Franky and Friends: A Tree of Life (극장판 프랭키와 친구들: 생명의 나무, Park Jung-oh, 2016)

Franky and Friends tree of life posterChildren’s films are full of messages and advice about how to grow up into a fine, upstanding person. Franky and Friends began life as a TV series in which the titular polar bear, Franky, and his friends live in a world of self sufficiency in which everything they consume they must grow for themselves in their kitchen garden. The problem is Franky is essentially still a child which means he wants everything all at once and doesn’t know the reasoning behind his way of life. In other words, he’s just like the target audience and is about to learn what every parent wants to teach their child – to eat what they’re given and be grateful.

Franky, Kwon, and Pong live in a small cottage with the more mature Doo who cooks all their meals and tends to the house and garden. The boys, however (is it interesting that they’re so obviously male and Doo so obviously female even though they’re all fantasy creatures?), don’t want her sensible, wholesome food. They want everything else but *especially* fried sweet potatoes. Doo gives in and agrees to make some if the boys promise to eat everything all up. Of course, they do, but they’re full long before the pot of potatoes is even half empty. While Doo gets up to answer the door, Franky and Kwon scrape the food into a basket and take it outside to bury in the woods. They keep this up for a few days but weird mushrooms start growing everywhere and when the local insects eat them they grow to giant size and become ravenous, destroying the market garden!

As it turns out there is black magic at play in the strange land in which Franky lives. The only way to save everyone is to safeguard the Tree of Life from the clutches of an evil witch. The Fairytale Kingdom is home to a strange selection of creatures from abstract creations like Kwon, Pong, and Doo to guest appearances from Pinocchio, Santa, and The Monkey King. Later, Franky teams up with another friend, Misa, who seems to be something between the classic Snow Queen (only nice) and Elsa from Frozen but she doesn’t really do very much other than freeze things. Kids film this maybe but the references are retro beginning with a visit from a Godzilla-like creature to a large scale battle with skeletons resembling Harryhausen’s from Jason and the Argonauts.

The jokes, however, are considerably less highbrow with genuinely childish toilet humour providing the bulk of the comedy. Franky and his friends set off on their quest recklessly – not a good message for children, despite the positive reinforcement of Franky acknowledging his responsibility and pledging to correct his mistake, and appear not to have learned very much at the end of their quest. Still, the target audience probably won’t be thinking too hard about all of this and are most likely to pick up on the intended messages of the evils of wastefulness and lying to your mum about eating your vegetables. Hopefully they won’t remember the bit about magic mushrooms and life sucking aphids, but will remember that the Earth is everyone’s responsibility and if we don’t all agree to look after it together the tree will die and the witch will win.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Trailer (no subtitles)

Lost in the Moonlight (달빛궁궐, Kim Hyun-Joo, 2016)

Lost in the Moonlight posterGirl gets lost in a fantasy land and has to find herself to find the way out – it’s a familiar enough tale but then perhaps Lost in the Moonlight (달빛궁궐, Dalbitkungkwol) is mostly about that kind of familiarity. The debut feature from Korean director Kim Hyun-joo, Lost in the Moonlight was plagued with widespread internet controversy on release of the movie’s trailer and publicity material which heavily echoed Studio Ghibli classic, Spirited Away. Though this is, in some ways, unfair – you can’t escape the fact that fantasy mythical Korea shares some aesthetic similarities with that of Japan or China, or the fact that girls slipping into fantasy realms is the nature of the genre, it’s hard to get past the presence of the tiny helpers and their resemblance to Dust Bunnies, or the poster which puts the flying dragon front and centre. Nevertheless, Lost in the Moonlight’s intentions are less intense than Spirited Away’s and focus more keenly on a particular notion of learning to shine in the role you’ve been given rather than desperately chasing an external spotlight.

Hyunjunli (Kim Seo-young) is an ordinary thirteen year old girl who is set to participate in the performance of a musical at Changdeok Palace. Her parents, remaining off screen, sound supportive and are excited about seeing their little girl in such a big show even if Hyunjunli is a typical teenager who’s mortified at the idea of her parents showing up and embarrassing her, or she them with her minimal involvement in the action. Though shy and dreamy, Hyunjunli longs for the spotlight and feels silly stuck at the back of the chorus playing the very uninspiring part of a tree while her friends get to play animal gods and all manner of other exciting things.

