Shunji Iwai’s Last Letter wasn’t the only tear-jerking teen romance to sneak onto Seattle screens this past week. Naoko Yamada’s anime Liz and the Blue Bird, based on a novel called Sound! Euphonium by Ayano Takeda that has already been adapted into two seasons of a TV series and a couple of movies by Tatsuya Ishihara, is playing at the Varsity and the Grand Illusion, where it will be held-over for a couple more shows this coming weekend (the 24th and 25th of November). It’s about the relationship between two girls in the school band. Nozomoi, a flautist, is lively and gregarious, while the oboist Mizore is shy and withdrawn. After a brief prologue, we follow the two girls on their walk to school for practice on a Sunday morning, Mizore following behind, her gaze, at Nozomi’s feet, her legs, and, most of all, her gaily swishing ponytail, brilliantly establishing the obsession that is her crush. The two girls are assigned a duet as a part of the band’s end of the year competition, and their negotiating that piece, and their interpretations of the children’s story on which it is based, is the vehicle through which the delicate negotiation of teen love and self-actualization will be realized.
More muted and intimate than the other high-quality Japanese animated films that have played here this year, specifically the bombastically inventive Night is Short, Walk on Girl and the generationally-expansive Mirai (coming soon to a multiplex near you), Liz and the Blue Bird is no less breath-taking, both to look at and in narrative. Interspersed throughout the slice of life real-world story are the girls’ imagining of the eponymous fairy tale, given a story-book smudginess and an orange and yellow glow that contrasts sharply with the steely blues of the classroom interiors and rainy sidewalks of the city. But most of all it’s Yamada’s focus on small gestures and behaviors, the way Mizore tugs at her hair when she’s nervous, or how the camera, when adopting her point of view, tends to face downwards, like it’s afraid to face the world, that marks Liz and the Blue Bird as one of the most keenly observed romances of recent years, animated or otherwise.
In 2012 Mamoru Hosada released Wolf Children, one of the finest animated films of the decade. It followed a young mother’s struggle to let her children go as they age, to become their own people, separate from her (that one of them chooses a human life while the other heeds the call of the wild and runs off to live as a wolf like his father is only tangentially relevant). With Mirai, Hosada addresses much the same issue from the opposite perspective, this time we see the child’s point of view as he grows form a wholly ego-driven individual into a member of a family, a continuum of people that extends not just horizontally to his sister and parents, but also backwards and forwards in time, to the people his ancestors were and the people he and his sister will become.
He’s not a werewolf this time (though he does have a talent for canine imitation) rather he is subject to a series of fantasies that grow out of the trauma of the arrival of his younger sibling, and the shattering of the idyllic existence he’d led as the center of the universe. He sees the family dog anthropomorphized into a fallen prince (an initial act of empathy that mirrors his own loss of place). He meets an older version of his baby sister, and he has an adventure with his great-grandfather. In interacting with these people (which may be mere figments of his young imagination or could be the manifestation of some supernatural power, it amounts to much the same thing) he learns perspective: that other beings are just as conscious as he is, that the world and the people in it are both distinct from him while also forming an essential part of him, a vast web of humanity with a center that might belong to him, but then again, it might not.
Mirai is as fanciful as anything Hosada has made, with a trip to the geometric horror of a train station a particular highlight. But like Wolf Children, as well as his version of The Girl Who Leapt through Time, it is fundamentally grounded in the every day, which in this case means a whole lot of parent humor, for which I am, no doubt, a sucker (I happen to have a self-centered, train-obsessed boy in my home as well). Hosada expertly fuses fantasy and slice-of-life anime, following in the tradition of the best of Studio Ghibli (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart), as well as any director of his generation.
Things have been bleak on the family film front lately on Seattle Screens, at least as far as I have seen. The last movie I took my kids to was The Last Jedi, and there hasn’t been anything they or I have really been interested in since then. After seeing several toy tie-in cartoons over the last few years (really the only animated film we saw with any kind of heart to it was the ballet movie Leap!, which even then diminished itself with kid-movie cliché chase sequences), something like Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall is an absolute joy, worth taking the kids to even in its English-dubbed version (I assume: the version I watched was Japanese with English subtitles). The mash-up of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea and Linda Linda Linda we don’t know we needed, Lu is the best variation on The Little Mermaid of 2017.
Lu is a ningyo, a creature from Japanese folklore roughly analogous to a mermaid. In a reversal of Greek myth, she’s drawn to the shore by music, specifically the pop-rock stylings of a middle school trio named “Seiren”. Moved by the tunes, Lu sings and then jumps onto the land (a protective bubble of water around her head), sprouts legs and dances wildly. The legs go away when the music stops, and after some initial confusion the band members, especially the shy Kai, befriend her. It seems the small fishing village in which the action takes place has a complicated history with the merfolk, with stories of them eating people circulating among the elderly (in particular Kai’s grandfather, who saw his mother get bitten and disappear under the sea). There’s a giant island in the town’s harbor, a Gibraltar casting a shadow over the sleepy village and separating it from the wider ocean and the island where the merfolk are said to dwell. It’s a literalization of the walls separating the village from the outside world, the people from the spirits and nature around them, and Kai from other people. Catchy music and simple messages (“Like everyone!”) are the medium through which Lu breaks down all these walls.
