[NYICFF 2017] Driven by Dreams: Ancien and the Magic Tablet / Napping Princess

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.

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[NYICFF 2017] Take a Look, It’s in a Book: Rudolf the Black Cat

This film was shown as a part of the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Japanese animation isn’t typically associated with talking animal movies, but Rudolf the Black Cat (Rudolph to Ippaiattena in Japanese)is an unabashed entry into that genre. Still, it has much to offer viewers, with an endearing cast and lessons that viewers of all ages can take to heart.

Rudolf is a house cat who has never gone beyond his yard. But when he gets lost far from home, Rudolph has to learn what it’s like to live on the streets. Luckily, he meets the best possible mentor: a tough-as-nails tiger-striped stray who has the ability to read human language. Rudolf mishears and believes the stray’s name to be “Gottalot” (Ippaiattena), because Gottalot goes by many names.

One of the core themes of the film is a straight-up educational lesson: reading expands your world. Gottalot does his LeVar Burton in Reading Rainbow act, explaining to Rudolf about how books can help you imagine things yet unseen, and teach you about how places you’ve never even heard of. Gottalot’s efforts to help Rudolf become crucial to the climax of the film, and it’s all thanks to Learning and Study (thanks books!).

Rudolf the Black Cat isn’t just focused on being didactic, however. While the film carries very clear moral and life lessons about loyalty and learning, it mostly does so through the friendship that forms between Rudolf and Gottalot. As a veteran of the streets, Gottalot is savvy, but he sees a bit of himself in Rudolf. This bond forms the foundation of the movie, and it’s enjoyable from beginning to end.

It’s also worth mentioning that this film, while mainly for kids, isn’t afraid to make them cry. There are numerous sad and difficult moments throughout Rudolf the Black Cat, and although it isn’t exactly a Grave of the Fireflies, there were definitely more than a few sniffles among the young audience. For kids unused to typical Japanese-style endings (which tend to come with just a spoonful of tragedy), it might pose some difficulty.

Rudolf the Black Cat is overall a decent film that is easily accessible to any audience. While it pitches underhanded at its target audience of young children, it also tosses plenty of few curve balls that result in an enjoyable film even under adult scrutiny.

 

[NYICFF 2017] I Didn’t Even Know It: Window Horses

This film was shown as a part of the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Poetry has never really been in my wheelhouse. As a kid, I enjoyed reading Poe, and I even tried my hand at poetry myself, but my enjoyment of and experience has been limited. Against the odds of my own ignorance/inability to understand things like “iambic pentameter,” the animated film Window Horses created and directed by Ann Marie Fleming has helped increase my appreciation of poetry, a feat I thought impossible.

Window Horses follows Rosie Ming, an aspiring Canadian poet who holds a deep fondness for France despite never visiting it. When she receives an invitation to a poetry festival in Iran, it gives her an opportunity to learn about a new culture, gain a new perspective on what it means to write poetry, and even learns some important details about her own life.

I can relate to Rosie Ming’s initial naivete on various levels. I lived in Europe for a number of years, and while it wasn’t my first time being out of the United States, interacting with people from all over the world made me realize just how “American” my way of thinking is. I’m also Asian like Rosie, and am woefully under-educated when it comes to my own ethnic history. At one point, Rosie is talking to an exiled Chinese poet named Di Di, without being aware of the significance of1989 in Chinese History—the year of Tiananmen Square. I was continuously invested in seeing Rosie’s horizons expand as she learns about the political power of poetry, about why Iran is considered a land of poetry, and the ability for poetry to convey thoughts and feelings both large and small.

The film goes to great lengths to animate the poetry recitals themselves, with the style and imagery different according to the contents of each poem. Along with the impressive readings from the voice actors themselves, I felt myself being moved by the poems in Window Horses in ways I would have never expected given my own general lack of interest in poetry. One line that stood out to me in the film was the idea that poetry needn’t be and shouldn’t be enjoyable only by the educated and intelligent. The ability to feel the power of a poem is perhaps even more important, and I definitely felt their impact while watching Windows Horses, albeit with assistance from the film’s visuals.

Given the content, I was genuinely surprised to find out that Window Horses wasn’t an autobiographical film along the vein of Persepolis. In a Q&A after the film, Fleming mentioned her own multicultural background (half-Chinese, born in Japan, moved to Canada) as the inspiration for Rosie Ming, and that her experiences with people from all around the world provided the basis for many of the film’s characters. The result is a film with a great deal of universality, and one I’d encourage anyone to watch.

As for me, I might actually dare myself to actually start writing poetry. Perhaps I should spare everyone my inevitably amateurish scrawls, but then I think about Rosie’s own willingness to just go out there and put her heart on the line. It’s inspirational.

