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


009 Re:Cyborg


Cyborg 009 by Shotaro Ishinomori is one of the most widely read and well regarded manga series in Japan. It has been adapted as an anime movie and TV series several times, most recently in 2001 where it ran for fifty-one episodes. Although the manga dealt with some complex themes, most of these adaptations had leant decidedly to the family friendly with the team of nine cyborgs squaring off against various deadly enemies and saving the world week after week. For this new adaptation, however, director Kenji Kamiyama – the creator of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Eden of the East and Moribito, famed for his willingness to engage mature, topical subject matter has decided to take the film back to the manga’s darker heart.

This is a world of mass destruction, sky scrapers fall, buildings explode, people run and scream yet it is normalised – this is the way of the world. Joe Shimamura is a bored high school student who feels as if he’s living his life in repetition. Recently he’s begun to hear a voice – His Voice that’s offering him a new purpose and a new path if he will only follow it. Follow it he must though what His Voice is asking him to do is something truly abhorrent. Thankfully, before he can accomplish the task he’s been charged with, a large Native American turns up and begins to beat the stuffing out of him seemingly with the guidance of a French woman giving instructions from an aircraft hovering above. Luckily for all concerned, Shimamura’s survival instincts kick back in and he remembers his true identity just in time to catch said French woman after she’s rather riskily jumped out of her plane. Shimamura isn’t a high school student at all, he’s the head of a nine cyborg crime fighting team and there’s something very wrong in the world. His Voice is reaching more and more people and convincing them to do awful things in His name – who is He, what does He want and how are they going to stop him?

It’s a truly international cast with each of the cyborgs representing a different nation – 001 Ivan (Russia), 002 Jet (America), 003 François (France), 004  Heinrich (Germany), 005 Geronimo (Native American), 006 Changku (China) 007 Great Britain (British), 008 Pyunma (Africa), 009 Joe Shimamura (Japan). Tellingly, Jet and Shimamura have had some kind of bust up prior to the action of the film and tension still lingers – is America behind these attacks? Why are the NSA so suspiciously present and why does it seem they’re so keen to scapegoat the cyborgs as a terrorist group? Can Jet still be trusted or has he become involved with this dark plot? If the team are going to succeed in figuring out just what is going on its going to need an awful lot of international cooperation.

A familiarity with the source material doesn’t feel a necessity whilst watching the film, however though those cognisant of Kamiyama’s typically complex themes may feel a lack of depth in some of the imagery used. Christian religious allusions abound with fossilised angels and biblical sounding pronouncements from our unknown assailant but the overarching mythology is never really addressed or explained in any significantly explicit manner. Despite this the dialogue sometimes leans towards clunkyness overloaded with the weight of complicated exposition. The lack of clarity in the cosmology at play may leave some scratching their heads as the film ends in its rather ambiguous fashion, few would deny though that it’s been fun getting there.

Alongside its cerebral offerings 009 Re: Cyborg also serves up its fair share of pedal to the floor action sequences. Making the most of its 3D production and accompanied by Kenji Kawai’s energetic score the film succeeds in providing some genuinely thrilling set pieces. The use of 3D here is truly inspired and provides a welcome level of depth and inclusivity which showcases the best use of the medium. Though it wears its 3D badge proudly, the animation has been rendered with a 2D, cel shaded look much favoured by Production I.G. in the past.  It may look hand drawn but it has of course been created with computer technology – this has its benefits but more than a few costs. Though the look of the piece is striking, the computerisation is at times overly obvious and detracts from the otherwise traditional aesthetic. Characters sometimes move oddly or lack expression – which might be accounted for when concerning the cyborgs themselves but is less easy to explain away when it occurs with characters intended to appear 100% human. Still, these are minor problems and if one is able to adjust to the stylisation of the film they shouldn’t overly effect the enjoyment of it.

009 Re: Cyborg is not without its faults but it is still a very enjoyable experience. Its use of 3D, unusual visual style and innovative technology mark it out as essential viewing for anyone interested in the future of anime film making. Fans of Kamiyama’s previous work may feel short changed that the confined format of a feature film hasn’t allowed him free reign to fully explore his complex ideas yet what 009 has provided is the opportunity to showcase his talents as a director whilst crafting an entertaining and intelligent action extravaganza.