Mostly Visual Wonders: Oblivion Island

The New York International Children’s Film Festival is known for bringing some of the best and most interesting animation the world has to offer to the Big Apple, and Japanese animation is no exception. In previous years, the festival has brought great works, such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Days with Coo, but usually limited it to only one title, so it was particularly amazing that this year’s Festival had not one, not two, but three anime films.

This last film is Production I.G.’s Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror. It follows the titular 16-year old girl as she searches for her lost hand mirror, an important present she received from her mother years ago, and ends up entering a magical world inhabited by “kitsune,” fox spirits who take everything humans misplace and ignore. Humans are not allowed in the kitsune’s world, but a few unlikely companions make the journey possible.

Unlike the other two NYICFF animated films from Japan, which used some CG but still went for a primarily traditional 2D look, Oblivion Island has the unique distinction of being created almost entirely in 3DCG. While it would be easy to make the film look drab and lifeless, Production I.G. is famous for knowing how to make things look good, and Oblivion Island is no exception. The characters are nice-looking and full of life, the backgrounds are gorgeous, and the use of color as the movie switches from environment to environment are particularly notable. One unusual thing about the movie is that a lot of the backgrounds looked more hand-drawn and two-dimensional than the characters themselves, which made it almost look like the characters were “real people” interacting with a backdrop. While jarring to an extent, it gave the film a unique and welcome look. The only other sticking point might be that the faces of the human characters are somewhere between being anime-style and being humanly realistic, particularly with their mouths, and so tread the deepest regions of the uncanny valley. Overall, the look of the film, particularly the Kitsune’s world where everything is built from discarded human belongings, reminded me a little of Kon Satoshi’s Paprika, though it isn’t quite as visually splendid.

But while the visual aesthetics of the film are top-notch, the rest of the film from a storytelling perspective is nowhere near as good. Most of the characters’ motivations are simple and some hardly get characterized at all. The story is also paper-thin, developments happen too suddenly, and the film occasionally takes a very ham-fisted approach to plot exposition. An example of this heavy-handed storytelling occurs towards the beginning of the movie. The start of the film takes place years before the main story and shows Haruka with her mirror. Minutes later into the film, the now 16-year old Haruka is hanging with her friend from school and asks the friend if she had ever lost anything important to her. It then flashes back to the very scene the audience just saw of Haruka and her mirror, and if that’s not enough to tell you that she’s thinking about the mirror, Haruka then outright mentions the mirror to her friend. It was just unnecessarily excessive and would’ve benefited from better editing.

That said, Oblivion Island still has a number of good, powerful scenes  and moments of poignant character interaction and introspection which draw you into their world. It’s just that the film suffers from “things happen” syndrome and lacks the connective tissue needed to make it feel like one continuous story. It’s an all enjoyable film, but definitely had the potential to be more.

In the end, a lot of the film’s flaws can be pardoned if you just take into account that it is first and foremost a kid’s movie, but at the same time I feel somewhat reluctant to do so as the NYICFF’s other films were also for kids and still had plenty for older audiences and never felt like they were simply advancing the plot along without taking heed of everything that had happened prior. Overall, it’s decent, but it won’t go down in history as one of my favorites.

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