Category: Anime Feature Films


A film that is about children is not necessarily a film for children. The live-action adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are is more a reminiscence on the beauty and horror of childhood (as well as divorce) than it is something specifically meant to entertain kids. While it may have elements that appeal to children, I still contend that Toy Story 3 was truly meant to be enjoyed and appreciated by those who were children when the first film came out. A tragic meditation on the horrors of war and the human consequences of decisions like fire-bombing a small sea-side town does not seem like fodder for your typical children’s film. However, the legendary Studio Ghibli (Howl’s Moving Castle) took that risk and it surely paid off. For if Grave of the Fireflies isn’t one of the most emotionally powerful animated films you’ve ever seen, you may be broken on the inside.

Grave of the Fireflies isn’t just one of the best animated films I’ve seen; it is one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking war films ever made. Set in the waning days of World War II, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) are orphans who lost their mother in the fire-bombing of Kobe, Japan. Their father is in the navy but it is unclear whether he is alive or part of the annihilation of virtually the entire Japanese fleet. It doesn’t matter. You never see or hear from him. Although Seita and Setsuko are originally allowed to live with an aunt, her greed and uncharitable attitude towards the two children (Seita is  a young teenager. Setsuko is four five) to run away and attempt to make it on their own. Though they are able to find sustenance at first, it becomes quickly apparent that Seita and Setsuko won’t be able to make it on their own.

This is not a children’s movie. Although the film’s director claimed during it’s release that it was meant to be a reminder to Japanese youth (who in the 80s were experiencing record levels of juvenile delinquency) of the tragedies that befell their parents and grandparents, this is an anti-war film through and through. Children’s movies don’t generally cause the viewer to have his hands over his face in horror for the entire film. Children’s films may make you cry (The Iron Giant, Toy Story 3, Up), but they don’t leave you feeling nearly dead inside when the film is done. Grave of the Fireflies was heart-wrenching to the point that it caused me physical pain to watch the movie. Not since The Road have I sat through a film so emotionally powerful. If the notion of two children struggling (and failing) to survive in war-torn Japan sounds tough to bear, it’s cause it will be. I’m crying writing about the film.

Grave of the Fireflies joins that rare breed of film which offers almost nothing in the way of “entertainment” and is instead meant to horrify and educate its viewers. It sends a very potent political message (even if the screen-writer/director claims that wasn’t his intent), and if you’ve ever celebrated the U.S.’s actions in Japan during World War II, this film will remind you of the human costs of that victory. When you discover that most of the film is a true story (it’s an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel), it becomes nearly too real to handle. The film is full to the brim of tiny details that speak to the real-life horror that the novel’s author, Akiyuki Nosaka, suffered along with his sister and countless other Japanese orphans who fell through the cracks during the last months of the war. Along with Das Boot, it is one of the only war films that completely avoids any accidental glorification of war. It is pure horror.

The film’s animation is stunning. Whether it’s capturing the horror of the bombings, the physical degradation that Seita and Setsuko suffer due to malnutrition, or the rare moments of beauty the film offers, the animation always complements the action on screen. The film uses a recurring firefly visual motif which represents the impermanence of life (it’s both a Japanese cultural symbol as well as a visual concept that is readily apparent even to cultural outsiders), and the fireflies show up in one of the rare uplifting moments of the film (which is of course subverted shortly thereafter to break your heart again). Seita and Setsuko have moved to a small shelter inside a hillside. It’s dark and Setsuko is scared so Seita captures dozens of fireflies in a pot and releases them into the cave (which they can’t leave because of mosquito nettings). It’s simply a gorgeous and happy moment which are fleeting and rare, and the film instantly reminds you what kind of movie you’re watching when Setsuko has to bury them all in the very next scene.

The film also makes great use of color and moments of visual poetry that transform the scenes from simple visual representations of what happened Nosaka’s life into something more artistic. Without wanting to spoil some of the more tragic aspects of the film, the movie makes great use of tinting and color-wash to let us know what events are occurring and when moments are perceived more as spiritual and ethereal. The film’s score is also hauntingly effective as there’s a moment towards the end of the film where Seita and Setsuko’s suffering has become total where you see a different family return to their home, unbroken and with all of their belongings (and family) intact, and their record player sets off a gut-wrenching version of “Home Sweet Home.”

