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Film reviews: Reel Anime Film Festival

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The opinions expressed in Trove are those of individual contributors and not those of the editoral committee or the steering committee (as editorial advisers) or UWA.

 
Image still from the Reel Anime Film Festival

Review by Siobhan Hodge

Edited by Marco Cuevas-Hewitt

Reel Anime was an Australia-wide synchronised release of four new anime films, running in Perth at Luna Leederville between September 13-23, 2012. All four films have attracted considerable critical acclaim in Japan and were screened around Australia as a celebration of Japanese animation. The original Japanese audio was retained, but with added English subtitles. Two of the four films are reviewed below.

 

Wolf children


Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Running time: 117 min
Year of release: 2012
Language: Japanese

Part-fantasy and part-realist text, Wolf Children explores connections between childhood and adulthood, community and hermitage, and drives home an overall need for self-determination and acceptance. Despite the title’s focus on Ame and Yuki, children who are part wolf and part human, the film itself follows more closely the turmoil undergone by their mother Hana, who struggles to raise them as a single parent.

Sporadically humorous and tacitly optimistic, the film is not however entirely directed to a young audience. The pain experienced by Hana is sensitively presented, and the long periods of no dialogue and heavy instrumentals invoke much heavier themes, inviting engagement from older as well as younger audiences.

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda, Wolf Children combines fairy tale elements with a slice-of-life setting, which leads to some particularly heart-warming and picturesque scenes, but ultimately the film recognises that the two cannot exist harmoniously. A choice must be made to exist as either human or wolf, inside or outside of society, or else the choice will be made for the characters.

Tragedy strikes early in the film, forcing the bookish Hana to flee to the countryside to escape persecution. Ame and Yuki are less affected by the transition than their mother, but must later come to terms with their split identities.

Stylistically, I found Wolf Children reminiscent of the works of Hayao Miyazaki, with its fluid animation, and simple colour palettes and character-designs that contrast with the lavish detail of the scenery. Unlike many of Miyazaki’s films, though, Wolf Children does not primarily examine the experiences of a child or young protagonist, but rather focuses on the struggles of a single parent - her financial issues, clashes with the landlord, efforts to find work, and growing food to feed her family. 

I did not find Wolf Children overtly ‘preachy’, but the story does frequently emphasise a need for acceptance, respect and tolerance, through its characterisation of Hana and her acceptance into a rural community, in contrast with the harassment she faced in the city.

Knowledge transfer features prominently as an idea in this film. Hana and the wolf-man (who would become the father of her children) meet at university, bonding over a shared textbook. Books feature in many scenes, as Hana learns to give birth in secret, grow food, and teach her children not to turn into wolves in front of other people. Her desire to control her own fate is reflected in this search for knowledge, but this proves inadequate for survival; ultimately, knowledge must be garnered through other people in order for the family to thrive.

Books are simply not enough. Hana relies henceforth on members of the community to teach her how to grow food, while longing to speak to the wolf-man again to ask him for advice on raising their children. This is not a film that dwells on representations of female helplessness by any means, but rather identifies a need for resourcefulness and mutual support. Ultimately Wolf Children promotes the sharing of skills and knowledge through methods less isolating than individual study.

Some viewers may be frustrated by Hana’s optimism, which borders on a problematic representation of an infantilised woman - an interpretation not dissuaded by the film’s ending. Hana’s inability to move on suggests entrenchment and imprisonment even after the conflicts of the film have been overcome. While this soured the ending for me, it did not entirely detract from the visual enjoyment or sensitive portrayal of this single mother’s plight, which contributed to my overall enjoyment of the film.   

From up on Poppy Hill

Director: Goro Miyazaki
Running time: 91 min
Year of release
: 2011
Language
: Japanese

 

Another instalment from the popular Studio Ghibli company, From Up on Poppy Hill contains many of the staples that feature in Ghibli’s strongest films. The film is perhaps under more pressure for this very reason; it is inevitably being compared with its predecessors, including the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Grave of the Fireflies.

It does not, unfortunately, have the same depth as these films, but still successfully presents a cohesive story, complete with smooth animation, beautifully rendered backgrounds, and a range of characters and their stories. 

Scripted by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his eldest son, Goro Miyazaki, From Up on Poppy Hill is like many other Ghibli films in that its narrative focuses on the experiences of a young protagonist. Matsuzaki Umi balances school life with the duties of helping to run her family’s boarding house, but becomes caught up in a restoration project of an old school building, the Latin Quarter, as well as in a growing romantic attachment with the student leading the project, Kazuma Shun. This connection is complicated by the revelation that they may be half-siblings. The Korean War claimed both of their fathers, whom Shun suspects may be the same man, owing to closely-matching photographs.

Major themes include restoration and stability in the face of excessive change, as Umi and Shun both struggle to preserve traditions in different ways, simultaneously creating additional links between themselves in the process. Umi raises a series of flags every morning, maintaining a tradition that her father taught her.

Similarly, Shun is spearheading a student protest against the proposed demolition of the old Latin Quarter of their school. The two become linked when Umi assists Shun in printing a school paper, promoting and leading the effort to clean up and restore the old building to its former glory, in hopes of preserving it from destruction.

In addition, it is revealed that Shun is able to read the message on Umi’s flags, further strengthening their connection. When the two realise that they may be related, they struggle to remain platonic, but Umi eventually admits, and Shun reciprocates, that they both feel more than only friendship for one another.

This creates a great deal of tension, none of which is explored, since they are happily revealed to be unrelated. The dismissal of this issue is a little unsatisfying, but is perhaps to be expected of a film that does predominantly target a younger audience with its G rating.

Older viewers, myself included, are perhaps more inclined to speculate on the implications of this relationship, had the two in fact been siblings, as a reflection of an unhealthy childhood, overwork, and a desperate desire to be loved - the latter stemming from loneliness, belied by  the film’s early depiction of a bustling family life.

Indeed, the opening breakfast scene initially presents a comforting image of a family working together, but it is revealed that a young girl, in the absence of her parents, is in fact working to feed not only her family but lodgers as well. 

       

This slightly ominous tone aside, From Up on Poppy Hill more positively promotes a sense of community spirit, as the students must work together in order to restore the Latin Quarter to its former glory.

The enthusiasm of children contrasts starkly with the dour authority of the school officials, but ultimately finds a parallel in the more open-minded senior official who speaks on their behalf to save the building. Optimism is tempered by doses of realism, but ultimately triumphs, as both the Latin Quarter and Umi and Shun’s growing relationship are saved.

The progression of the plot is a little slow at times, which is not assisted by the predictability of the film’s outcome, but the film itself remains visually impressive enough to maintain interest. The predictable conclusion is not strictly a criticism, due to the overarching focus on nostalgia: the audience is invited to anticipate the ending well before it takes place, drawing on the ‘comfort’, perhaps, of adhering to an established canon.

Representations of gender are also uncomfortable at times, with the female characters firmly relegated to cleaning and typing roles, rather than speech-making and original authorship, but the fact that the film is set in 1963 offers some leeway for this, though it does not explain the film’s lack of pressure on this issue at all.

Some subtle pressure comes in the form of Umi’s mother, who works as a professor, while Umi herself aspires to become a doctor, indicating a more educated and empowered future.  From Up on Poppy Hill balances nostalgia with a need for change, offering a simple story with denser layers of meaning, potentially creating broad appeal for a range of ages.