Meanwhile, a Rat God of time is feeling exactly the same, tired of just standing around in the back not really doing anything. He makes a break for it and ends up in the human world where he drops his magic tag. Hyunjunli, a helpful sort of person, picks it up and is whisked off to a fantasy land where she meets a new friend, Mr. Squirrel, and is taken to the Moonlight Palace by the mysterious Lady Blossom.

Hyunjunli in the land of Moonlight is story of a little girl lost that runs back through Alice in Wonderland among many others, though the stakes originally appear a little lower as Moonlight seems safe enough save for the talking animals and general unfamiliarity of the place. The setting is inspired by traditional Korean mythology with its bickering mountain gods and focus on the natural world but is also, of course, heavily influenced by Hyunjunli’s perception of it. Slightly confusingly, the film has a mild environmentalist message as the conspiracy Hyunjunli walks straight into revolves around the awakening of the juniper tree which allows all the trees which have apparently been arrested by the tyrannical rule of time to get up and exact revenge against humanity for its widespread destruction of the planet, meaning that Hyunjunli has to find a way to restore time and stop the murderous tree rampage to save the Earth (which is also what the trees want to do).

Predictably enough, the fantasy land situation echoes Hyunjunli’s own as the drama is revealed to have been caused by the Rat God who also felt bored and unloved working as part of a team rather than doing something flashier out in front. What Hyunjunli learns is that everyone has their place and that the system fails when the little guys don’t pull their weight. The message, that there are no small parts just small actors, is fair enough as Hyunjunli realises it’s wrong to try and steal a spotlight which does not belong to you but then it also reinforces a less palatable message about social conformity and the necessity of living only inside the box in which you were born. Nevertheless, even if it does not always make complete sense Lost in the Moonlight does manage to provide a family friendly fantasy that its target audience may well be far more forgiving of than the confused adults watching along with them.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Junk Head (Takahide Hori, 2017)

junhead still 2“God is Dead! We Killed Him!” exclaim some funny little mole/penguin people in Takahide Hori’s Junk Head, only to follow it up seconds later when a giant worm spits out the divine visitor from above with “He Hath Risen”.  An extreme feat of technical prowess, Junk Head is a marvel of cyberpunk production design tempered with wry humour and a weary exasperation as regards “humanity” and its children. A man loses his head, literally and figuratively, and finds himself on a journey into the deepest darkest underground filled with mutant clones and terrifying monsters, searching for salvation while groping for identity.

Far in the future, humanity thought it had it made – abnegating their responsibilities to a crowd of lowly clones and living a life of ease, but the clones rebelled and took themselves underground leaving humanity to fend for itself on the surface. Immortal through gene replacement therapy, humanity has also lost the ability to reproduce naturally and now that a disease has wiped out around 20% of the remaining population with no sign of stopping, there is urgent need to rebuild the species.

Hoping to find an answer in the world below, humanity sends one cyborg researcher on a desperate mission. Sadly, the capsule carrying the robot is shot down by wary humanoids living on the higher levels. His head continues to fall until it’s found by a scavenger party who take it to a doctor who “recognises” the head inside the helmet as “human”. Seeing as humanity is, in a sense, their creator, the clones stand back in awe of their new “God”. Now placed into an adorable little white stormtrooper-meets-I-Robot body, God can remember nothing of his past life and spends most of his new one trying to get to grips with his tiny hands and unwittingly walking into certain death only to be saved when the various evil creatures remember they don’t like the taste of metal.

As time moves on God takes on many forms as he falls further through the underground universe, swapping his cute round body for a blocky makeshift one without a voice but with a bigger heart. Having regained some of his memories immediately before his first transformation, the second God is not such a nice guy but “Junkers” is the type to whip up chairs for old ladies and walk miles to gather “Mashrooms” for his new masters, not to mention leaving some food behind for a hungry mutant girl. Once his memories are fully restored (through repeated blows to the head), God thinks back on his soulless life on the surface and realises he’s never felt so alive as he does 600 feet under. The sky might be pretty, but it’s cold up top.

