[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] 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.

 

Time for a Change!: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for April 2016

Between showers, fools, and lambs, April is a month of change and transition. It’s only appropriate then that I try to evolve as well! As always, it’s with the help of my friends and Patreon supporters that I continue to try and improve Ogiue Maniax:

General:

Johnny Trovato

Ko Ransom

Alex

Diogo Prado

Sasahara Keiko fans:

Kristopher Hostead

Yoshitake Rika fans:

Elliot Page

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

So, the first change I’m making is a small adjustment to my schedule. Since 2010 I’ve generally structured my weekly posting schedule to be posts on Tuesday and Friday with at least the occasional lighter post on Sunday, most typically a Fujoshi File entry. However, I’ve noticed that most of my readers come in on Sunday, and to give my lowest-impact content at that point feels like a shame, because if you’re coming to Ogiue Maniax I believe it’s to read something interesting. Because of this, I’ve decided to switch Sunday to being a main posting day, with either Tuesday or Friday being less heavy. I’m still on the fence on which one to use, but most likely it’ll be Friday. I hope you enjoy the change, and of course, if you miss the post it’s always there in the archives.

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A second possible change is adding another series other than Genshiken for me to review regularly. The title is Kimi xxxru Koto Nakare (“You Can’t Do That”), the new monthly manga by Okachimachi Hato (creator of one of my favorite manga, Fujoshissu!) about a high school romance between a male idol and a female celebrity comedian. The question is, how should I cover it? To help me with this, I’m using a handy dandy poll:

Keep in mind that this is just for feedback and the winning answer won’t necessarily determine what happens. Also, I mistakenly thought it was a weekly manga, so a previous Patreon post of mine mistakenly had weekly options.

As for what’s happened on the blog over the past month, the biggest event for Ogiue Manaix and all current Genshiken readers definitely has to be the latest manga chapter, which concludes the Madarame harem story. I won’t say much more, so go check it out if you’re curious as to what goes down and my thoughts on it. Also, I need to point out that a funky translation of Chapter 122’s contents has been going around, and it provides an inaccurate image of the characters. In response to this, I’ve also translated a couple of small but vital excerpts from the chapter in the hopes of clearing up the confusion.

As mentioned last month, I went to see a whole bunch of animated films. These include The Boy and the Beast, The Case of Hana & Alice, Beyond Beyond, Kizumonogatari Part 1: Tekketsu, Psycho-Pass: The Movie, and Long Way North. This means it was a pretty danged review-heavy month, especially because I also covered Please Tell Me! Galko-chan, the mahjong manga Saki, and the ever-successful Aikatsu! I’m typically more of an analysis and deep thinking kind of writer, but it’s not bad to have months like this either, and most of the time I my reviews are more half-review/half-analysis anyway.

Speaking of reviews, I also finally updated the Reviews section of the blog. I neglected it for about…a year and a half? orz

I also talked last month about my concern over stagnating as a writer. My smart and ever-perceptive friend David Brothers gave me some advice in response to one of my Apartment 507 articles on Yandere characters, which is that I should think about putting more of myself into my writing. I think that ever since I’d gone in a more academic direction it’s improved Ogiue Maniax in a number of ways. At the same time, that sort of more casual and personal feel, while still present I believe, might not be as apparent. Sometimes I have to be more friend than teacher.

Three final comments:

  1. Shout outs to Abadango for winning Pound 2016 using 99% Mewtwo (with a dash of Meta Knight). It’s the first major tournament in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U that has been won by a Mewtwo.
  2. Some cool and mysterious fellow recently published an academic article about the science fiction manga 7 Billion Needles in the journal Japan Forum. If you’ve got access and that’s your sort of thing, maybe check it out?
  3. This past weekend was the final Love Live! concert for the original μ’s girls. Love Live! forever! Hanayo banzai! Also, sorry about the April Fool’s joke (not sorry).

What Dreams Are Made of: Long Way North

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

One person’s dreamer is another’s fool. The quest to achieve the seemingly impossible frequently rubs up against the harsh reality and possibility of failure, and what results can end up inspiring some and serving as a grave warning to others. Long Way North, a French-Danish animated film directed by Rémi Chayé, follows a young Russian girl named Sasha who holds onto her missing (and presumed dead) grandfather’s dream to reach the North Pole, in spite of her parents’ desire for her to act like a proper young girl of nobility.

The term “family film” can be a kind of backhanded compliment, implying that it’s something almost innocuous in its presentation. However, Long Way North deserves the term in the best sense possible because of how well it speaks to the aspirations and concerns of both parents and children. Sasha is a heroine who won’t let go of the spirit of adventure instilled in her by her grandfather who also puts in the hard work to fulfill those desires. In doing so, and it continuously realizing her limitations while working to overcome them, Sasha’s journey feels empowering and encouraging. Her parents, who are more concerned with whether Sasha will throw away her “childish” views, can come across as overbearing or failing to understand what gives Sasha life. However, the film also presents her parents as wanting only the best for their children and families, which is a message that resonates with older audiences, and provides an opportunity for parents and children alike to discuss the conflict of dreams and reality.