While much of the animation and plotline recalls Ponyo (with a little bit of Kiki’s Delivery Service thrown in), Lu Over the Wall isn’t nearly as derivative as the otherwise pleasant Mary and the Witch’s Flower from earlier this year. Yuasa has a goofier touch than Miyazaki, trading the mystical beauty of Ghibli’s nature for a more Looney Tunes aesthetic. In an interesting twist, Yuasa’s merfolk are vampiric: they are allergic to sun, they can transform creatures into the undead with a bite, and they appear to have to hypnotic power to make people dance in spite of themselves. This leads to some of the film’s most memorable images: denizens of a dog pound transformed into an army of merpups; undead fish dancing their way out of a sushi restaurant. The film’s crisp primary colors and cartoonish character movements are both flatter and more fun than what we’ve seen in recent Japanese animated films like Makoto Shinkai’s experiments in photo-realism (Your Name.) or the more traditional anime Napping Princess, and the look of the film is vastly more appealing than the CGI blandness of recent American efforts. I haven’t yet seen Yuasa’s Mind Game, which is reputed to be quite good. It’s playing this week at the Grand Illusion, and I’m guessing pairing it with this would make for an excellent double bill. Probably want to leave the kids behind for that one though.
The obvious point of comparison for In This Corner of the World, an anime set on the home front during World War II, is with Isao Takahata’s 1988 Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies. But in spirit it’s more akin to Takahata’s later work: the world-dissolving subjective images of memory in Only Yesterday and the episodic focus on the family of My Neighbors the Yamadas. Fireflies is about devastation, about the terrible consequences of war and, more specifically, of the cruel pride that makes for such wars, but Corner is about resilience, about a people to whom war is happening, with or without their complicity: it’s more Mrs. Miniver than anything else. Beginning before the war and skipping quickly through the early life of Suzu Urano, an artistic girl who lives near the city of Hiroshima. After short episodes from her childhood, the film settles down once she gets married and moves to Kure, a nearby town that is a center of naval manufacturing, in 1943. In these early scenes, the war is merely a background element: characters speak of the navy, the construction of a factory displaces the family’s seaweed business, ships are seen in the distant harbor, new ration recipes with variable results are tried, while the drama centers on Suzu’s integration into her new family and her rivalry with her new sister-in-law. But the war plays a bigger and bigger role as we proceed through time: a wrong turn into a red light district populated by displaced young women, air raid drills followed by actual bombardments, a visit from an old school friend who admonishes Suzu to “stay ordinary, stay sane”. Finally, in the summer of 1945, the horror of war becomes nigh unbearable, culminating the the atomic bombing of the city on the other side of the mountain. But even in the blasted hellscape that follows, the loss of so much humanity, Suzu and her family endure.
Makoto Shinkai’s latest anime smashed records across Asia last fall, becoming the highest grossing Japanese film in the history of China and Thailand, the second highest grossing Japanese film in Japanese history (behind Spirited Away), the worldwide top-grossing anime ever and the eighth highest grossing traditionally-animated film of all-time. Finally opening across North America this week, it has a chance to add to that record, and I think we’re all pulling for it to raise that extra $20 million it needs to overtake Pocahontas. Like his highly-acclaimed short features 5 Centimeters per Second (2007) and The Garden of Words (2013), it’s a story of two young people attempting to forge a connection. Romantically, yes, but also metaphysically. Apparently caused by the appearance of a comet close to the Earth, country girl Mitsuha and city boy Taki begin switching bodies: sometimes they wake up inhabiting the other, sometimes they don’t. They find this bewildering, of course, but eventually they figure out its rhythms and it turns out to be quite fun. And funny: Taki’s teenaged-boy obsession with his own (sort-of) breasts is perhaps the film’s truest note. Things reach a crisis point when the comet reaches its closest point and the body-switching ceases, sending each character in desperate search of the real-life other, complicated by the fact that they keep forgetting the other person’s existence.
Your Name. isn’t quite as other-worldly gorgeous as those two earlier films (they’re the only two other features I’ve seen from Shinkai), its combination of hand-drawn, computer and rotoscoped animation is a little more conventional, just as its plot and approach to narrative is a little more familiar. 5 Centimeters per Second was a trilogy of vignettes about a couple who loved each other once but where split apart by geography, and their attempts and failures to reconnect over a lifetime. The Garden of Words was about the Platonic love between a depressed teacher and a fifteen year old student. Your Name. unites these two in splitting its heroes in both time and space; human connection being so difficult that truly achieving it involves breaking the known laws of physics. The tragedy of the film comes from the loss of memory: human brains are unreliable and fungible, and the omnipresent devices we think make us more interconnected are even more fragile. Tradition and ritual though unite us with a past we cannot comprehend. Mitsuha is part of a long family line of makers of braided cords, who specially prepare a kind of saké as an offering for an unnamed god. They’ve forgotten the reasons for the rituals, but they perform them nonetheless. Where every other device of history and communication (cell phone, history book, museum photograph) fails, the braided cord, explicitly a metaphor for the dense and incomprehensible construction of space-time, persists.