As cute as God is (in all his incarnations), Junk Head’s world of basement horrors is surreal and terrifying. Some monsters are more harmful than others, but the major peril of the middle layers is persistent wormholes from which giant, toothy creatures emerge to devour unsuspecting travellers. Fleshy spiders hang from the ceiling and “Mashrooms” appear to be fleshy protuberances grown on humanoid backs imprisoned within walls. The post-apocalyptic underground city is a perfectly designed mix of makeshift and industrial architecture, covered in dust, grime, and scratches. God’s first body is appropriately worn before he even gets it, a true tribute to the depth of Hori’s conceptual design.

Drawing inspiration from Giger and Kubrik, the world which most comes to mind is, perhaps unexpectedly, David Lynch’s Dune. From the strange mole/penguin people and their rubbery suits to the torpedo shaped, bright red big busted women the underground is an industrial fantasy zone where tiny dinosaur-like snake worms waddle around adorably before being picked off for dinner. Hori brings scope to the claustrophobic world of tunnels and ducts by shooting at a distance with painterly compositions echoing German expressionism. He echoes Lynch again in the constant, dream-like use of dissolves and montage while the punk soundtrack and quick fire swapping from one empty corridor to another is reminiscent of Shinya Tsukamoto or Sogo Ishii. Despite its rather abrupt ending (which does at least tease further adventures for God in the wilderness), Junk Head is a charming, surreal odyssey through a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with zany humour and rich in character detail. Hopefully the second coming of God will not be too far off.


Screened at Raindance 2017.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Napping Princess (ひるね姫 ~知らないワタシの物語, Kenji Kamiyama, 2017)

napping princess posterKenji Kamiyama has long been feted as one of Japan’s most promising animation directors, largely for his work with Production I.G. including the Ghost in the Shell TV anime spin-off, Stand Alone Complex, and conspiracy thriller Eden of the East. Aside from the elegantly shaded quality of his animation, Kamiyama’s work has generally been marked by thoughtful social and political commentary mixed with well executed action scenes and science fiction themes. Napping Princess (ひるね姫 〜知らないワタシの物語〜, Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi no Monogatari, also known by the slightly more intriguing title Ancien and the Magic Tablet) swaps science fiction for steampunk fantasy and, in a career first, is aimed at younger children and family audiences.

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics fast approaching, Kokone (Mitsuki Takahata) is a regular high school girl about to enjoy her very last summer holiday before graduation. With no clear ideas of what it is she wants to do with her life, Kokone idly whiles away her time looking after her monosyllabic single dad, Momotaro (Yosuke Eguchi), who only seems to be able to communicate with her via text. Momotaro is a mechanic with a difference – he knows how to retrofit cars with a hi-tech, experimental self driving software that’s a real boon to the ageing population in the tiny rural town where the pair live.

A dreamy sort of girl, Kokone is always tired and frequently drifts off into a fantasy land where the car industry is all important and all are at the mercy of an iron fisted king whose sorceress daughter continues to cause problems for the population at large thanks to her strange powers. Whilst in her dream world, Kokone (or Ancien as she is known in “Heartland”) is accompanied by a her stuffed toy come to life and interacts with slightly younger versions of the people from her town including a dashingly heroic incarnation of her father as a young man.

The main action kicks off when Momotaro is arrested by an evil looking guy who wants a mysterious tablet he says Momotaro has stolen from their company. The fairytale inspired dreamworld might indicate a different kind of tablet, but this really is just a regular iPad with some information on it that certain people would very much like to get their hands on and other people would very much prefer that they didn’t. The tablet itself is a kind of macguffin which allows Kokone to process some long held questions about her past and that of her late mother who passed away when she was just an infant.

Kokone’s frequent flights of fancy start to merge with the real world, firstly when she shares a lucid dream with companion Morio (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) who helps her on her quest, and then later when magic seems to come to the pair’s aid through the tablet (though this turns out to have a more prosaic explanation). At 17 or so, you’d think perhaps Kokone is a little old for these kinds of fantasies, or at least for carting around a stuffed toy which is in remarkably good nick for something which apparently belonged to her mother when she was a child. Nevertheless, her dreamland is a long buried message which helps her piece together her mother’s story and how it might relate to her own all while she’s busy saving the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Olympics from becoming a possibly lethal international embarrassment which would destroy the Japanese car industry for evermore.