Nothing works out easily in Long Way North, from treacherous voyages through arctic waters to stubborn personalities to people going nearly insane from the prospect of starvation, but Sasha and by extension the film never give up hope.

There’s no limit to how much can be said about the visual presentation of this film. With appealing character designs built off of flat swathes of color mixed with an intentionally rough, textural line work, it reminds me somewhat of a George Seurat painting. The art style works especially well when depicting the arctic north because of the large, imposing glaciers on all sides.

The animation, even when it takes shortcuts, never feels cheap, and always conveys scale, depth, and the powerful emotions of its characters. From the imposing yet warm figure of Sasha’s grandfather to the stern, yet honorable ship captain to Sasha’s expressive eyes, Long Way North makes its characters feel all too human all to relatable no matter who they are.

Long Way North is an inspiring tale for children and adults alike. It might also be the best film I saw at the New York International Children’s Film Festival. Long Way North is getting a wider release soon, and I recommend that you check it out and see if it doesn’t help you consider how you view your own dreams.

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Murder and Hijinks: The Case of Hana & Alice

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

The Case of Hana & Alice (Hana to Arisu no Satsujin Jiken, or “The Murder Case of Hana & Alice” in Japanese) is an animated film that portrays the developing friendship between two girls in middle school who share a mutual desire to get to the bottom of a rumor about a murder. Arisugawa “Alice” Tetsuko is a tomboy and transfer student who seems to be in the middle of a bizarre and confusing case of bullying. Arai Hana is a hikikomori who hasn’t attended school in over a year and loves to put together elaborate plans. Together, their contrasting personalities are a recipe for disaster but in the most delightful ways possible.

Directed by Iwai Shunji, The Case of Hana & Alice is not a mystery in the traditional sense, and spends most of its time building up its characters and the path they take to solidifying their friendship. In a way, Hana and Alice have a vibe akin to the characterization aspects of th BBC Sherlock series, though in a much more lighthearted environment, and with certain qualities mixed between this film’s “Sherlock” and “Watson.” Whether it’s portraying Alice’s personality as a girl who doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, Hana’s agony as her best-laid strategies dissolve into nothing due to Alice’s act-before-you-think attitude, or even the random people they meet due to misunderstandings, the characters become increasingly endearing to the point that it almost doesn’t even matter how it all ends because there’s the sense and expectation that their combined forces have to lead to something amazing. The film’s pace is like a slowly paced progression of events that can actually feel intense and frenetic through the actions of its characters, which in turn creates a strange yet pleasant feeling of suspense that is both connected to and separate from the mystery at hand.

One of the more prominent and noticeable aspects of The Case of Hana and Alice is its style of animation, which mixes heavy rotoscoping and CG and thus gives the film an aesthetic uncommon to most Japanese animation. However, the consistency between the two elements is surprisingly good, without the jarring sense one gets when switching between animation styles. Although there are clear moments where one is being used over the other, the two sides blend together well. Thus, while something like the Flowers of Evil has a controversial reputation due to its rotoscoping (people either love it or hate it), I wouldn’t say the same qualities are as present in The Case of Hana and Alice even though similar techniques are utilized.

Prior to the start of the movie, the audience was told that the film is actually a prequel to a live action move titled simply Hana & Alice (which was itself based on Kit Kat commercials???), with the note that it uses the same actresses, Suzuki Anne and Aoi Yuu. While watching, I suspected that one of the reasons they decided to go with animation was because The Case of Hana and Alice is a prequel that takes place in middle school as opposed to the live action film’s high school setting, so a live action performance would somehow have to make them younger to fit in. What I wasn’t aware of at the time was that the first Hana and Alice was from 2004, which would make the act of portraying them convincingly as 14-year-olds even more difficult.

Because of this, I actually believe that rotoscoping was the right choice as a way to maintain the specific relationship between its titular characters that (I assume) is present in the 2004 film. While one might argue that just using traditional animation or 3DCG would have sufficed, I believe they really wanted not only Hana and Alice’s voices from Anne and Yuu, but also their mannerisms and overall physical presence.

Because the New York International Children’s Film Festival is dedicated to, well, children’s film, I always enjoy looking at what’s featured and then considering what it means to make a “movie for children.” The obvious answer is that it’s what you get when you create a film with children as the target audience, but that leads to other questions. What are the sorts of elements that resonate with children? What does it mean for a story to be “too adult?” To what extent should a children’s work take into account the adult audience who might likely be watching with their kids? I find that The Case of Hana and balances all of these questions, presenting an atmosphere and narrative that seems to embody both a sense of nostalgia and a sense of discovery, as if viewing the characters’ lives from both the past and the future.

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Learning About Death I Guess? Beyond Beyond Review

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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.”

If you liked this post, consider becoming a sponsor of Ogiue Maniax through Patreon. You can get rewards for higher pledges, including a chance to request topics for the blog.