If I had to look for flaws in the movie, the obvious one is that Setsuko and Seita are never actually characterized. Instead, they’re meant to be the ultimate sympathetic constructs for the viewers to imprint their heartbreak and horror on. Some might accuse the director of trying to manipulate the audience’s emotion, but since so much of the film is true, he can avoid that charge. This film, once and for all, settles any debate as to whether or not anime can be considered the equal of the “purer” art of live-action cinema (or Western animation). Considering that this film is a truer and more unbearable representation of war than many so-called serious, live-action war films, I think the conversation is pretty much moot. Everyone needs to watch this movie, regardless of how you feel about anime. My only recommendation is that you have several boxes of tissues handy. You’re going to need them.

Final Score: A

Thanks to the disproportionate popularity and public awareness of programs like Dragon Ball Z, Gundam, Bleach, and Naruto, anime has developed a reputation of being nothing more than children’s programming where super heroes and robots use martial arts, explosions, and more sheer determination than you can shake a stick at to save the world from nondescript threats. How many people have been dis-swayed from watching a Hiyao Miyazaki film because they think all anime is the same, even if, in reality, Miyazaki makes some of the most beautiful children film’s this side of Pixar? How many people refuse to watch Cowboy Bebop, the best space western/space noir prior to Firefly, because they don’t think anime is actually capable of being artistically significant? The answer is far too many people. While even I enjoy the occasional action based anime like Gurren Lagann or Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, it’s the wide variety of the genre that really draws me in. Following an unconventional coming-of-age tale with a heavy lean towards science fiction, 2004’s The Place Promised in Our Early Days is another anime feature film that completely defies genre expectations while simultaneously providing an interesting (if perhaps too complex and confusing) tale to entertain the audience.

Set in an alternate Earth history where Japan was split into two after the second World War, with Japan controlling half the country and the United States the other half, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a personal and emotional tale of friendship, love, and the forces that keep us apart. Set in the late 1990’s of this alternate timeline, we are introduced to Takuya and Hiroki, two young Japanese middle-schoolers that discover a downed drone aircraft and decide to rebuild it, in order to reach a nearly infinitely tall tower that grows in the American section of Japan. The boys befriend a strange girl named Sayuri (who may or may not have visions of the future) and together, the trio spend the summer working on their plane and being happy children. However, one day, Sayuri mysteriously disappears, and for three years, the boys not only hear from Sayuri, they grow apart from each other. Takuya becomes a scientist for the government while Hiroki remains in high school. Suddenly, the possible presence of Sayuri, the beginning of World War III, and other forces begin to draw Hiroki and Takuya back together so they can save Sayuri and possibly the world.

Before I get into some of the areas where I felt this film stumbled (which were unfortunately numerous), let me talk about some of the things I loved. First, the artwork in this film was absolutely gorgeous. You would be forgiven if you thought you had stepped onto the set of a Hiyao Miyazaki film or any other Studio Ghibli production. The artwork is that good. There aren’t a ton of different animations in the film. Instead the strength of the art relies on the absurdly gorgeous landscapes. The attention to detail is just astounding, and there were times when I would just want to pause the movie and appreciate the rolling hillsides or beautiful sunsets. This was one of the prettiest animes to look at that I’ve seen in a while. Similarly, the characters themselves are quite expressive and while they look like your traditional anime school children, there’s something about the way they’re drawn that lends the character styles something indescribably unique.

Also (and this is a compliment), you could also be mistaken that Hideaki Anno had taken a break during Neon Genesis Evangelion to write something a little more uplifting and positive that still bears his trademark of deep and never-ending personal angst and ennui. A significant portion of this film consists of narration by Hiroki describing his deep depression and anxiety in the years since he lost contact with Sayuri, who he loved. Similarly, Sayuri (who for fear of spoiling the film’s science fiction conceits) delivers her fair share of emotionally laden monologues against a gorgeous but desolate dreamscape that could have stepped out of a film David Lynch made for children, but he also made the conscious decision to keep making things strange as hell. Alongside Neon Genesis Evangelion, this was definitely one of the most intensely psychological anime I’ve ever watched, though over the course of the film’s 90 minute running time, I did find myself wishing for more time to spend getting to know these characters who were still frustratingly ill-defined at the film’s end.

However, the actual plot of the film (as opposed to the deep characterization of its protagonists) was vague and sort of confusing at best and intentionally unclear at worst. I’m willing to attribute part of this problem to the manner in which I saw this film which was on my Instant Queue on Netflix. I watched the English dub, and I’m willing to bet that something was lost in the localization and that the Japanese text which popped up occasionally in scene transitions (and the scenes themselves at times) which wasn’t subtitled at all caused me to lose some of the story. However, I also think that at the film’s core there was simply a science fiction story which meshed in an incredibly uncomfortable with the otherwise painfully realistic coming of age tale that was the beating heart of the film. The film doesn’t resolve a lot of the sci-fi technobabble that accompany some of its seemingly most important scenes. Similarly, the ending is exceptionally vague and confusing, and I’m still completely unsure as to what really happened there. It’s as if I loved half of the film’s plot and equally loathed the other half.

