Giovanni’s Island (Jobanni no shima, Japan, 2014)

Magic and the reality of war

Magic and the reality of war

Whilst the demise of Studio Ghibli, after Miyazaki Hiyao’s retirement, has been exaggerated it is still reassuring to see an anime released in the UK; particularly one as good as Giovanni’s Island. It was screened as part of an ambitious programme, at the Kala Sangam centre, that attempts to keep arthouse cinema in Bradford after Picturehouse’s takeover of programming at the National Media Museum. After an almost sold out start, only three turned up the evening screening of this film. There are two more showings in the current season – check them out here and here.

Giovanni’s Island is a child eye’s view of the aftermath of  war when  Soviet soldiers occupied the northern Japanese island of the  setting. It’s also a ‘coming of age’ story, not as extreme as JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, however nonetheless it portrays the way in which children, in particular, are psychological (as well as physical) casualties of war. The relationship between ‘Giovanni’ (the non de plume of the protagonist is a reference to a famous Japanese novel Night on the Galactic Road) and Russian girl, Tanya, is heartbreakingly drawn. Some critics found the film sentimental however as the film is a child’s eye view this is entirely appropriate. Whilst there is a fine line between bathos and pathos, I do wonder if critics, who find themselves ‘tearing up’ tend to resist their emotional response by blaming the film.

The animation, as is usually the case with anime, looks fabulous though the drawing of characters is particularly undefined, even by anime’s standards.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Toki o kakeru shôjo, Japan, 2006)

Holding on to the past

This marvelous anime reverses the idea that youngsters want to grow up quickly with the protagonist attempting to reverse events that lead to change. Although not a Studio Ghibli production, Girl has a hero who could happily reside in movies made by Miyazaki (and others). Her wonderful tumbles, necessitated by having to leap through time, give the character a wonderful dynamism.

The animation lurches between the beautiful (those clouds) and Hanna Barbera horrible. However, the absence of schmaltz in the narrative, built around the truism that ‘time waits for no one’, make this a film definitely to see.

Ponyo (Gake no Ue no Ponyo, Japan 2008)

Japanese Cute

Critics have compared this film to Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (Japan, 1988) as it will also appeal to very young children. Of course his films appeal to all ages such is their artistry, however I was slightly disappointed in Ponyo though I can’t exactly pinpoint why. When Ponyo, a fish wanting to be human, is running on waves chasing a car, we are regaled by typically brilliant animation so, maybe, it’s the slightly confusing, simple narrative that doesn’t engage me.

Miyazaki’s recent films have all had darker aspects to them as does Totoro; in Ponyo – other than references to the polluted sea and an absent father – the film’s world is fairly sunny and there is very little narrative tension; I was never convinced that Ponyo had unbalanced the world and that it going to end. Of course, the narrative isn’t really that important. Part of the problem was I saw it in the dubbed version which risks Disneyfying the film though the lack of clear good-bad is very unHollywood.

One Missed Call (Chakushin ari, Japan, 2003)

Mobile phones are bad for you

Mobile phones are bad for you

Genres are, by their nature, formulaic however new examples of the genre need to be different otherwise audiences, having seen it all before, will ‘turn off’. One Missed Call is a Ringu rip-off, instead of video tapes and a week to live, the hapless victims receive a mobile phone call – uncannily from themselves – from a day or two in the future were they get to hear their last words. Then someone else in that person’s ‘contacts’ receives a call.

There is very little difference from Ringu, and other examples of J-horror: the emphasis on school girls; the useless cops; the slightly older man who tries to help; disturbing young children; long hair witches-ghosts; brilliant set pieces… And that’s why One Last Call is worth watching, for despite it’s overlong near-two hour length, there are many genuinely chilling moments. J-horror directors relish placing something uncanny in the mise en scene without drawing attention to it. So a routine search of an abandoned flat suddenly becomes creepy as you think, ‘Are those fingers sticking out of that cupboard on the wall?’ You look ‘closer’ to realise the bloody witch is in there.

Directed by the incredibly prolific Takeshi Miike (80 films in under 20 years), One Last Call is a worthy entrant to the J-horror cycle. Wonderfully composed shots – how the hell does he do that when directing four films a year?! – and a genuinely scary finale offers a satisfyingly cold-sweaty experience.

Tokyo Sonata (Japan-Netherlands-Hong Kong, 2008)

'Who are you looking at?'

‘Who are you looking at?’

I found this a frustrating film as, after a fabulous two thirds, it charges off into  absurd narrative developments. As the image above suggests, this is a dysfunctional family headed by a recently fired ‘salaryman’. The framing in the home is terrific, using stairs, doorways etc. to divide family members, as in the melodramas of Minnelli, Ophuls and Ray. Add to that the almost-surreal images of long queues in an employment agency stairwell and besuited business men amongst tramps at a ‘soup kitchen’ (they can’t afford lunch) you get a marvellous representation of how changes in Japanese business are throwing men onto the scrap heap; the protagonist, Sasaki Ryuhei, has lost his job as admin has been cheaply outsourced to China.

Sasaki’s wife is bored, stuck at home constantly tending to her family’s needs; his sons are alienated from work and school.  He cannot come to terms with his loss of job so maintains, like Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1993), his daily routine of going to work. This long set up is fantastic but maybe the scriptwriters didn’t know how to finish it? Roy likes that ‘fantastical’ elements, for me they worked against the tone of what happened earlier; the moment the narrative flashes back ‘3 hours earlier’ the film lost its grip on me.

Still, the film’s worth seeing for the first part and maybe you will enjoy what happens after.

Paprika (Japan, 2006)

Postmodern bodies in a postmodern world

Postmodern bodies in a postmodern world

Shamefully this didn’t get cinematic distribution in the UK but the buzz about it, and Satoshi Kon’s other films, such as Millennium Actress, made sure it was on my DVD rental list. However I was a bit disappointed; visually it is as stunning as the other films I’ve seen by him, but I found the postmodern play on movies and ‘world is a dream’ a bit hackneyed. It was difficult to forget other films, such as Millennium Actress and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), when watching it and so it appeared derivative.

As derived movies go though, and of course that describes virtually the whole of Hollywood, this is brilliantly done.

The Naked Island (Hadaka no shima, Japan, 1960)

Sisyphian life

Sisyphean life

Although this film (inevitably) reminds me of others it also seems unique. There’s no dialogue, there are a few songs and plenty of sound, and nothing happens until 28 minutes into the film. By that I mean, there’s no sense of a narrative ‘problem’ until then. This happening? A bucket of water is dropped. And it’s not a ‘narrative problem’ in the normal sense; the ‘disruption’ is the characters’ whole existence. But dropping the water  is a ‘big deal’ as it has to be carried up a hill (above) having been transported from another island:

The Naked Island can be regarded as an oblique representation of hibakusha cinema in the endless toiling of a seemingly inutile, barren land: a bittersweet, poetic elegy for Shindo’s dying ancestral vocation on a rural, isolated island. (Aquarello, 2006)

It reminded me most of Terra trema (Italy, 1948), a neo realist film portraying existence on an inhospitable island. Unlike the neo realist films, Shindo Kaneto directs in a highly stylised fashion with a beautifully composed Cinemascope and monochrome mise en scene. This stylisation seemed to me to be slightly ‘at odds’ with the, at times, brutal life portrayed. It seemed that the film was celebrating the ‘close to hostile nature’ life of the protagonists; however, it isn’t quite that simple.