On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Kenji Iwaisawa, 2019)

The high school band movie has a special place in Japanese cinema. From the anxious release of Linda Linda Linda to the laidback charms of K-On, music is that rare thing that both brings people together and enables individual expression. Adapted from the cult manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi, Kenji Iwaisawa’s highly stylised indie animation On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Ongaku) is a psychedelic ode to the transportive qualities of musical performance from either side of the stage as its laconic, tongue-tied heroes rediscover themselves through the art of song. 

Kenji (Shintaro Sakamoto) is perhaps the archetypal hero of another kind of manga, a shaven-headed delinquent stepping straight out of the pages of Crows Zero or a hundred other tales of high school hierarchies mediated through male violence. Known for his “spaghetti fist”, the monosyllabic young man is feared all around town as a ruthless fighter, engaging in petty acts of aggression with boys from neighbouring high schools, such as the mohawked Oba (Naoto Takenaka) and his identically dressed gang of young toughs who seem to be his current nemesis.

Lost in his own little world, Kenji barely notices when he finds himself in the middle of a crime scene as a thief runs past him on the street pursued by a heroic young man who, temporarily liberating himself, thrusts the guitar he is carrying into Kenji’s arms. Bemused by the chaotic scene in front of him, Kenji becomes fascinated by the strange instrument and immediately announces to his two friends, Ota (Tomoya Maeno) and Asakura (Tateto Serizawa), that they’ll be forming a band, picking up everything they need from the school music room and cheerfully walking off with it. Of course, they have no idea what instruments even are let alone how to play them but then that hardly matters, or as Kenji puts it might just be the “whole point”. 

Asakura comes up with a name for their musical trio, “Kobujutsu”, without quite knowing what it means (classical martial arts), later realising they have a problem because there’s already a similarly named band at school, Kobijutsu (classical fine arts). Asakura has the idea to strong-arm the other guys into changing their monicker, but in place of the expected battle of the bands the two sets of unlikely allies find unexpected common ground in musical appreciation. Kobijutsu, led by introverted music geek Morita (Kami Hiraiwa), is an old school retro folk trio, while Kenji & co are unrefined, avant-garde punk rockers, but each discovers something in the other that speaks directly to them in mutual understanding as “musicians”. 

In fact, “musicians” is how Kenji demands to be identified, explaining to the gang’s female friend Aya (Ren Komai) who was used to referring to them as the “three musketeers”,  that they’re “now obsessed with music” which is why they “don’t have time” to go fight Oba. But Kenji later finds himself depressed, declaring himself “bored” with the band much to the alarm of his two friends who’ve fully embraced their artistic sides. The young men find themselves literally transported by music, Morita seeing himself in a surrealistic scene surrounded by artefacts of misremembered traditional culture pointing to unexpected angles in Kenji’s raw musical expression which later manifest themselves in an unexpected sight gag as he reveals a different side to himself in a musical register which is both refined and naive, while Morita too begins to embrace his inner rebel with psychedelic glee complete with a fresh new look. 

Iwaisawa spent seven years on the project drawing over 40,000 images by hand largely on his own. His designs perfectly mimic the quirky minimalism of Ohashi’s manga, complete with a lowkey deadpan sensibility that is perfectly in tune with the laidback charms of its slacker heroes. Kenji lives in a slightly different temporality, his extended pauses before offering up his idiosyncratically concise replies rendered as perfectly timed still frames while the musical sequences are filled with the raw anarchic energy of something being set free as the youngsters liberate themselves through the joy of music, climaxing in a rotoscoped final concert which unites all in a shared sense of transcendental transformation. Boasting an expertly crafted, nostalgic soundtrack, Iwaisawa’s joyful celebration of the power of making music is an off-beat gem.


On-Gaku: Our Sound is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Princess Aya (프린세스 아야, Lee Sung-gang, 2019)

Animation made for children can often be a subversive affair, offering surprisingly progressive messages sometimes at odds with an otherwise conservative industry. Though quite obviously taking its cues from Frozen in terms of aesthetics and atmosphere despite its desert setting while drawing inspiration from classic fairytales, Princess Aya (프린세스 아야) is a sterling example, keen to sell the message that it’s OK to be different while emphasising that it’s prejudice and social exclusion which are the real enemy, creating only pain and resentment while those rejected by an intolerant society may eventually be consumed by their sense of betrayal. 

Long ago in a feudal society, a strange curse begins to affect children born in the small kingdom of Yeonliji which causes them to turn into animals after coming into contact with animal blood. Some believe that the curse is the revenge of animals hunted for sport, while the cursed children are, ironically enough, abandoned to live as beasts in the forest or perish. The Queen, however, cannot bear to part with her child, Princess Aya (Baek A-yeon), and sacrifices some of her own life force in return for a magical bracelet from a tree god that will prevent the curse from manifesting. Years later, Aya grows up into a feisty teenage girl, while the kingdom is threatened by an oncoming incursion from desert nation Vartar who want its water. The Vartan prince, Bari (Park Jin-young), has proposed a dynastic marriage with one of Aya’s younger sisters to broker peace, but Aya has no intention of letting her sisters face such an uncertain fate and insists on going herself. 