My other major problem with the film was the really bad voice acting in the English dub, with the exception of Hiroki’s voice actor. Takuya sounded like he was in his mid-40’s (as opposed to being a middle/high schooler), and Sayuri embodied virtually every high-pitched/obnoxiously feminine quality I despise in female anime voice acting (Faye Valentine is legitimately the only great female voice in all of anime). I can’t really blame the movie for that too much because anything outside of Studio Gainax or Cowboy Bebop has this problem in spades. It’s endemic of the whole anime industry. I love Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (it’s my second favorite anime ever), but I’m physically incapable of watching the English dub because the voice acting is so awful (save Ed). Hiroki’s voice actor was great though and really sold all of his personal anguish and depression. It was heart-breaking to listen to his little speeches because they felt so real and personal. It was a very intimate performance.

One last positive note before I end my extended ramblings on this film. The soundtrack is hauntingly gorgeous. There are two moments where the characters play violins that will stay with me for a long while, and the whole film is filled with beautiful musical moments like these. All in all, this is a movie made for those grown-ups like myself who hate having to defend their love of anime to uninformed individuals who don’t get just how much the genre has to offer. Even if you’re not a fan of anime but like psychological coming-of-age stories, I can also recommend this beautifully intimate tale (though the sci-fi story tacked on drags that whole production down). It’s not perfect, and while it wasn’t the masterpiece you’d seem come from Studio Ghibli, it is the definition of scenery porn as anyone with the slightest appreciation of art will probably eat up every scene and the core story of friendship is achingly tender. It has deep flaws, but the parts that work more than make up for the rest.

Final Score: B+

Now would be as appropriate a time as any to explain just how it is I approach critiquing the movies and TV I watch for this blog as it will bear heavily on my review for this film and why this film is getting one scores and other anime different scores. I’m a firm believer that movies (and it goes the same for TV, books, music, and video games as well) should be judged based on the intentions of its creators rather than the expectations of its audience. For example, I gave Jackass 3 and The Fighter the same score. Obviously, The Fighter is the more important and socially valuable film. However, its creators had the intention of creating a serious and artistic film that I felt they failed to achieve at a particularly high standard. Jackass was about dick jokes and scatological humor but you couldn’t have expected any thing else from that crew. Hence, both films got “B”s. If you’re only intention is to be fun and entertaining and you achieve those goals, then I’m going to give you a decently good review even if you’re not necessarily art. However, if you try to be art and fail, then your review will suffer. I bring this all up because the film I just watched, Akira, is about to get the same score as a children’s anime that is popcorn cartooning, but I felt it succeeded at its goals better than Akira which tries to be serious art and is more of  a confused and muddled mess.

Akira is a 1988 anime that could best be classified as post-apocalyptic cyber-punk. It tells the story of two friends who are members of the same biker gang in Neo-Tokyo, the city of Tokyo which has been rebuilt after a cataclysmic event destroyed it 30 years ago. Kaneda is the head of the biker gang, the Capsules, and his best friend is Tetsuo, a boy who has been bullied and mistreated his whole life. One day, Tetsuo runs into an escaped mutant who was part of a secret government project. Somehow, the boy transfers some of his powers to Tetsuo who is also quickly taken in by the government and experimented on. Eventually, Tetsuo begins to go insane from the power and experiments and goes on a super-powered rampage through Neo-Tokyo and it is up to Kaneda and a small group of freedom fighters to end the destruction.

The hand-drawn animation of the film is absolutely gorgeous. I watched this on the Blu-Ray edition and the movie’s artwork was simply beautiful. Had I not recognized certain aspects of the animation as being inherently 1980’s in style, I would have believed that this could have been a new release. There were plenty of vibrant and crisp colors mixed with an engaging style and beautiful city-scapes. While the plot itself (which I’ll get to those critiques shortly) might have escaped me, I definitely found myself engaged with fantastic art and animation. However, the plot was not quite so entertaining. This film wanted to be “serious business” and to be taken seriously. However, it explained little to almost none of what was happening in ways that made a lot of sense. I get that this is what happens when you try and condense a 2000 page manga into a two hour long film. Lots of things are going to be left on the cutting room floor. That being said, why try and condense it that much when so much of the plot is going to be left out to the point of things no longer making sense.

