is a difference between how the Japanese bow in modern times versus the era of the Second World War. Nowadays, people bow and then return to standing up straight. Back then, people bowed but they kept their backs at an acute angle relative to the ground. Straightening it completely would have communicated rudeness. Since “The Wind Rises” takes place during World War II, the customs during that time must be reflected in the animation. He then mentions that drawing characters glancing sideways while turning around is an egregious mistake. He offers a wonderful explanation as to why.
At one point in the documentary, Miyazaki claims that “what drives animation is the will of the characters.” I thought this insight defines the studio’s work. It continues to release high quality films because it is character-driven first. We get to understand them as much as—if not better than—live actors performing a role. The magic is in the screenplay and everything else, like the quality and style of animation, seemingly happens to fall into place. On a rare occasion that they do not, we forgive easily because it is likely that there is something about the story that gets to our core.
Throughout the course of the two-hour film, it becomes clear that the studio and the people in it are like family—including a stray cat that likes to lounge about but smart enough never to bother Miyazaki while he is working. We see the camaraderie between Miyazaki and his colleagues. Miyazaki is honest about the work and how much effort is put into it. The latter is also given a chance to tell the truth. A handful of people claim—some joke—that the man is tough and has high expectations. Some people happen to fail living up to them. And yet despite these truths, the place still comes across as an awesome place to work, play, and create.
Kokuriko-zaka kara (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ever since the death of her father during the Korean War, a sadness resides in Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger) that she finds unable to shake off. To keep her mind off the questions and thoughts that plague her, she devotes her time balancing schoolwork and managing grandmother’s business. Her comfortable routine begins to change, however, after she meets Shun (Anton Yelchin), an energetic classmate with whom she believes to have written a poem about her in the school paper. Together, they work to save a clubhouse called the Latin Quarter, student organizations’ meeting place, from getting demolished prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics. The majority think that the building is a simply an eyesore—an embarrassment—to foreigners who will inevitably come to visit.
Since ““Kokuriko-zaka kara,” also known as “From Up on Poppy Hill,” is from Studio Ghibli and directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of the great Hayao Miyazaki, many people expect a high level of fantasy and magic to course through its veins. And since it lacks such qualities, it is unfairly labeled as a mild disappointment—completely overlooking the fact that the story’s magic lies in its realism and that animation is being used to tell a dramatic story with plenty to say about the importance being connected to one’s past but at the same time not being afraid to move forward and continue living.
We get a real sense of the simplicity and elegance of the Japanese culture’s bygone era. I enjoyed that it dares to have a plot that one might consider to be minimalistic. While plot is necessary to push its story forward, I think one of the major goals of the picture is rumination. With Umi in the middle, comparisons can be made, for instance, between her life at home and her life at school. In addition, one can observe the youth’s relationship with adults. When I think about the Japanese culture, “respect” is a word that quickly comes to mind. That word is beautifully canvassed here not just in terms of community but also in how a sensitive topic or issue is addressed.
The hand-drawn images, accompanied by sublime music, open up the material in such a way that we want to know or connect with the protagonist on a deeper level. With each day that Umi wakes up, prepares a meal for her family, attends to school, socializes with her friends, and takes care of whatever chores need to be finished before bed, we get a chance to understand what kind of person she is without the screenplay relying on a supporting character as a sounding board to her thoughts and feelings. There is almost a crippling sadness to her and she deals with it by consistently providing to others. Meanwhile, day in and day out, because she does not give enough to herself and everyone assuming that she is fine since she appears to be very happy on the outside, she is unable to move on from what pains her.
This is why one of my favorite scenes in the film—compelling from the opening credits right up to the very end—lasts about three seconds and only one line of dialogue is uttered. Walking home after buying meat at the market with a snack in hand that was given by Shun, she expresses genuine happiness to herself. (Even though she is running late to prepare dinner.) It is a small but important turning point: a simple thing like a schedule being interrupted allows her a bit of time to feel and really absorb the life she is missing.
I see a lot of movies every year but only about a dozen—maybe less in some years—are able to move me in such a way that they force me to think about how I am living, to ask questions like if I am okay, and whether I like where my life is going. It is a shame that many people prefer to see overt enchantment, especially when it comes to animated movies, rather than experiencing and striving to find the magic in the unexpected.