Of course, what she discovers, in true Korean period drama fashion, is that there’s intrigue in the court. Bari is not, as she feared, a hideous monster but a kind and handsome young man who is actively trying to prevent a war and protect Yeonliji (which is obviously what she wants too), but his treacherous uncle is ruling as a regent and secretly working against him. Meanwhile, attempts have been made on Aya’s life, and she’s lost the precious bracelet which allows her to keep her true nature hidden. 

The curse appears to be a punishment manifested on mankind for its cruel treatment of animals, forcing Aya to feel the suffering of living creatures in pain and close to death. While Aya does her best to fight the darkness, another creature known as the “Beast” has allowed it to consume him, feeding on sorrow and determined to take revenge on the society which has abandoned and rejected him. It’s rejection that Aya too fears, as perhaps does everyone and most especially young women, but hers is a deeper seated anxiety in that she’s uncertain what will happen if her true nature is discovered. 

Nevertheless, she moves towards an acceptance that her curse could also be a gift while beginning to believe that “no matter who I am I can be loved”. Yet she also feels a sense of guilt in using her amulet, knowing she is deceiving the prince, whom she’s come to admire, while fearing his reaction if she tells him the truth. Bari, meanwhile, is not so much hiding a secret as a lone figure of traditional nobility in a court filled with scheming intrigue. While his uncle plans to subjugate Yeonliji, Bari has been secretly drilling in the desert looking for water, admiring the flowers where they bloom even in adversity. 

Bari refuses to make his men slaves of war, while Aya insists that they need to rebuild their society with a greater sense of compassion. She is afraid of her “difference” and her destiny, longing to be free but afraid of being seen. Eventually she realises that connection can be a strength and not a weakness as can authenticity and mutual understanding. She refuses to abandon the Beast as her society had done despite his wickedness, still hoping to save and bring him into her hopefully kinder world. Princess Aya shows kids that being “different” is nothing to be ashamed of, that no one is unloveable (even evil Beasts), and that the Princess is perfectly capable of saving herself but it’s no weakness to accept help when you need it or to give it when others are in need. A charming musical fairytale, Princess Aya wears its progressive values on its sleeve, always allowing its heroine to chart her own destiny while finding self-acceptance along the way.


Princess Aya screens in Amsterdam on March 7/8 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ne Zha (哪吒之魔童降世, Jiaozi, 2019)

2755835c-570e-44bc-b2f2-515f706369bd_64fa474eb6b5a53c36be9bcd9311f283ce949be6_w1290_h1905Can you choose who you are, or is your identity constructed by accidents of birth and the society all around you? It’s a complicated question and even more so if you happen to have been born part demon thanks to a cosmological mixup. An origin movie of sorts for the titular hero familiar to most from classical Chinese folklore, Ne Zha (哪吒之魔童降世, Nézhā zhī Mótóng Jiàngshì) asks just that through the story of an extremely naughty, all powerful little boy who might be evil or just misunderstood and resentfully lonely because of the prejudice held against him by those fearful of his differences.

The trouble begins with the Chaos Pill which can pull power from sun and moon equally, threatening the integrity of the universe itself. Thankfully, the Heavenly King manages to split it into the Demon Pill and the Spirit Pill, enclosing both inside a lotus flower. He intends to send the Spirit Pill into the third son of general Li Jing (Chen Hao) and has put a curse on the Demon Pill so that it will be destroyed by lightening in three years’ time. Predictably nothing goes to plan because drunken deity Taiyi Zhenren (Zhang Jiaming) fails to stop the evil Shen Gongbao (Yang Wei) sending his minions in to steal the Spirit Pill and use it for his own ends. The Demon Pill ends up in the son of Li Jing, Ne Zha (Lü Yanting), who emerges from his mother’s womb as a bouncing ball of flesh before transforming himself into a small boy and proceeding to wreak havoc all over town.

Doting parents Li Jing and Madam Yin (Lü Qi) refuse to believe their son is all “bad” but recognise that they have a duty to the townspeople who are quickly fed up with Ne Zha’s antics and traumatised by years of being terrorised by “demons”. They would rather do away with the irascible little rascal, but could it be that he’s just bored and lonely? Given the increased demon threat, Madam Yin is often away slaying things and regrets she doesn’t have more time for her son while the other kids are afraid of him, both for quite rational reasons and also because his main way of making friends is quite mean. Increasingly resentful at being shunned as a “demon”, Ne Zha strikes back at the villagers in ways which are really just naughty rather than actually “evil” but obviously aren’t going to win him any friends.

