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.

The Night is Short, Walk on Girl (夜は短し歩けよ乙女, Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

The Night is Short posterHave you ever had one of those incredibly long nights that seemed to pass in an instant? Masaaki Yuasa returns to the absurd world of Tomihiko Morimi with the charming one night odyssey, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl (夜は短し歩けよ乙女, Yoru wa Mijikashi Aruke yo Otome), which takes place in the same world as Yuasa’s TV anime adaptation of the author’s Tatami Galaxy. The Girl with Black Hair dreams her way through Kyoto, relentless as a steam train in her pursuit of new experiences, but perhaps the speed at which she travels leaves her horizons perpetually unclear.

Beginning where many stories end, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, opens with a wedding. “Sempai” (Gen Hoshino) longs for the “Girl With Black Hair” (Kana Hanazawa). He doesn’t know her name or really very much about her at all other than she’s in the year below him and they belong to the same club, but this is a love for the ages fated to come true. To this end, Sempai has been engineering “coincidental” meetings with the Girl so that she knows he exists, in a “there’s that guy again!” sort of way, hoping to travel into her heart by means of osmosis. Until then he’ll just stare at her lovingly from three tables away at social events involving mutual friends…

The Girl, however, has her own plans. She’s determined to make her way into the world of adulthood this very night, travelling by the power of alcohol (for which she seems to have a seriously impressive tolerance). For the Girl, the night is filled with possibilities. She’s open to everything and everyone, ready to say yes to whatever strange adventure the gods have in store for her. Which is lucky, because this is going to be a very strange night indeed.

The Night is Short pivots around the idea of connection as its two poles – Sempai and The Girl, are perpetually kept apart, orbiting each other in an endless search for a home. The Girl drinks and claims she feels the interconnectedness of all things, at one with the world and everybody in it. The miserly, miserable local god she’s in the middle of a drinking contest with understands her reasoning but has lived too long to agree with it. After all, at some point you have to stop drinking and the world is cold and lonely. The old man tastes only life’s nothingness, for him life is fruitless and nearing its end but for the girl all the world is flowers and warmth, filled with promise and possibility.

If the old man is right and alcohol provides only a fleeting, essentially fake feeling of contentedness, then perhaps there are other routes to true connection – such as the universal circulation of books. Books carry ideas between people and take feelings with them yet there are those who try to staunch the flow – namely book collectors who try to stem the system by hoarding copies to push up the price. Sempai and the Girl each find themselves caught up in this act of anti-human profiteering as allies or enemies of the strange little creature who presides over the great book fair of life.

Even those, like the old man, who feel themselves to be excluded from human society prove themselves connected by one very special unifying factor – the passage of disease. The Girl is committed to spreading happiness wherever she goes, healing the sick and ministering to the lonely, but even those who feel they have nothing to give have still given away a part of themselves in the form of the common cold as it rips like wild fire through old Kyoto with the desperate force of a lifetime’s painful rejection. It’s kind of beautiful, in a way, as the old man’s life suddenly brightens in not feeling so alone anymore after casting himself as patient zero.

Yuasa’s drunken night in Kyoto is strange and surreal. Time runs inconsistently, revealing the uncomfortable truth that it speeds up as you grow older and night approaches dawn to the still young Girl, too full of life and possibility to think of looking at a clock. Sempai remains a cypher, his only clear personality trait being his certain love for the strange girl who’s always too busy chasing dreams to see him. His friends are also facing their own strange nights from the one who’s decided not to change his undies until he’s reunited with his one true love with whom he shared but one fateful encounter, and the other whose taste for female attire receives a slightly muddled reception, but they each find themselves caught up with three level pagoda trains, guerrilla theatre practitioners (or “school festival terrorists”) whose protest turns out to be romantic rather than political, not to mention the persistent threat of underwear thieves. Is this fate, or mere “coincidence”? In the end perhaps it doesn’t matter, but the night is short. Walk on Girl, just slow down a little, you have all the time you need.


