The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその-, Shun Nakahara, 2008)

The Cherry Orchard- Blossoming poster In 1990, Shun Nakahara adapted Akimi Yoshida’s manga Sakura no Sono and created a perfectly observed capsule of late ‘80s teenage life at an elite girls school where the encroaching future is both terrifying and oddly exciting. Revisiting the same material 28 years later, one can’t help feeling that the times have rolled back rather than forwards. Starring a collection of appropriately aged teenage starlets The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその- Sakura no Sono), dispenses with the arty overtones for a far more straightforward tale of melancholy schoolgirls finding release in art but, crucially, only to a point.

Less an attempt to remake the original, Blossoming acts as an odd kind of sequel in which the leading lady, Momo (Saki Fukuda), becomes fed up with her rigid life at a music conservatoire and rebelliously storms out. Already in her last year of high school, Momo is lucky enough to get a transfer to Oka Academy solely because her mother and (much) older sister are old girls. However, transfer students are rare at Oka and the other girls aren’t exactly happy to see her – they worked hard to get here but she’s just waltzed straight in without any kind of effort at all.

Gradually the situation improves. Wandering around the old school building (a European style country house) which was the setting for the first film and has now been replaced with a modern, purpose built high school complex, Momo finds the script for The Cherry Orchard and becomes fixated on the idea of putting the play on with some of the other students. However, though The Cherry Orchard used to be an annual fixture it hasn’t been performed in 11 years after being abruptly cancelled when one of the stars disgraced the school by falling pregnant.

Whereas Nakahara’s 1990 Cherry Orchard was a tightly controlled affair, penning the girls inside the school and staying with them through several crises across the two hours before their big performance, Blossoming has no such conceits and adopts a formula much more like the classic sports movie as the underdog girls fight to put the play on and then undergo physical training (complete with montages) rather than rehearsals.

Momo’s rebellion is (in a sense) a positive one as she abandons something she was beginning to find no longer worked for her to look for something else and also gains a need to see things through rather than give up when times get hard. The drama of the 1990 version is kickstarted when a student is caught smoking in a cafe with delinquents from another school, aside from being told that students are expected to go straight home, Momo feels little danger in hanging out in an underground bar where her music school friend plays in a avant-garde pop band.

Though this reflects a change in eras it also points to a slight sanitisation of the source material. Gone are the illicit boyfriends (though there is one we don’t see) and barely repressed crushes, these teens are still in the land of shojo – dreaming of romance but innocently. Teenage pregnancy becomes a recurrent theme but lost opportunities hover in the background as the girls are seen from their own perspective rather than the wistful melancholy of those looking back on their youth.

Such commentary is left to the “old girls” represented by Momo’s soon to be married sister and the girls’ teacher, each of whom is still left hanging thanks to the cancellation of the play during their high school years. Despite her impending marriage, Momo’s sister does not seem to be able to put the past behind her and may be nursing a long term unrequited crush on a high school classmate. Blossoming echoes some of the concerns of Cherry Orchard, notably in its central pairing as lanky high jumper Aoi (Anne Watanabe) worries over a perceived lack of femininity while the more refined Mayuko (Saki Terashima) silently pines for her, unable to make her feelings plain. The 1990 version presented a painful triangle of possibly unrequited loves and general romantic confusion but it did at least allow a space for overt discussion rather than the half hearted subtly of a mainstream idol film in a supposedly more progressive era.

Nevertheless, Nakahara’s second pass at teenage drama does fulfil on the plucky high school girls promise as the gang get together to put the show on right here. Much less nuanced than the earlier version, Blossoming’s teens are just as real even if somehow more naive than their ‘80s counterparts. Team building, friendship, and perseverance are the name of the day as the passing of time takes a back seat, relegated to Momo’s sad smile as she alone witnesses the painful love drama of her melancholy friend.


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)

Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (攻殻機動隊 新劇場版, Kazuya Nomura, 2015)

Ghost in the Sell new movieMasamune Shirow’s cyberpunk manga Ghost in the Shell burst onto the scene in 1989 and instantly became a genre classic. Mamoru Oshii then adapted the manga into a much lauded anime movie in 1995 which almost came to define cyberpunk animation even if it emerged towards the end of the genre’s heyday. A sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence followed in 2004 as well as a TV anime spin-off Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Now with the 20th anniversary of the original animated movie, the series has yet again been adapted into a series of entirely new anime OVAs under the name of Ghost in the Shell: Arise. Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie (攻殻機動隊 新劇場版, Kokaku Kidotai – Shin Gekijoban) is the big screen outing of this latest incarnation scripted by Tow Ubukata who also produced the very GITS influenced Mardock Scramble.

Following on from the Arise OVAs, we find Major Motoko Kusanagi at the head of her gang of cybernetically enhanced former soldiers operating as security consultants with a special focus on cyber crime. Still outside the government aegis, Kusanagi has managed to wangle herself some extra funding and official patronage when she’s brought in to handle a sensitive hostage situation as seven disgruntled soldiers take a number of hostages inside a financial institution.

Though Kusanagi & co have the situation well in hand, they are about to have the rug pulled from under them firstly by the reappearance of the Firestarter virus which corrupts the memories stored on an infected cyberbrain wreaking havoc with their new captives, and then secondly as the hostage situation itself turns out to be a high level diversionary tactic designed to provide cover for the assassination of the prime minister. Kusanagi and her team quickly discover there’s far more going on here than they could ever have imagined and soon enough Kusanagi herself becomes the centre of a hi-tec conspiracy.

Like the Arise OVAs which preceded it, The New Movie maintains a much heavier focus on action set pieces than the philosophical contemplations that made Ghost in the Shell such an important entry in the cyberpunk catalogue. Though the ideas are not entirely absent, they are presented as background much more than an essential component of the series.

That said, the film does touch on some quite prescient issues firstly with the role of the soldiers which highlights the pressures ordinary rank and file officers are under when they see their service has not been valued and they’re about to be sold out by the country they risked their lives to protect. They are also, apparently, not well cared for by military authorities who kit them out with second grade equipment which they then also fail to maintain leaving many of their number literarily falling apart as their components become “obsolete”.

Ironically enough, Kusanagi also thinks of her team as component “parts” in a well functioning machine. She congratulates herself by praising them as a prime selection which she has been lucky to find – they need to look after themselves because a replacement component would be a hard thing to come by. However, if they begin to malfunction in some way, she will “purge” them rather than allow them to corrupt the rest of her system. This way of thinking seems cold to some members of the team, particularly to Togusa who’s the least “enhanced” among them. Raised by the military, Kusanagi is a born leader but not one to whom warm words come easily so this, actually rather apt, metaphor is as close as she will allow herself to get in letting the guys know that they each have their specific place within her grand plan. Though she needs them to perform as expected, they are important to her on both a personal and professional level.

This is where we’ve been heading with Arise – the origin story of Section 9 as it comes to be in the original movie, and of Kusanagi herself. Unsurprisingly the conspiracy turns out to have a lot to do with the Major’s own past and a few buried “ghosts” which must be exorcised in order to move forward. This extended metaphor is played out in the somewhat contrived final fight which sees Kusanagi facing off against a villain using an identical cyberbody which means she is fighting “herself” in a way, but nevertheless, it is a victory of the reclaimed self (even if that same “self” is about to undergo yet more existential battles in adventures to come).

The new character design and animation style have begun to seem more familiar by this point, though despite the stellar work of Production I.G the New Movie never quite reaches the aesthetic heights of the iconic original. This is only further brought out by the frequent homages to 1995’s Ghost in the Shell including the final scene which is almost a carbon copy of the original film’s opening (thematically fitting as it is). The action scenes, however, are extremely impressive and display innovative animation techniques which make fantastic use of the latest animation technology. Another exciting, action packed outing for Major Kusanagi and her guys, the New Movie doesn’t quite live up to the legacy of its namesake but nevertheless proves a thrilling cyberpunk infused adventure and a fitting bridge between the Arise series and the landmark 1995 movie.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie is also available in the UK from Manga Entertainment (and Funimation in the US).

Unsubtitled trailer (why is it so hard to find a trailer for the Japanese language track with English subtitles for these?)