Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2017)

Mary and the witch's flower posterWhen Studio Ghibli announced that it would be ceasing production, it couldn’t help but feel like the end of an era. The studio which had made Japanese animation an internationally beloved art form was no more. Into the void stepped a brand new animation studio which vowed to pick up the Ghibli gauntlet – Studio Ponoc was formed by former Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura who enlisted a host of other ex-Ghibli talent including Arrietty director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. 

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Mary to Majo no Hana), Ponoc’s first feature is, like Yonebayashi’s When Marnie was There, an adaptation of a classic British children’s novel. Part of the ‘70s children’s literature boom, Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick was more or less forgotten until the film, paradoxically, brought it back into print. Like many post-war children’s novels, The Little Broomstick is the story of a clever and kind little girl who thinks she doesn’t quite fit in. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is no different in this regard, even in updating the tale (seemingly) to the present day as its spiky heroine finds herself taking on mad scientists and crazed witches in a strange fantasy realm all while trying to get used to the comparatively gentle rhythms of country life.

Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki) is bored. She hates her frizzy red hair which a horrible local boy, Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki), uses as justification to describe her as a “red haired monkey”, and fears that the rest of her life will merely be a dull exercise in killing time until its inevitable conclusion. Mary has just moved in with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake) in the country while her parents are apparently working away and, as she still has a week left of summer holidays until school starts, she’s desperate for something to do. Unwisely following two cats into a misty forest, she chances upon a mysterious flower – the “Fly By Night” which blooms only once every seven years. With no respect for nature, Mary picks herself some of the pretty bulbs to take back to the gardener but unwittingly opens up a portal to another world. Taking hold of an abandoned broomstick, she finds herself swooped off to Endor College – an elite institution of witchcraft and wizardry where she dazzles all with her magical skills. Thinking she’s finally found her place, Mary is content to go along with everyone’s assumption that she is the new student they’ve been waiting for but on closer inspection, Endor College is not quite all it seems.

Mary’s initial dissatisfaction with herself is somewhat sidelined by the narrative but there’s something particularly poignant about her loathing of her red hair. In British culture at least, those with red hair often face a strange kind of “acceptable” prejudice, bullied and ostracised even into adulthood. Thus when Peter calls Mary a “red haired monkey” it isn’t cute or funny it’s just mean and she’s probably heard something similar every day of her life. When she rocks up at Endor and they tell her that her red hair makes her special and is the sign of high magic potential, it’s music to her ears but it’s also, perhaps, reinforcing the idea that simply having red hair makes her different from everyone else.

Feeling different from everyone else perhaps allows her to look a little deeper into the world of Endor than she might otherwise have done. Despite her conviction that she doesn’t fit in and is of no use to anyone, Mary is never seriously tempted by the promises of Endor which include untold power as well as a clear offer of acceptance and even respect. When she realises that the couple who run the school – a witch and a scientist, have been abusing their powers by committing heinous acts of experimentation on innocent “test subjects”, Mary learns to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves even if she couldn’t have done it for herself.

Messages about the seductive power of authoritarian regimes exploiting feelings of disconnection, the scant difference between magic and science, and the need for respect of scientific ethics in the pursuit of knowledge, all get somewhat lost amid Mary’s meandering adventures, as does Mary herself as her gradual progress towards realising that she possessed her own “magic” all along ticks away quietly in the background. Yet the biggest problem Mary and the Witch’s Flower faces is also its greatest strength – its ties to Studio Ghibli. With echoes of Yonebayashi’s previous adaptations of classic British literature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower also indulges in a number of obvious Ghibli homages from the Ponyo-esque flying fish and Laputa influenced design of Endor to the overt shot of Mary riding a deer on a rocky path, and the unavoidable girl+broomstick echoes of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Even if Mary and the Witch’s Flower cannot free itself from the burden of its legacy, it does perhaps fill the void it was intended to, if in unspectacular fashion.