Having failed to get help from the Heavenly Father who has predictably waltzed off for a bit as gods seem to do anytime there’s an actual problem in the mortal realm that they probably caused through inefficient planning, Li Jing decides to lie to his son that he’s really the Spirit Pill and has a duty to slay demons and help mankind. The deception begins to work. Imprisoned in a painting where Zhenren tries to teach him useful magic, Ne Zha takes his new responsibilities seriously, eventually escaping and trying to rescue a little girl who has been kidnapped by a water troll. Sadly, he goes about it all wrong and the townspeople embrace their prejudice to jump to the conclusion that he kidnapped the kid himself and has become even more dangerous.

Meanwhile, evil Shen Gongbao faces a similar problem as a deity shunned because he’s jaguar spirit who took human form. Allying with the villainous Dragons who have been given an ironic punishment to run a prison from which they can’t escape either, he gives the Spirit Pill to their bright hope Ao Bing (Han Mo) who, mirroring Ne Zha, struggles to accept his “evil” parentage and continues to do good and noble things behind his parents’ backs. Meeting by chance, the pair became friends but inevitably have to do battle before realising that they are two halves of one whole and thus represent a kind of salvation in linking hands rather than raising them.

Ao Bing, despite himself, is the more filial in that he thinks he has to accept the “destiny” his parents have given him as a liberator even if he doesn’t quite agree with their methods or reasoning. Ne Zha, by contrast, concludes that his fate is to resist his fate. He might not win, but he’ll fight it all the way and decide for himself who he is rather than allowing others to tell him. Genuinely funny, filled with amusing gags, and packed full of heart, Ne Zha is a gorgeously animated family fantasy and an impassioned advocation for living by your own principles while refusing to be bound by the unsolicited opinions of others.


Currently on limited cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia in the UK, and Well Go in the US.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

White Snake (白蛇:缘起, Zhao Ji & Amp Wong, 2019)

White Snake posterOne of the best known classical Chinese folktales, Madame White Snake has already inspired a host of cinematic adaptations, most famously Tsui Hark’s Green Snake. CGI animation White Snake (白蛇:缘起, Báishé: Yuánqǐ), co-produced by Warner Bros. in the US and China’s Light Chaser, takes a different tack in imagining a prequel to the original legend that hints at a wider destiny for the eponymous Bai Suzhen and the doctor Xu Xian. Like other similarly themed family films, White Snake is also a surprisingly progressive, if melancholy, love story which insists that love is love and does not, or should not, change if you discover the person that you love is a little different than you first thought – in this case, that she’s giant snake demon in beautiful human form.

A framing sequence opens with Bai Suzhen, here called Xiao Bai / Bianca, lamenting to her friend Xiao Qing / Verta (Tang Xiaoxi) that though she has meditated for 500 years she cannot achieve enlightenment and feels the block is due to a memory that she cannot recall. Xiao Qing then gives her a jade hairpin which casts us back 500 years to the Tang Dynasty and a time of chaos in which an evil general has ordered the mass killing of snakes in order to steal their energy for black magic purposes to improve his relationship with the emperor. The snake demons declare war and Xiao Bai is sent to assassinate the general but is injured before she can complete her mission. Washing up on a nearby shore, she is rescued by a local boy, Xuan (Yang Tianxiang), who happens to be a snake hunter. Having lost all her memories, Xiao Bai thinks she is human and bonds with Xuan as they team up to investigate her past with the hairpin as their first clue.

We are told that the land is in chaos and that the peasantry is cruelly oppressed by onerous loans and unjust treatment at the hands of the feudal lords. The general is forcing them to kill snakes and deliver them to him as a kind of tax incentive while threatening their livelihoods if they fail to comply. Despite participating in snake culls, however, Xuan is a kind and energetic young man who is also the village’s herbalist and dreams of becoming a doctor. Having rescued Xiao Bai, he does his best to help restore her memory and vows to be at her side protecting her no matter what. On figuring out that she is really a snake demon, his devotion doesn’t change and he stays with her all the same even knowing that she will be in danger if anyone else learns of her true identity.

Xuan may insist that your fate’s your fate but you can choose how you live, but he also acknowledges that “life is short and sorrows long”, affirming that it’s better to live in the moment making happy memories for less cheerful times. Then again, as Xiao Bai says, you can’t always do what you want and this is indeed a “heartless world” with rules which must be followed. As in any good fairytale, Xiao Bai and Xuan are divided by being on opposing sides of a supernatural plane with differing conceptions of time and eternity. As his song says, “this floating world is but a dream”, and Xiao Bai’s sojourn among the humans is likely to be a short one. Suspected of treachery, Xiao Bai’s good friend (or perhaps a little more than that) Xiao Qing volunteers to wear the Scale of Death, pledging her own life in place of Xiao Bai’s if she fails to fetch her back within three days only to immediately take against Xuan possibly for reasons unconnected to her distrust of humans who, she has been taught, are universally treacherous and hostile to snakes.

Of course, the original legend and the opening framing sequences are clues that this isn’t going to end happily but then with eternity to play with perhaps nothing is ever really as final as it seems. Beautifully animated with gorgeously rendered backgrounds and a melancholy romantic sensibility, White Snake is a huge step forward for Chinese animation which pays tribute the classic legend while creating a universe all of its own with sequel potential aplenty.