[NYICFF] Share, Care, Dare: My Life as a Zucchini

This film was screened as part of the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival

Children’s fiction is built on the stories of orphans, carrying inherent challenges that are easy to understand no matter one’s background or upbringing. The question that faces any narrative concerning orphans is how to portray both the hopes and sorrows of such an experience. The French/Swiss animated film My Life as a Zucchini, directed by Claude Barras, portrays and balances the lives and trials of orphan life brilliantly.

Based on a book by the same name, My Life as a Zucchini centers around a young boy named Icare, who is given the nickname Zucchini (Courgette in the original French). One day, after an accident occurs while Zucchini is playing with his mom’s empty beer cans, he ends up having to live at an orphanage. Faced with a new environment, Zucchini learns about the lives of his fellow orphans and all of their unique circumstances.

My Life as a Zucchini is animated in stop-motion, and the models used carry an eerie charm to them somewhat reminiscent of the characters in Edward Scissorhands. They can be called cute, but due to the characters’ appearances, particularly their eyes, there is a constant mix of pain and joy present in their expressions. This aesthetic matches well with the narrative content of the film, which pulls its punches only slightly in depicting the characters’ struggles. This is certainly not a film that patronizes its young target audience.

The element of the film that struck me hardest was the different varieties of sadness that existed in the children at the orphanage. Zucchini carries around a beer can; the only memento he has of his mother. One boy, Simon, is a bully of sorts, but it’s clear that he uses this bravado to mask the pain of not having his parents. One of the girls is implied to have been abused by her father, which has left her with some expressions of trauma, though it should be mentioned that the other children are shown to play with her and treat her like one of their own. Somehow, however, it is one of the cutest and seemingly innocuous moments that claws at my heart. Another girl’s mother was deported, and whenever she hears a car pull up to the orphanage she runs out and yells, “MOMMY?!” only to be disappointed over and over.

I want to emphasize that this is not a film about showing the crushing horrors of reality, and that the kids’ lives at the orphanage are portrayed with a great sense that life can get better, and that in many ways it’s not so bad for them now. After all, many are there to escape from worse circumstances, and there’s an unspoken bond of trust and understanding between Zucchini and the rest.

One surprising element of the film is that it actually talks about sex pretty candidly, especially for a kids’ movie. It takes the form of kids trying to figure out what happens when a man and a woman get together, but the statement “his willy explodes” should say it all. I have to wonder if it caught any of the parents off guard.

My Life as a Zucchini is a powerful work that resonates emotionally on many subtle levels. It’s definitely worth watching no matter your age. I see it as a way to open up to the conversation on a number of difficult topics with your loved ones, whether they’re your children, your parents, your relatives, or your friends.

 

Learning About Death I Guess? Beyond Beyond Review

beyondbeyond

This film is part of the 2016 New York International Children’s Film Festival

Death can be a difficult concept for children to grasp. Somewhere after the idea of object permanence is learned, the next step is realizing that people can actually cease to exist. The 2014 Danish film Beyond Beyond, directed by Esben Toft Jacobson, acts as an extended metaphor for a small boy learning about and coming to accept the death of his mother. Following a young rabbit as he tries to rescue his mother from the Kingdom of the “Feather King,” the odd thing about this film is that, the more one remembers that the movie is a death metaphor, the stranger it becomes.

Thematically, Beyond Beyond succeeds in making a kids’ movie tackle a fairly mature and important subject, but there are also a number of elements that often appear out of place or maybe even unnecessary. I understand this film is aimed at a rather young audience, and that one should not demand the height of cinematic sophistication from it, but there were just times when entire scenes didn’t seem to contribute much.

I felt that Beyond Beyond‘s message gets muddled in its presentation. I just pictured a small child going, “What does Bill (a character in the film with a lackadaisical attitude whose actions are of great significance to the story) have to do with mom dying?” I also suspected, but could never quite tell, if there was any sort of religious underpinning to its image of death and the beyond. The film is not tightly structured in any way, but I also think it’s possible to look past that and see the desire to help kids through its ideas.

My favorite part of Beyond Beyond had to be the Feather King. His initial appearance only in the shadows renders him an ominous grim reaper, but he turns out to be much more interesting, especially in the way he breathes life into his children/minions.  The Feather King is voiced in the English dub by Patrick Warburton (Brock Sampson from Venture Bros.), which arguably is not the best casting possible, but I was amused by his performance nevertheless.