Despite his prowess with harder science fiction subjects, Kamiyama can’t quite corral all of this into a coherent whole. Valiantly trying to merge the twin stories of Kokone’s coming of age and the problems of the Japanese auto industry which is good at hardware but struggles with soft, Napping Princess narrowly misses its target neither quite charming enough in its fantasy universe or moving enough in the “real” one. This may perhaps rest on a single line intended to be a small revelation which melts the icy CEO’s heart but essentially comes down to the use of a kanji in a name being different from one on a sign, losing much of its impact in translation as it accidentally explains the whole of Kokone’s existence in one easy beat which easily missed. Failing to marry its two universes into one perfect whole, Napping Princess is a pleasant enough though perhaps inconsequential coming of age story in which a young girl discovers her own hidden powers whilst unlocking the secrets of her past.


Currently on limited UK release from Anime Limited.

Trailer featuring a (very nice) Japanese cover of Daydream Believer

 

Gantz:O (ガンツ:オー, Yasushi Kawamura, 2016)

Gantz-oHiroya Oku’s long running manga series Gantz has already been adapted as a TV anime as well as two very successful live action films from Shinsuke Sato. Gantz:O (ガンツ:オー) is the first feature length animated treatment of the series and makes use of 3D CGI and motion capture for a hyperrealistic approach to alien killing action. “O” for Osaka rather than “0” for zero, the movie is inspired by the spin-off Osaka arc of the manga shifting the action south from the regular setting of central Tokyo.

Kicking off in Shibuya, the first scene features the demise of the franchise’s protagonist, Kei Kurono (Yuki Kaji), as he defeats one of the giant monsters terrorising the city and saves his friends but fails to save himself. A quick geographical cut takes us Osaka where there are reports of another disturbance, but the major threat turns out to be a depressingly commonplace one as a lone madman goes on a stabbing spree at a Tokyo train station.

17 year old high school student Masaru Kato (Daisuke Ono) gets himself mixed up in the incident when he ignores the crowds of people running in the opposite direction and comes to the aid of an injured old man. Sadly, Kato is repeatedly stabbed by the attacker and “dies” at the scene only to be resurrected in front of Gantz. Introduced to fellow players Suzuki (Shuuichi Ikeda) – an old man who “died” of a stroke, Reika (Saori Hayami) – an idol who was “killed” in a car crash, and the sardonic teenager Nishi (Tomohiro Kaku), Kato learns that he’s been given a second chance at life as a warrior in Gantz’s survival game in which he must fight off huge monsters within the time limit or die for real.

The entirety of Gantz:O revolves around this one climactic battle in the Osaka streets as Kato, Suzuki, Reika, and Nishi come into contact with the much more successful (but definitely less “nice”) Osaka detachment as backup in the fight against these fearsome monsters. As such, the main draw is furious action filled with bizarre scenes of carnage as the gang take down a collection of strange creatures often inspired by traditional folklore such as the huge winged tengu or shapeshifting priest-like boss. The visuals are extremely impressive displaying extreme fluidity of motion almost akin to live action photography.

Aesthetics are the key as the movie’s other elements are more or less inconsequential. As a bonus episode in the Gantz world, this is only to be expected and O makes no real attempt to do anything other than focus on the monster killing action. Thus character development is often shallow or non-existent, falling into genre clichés of cool heroes and depressed, brokenhearted women.

The question of self preservation vs altruism is central to the Gantz universe which begins from a position of nihilism and narcissistic self determination but gradually opens up to the importance of protecting one’s comrades, friends, family, and fellow human beings. Kato is the selfless hero the gang have been awaiting – his “death” results directly from his reckless attempt to help an injured person and his instinct is always to help those in need no matter the personal cost. His determination to save the lives of strangers is directly contrasted with his responsibility to the younger brother who is entirely dependent on him and would be lost should Kato lose his life. The film is ambivalent towards this dilemma as it constantly harks back to the people waiting for these secret warriors to come home, at once critical of them for risking their lives and acknowledging the fact that someone has to fight these monsters or everyone will die.