White Snake screens on 7th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screened in Montreal as part of the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival on 27th July.

Original trailer (Mandarin with English & Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Penguin Highway (ペンギン・ハイウェイ, Hiroyasu Ishida, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

Penguin Highway posterRandom penguins might be the very opposite of a problem, but what exactly does it all mean? Tomihiko Morimi has provided the source material for some of the most interesting Japanese animation of recent times from Masaaki Yuasa’s wonderfully surreal Tatami Galaxy and Night is Short, Walk on Girl, to the comparatively calmer Eccentric Family. Hiroyasu Ishida’s adaptation of Morimi’s Penguin Highway (ペンギン・ハイウェイ) may be a far less abstract attempt to capture the author’s unique world view than Yuasa’s anarchic psychedelia, but preserves the author’s sense of every day strangeness as an ordinary primary school boy’s peaceful life is suddenly derailed by the appearance of random penguins in a small town way in land in the middle of a hot and humid Japanese summer.

Aoyama (Kana Kita) is, as he tells us, “very smart”. He thinks its OK to tell us this because unlike some of his classmates he isn’t conceited, which is what makes him so great. He’s absolutely positive that he’s going to become an important person in the future and can’t wait to find out just how amazing he’s going to be once he’s grown up. Aoyama is also sure that crowds of girls will be lining up to marry him, but they’re all out of luck because he already has a special someone in mind – the friendly young receptionist from the dentist’s (Yu Aoi) who has been coaching him at chess and just generally hanging out with him chatting about life.

Everything begins to change one day when random penguins start appearing all over town. Penguins are, after all, cold climate creatures and this is a glorious summer in Southern Japan so even if these are rogue penguins who’ve managed to escape from a zoo, it’s anyone’s guess how they’ve managed to survive. Being the scientifically minded young man he is, Aoyama becomes determined to solve the penguin mystery, especially as it seems to have something to do with the young lady from the dentist’s who he can’t seem to get out of his mind.

Aoyama is, despite his opening gambit, a fairly conceited young man who thinks himself much cleverer than those around him – not only his schoolmates but the adults too (possibly with the exception of the lady from the dentist’s who is after all teaching him how to be better at chess). With an intense superiority complex, Aoyama has few friends (not that that bothers him, particularly) and is often bullied by the class bruiser, Suzuki (Miki Fukui), and his minions, all of which he takes in his stride. He is, however, slightly thrown by the presence of an extremely bright girl in his class, Hamamoto (Megumi Han), who regularly beats him at chess and is interested in black holes among other areas of scientific endeavour Aoyama had earmarked as his own.

Despite suspecting that Hamamoto might be “even more amazing” than he is, Aoyama is not resentful or jealous but remains seemingly oblivious to her attempts to make friends with him. Aoyama, as an intensely “rational” person, is also sometimes insensitive and remains entirely unable to pick up on social cues unlike his more perceptive friend/assitant, Uchida (Rie Kugimiya), who is well aware of the reason Suzuki keeps picking on Hamamoto, but is unable to convey his instinctual understanding of human nature to the logical Aoyama. Armed with this new fragment of information from Uchida, Aoyama uses it in a predictably “rational” fashion by suddenly bringing it up in front of both Hamamoto and Suzuki in “advising” him that liking someone isn’t “embarrassing” and Suzuki should just say what he means rather than making passive aggressive attempts to get attention by being unpleasant. All of which is, ironically enough, quite awkward.

Through carrying out his investigation into the penguin phenomenon, Aoyama is forced to confront his less rational side, eventually affirming that he’ll live his life based on a “personal belief” rather than a scientific principle. Getting a glimpse of the edge of the world and coming to accept that not matter how much fun you’re having there will always come an end, Aoyama decides to live his life in haste anyway running fast towards an inevitable conclusion in the hope of a longed for reconciliation. Sadly, his discoveries don’t seem to have made him any less conceited but he is at least good hearted and eager to help even if he remains determined to walk his “Penguin Highway” all alone while concentrating on becoming a better person. Beautifully animated and tempering its inherent surrealism with gentle whimsy, Penguin Highway is a promising start for Studio Colorido, mixing Ghibli-esque charm with Morimi’s trademark surrealism for a moving coming of age tale in which a rigid young man learns to find the sweet spot between faith and rationality and pledges to live his life in earnest in expectation of its end.


Penguin Highway was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Violence Voyager (バイオレンス・ボイジャー, Ujicha, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

violence voyager posterWeird stuff happens out in the mountains, stuff you wouldn’t even believe. Ujicha’s Burning Buddha Man followup Violence Voyager (バイオレンス・ボイジャー) is a pleasantly retro treat, set sometime in the more innocent past when the landscape still held hidden mysteries for small boys to find and anything goes so long as you’re home in time for tea. There are some mysteries, however, that it’s better not to solve and if something seems too good to be true, that’s usually because it is. Little Bobby (Aoi Yuki) is about to become a hero, but his journey will be a one way trip of unwelcome transformations, losses, and betrayals.

