“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
There are few quotes in science fiction more famous than Arthur C. Clarke’s above. While the idea largely has to do with how science fiction extrapolates the possibilities that can be envisioned from scientific development, Kamiyama Kenji’s new animated film, Ancien and the Magic Tablet, plays with the notion in an interesting way, using a blend of dreams and reality to fuse technology and magic together throughout its narrative.
As a warning, while I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, the fact that this film is full of surprises only five minutes in means I can’t avoid talking about at least a few of the twists.
Ancien and the Magic Tablet begins with the story of a princess of a kingdom, Ancien, who is trapped in a cage above the royal castle. Her kingdom, known as Heartland, is ruled by her wise father, who is responsible for spreading the use of automobiles throughout their land. The reason Ancien is locked away is because she has a mysterious power to bring inanimate objects to life, including dolls and cars, an ability that would turn all of Heartland upside down.
…Except that it’s all a dream and the actual story is about a girl named Morikawa Kokone, a perpetually sleepy Japanese high schooler living in Okuyama Prefecture in the “far flung” future year of 2020—shortly before the Tokyo Olympics. Living with her widowed father, who works as a mechanic and programs self-driving car AI for the elderly residents of their town, Kokone learns that her father (or rather his computer tablet) holds valuable secrets worth a lot to some very important people. Kokone ends up on an adventure to Tokyo to get to the bottom of all this, all while she keeps having dreams about Ancien and Heartland—a world based on stories her father told her as a child—that mysteriously play out in reality as well.
One of the main thrusts of Ancien and the Magic Tablet (known in Japan as Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi no Monogatari, or “Napping Princess: The Story of the Unknown Me”) is a treatise on the benefits of self-driving cars. Ancien and her tablet are overt parallels to the AI technology that Kokone’s father possesses, and it’s portrayed largely in terms of its benefits. In regards to this stance, the film impresses me because it doesn’t try to remain neutral or passive in terms of the beliefs it’s trying to convey on such a controversial topic.
Given the writer and director Kamiyama’s previous works (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Eden of the East), a certain level of love and faith in technology is expected. While Ancien could do more to address the repercussions self-driving cars could have on the global economy, I don’t hold it against the movie too much because it does emphasize certain benefits that don’t come up as often. For example, it can be argued that self-driving cars aren’t only about taking away control, they can be about ensuring safety because of loss of control or disability. A more nuanced approach would’ve been interesting in its own way, but I can live without it at least for one film.
Going back to Arthur C. Clarke, the dream world of Ancien, particularly the “magic tablet’s” ability to “bring things to life,” are basically a fairy tale metaphor for real-world technology. However, because the events in Ancien’s and Kokone’s sides of the story mirror each other and even seem to influence each other, it’s an ongoing mystery as to how the two narratives are related. Is it somehow possible that Kokone is tapping into an alternate reality? The film keeps you wondering right until the very end, and the ultimate explanation for the relationship between Ancien and Kokone’s worlds is actually very satisfying and makes absolute sense.
Ancien and the Magic Tablet feels like the start of a conversation rather than a definitive conclusion. I hope we continue to see its themes in future animated films.