Despite the exposition heavy opening, Gantz:O does little to explain its world to the uninitiated and provides no logical explanations for its machinations leaving newcomers to the franchise with a host of unanswered questions but then all Gantz really wants to do is sell the message of altruism whilst destroying odd looking monsters in various bloody ways. Depressingly sexist, if edging away from the franchise’s nihilistic baseline, Gantz:O is an impressive visual spectacle but remains an essentially hollow, inconsequential addition to the Gantz canon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Silent Voice (聲の形, Naoko Yamada, 2016)

silent-voiceChildren – not always the most tolerant bunch. For every kind and innocent film in which youngsters band together to overcome their differences and head off on a grand world saving mission, there are a fair few in which all of the other kids gang up on the one who doesn’t quite fit in. Given Japan’s generally conformist outlook, this phenomenon is all the more pronounced and you only have to look back to the filmography of famously child friendly director Hiroshi Shimizu to discover a dozen tales of broken hearted children suddenly finding that their friends just won’t play with them anymore. Where A Silent Voice (聲の形, Koe no Katachi) differs is in its gentle acceptance that the bully is also a victim, capable of redemption but requiring both external and internal forgiveness.

Classmates Shoko (Saori Hayami) and Shoya (Miyu Irino/Mayu Matsuoka) are almost mirror images of each other, sharing the first syllable of their names (at least phonetically) but representing two entirely opposite poles. Before Shoko transferred into his school, Shoya was the class clown, behaving disruptively and acting as the leader of a group of mean kids who, if not exactly bullies, certainly exert a degree of superiority over their meeker classmates. Shoko, hard of hearing, remains necessarily quiet, communicating through messages written on a notepad. Though some of the other pupils are fascinated by the novelty of someone like Shoko suddenly appearing, delighting in writing messages back and for and eagerly embracing the opportunity to learn sign language in order to communicate with her more easily, the mean kids, with Shoya as the ringleader, delight in making her life a misery just because they can.

Though some of the other children object to the way Shoya and the others are behaving, they do little to defend their new friend. Some of the more impressionable kids even halfheartedly join in, perhaps feeling bad about it but also enjoying being part of the angsty pre-teen group of nasty kids, but when it all gets too much and Shoko decides to move on everyone is suddenly struck with remorse and a need to blame someone else for the harm they’ve caused. Hence, Shoya gets a taste of his own medicine, ostracised by his peers as the lowlife who hounded a deaf girl out of school. Who’d want to hang around with someone like that?

Humbled, the stigma follows Shoya on into his next school as feelings of guilt and self loathing intensify until he reaches a point at which he can’t go on. Intending to finally end it all, Shoya unexpectedly runs into Shoko again and eventually manages to make a kind of motion towards an apology, attempting to make friends after all this time and making use of the sign language he’s taught himself to show his sincerity.

Isolated both by the continuing rumours of his primary school days and an intense personal feeling of unworthiness, Shoya finds it impossible to interact with his fellow students whose faces are each covered by a large blue cross. Bonding first with another lonely outcast, Shoya’s world begins to open up again but the spectre of his past continues to haunt him. Reconnecting with some of the other kids from primary school he finds that not everyone remembers things the same way they’ve become engraved in his mind. Though a few are anxious to atone, one of his former friends, Naoka (Yuki Kaneko), takes a different approach to the problem in continuing to blame Shoko – for the “attention” her condition attracts, the “requirement” for others to modify their behaviour to suit her, for simply existing in the first place enabling the behaviour which took place (about which Naoka remains unrepentant), and being the root cause that her merry band of friends fell apart.

If it seems like the tale disproportionately focuses on Shoya’s guilt and and redemption rather than Shoko’s suffering the balance shifts back towards the end as the pair truly mirror each other with another suicide attempt forming the climax of the second act. Shoko responds to her often cruel treatment with nothing other than friendliness, smiling with hands outstretched even whilst continuing to receive nothing but rejection. Though she may seem all smiles and sweetness, her overly genial persona is itself an act as she tries to overcompensate for the “burden” she feels herself to be causing through her need for “special treatment”. Eventually, Shoko snaps – firstly in primary school as her well meaning attempts to bring Shoya over to her side fail once again, and then later in a much more final way as she decides that there is nothing left for her in a world which fails to accommodate for difference.