Bobby, an American boy with a blond bowl cut living in a little rural town with his distant dad and bedridden mum for otherwise unexplained reasons, has impressed his best friend Akkun (Shigeo Takahashi) with his high-tech pinball baseball computer console he made for the science fair, even if it has put the strange monster toys Akkun and his brother Yakkun entered with the intention of masking a lack of skill with pure strangeness to shame. Ostracised by the other kids, Bobby and Akkun long to cross the mountain and find their other friend, Takaaki (Daisuke Ono), who moved away to the next village. Akkun has heard tell of a secret mountain path which would take them there for free and it’s only *slightly* dangerous even if it does take time. Luckily it’s the summer holidays so time is something the boys have plenty of.

Setting off despite the warnings of Old Man Lucky Monkey (who actually lives with a chimpanzee as a “friend”), the boys are sidetracked when Bobby spots a fallen sign for something called “Violence Voyager” which sounds like too good an opportunity to miss. Ending up at an abandoned theme park, the boys are surprised to find the proprietor (Tomorowo Taguchi) still hanging around and overjoyed when he offers to let them in for free seeing as he rarely gets any business owing to the rapidly declining number of children in the area (alarm bells should be ringing right about now). Handed a “voyager suit” (an anorak and pair of wellies), the boys are shown an informational video explaining that the world has been invaded by aliens in the form of robot soldiers who shoot alkaline from their plant-like hands. Choosing a “weapon” (water pistol) each (Bobby a rifle, Akkun a tiny little dolphin), the boys set off but it’s not long before they start to suspect something isn’t quite right. Discovering another little girl lying injured, Bobby and Akkun plan an escape only to find their bullying classmates also facing the same dilemma.

It will come as no surprise that there really is something not quite right going at Violence Voyager. Like a combination of Westworld and Soylent Green, the park exists to strip the young of their innocence by exploiting it. A mad scientist desperately trying to save his only family is literally eating his young – sacrificing the souls of innocent children and “remaking” them in his own image to feed his ruined son. Meanwhile, Bobby’s dad fights equally hard to track down and rescue his own errant boy from an obviously bad situation.

Bobby emerges scarred and fundamentally “changed” mentally and physically but with his humanity fully intact, carrying a pretty bunch of flowers to take to his mum to cheer up her sickbed (and presumably lessen the shock of seeing him as he now is). An extreme coming of age tale, Violence Voyager runs from exposing the cynicism of businesses aimed at children to the desperation faced by a parent prepared to protect their offspring at all costs (including their remaining family).

Ujicha’s trademark “geki-animation” is a perfect fit for the bizarre tale at hand, filled with beautiful hand painted backgrounds and accompanied by the sonorous narration of comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto (Symbol, Big Man Japan). The retro design from Bobby’s bowl cut to the ‘70s musical score and noticeably old-fashioned composition (one shot even seems to reference the poster for Fukasaku’s Virus) allows the warmth of nostalgia to mix with its less positive elements all while indulging in a surreal B-movie adventure which starts with “aliens” and ends with the horror that men do. Whether a metaphor for the conformist meat grinder which strips children of their individuality to trap them in the straight jacket of the salaryman world, the ravages of grief, or just a B-movie body horror adventure, Violence Voyager is a surreal fever dream of bodily corruption but undercut with its own sense of fantastical whimsy and an oddly innocent heart for so dark a tale.


Violence Voyager was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fireworks (打ち上げ花火、下から見るか? 横から見るか?, Akiyuki Shinbo & Nobuyuki Takeuchi, 2017) [Fantasia 2018]

Fireworks posterBack in 1993, Fireworks, Should We See it From the Side or From the Bottom? (打ち上げ花火、下から見るか? 横から見るか?, Uchiage Hanabi, Shita kara Miru ka? Yoko kara Miru ka?), became something of a sliding doors moment for the young Shunji Iwai who received an award from the Directors Guild of Japan for what was in essence a single episode in an anthology TV series dedicated to the idea of “what if”. “What if” is, it has to be said, a constant theme in nostalgic Japanese cinema as slightly older protagonists look back on the hazy days of youth and wonder what might have been if they’d only known then what they know now. Scripted by Hitoshi One (Scoop!) and produced by Shaft, the anime adaption attempts to do something similar, floating in with a gentle summer breeze that could easily be from 30 years ago or yesterday while its conflicted hero ponders where it is he ought to stand to get the most beautiful view of life passing him by.

The central dilemma that seems to obsess the boys this particular summer is whether fireworks are flat or three dimensional and whether your perception of them changes depending on where you stand. Norimichi (Masaki Suda) risks falling out with his best friend Yusuke (Mamoru Miyano) and so has avoided revealing the fact that they both have a crush on the same girl – Nazuna (Suzu Hirose), who (neither of them have noticed) has a dilemma of her own. A chance meeting at the swimming pool seems primed to dictate the romantic fate of all concerned. Norimichi and Yusuke race for the affections of Nazuna who, in the original timeline, ends up asking Yusuke to see the summer fireworks with her even though it’s Norimichi she went there to meet.