Don’t misinterpret this as me disliking the film. I enjoyed it. There were plenty of awesome moments in it to make up for how confusing it could be, and the scene at the end where Tetsuo’s powers are spiraling completely out of control is some serious nightmare fuel. It was disturbing. Actually, I bet I would really enjoy the manga as all of the different subplots of the film would actually be given a chance to develop and mature rather than fly by me at lightning speed. If you’re a fan of anime, this is definitely must watch material. I spend so much time watching shonen series that it’s nice to have something that at least tries to be for grown-ups. This film might not be as mature and deep as it wants it to believe it is, but it’s still entertaining.

Final Score: B+

 Sometimes, I have myself convinced that I am just the worst otaku on the planet. I talk a big game about how much I love anime and how much I seem to know about the culture, but before today, I had never seen a film by Hayao Miyazaki, a children’s film maker who has a reputation as being the Walt Disney of Japan (however, after watching one of his film’s, I prefer to think of him as the Don Bluth of Japan which is more of a compliment anyways). Well, having now watched the magical Howl’s Moving Castle, I am quite upset that it took me this long to find him. I have never seen quite such a stunning combination of Eastern and Western story-telling and animation, and the final product really has to be seen to be believed.

Set against the backdrop of a devastating war, Howl’s Moving Castle is an epic children’s fantasy that tells the story of a young shopkeeper named Sophie. One day, after encountering a strange young man who saves her from bullying soldiers, Sophie is transformed into an old woman by the evil Witch of the Waste. She sets out on a journey to figure out how to break the spell that has been put upon her and return to her normal self. Along the way, she finds out that the man who rescued her is a powerful wizard named Howl who has a giant mobile castle, where he lives with his young apprentice Markl and a fire demon named Calcifer that lets the castle run. Soon, Sophie finds herself swept up in a war and must find the beauty and love within her and Howl if she wants to live, let alone be transformed back to her old body.

The animation in this film is just mind-boggling. The colors are so vibrant, and the world is filled with so much detail and action. The setting of the story is a beautifully rendered steampunk world where tun of the 20th century architecture intermingle with magic as well as later technology such as planes. At the same time, you are given several stunning vistas in beautiful forests and glens.The character models look splendid as well. Not since the golden age of Disney has hand-drawn animation looked this splendid.

Much like the great Don Bluth films from the late 80’s/early 90’s, this film is as entertaining for me as a grown-up as it surely is enchanting for children. This is a wonderful allegory for the dangers of war, the price of love, and remaining yourself in the face of hardship. This is the kind of quality children’s picture that you only expect from Pixar anymore. I can definitely see how another Miyazaki picture, Spirted Away, won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, and I can’t wait to watch that movie. If you like anime, this is a no brainer. If you like children’s movies or have children of your own, I can without fail recommend this movie for the whole family. Although a slight warning, it might be a little scary in parts. Certain aspects of the film reminded me of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland which just terrified me as a child.

 Final Score: A-

 Since I’ve reviewed three anime series for this blog (and will be reviewing Neon Genesis Evangelion whenever Netflix decides to actually have it in stock), it should come as no surprise that I love anime. I also love science fiction. I especially love cyberpunk. Perhaps, that has something to do with the fact that I’m part of the generation that has spent as much on the time the internet as we have in real places. So, a film that’s considered a classic of both anime in general and specifically cyberpunk, 199X’s Ghost in the Shell, should have been a movie that I loved. And while perhaps I just had a really terrible subtitle translation job (although this is the official Blu-Ray re-release so I doubt it), I thought this film was a unmitigated mess of techno-philosophical mumbo-jumbo that I found nearly impossible to follow (and not in that good David Lynch sort of way), and by the time the film was over, I really had no idea what had just happened in the movie I watched.

Ghost in the Shell is a story set in a futuristic Japan where people are able to directly connect their brains to the internet and cyborgs (people that have human brains but robotic bodies) walk the streets as peers with the regular humans. However, because humanity has become so integrated with the digital world, it is possible for expert hackers to take control over a person’s brain from the internet through a concept known as Ghost-hacking. Once the world is set up, which is actually done fairly well, that’s when the movie falls apart because other than knowing who the villain was, I had no idea what his motivations were, how he had been captured, or what the fuck happened at the movie’s end. There’s a lot, lot, lot of talking in this anime and not in a good Neon Genesis Evangelion sort of way.

If you’re a fan of cyberpunk, I’m going to go ahead and guess you’ve already seen this. Any one who’s watched the movie and actually understood the ending, I would appreciate an explanation because I had no idea. Pretty much there are only two good things I can say about this film. The score was pretty fantastic. It was awesome. The animation was really good too, although I don’t know why the movie had to have so much gratuitous and unnecessary nudity. I can’t really recommend this to anyone, unless you’re a serious otaku, and then as I’ve said, you’ve probably already seen it.

 Final Score: C