As an adult, it’s very likely that I just wasn’t going to connect to Beyond Beyond properly. That being said, as the credits rolled I overheard a couple of girls, who couldn’t be older than 9, discussing the film. One of them said to the other, “You have to remember, this is a film for children.”

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Romantic Rocket Punches: Satellite Girl and Milk Cow

This film was part of the 2015 New York International Children’s Film Festival

Years ago for a final project in college, I created a comic about a girl who delivers piles of garbage around the world. The concept was intentionally strange, as my goal in creating it was to make the comic feel just earnest enough that readers would question just how serious I was. Upon seeing the Korean animated film Satellite Girl and Milk Cow at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, I found myself having the same experience I intended for my audience, and perhaps because of this I feel a bit of a connection to this film.

Satellite Girl and Milk Cow follows a dormant Korean satellite Il-ho who comes back to life after hearing the singing of a mediocre musician named Gyeong-cheon. Mysteriously transforming into a human-looking girl in order to find him, it turns out Kyung-chun has had his own change as well: due to heartbreak, he’s become a cow. As the two of them learn about each other, they have to deal with a magician that steals animal livers using a plunger and a a robot demon that devours people who have become animals, all while being helped by a sentient and magic roll of toilet paper named Merlin. How did any of this happen? Was it magic? Technology? The film certainly doesn’t bother to explain much, but that’s also its charm. The story unfolds at a rapid pace filled with both absurd and deadpan humor while always treating its characters’ feelings as just genuine enough that it really leaves an impression. It’s nonsense most of the time, but who said nonsense couldn’t be the source of a whole range of thoughts and feelings?

Visually, the film is very basic yet serviceable, though on more than one occasion it becomes very clear where shortcuts were used in animation. I don’t mean to say that it’s wrong to “cheat” on animation, as on some level it’s so much work to animate something that I expect it to happen, but at times an overuse of motion tweening (when things slide along a little too smoothly) and some awkward stills and camera zooms really stick out in Satellite Girl and Milk Cow. Even so, I find that these small issues don’t really detract from the main bizarre thrust of the film, and the numerous sight gags worked just fine. Not to give away too much, but my favorite gags involve Il-ho’s ability to launch rocket punches, and the considerations she makes in terms of rocket punch storage.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Satellite Girl and Milk Cow outside of the film itself is the fact that it was the poster movie for the 2015 New York International Children’s Film Festival. Knowing absolutely nothing about the film prior to seeing it other than the promotional poster, I think it lives up to its role as the face of the festival for this year. The kids in the audience seemed to love it (or at least were caught up enough in the oddities of the film to have it keep their attention), and while of the films I saw I liked When Marnie Was There best, Satellite Girl & Milk Cow to me feels like a film that has wide appeal across age groups as long as you’re someone who can get into its unusual groove. It’s the kind of film that’s really difficult to riff on, because every time you think you’re saying something clever, Satellite Girl and Milk Cow will seemingly wink back at you with one eye, while starring at you with utter conviction using the other.

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Out of the Shadows: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for April 2015

A few months ago in the February status update, I mentioned that I tend to keep a few posts in reserve and then never get around to posting them for one reason or another. Recently though, I’ve had a lot of crazy things happening in my life all at once (mostly good things, I assure you). It’s made me a bit short on time, and because of that, I’ve had to pull some of those pieces out of the old filing cabinet (I have never actually used one of those), such as Internet Culture, Fandom, and the Tendency to Offend.  I think a part of me always felt unsure about it, but it’s turned out to be quite a popular post, so maybe I should’ve sent it out into the wild sooner. I sometimes strike when the iron is lukewarm, as might be the case with my post on the new female otaku-oriented manga magazine, Comic it, which touts itself as not being so obsessed with romance.

I also had the opportunity to attend the New York International Children’s Film Festival for the first time in years, and it felt good to write reviews of both When Marnie Was There and Mune. I actually have one more film left to review, but due to the above circumstances I haven’t been able to get around to it. Look forward to it in April.

This month’s special Patreon sponsors are:

Ko Ransom

Alex

Johnny Trovato

Though they aren’t listed, I’m quite happy to say that I’ve received a few new sponsors this past month. These recent patrons have declined to be included on the official list of patrons above (even if they’ve contribute enough to qualify), but their support is very much appreciated.

In relation to what I’ve talked about above, I have to ask what my readers think about the times where I post on a subject well after it’s been in the spotlight. I guess this sort of relates to the previous month’ s topic of mid-season vs. end-of-season reviews, but when it comes to very current events, I think I might as well let a Shellder clamp on and force me to evolve. At the same time, I think there’s a certain value to being able to take my time with a subject. I might be falling into that Patreon trap of wanting to write what people want now, but we’ll see how it goes.