The Night is Short, Walk on Girl is released in selected UK cinemas on Oct. 4 courtesy of Anime Ltd. Check the official website to see where it’s screening near you.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

BLAME! (ブラム!, Hiroyuki Seshita, 2017)

blame posterCities. The pinnacle of human achievement and an almost living monument to civilisation. Does the same principle of human collective settlement also relate to the digital realm or will increasing interconnectedness eventually destroy everything we’ve built? Following their landmark CGI adaptation of Tsutomu Nihei’s Knights of Sidonia, Polygon Pictures return to source by adapting the author’s debut work BLAME! into a feature length animated movie. Like Sidonia, BLAME! (ブラム!) takes place many years after a climactic event has led to the fall of human civilisation – an event so long in the past as to have become mere myth to the small number of humans still clinging on to life in a now inhospitable terrain, but BLAME!’s dystopia is very much one created by man, losing control of its technology in its ever advancing hubris.

As the young girl who offers the opening monologue tells us, no one knows how all of this happened. Once, a long time ago, humans lived in a city but a virus came and they lost the ability to communicate with the environment in which they lived. The city began to grow, and the “Safeguard” system decided that humans were “illegal immigrants” in their own land. The exterminators swooped in to wipe them out but a small band of humans has managed to survive a few hundred years in a kind of safe zone protected by a perimeter wall the city’s systems are prevented from monitoring.

The rapid expansion of the city has also meant a reduction in vegetation and the surviving humans are running low on food. An intrepid team of children ventures out into the wasteland in search of sustenance, but they’re spotted and targeted for elimination. A mysterious figure appears on the horizon and saves them. The man calls himself a “human” and is disappointed to realise none of the children are carriers of the “Net Terminal Gene” which he is seeking. Killy (Takahiro Sakurai) claims that the Net Terminal Gene will enable the humans to take back control of the city’s systems, halt the excessive building program and call off the Safeguard attack dogs.

Killy’s appearance brings new hope to the villagers, trapped within their perimeter stronghold but facing the prospect of staying and starving or taking their chances with Safeguard. Concentrating on action rather than philosophising little time is given over to considering how humanity lives though it’s certainly puzzling that there is so little reaction when the band of children returns home much depleted in numbers. Indeed, aside from Pops (Kazuhiro Yamaji), the de facto leader of the community, no other “adults” appear.

Using Killy as a kind of deflective shield, the gang press on until they find an abandoned robot, Cibo (Kana Hanazawa), who tells them about an “Automated Factory” in which she can generate both an abundant food source and a synthetic tablet which will allow them to get back into the city’s systems. What ensues is a deadly firefight as the system fights back. Cibo pleads with The Authority in the digital realm while Killy and the villagers hold back the forces of order with firepower from the outside.

Killy remains a man of few words, his language dulled through inactivity and his expression inscrutable, but the villagers, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security thanks to long years of isolation, never question his motives or reliability. Likewise, Cibo clearly knows more than she lets on but offers the only lead so far on a way back to a less precarious way of life. Killy’s sudden appearance becomes a mythic event, a point of transition in the history of the post-apocalyptic world, but also seems to be without resolution as the closing coda implies.

Like Sidonia, the animation quality is at times variable but often excels in its highly detailed backgrounds, allowing production design to smooth over any narrative gaps. What BLAME! lacks in terms of plot and character complexity it makes up for in world building though it is difficult to ignore the feeling of the loss born of condensing something far larger into an easily digestible whole. Nevertheless, BLAME! does what it sets out to do with quiet brilliance in detailing what might be the first of many adventures of the wanderer known as Killy as he explores a world ruined beyond repair looking for the key to unlock a brighter future.


Netflix trailer (Japanese with English subtitles/captions)

Your Name (君の名は, Makoto Shinkai, 2016)

your-nameIndie animation talent Makoto Shinkai has been making an impact with his beautifully drawn tales of heartbreaking, unresolvable romance for well over a decade and now with Your Name (君の名は, Kimi no Na wa) he’s finally hit the mainstream with an increased budget and distribution from major Japanese studio Toho. Noticeably more upbeat than his previous work, Your Name takes on the star-crossed lovers motif as two teenagers from different worlds come to know each other intimately without ever meeting only to find their youthful romance frustrated by the vagaries of time and fate.

Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) is a typical country girl and daughter of a Shinto temple family who dreams of the urban sophistication of the big city. Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki), by contrast, is a typical city boy living in Tokyo and taking full advantage of its cafes and mass transportation systems. One fateful day, each wakes up in the body of the other and must quickly adjust to living in someone else’s skin. Though each originally believes the events to have been merely a dream, friends and family members are quick to point out the strange behaviour of the two teenagers. Neither Mitsuha nor Taki maintains a clear memory of their time in the other’s world though they are able to keep in a kind of contact through their respective diaries (his on a smartphone, hers in a more traditional notebook). Beginning to develop a degree of mutual affection through their strangely acquired intimacy, Mitsuha and Taki each have a profound effect on the other’s life but fate seems content to keep them apart.

Body swap comedy is not an unusual genre in Japan (Obayashi’s similarly themed I Are You, You Am Me being a notable example which was even remade by the director himself thirty years later as Switching, Goodbye Me), nevertheless Shinkai mines the situation for all of its awkward comedy as Mitsuha and Taki get used to living as the opposite gender. Beginning with the obvious repeated joke of Taki waking up and squeezing “his” breasts, there are other issues to contend with from which pronoun to use to remembering to avoid slipping into a rural dialect. Taki, obviously at sea with how to get on as a girl, causes consternation by turning up late for school with messy hair and subsequently behaving in an unacceptably masculine way. Conversely when Mitsuha is playing Taki, she helps him sort out various things in his life through her feminine influence including getting him a date with his workplace crush.

The pair are indeed “star-crossed” as their romance is heralded by the arrival of a rare comet, watched by both at the same time, as it splits in two. The comet strike turns out to have a much more pressing importance than simply as a symbol of romantic destiny but neatly represents the central dynamic of Mitsuha and Taki as two halves of the same soul. The two are connected by the “red string of fate” visualised through Mitsuha’s long red hair ribbon which later makes a reappearance in Taki’s sake based dream sequence and serves to bind the two together. Mitsuha’s family also make traditional braided bracelets which, as her grandmother tells us, represent the flow of time itself, weaving narrative into dramatic knots.

The knot, in this case, is the comet strike which later threatens to keep the tragic lovers apart rather than bring them together. Recalling the devastating earthquake of 2011, the destruction wrought by such a catastrophic event does not stop at loss of life but becomes a great ongoing loss – things left unsaid, opportunities missed, lives unlived. If it were only possible to turn back time and somehow save all those people from harm. Mitsuha and Taki have been given just such an opportunity thanks to their usual connection.

Like many Shinkai heroes, Taki and Mitsuha later find themselves burdened with a sense of incompleteness, as if they’re continually searching, trying to regain something they’ve lost but are unable to put a name to. The memories of their shared past fade, dissipating like a dream upon waking leaving a only faint trace behind them, just enough to know that something is missing. Yet, journeys end in lovers meeting, and even in a metropolis as vast as Tokyo recognition is powerful force.

Shinkai takes his trademark aesthetic beauty to all new heights with his idyllic country landscapes, realistic cities, and the visually striking (if potentially deadly) fracturing of a comet. Much less deliberately downbeat than Shinkai’s previous work which often emphasised the impossibility of true love satisfied, Your Name is no less emotionally affecting even if its melancholy sense of longing persists until the very last frame.


Reveiwed at the BFI London Film Festival 2016

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Psycho-Pass: The Movie (劇場版 PSYCHO-PASS サイコパス, Katsuyuki Motohiro & Naoyoshi Shiotani, 2015)

psycho-pass movieThe Japan of 2116 is a peaceful place. Crime is at an all time low thanks to the Sybil system which monitors the nation’s citizens issuing them a “Crime Coefficient” rating assessing how likely they are to commit a crime. When a potential criminal’s Psycho-Pass reaches an unacceptable level, the Public Safety Bureau are called in to hopefully put a stop to any criminal activity before it has the chance to occur.