The story of a girl who struggles to be heard, and a boy who refuses to listen, A Silent Voice is a quiet plea for the power of mutual understanding and reconciliation. Director Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida bring the same kind of quirky slice of life humour which made K-On and Tamako Market so enjoyable along with the raw visual beauty which has come to define Kyoto Animation to this often dark tale, perfectly integrating the more dramatic elements into the otherwise warm and forgiving world in a believable and natural way. Nuanced, complicated and defiantly refusing total resolution, A Silent Voice is one of the more interesting animated projects to come out of Japan in recent times and further marks out Yamada as one of its most important animation auteurs.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kai (카이 : 거울 호수의 전설, Lee Sung-gang, 2016)

photo743471Review of Korean animation Kai (카이 : 거울 호수의 전설, Kai: Geowool Hosueui Jeonseol) first published by UK Anime Network.


Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, The Snow Queen, has inspired a great number of animated classics with Disney’s Frozen not least among them. This Korean take shifts the action to the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and a young boy who failed to save his sister from a tragic accident only to see her fall into the clutches of an evil magician. Kai comes with a solid pedigree as it’s produced by one of the country’s leading animation lights in Yeon Sang-ho (King of Pigs, The Fake) and helmed by another successful director Lee Sung-gang (Yobi, The Five Tailed Fox), yet despite all of its advantages Kai still suffers from many of the same problems which continually plague Korean animation including noticeably low production values and an inability to move beyond children’s animation.

Beginning with a brief narrative voiceover detailing the origin story of the Snow Queen Hattan, the action then shifts to a convoy of nomads in Mongolia attempting to traverse a mountain in heavy snow. Youngster Kai is travelling with his family but quickly gets into trouble. Despite his mother’s desperate attempt to save both her children, only Kai is rescued with his sister Shamui falling into the snow below.

Years pass and Kai and his mother try to make a life for themselves, little knowing that Shamui is still alive but a prisoner of the Snow Queen Hatton. When Kai’s village begins to grow strangely cold, the villagers come to the realisation that the Snow Queen is back and trying to freeze the whole land. Kai, being the headstrong young man he is, decides to fight the supernatural threat all by himself entirely unaware that he is partly to blame for everything that’s going on.

Towards the end of his quest, Kai comes across a girl his sister’s age but fails to recognise his missing sibling owing to the intervening few years. Meeting again, she tells him her name is “Atta” which means “grudge” – a strange name to give a baby girl, still Kai is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and doesn’t even figure anything out when she tells him about her resentment towards the family she believes abandoned her. As in the original story, the Snow Queen seduces rather than bewitches Shamui through her emotional insecurity. Hurt and fearful, Shamui is easily taken in by the cold hearted witch who promises her protection and vengeance, even if rejecting familial warmth. The Snow Queen is not all ice as her loneliness dictates, though her inability to connect forces her to steal rather than earn loyalty as distinct from affection.

With younger audiences in mind Lee opts for a lighter tone than might be expected, moving away from the darker elements with cutesy forest folk complete with adorable spirit creatures and jovial childish rivalry between Kai and the woodland children. Though these episodes are enjoyable enough, they do detract from the overall narrative as Kai’s battle for the Snow Queen’s soul takes a back seat to the antics of a cheerful squirrel. Nevertheless, it all helps to lighten the mood even if it means that the story lacks depth as a consequence.

Kai is undoubtedly technically proficient and occasionally ambitious but also suffers from an obvious lack of production values. The TV quality animation will be turn off to those expecting a Studio Ghibli level of visual opulence but is of a fairly high standard given its limitations. Kai’s biggest problem lies in making its central battle engaging given its unwillingness to embrace the darker elements of its story in which unresolved negative emotions fester until they become infectious, forcing injured people to injure others in a mistaken attempt to heal themselves. Playing best to its target audience of younger viewers, Kai is likely to frustrate those watching with them but does offer a new take on a classic tale and enough cute characters to keep the little ones occupied.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)