Unfortunately Yusuke is a flake and nothing goes to plan. He stands Nazuna up to hang with his buddies and figure out the answer to their inane riddle leaving her to run into Norimichi who gets an unexpected glimpse at her inner turmoil. A mysterious orb salvaged by Nazuna from the nearby sea gives Norimichi a chance to start over, be braver, do things differently thanks to the benefit of hindsight, and so he begins a path to idealised romance by manipulating the events around him to finally “save” Nazuna from making a rash decision (or at least from making it alone).

In 1993, Nazuna’s dilemma was perhaps a little more unusual than it might seem now. Her twice married single-mother (Takako Matsu) is planning to marry again which requires the teenage Nazuna to leave her home behind to live with a strange man in a strange town. Though her new step-dad seems nice and is obviously trying his best, Nazuna is not of a mind to give in. She consents to accepting one of the ice-creams he’s bought to curry favour (after all, there’s no need to be “rude”), but is not about to go so far as to say thank you or to enjoy eating it together with the rest of the family when she could guzzle it sulkily in the comfort of her bedroom. Nazuna wants to escape, but her ideas of doing so are childishly naive even if she puts on a sophisticated front by joking about going to Tokyo to work on the fringes of the sex trade by lying about her age. Hence, she asks a boy she likes but barely knows to take her away from this place, but the boy is just a boy and not quite equipped for rescuing damsels in distress from suffering he doesn’t understand.

Like many Japanese teen dramas, Norimichi’s interior monologue takes on a rueful quality, as if he’s eulogising his youth while still inside it. He doesn’t know whether there’s a difference if you look at things from one angle or another because he’s not particularly used to thinking about things and his first few experiments with the orb are pure reactions to events rather than thought through decisions about effects and consequences. Nevertheless, use of the orb shifts him into a philosophical contemplation of what it is to live a life. Finally realising he should probably ask Nazuna what it is she really wants, the process the pair undergo is one of learning to live in the now rather than obsessing about the end of something that might never begin if you never find the courage to start.

In the end their beautiful dream world is ruptured by a drunken old man, shattering into a thousand shards of memory of things that never were. Fireworks wants to ask if you can have a more fulfilling life by simply changing your perspective, but its central messages never quite coalesce. There is something about Iwai’s original concept which inescapably of its time, sliding neatly into the melancholy world of early ‘90s teen drama drenched in nostalgia for an era not yet past. Reaching for poignant philosophising, Fireworks falls short through, ironically enough, focussing too heavily on a single point of view. An oddly “flat” exercise, Shinbo’s adaptation misses the mark in its climactic moments but perhaps manages to offer something to the lovelorn teens of today if only by yanking them back to a more innocent time.


Fireworks was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The original 1986 Seiko Matsuda song reprised by Nazuna at a climactic moment.

Cleopatra (クレオパトラ, Osamu Tezuka & Eiichi Yamamoto, 1970)

Cleopatra posterMushi Pro’s first real foray into feature length (and feature length it really was at over two hours) animation for adults, A Thousand & One Nights, had earned some critical plaudits but nevertheless failed to set the box office alight. A year later they tried again as manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka and experimental animator Eiichi Yamamoto reteamed for a salacious tale of ancient Egypt. Or at least that’s what was promised by the suggestive title, Cleopatra (クレオパトラ), recalling Hollywood glamour and cinematic excess anchored by beauty to echo through the ages, but what emerges is less a tale of doomed love and imperial lust than a thinly veiled attack on the American “occupation” and associated foreign policy in an increasingly politicised age.

Because Tezuka likes to be perverse, he opens not with deserts and pyramids but with a silent ode to 2001: A Space Odyssey before a space ship drifts into view and sails into a very space age tower block filled with very ordinary corridors. Our team of space warriors are part of a colonising force hellbent on conquering nations which don’t which to be conquered. The Pasatorine have mounted a resistance and Earth intelligence has got wind of a covert operation codenamed “Cleopatra”. To figure out what the name might mean, they’ve decided to send three of their best agents back in time to hang out with the lady herself and gather a few clues.

Back in Ancient Egypt, the nation has been overrun by lecherous Roman troops who ride roughshod over the local population (which includes a number of well known characters from popular 1960s manga). Caesar (Hajime Hana) himself is a jolly green giant with skin like Osiris who turns out to be a little more sympathetic than might otherwise be assumed. Nevertheless, a resistance movement has spun into action guided by the royal nanny, Apollodoria (Kotoe Hatsui), who has convinced exiled princess Cleopatra (Chinatsu Nakayama) that their best hope for freedom lies in her body which she must use as a weapon against the lusty foreign general in order that she might seduce and betray.

Cleopatra, however, is conflicted. Molested by her old nanny and falling for her unexpectedly “decent” captor, she wavers in her conviction and begins to wonder if the best path for her people might lie in working alongside rather than against her nation’s new masters. As history tells us, she may not get to make that choice for herself for her stony general has a weakness his countrymen can exploit leaving her all at sea once again.

In 1970 Japan was about to revisit the post-war security treaty with the Americans giving rise to a wide scale protests against what many saw as Japanese complicity in controversial American foreign policy and particularly the ongoing war in Vietnam. The Romans, thinly veiled stand-ins for Americans in Japan, march in triumph, oppressing the locals and erasing traditional culture in favour of “modernity”. Yet Caesar and his ilk perhaps turn out not to be so bad as once feared, seducing with false promise as they show off their wealth and prosperity whilst subtly gesturing to their superior numbers and technology to assure any doubters. The colonisers are technically our heroes – the spacemen and women from the beginning we’ve all but forgotten about have come back in time from the position of the imperialists, hoping to find out how Cleopatra’s doomed romantic destiny might inform modern insurgency, but have discovered only a righteous loathing for “occupying” forces and their relentless tendency to ruin the lives of pure hearted women for their own nefarious gains.

Perhaps emboldened by A Thousand & One Nights, Tezuka cannot resist inserting a number of idiosyncratic gags for manga enthusiasts, including a few references to his own back catalogue, while also sending up the pop-culture of the day. Cleopatra is, on one level, a distinctly lowbrow effort filled with deliberately cartoonish slapstick, silliness, and anarchic humour but it also harbours a subversive idea at its centre which was certain to prove popular with a particular section, at least, of its target audience. Mixing live action footage with experimental animation, if retaining a cartoonish sensibility, Cleopatra is a strange interdimensional political metaphor but not without its charms even in its most outrageous moments.


Available on blu-ray from Third Window Films as a part of double release with Eiichi Yamamoto’s A Thousand & One Nights.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

A Thousand & One Nights (千夜一夜物語, Eiichi Yamamoto, 1969)

one thousand and one nights poster 2The “Godfather of Manga” Osamu Tezuka had been a pioneer of what later became the mainstream of a burgeoning industry, kickstarting TV anime in the process with the long running Astro Boy. His ambitions, however, increasingly ran towards the avant-garde and he feared that the heavy association between his production company, Mushi Pro, and genial kids’ cartoons would only lead to diminishing artistic returns even if the increasing merchandising opportunities would perhaps allow the studio to engage in other less profitable areas such the adult-orientated anime he longed to produce. By the late ‘60s, Tezuka’s polite, inoffensive brand of child-friendly adventure stories were becoming distinctly old hat while the “gekiga” movement, acting more or less in direct opposition, continued to gain ground with older readers keen to move on to more adult fare. The Animerama series was intended to prove that Tezuka still had something new and dynamic to bring to the table and that there was a market for “racy” animation which embraced mature themes and experimental artwork.

The first of the Animerama films, A Thousand & One Nights (千夜一夜物語, Senya Ichiya Monogatari), is, as the title implies, loosely inspired by classic Arabian folktales as its hero “Aldin” (Yukio Aoshima) finds and then loses true love, overcomes the urge for vengeance, is himself corrupted by wealth and power, and then is returned to the very same state in which we first encountered him walking off into the sunset in preparation for the next adventure.

The tale begins with a slave auction at which the lowly water seller Aldin first catches sight of the beautiful Milliam (Kyoko Kishida). He tries to buy her but is too poor while the son of the local police chief (Asao Koike) outbids all to win the prize. However, in the first of many strokes of luck that will befall Aldin, a sandstorm allows him steal away with Milliam who falls in love with him too and gives herself willingly to a man she sees as an equal rather than a master. Sadly, their true love story is short lived and they are soon separated sending Aldin off on a quest to return to his beloved that will only end in tragedy.

Despite the later protestations that the love of Aldin and Milliam is one of equals in which there are no masters or slaves, only a man and a woman, it remains true that Aldin watched the slave auction with a degree of titillation and would have bought Milliam had he only been able to afford her. Surviving on his wits, Aldin is a cheeky chancer waiting for that big lucky break he is sure is waiting somewhere round the corner but he is not, perhaps, above becoming that which oppresses him. Later, having become a wealthy and powerful man, he uses his wealth and his power in the same way that others use theirs against him in pressuring a vulnerable young girl to become his mistress against her will, ripping her away from her own true love in the same way he was once ripped away from Milliam by another man wearing a crown. As a “king” he wonders what “power” is, pushing his as far as it will go in order to find out and risking “losing himself” in a way he’d once thought he’d overcome in rejecting a pointless act of vengeance that would forever have changed him.

Milliam, and later Jallis – the daughter of Aldin and Milliam raised by their worst enemy, Badli (Hiroshi Akutagawa), fight for the right to decide their own romantic destiny. Like Madlia (Sachiko Ito), the feisty bandit’s daughter, they resist the social codes of their era in which women are merely prizes divided among men and actively attempt to free themselves through love only to find defeat and despair. Yet love, or more precisely lust, can also be a force of constraint and or ruin as Aldin discovers on a paradise island when he unwisely decides to abandon Madlia, who has also fallen in love with him, for the empty pleasures of orgiastic sex with the voracious islanders whose unrestrained desire soon threatens to consume him whole.

A picaresque adventure, A Thousand & One Nights is a bawdy, flippant retelling of the Aladdin myth in which the hero begins as a poor yet free and cheerful young man before experiencing what it is to be wealthy and all powerful and discovering that it only makes him mean and miserable. Shifting from model shots to live photography and abstract to cartoonish animation, Yamamoto’s direction may appear restrained in comparison to the more outlandish and surreal Belladonna of Sadness but is a masterclass in finding artistry through budgetary limitations. A psychedelic odyssey through freedom and constraint, desire and obsession, A Thousand & One Nights is a forgotten landmark of experimental animation as relentlessly strange as it is endearing.


Available on blu-ray from Third Window Films as a part of double release with Eiichi Yamamoto & Osamu Tezuka’s Cleopatra.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

On Happiness Road (幸福路上, Sung Hsin-yin, 2017)

On happiness road posterSung Hsin-yin attempts a series of impossibles with her debut feature, On Happiness Road (幸福路上, Xìngfú Lùshang). In a bold move she has crafted what is possibly the last Taiwanese animated feature while attempting to pack 40 years of turbulent political history into the story of a lost middle-aged women ruminating on her cheerful, uncomplicated childhood on the distinctly humble Happiness Road. Battling the weight of parental expectation and the false promises of a better life overseas, her heroine, Chi, makes an enforced return to source on hearing that her beloved, part-aboriginal grandmother has passed away.

Chi (Gwei Lun-mei), an unhappy 30-something woman, receives the call in America where she has been living with her American husband. Unbeknownst to her family, Chi’s marriage is all but over and she finds herself at something of a crossroads, half wondering if it’s time to come home to Taiwan and half humiliated in being seen to have returned with her tail between her legs. She comes home, alone, to mourn her grandmother but finds herself wandering back through the streets of memory and fantasy recalling all the small details and minor incidents that brought her to his point in the hope of figuring out where it is she needs to go next.

Chi was born in 1975 on the very day that Chang Kai-shek died. Chang was by then a brutal dictator but the brainwashed little Chi who still sees his picture everywhere and has been taught to respect his many virtues idolises him all the same. Her family, uneducated ordinary working people, speak Taiwanese Hokkien at home but at school she has to speak Mandarin – the “official” language, all dialects are banned. Thus little Chi finds her parents’ language backward and embarrassing, their failure to adapt to “modernity” a hurdle in her own forward development.

As time moves on, Chi’s “Taiwaneseness” becomes something she feels she must sacrifice in order to purse the conventional success expected by her parents and the society at large. Little Chi, riding in the back of a pickup truck with her parents on the way to Happiness Road, asks them one of the biggest questions of all – what does “happiness” mean. Her parents, unable to answer, shush her, but her father (Chen Po-cheng) seems pleases his daughter has such big thoughts and wonders if she might become a philosopher one day. Oh no, replies her mother (Jane Liao). There’s no money in that – she’ll be a doctor! Her parents want for her all the material comforts of the settled middle classes, but her society tells her to attain them she must leave her nativeness behind – speak Mandarin, forget about granny’s ancient wisdom, and eventually go abroad leaving the “old fashioned” island far behind.

Chi has done everything she was supposed to do. She studied hard, got a good degree, got an OK job, and then ended up going to America almost on a whim. She reached the destination expected of her, but still she isn’t happy. Her marriage is failing as she and her American husband want very different things out of life and Chi wonders if she really belongs in this insincere culture which, at the end of the day, has never quite accepted her. In America she experienced mild forms of racism but then didn’t her half-American friend, Betty (Li Chia-hsiu) – blonde with blue eyes but speaking only Mandarin, experience exactly the same thing in Taiwan? Pregnant but seeking an escape from an unhappy marriage, Chi also worries what the future will be if she chooses to come home and raise her half-American child alone in a perhaps unforgiving society.

Yet reuniting with Betty she discovers that even if her life has not quite turned out the way she planned, she is blissfully happy as a single mother to two children, blonde like her but with brown eyes. Chatting with the ghost of her late grandmother who still has a few lessons to impart, Chi learns to see with the eyes of her heart and comes to realise that sometimes the road to happiness passes through a few uncertain turns but that that’s OK. Her parents, whom she feared would judge her for a failed marriage and a child born after divorce, are predictably enough only too happy at the prospect of their only daughter coming home for good and finally making them grandparents no matter the circumstances surrounding the origin of both those events. Chi may not have wanted the “road” her parents and her society had attempted to lay down before her, but discovers that departing from it is not failure and that “happiness” is a concept you are free to define for yourself. Beautifully animated and filled with whimsical flights of fancy, On Happiness Road is a sometimes melancholy but heartwarming tale of life in modern Taiwan as one lost woman finally discovers the road home and realises it has been waiting for her all along.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)