However, the world outside of Japan is not quite so ordered and so its Sybil system has become an important political export. Things are about to get murky as the nearby SEAUn (South East Asia Union) is currently in a state of civil war and its de-facto leader has struck a deal with Japan for additional support in return for trialling the system in a new reclaimed land development. Not everyone is happy with sacrificing personal liberty for social safety and so an active resistance unit working against both the deployment of Sybil and the leader they see as a dictator is continuing to prove a destabilising force.

This all comes to a head when a group of so called “terrorists” manage to sneak in Japan hoping to  take the fight to Sybil itself. After a brief but intense shootout with the PSB, the gang is neutralised save for one which famed Inspector Akane Tsunemori manages to capture and take in for questioning. However, whilst Akane is waiting for the captive to come round from the sedative she gave him, her bosses have taken drastic action which amounts to lethal torture. Akane is horrified, but when the recovered information flags up the familiar face of her former colleague Kogami, she quickly finds herself at the centre of covert, international political machinations which cast her own nation in far from a positive light.

Psycho-Pass: The Movie (劇場版 PSYCHO-PASS サイコパス, Gekijo-ban Psycho-Pass) is the big screen outing for the hit TV anime which has so far spanned two series each with their own distinct narrative arcs. Series creator Gen Urobuchi handled the first season but sat out the second (handing the reign’s over to Murdock Scramble’s Tow Ubukata) in order to work on this film which takes place after season two but was actually developed at the same time so avoids direct reference to its events. For the most part, Psycho-Pass: The Movie works as a stand alone enterprise though it does make reference to plot elements from season one, or more exactly its villain, without further explanation which may leave newcomers feeling lost. Fans of the franchise already familiar with the characters and their relationships will undoubtedly get the most out of the set-up, but in depth knowledge of the series is never a prerequisite for understanding the action.

“Action” is an apt place to start when it comes to the themes of Psycho-Pass: The Movie as it acts more as an exciting side story to the main series than the grand conclusion that might be expected. Broadly speaking, the central concern is the increasing interference of powerful nations in the “domestic affairs” of smaller ones. Akane is as idealistic as they come despite everything she has already seen and is unprepared for the extent her own nation’s complicity in this very dirty, possibly proxy, war. In this country, those with flagged Crime Coefficients are forced to wear a standard issue collar which is designed to explode Battle Royale style and are treated as an underclass not permitted to board the same public transport or occupy the same “public” space as the general population. Once again this sits uncomfortably with Akane, but there isn’t a lot she can do about it.

Kogami, now a drifting mercenary since going on the run from the PSB, has become a rebel revolutionary trying to help the oppressed citizens fight for democracy in this war torn land. To some, he’s a terrorist (though the rebels are never shown targeting civilians or carrying out “terrorist action” so much as acting as a resistance group) but his sights are firmly set on hypocritical, oppressive regimes and especially those acting as puppet states for a third party. Akane and Kogami’s relationship status continues in the “it’s complicated” direction which has progressed throughout the series and they aren’t given very much time to build on that here though their mutual respect for each other adds to the tension as each comes to terms with being on opposing sides yet somehow still “together” in spite of external obligations.

Even if Psycho-Pass: the Movie proves disappointing in terms of its character development (betraying its side story origins), it excels in the action stakes with several impressive, high octane battle scenes not to mention the strange ballooning effect of the explosive Dominator weapons. Though it sets up a complicated, geo-political conspiracy of superpowers exploiting civil unrest to steal puppet states and install dictatorial stooges who oppress the local population into a sublime obedience with the promise of long desired peace, it wisely avoids expository dialogue preferring to keep things moving in a more urgent fashion. A minor entry into the Psycho-Pass world, Psycho-Pass: The Movie is nevertheless an exciting return to its increasingly dystopian universe and even if it adds little in terms of themes or characters, does at least point towards a promising continuation of the series.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Psycho-Pass: The Movie has also been licensed for UK distribution by All the Anime (and Funimation in the US).