Mary and the Witch’s Flower will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Altitude Films in May 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

March Comes in Like a Lion (3月のライオン, Keishi Ohtomo, 2017)

march comes in like a lion posterShogi seems to have entered the spotlight of late. Not only is there a new teenage challenger hitting the headlines in Japan, but 2017 has even seen two tentpole Japanese pictures dedicated to the cerebral sport. Following the real life biopic Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow, March Comes in Like a Lion (3月のライオン, Sangatsu no Lion) adapts the popular manga by Chica Umino in which an orphaned boy attempts to block out his emotional pain through the taxing strategising becoming a top player entails. Shogi, however, turns out to be a dangerous addiction, ruining lives and hearts left, right and centre but, then again, it’s not so much “shogi” which causes problems but the emotional volatility its intense rigidity is often masking.

Rei Kiriyama (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lost his family at a young age when both parents and his little sister were tragically killed in a car accident. Taken in by a family friend, Rei takes up shogi (a game also apparently beloved by his late father) in the hope of being accepted in his new home. A few year’s later, Rei’s plan has worked too well. Better than either of his foster-siblings, Kyoko (Kasumi Arimura) and Ayumu, Rei has become his foster-father’s favourite child causing resentment and disconnection in the family home. Believing himself to be a disruptive influence among those he loves (even if he suspects they still do not love him), Rei removes himself by deciding to live independently, shunning all personal relationships and dedicating his life to the art of shogi.

Everything changes when Rei is taken for a night out by some senior colleagues and is encouraged to drink alcohol for the first time despite being underage. A kindly young woman who lives nearby finds Rei collapsed in the street and takes him home to sleep things off. The oldest of three sisters, Akari (Kana Kurashina) has a habit of picking up strays and determines to welcome the lonely high schooler into her happy home. Suddenly experiencing a positive familial environment, Rei’s views on interpersonal connection begin to shift but people are not like shogi and you can’t you can’t expect them to just fall into place like a well played tile. 

Like Satoshi, the real life subject of which is also echoed in March through the performance of an unrecognisable Shota Sometani who piles on the pounds to play the sickly yet intense shogi enthusiast and Rei supporter Harunobu Nikaido, March dares to suggest that shogi is not an altogether healthy obsession. Koda (Etsushi Toyokawa), Rei’s foster-father, is a shogi master who trained both his children to follow in his footsteps only to pull the rug from under them by ordering the pair to give up the game because they’ll never be as good as Rei. Thinking only of shogi, he thinks nothing of the effect this complete rejection will have on his family, seeming surprised when neither of his children want much more to do with him and have been unable to move forward with their own lives because of the crushing blow to their self confidence and emotional well being that he has dealt them.

Kyoko, Rei’s big sister figure, remains resentful and hurt, embarking on an unwise affair with a married shogi master (Hideaki Ito) who is also emotionally closed off to her because he too is using shogi as a kind of drug to numb the pain of having a wife in a longterm coma. Believing himself to be a disruptive influence who brings ruin to everything he touches, Rei has decided that shogi is his safe place in which he can do no harm to others whilst protecting himself through intense forethought. He is, however, very affected by the results of his victories and failures, feeling guilty about the negative effects of defeat on losing challengers whilst knowing that loss is a part of the game.

Drawing closer to the three Kawamoto sisters, Rei rediscovers the joy of connection but he’s slow to follow that thread to its natural conclusion. His shogi game struggles to progress precisely because of his rigid tunnel vision. Time and again he either fails to see or misreads his opponents, only belatedly coming to realise that strategy and psychology are inextricably linked. Yet in his quest to become more open, he eventually overplays his hand in failing to realise that his viewpoint is essentially self-centred – he learned shogi to fit in with the Kodas, now he’s learning warmth to be a Kawamoto but applying the rules of shogi to interpersonal relationships provokes only more hurt and shame sending Rei right back into the self imposed black hole he’d created for himself immersed in the superficial safety of the shogi world.

As Koda explains to Kyoko (somewhat insensitively) it’s not shogi which ruins lives, but the lack of confidence in oneself that it often exposes. Rei’s problem is less one of intellectual self belief than a continuing refusal to deal with the emotional trauma of losing his birth family followed by the lingering suspicion that he is a toxic presence to everyone he loves. Only in his final battle does the realisation that his relationships with his new found friends are a strength and not a weakness finally allow him to move forward, both personally and in terms of his game. Rei may have come in like a lion, all superficial roar and bluster, but he’s going out like a lamb – softer and happier but also stronger and more secure. Only now is he ready to face his greatest rival, with his various families waiting in his corner silently cheering him on as finally learns to accept that even in shogi one is never truly alone.


Released in two parts – 3月のライオン 前編 (Sangatsu no Lion Zenpen, March Comes in Like a Lion) / 3月のライオン 後編 (Sangatsu no Lion Kouhen, March Goes Out Like a Lamb).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Big Man Japan (大日本人, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007)

big man Japan posterBeing a superhero is not all it’s cracked up to be. After all, with great power comes great responsibility and responsibility, well, it’s kind of a drag. The debut feature from comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, Big Man Japan (大日本人, Dai Nipponjin) is the story of a modern day gladiator – a slave and a prisoner, forced into an arena to fight “monsters” intent on causing widespread destruction, but usually being the cause of that destruction himself. Poor old Daisato (Hitoshi Matsumoto) is not much of anything at all, but bears all of his respective burdens with stoic resignation.

Shot in mock-documentary style, the film keys us in to Daisato’s predicament slowly as he lovingly looks at an umbrella or a packet of dried seaweed before adding that he likes them because they “only get big when you want them to”. The fact is, Daisato is the sixth in a line of superheroes known as Big Man Japan. Every time disaster strikes and there’s a scary looking monster about to pound Tokyo, Daisato has to hightail it to the nearest power station, undergo a lengthy, bizarre, and completely pointless ritual before jumping into a giant pair of purple pants and being pumped full of electricity which eventually causes him to grow to colossal size.

Yet unlike Batman, or even the obvious point of inspiration, Ultraman, Daisato is not particularly public minded and submits himself to this unpleasant treatment out of a sense of duty and tradition. Daisato’s grandfather, the Fourth, was the kind of superhero everybody loves – strong, clever, dependable, but more than that he was a fun guy to be around. Under the Fourth, superheroing was a laugh and a mini industry all at once. Asked why they bother with the strange ritual before Daisato transforms (given that they’re pushed for time), the old timer looks wistful and remarks that everything was much better when Four ran the show.

These days Four (Taichi Yazaki) is a doddery old man with dementia whom Daisato leaves in an old people’s home whilst feeling guilty about not being able to look after him. Occasionally Four goes rogue and causes havoc by beating up innocent buildings and generally destroying things that don’t need to be destroyed. Daisato maybe a monster fighting superhero but he’s no match for Japan’s ageing population and the increasing demands of elderly care.

Daisato bears his responsibilities with resignation rather enthusiasm. His father, unlike Four, had a lust for fame, repeatedly zapping himself to try and be bigger and stronger but eventually just zapping himself to death. Yet even whilst unhappy about being forced into his life of mercenary monster hunting, Daisato still wanted his kid to take over the Big Man Japan name – only his kid’s a girl who doesn’t actually like her dad very much and gets picked on at school for being the daughter of Japan’s most rubbish reality TV star. Daisato’s superpowers have led to the breakdown of his marriage as his wife has left him, unwilling to allow her child to be zapped with electricity and sucked into Daisato’s abnormal world. She’s moving on, going with the mainstream and looking to hook up with a decent, reliable sort of guy.

Even the documentary maker occasionally seems exasperated at Daisato’s passivity and general malaise. The monster hunting battles are not just in service of protecting the people of Japan but also a major TV event, though it has to be said that Daisato is not very popular and the few people who like him do so precisely because of his perseverance in the face of constant failure. Daisato has a manager of sorts, who drives expensive looking cars, has two expensive looking dogs named “simplicity” and “delicacy”, and is intent on selling each and every spot in Daisato’s giant torso to advertising sponsors landing him with tattoos advertising fresh goods right on his chest and back. Eventually Daisato ends up angering the public still further when he kills an incredibly cute, apparently harmless monster in a moment of panic.

Daisato is, in many ways, a victim of his culture as he feels compelled to put up with constant mistreatment in service of duty and tradition, seeing himself as the last in a long chain of ancestors he’s never been able to live up to and whose powers he will probably not be able to pass down to a successor of his own. In one particularly worrying episode, the mysterious forces which control Daisato do not even bother to contact him but break into his house for a spot of non-consensual zapping which destroys Daisato’s entire home leaving him with nothing. Being big in Japan is actually being very, very small. Poor old Daisato can’t seem to catch a break, but maybe there is one just waiting to catch him.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)