English Subtitled trailer:

Empire of Corpses (屍者の帝国, Ryoutarou Makihara, 2015)

empire of corpses posterEmpire of Corpses (屍者の帝国, Shisha no Teikoku) is what would happen if someone’s vast library of Victorian literature was destroyed in a fire and then someone tried to put all the not too singed pages back together based on their knowledge of international pop culture. Inspired by Project Itoh’s novel of the same name and the first of three planned adaptations of his works, Empire of Corpses is a very specific kind of absurd, boys own action adventure based around the idea of empire supported by a zombified proletariat.

Beginning in London in 1878, this is steampunk paradise only steam power is quickly becoming old hat as the greatest discovery of the age turns out to be the city’s largest untapped resource – its dead. Reanimated corpses can be trained to fight wars, wait tables, or work as servants but they’re tools now – not people, they may be able to follow an order but they have no mind to act with. Corpse Engineer John Watson has unwisely reanimated his friend Friday, but is distressed not to be able to restore his friend’s soul along with his body.

Watson ends up being dispatched on a secret mission by Her Majesty’s government to reclaim the notes made by the famous Dr. Frankenstein who has succeeded in creating a sentient creature known as The One. The notes are apparently in the possession of Russian scientist Karamazov. Watson travels to India with Burnaby, a mercenary bodyguard, and Friday where he also teams up with a mysterious flame thrower wielding busty blonde, Hadaly.

Empire of Corpses touches on some interesting philosophical questions such as the nature of the soul, the border lines between death and life, and the repurposing of a body as a fleshy tool. Though it stops short of delving into what the British Empire was really based on, the idea is very much that using reanimated corpses to fight your wars remotely is an absurd solution to an unnecessary problem.

That said, these “zombies” are a well trained and docile bunch. Until of course, they aren’t. Certain forces have planned to harness the zombie hordes for their own ends to create mass panic and wholesale destruction across the world. This might be the first mission the later famous John Watson will tackle, but he’s about to realise that there’s a lot more going on here than a set of secret documents no one wants to fall into the “wrong” hands.

Empire of Corpses remained unfinished when Project Itoh unfortunately died at a relatively young age. The concept is filled with extremely interesting ideas which are only ever dealt with in a superficial sense, though one wonders if the novel he might eventually have completed would have progressed so far down the ridiculous fantasy historical epic route. Very clearly channelling ‘30s style, post-penny dreadful tales of derring do starring familiar names, Empire of Corpses steals a host of famous literary characters from across the international canon as well as a number of historical personages, though only really borrows their names or perhaps a few other minor details. After raising such interesting ideas, the film quickly reverts to riduclous B-movie genre tropes as the gang get caught up in a zombie apocalypse with flashing mystical lights and the transmigration of souls thrown in for good measure.

No, it doesn’t make any sense though it isn’t really supposed to. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a post credits sequence shining a little more light but just as much bafflement onto the characters and their possible futures, though the intention is clearly just to raise a knowing wink from the well read members of the audience. By the time it all turns into The Wizard of Oz, some will undoubtedly have followed the yellow brick road out of the cinema but it is worth sticking around to see the final coda.

What Empire of Corpses has going for it is the extremely impressive visuals. Backgrounds in particular are gorgeously drawn making for an always interesting spectacle even if other aspects of direction can seem a little uninspired. Clumsily plotted and often incoherent, Empire of Corpses has its fair share of problems even aside from the inherent absurdity of its original premise, yet it isn’t completely unsalvageable and those who come expecting a B-movie style slice of incomprehensible hokum might well find much to enjoy.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Empire of Corpses has also been licensed for UK distribution by All the Anime (and Funimation in the US).

Unsubtitled trailer: