Your Name (Kimi No Na Wa)

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Mitsuha is sick of her life out in the sticks, and not even having a cafe or bookstore in her little town. She passionately declares one night “Make me a Tokyo boy in my next life!” And then she wakes up the next morning…in a Tokyo boy’s body. Taki, the boy in question, is an average teen making the most of city life, enjoying fancy treats after school with his friends which he pays for via a waiter job at a nice restaurant.

Your Name immediately takes advantage of all of the comedic value of an unexpected body swap. Mitsuha and Taki are both in the throes of puberty and still discovering their own bodies, so waking up inside the opposite sex’s has an extra layer of hilarity. One of the film’s running gags features Mitsuha (sometimes herself, sometimes Taki) waking up each morning and fondling her own breasts.

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Body swapping ain’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Mitsuha and Taki’s friends tell them that they’ve noticed a change in their personalities, and once the pair discover that what they thought were incredibly realistic dreams is actually the two of them swopping bodies, they try to ensure their lives don’t become messier than needed, leaving notes for each other to read on their bodies, and sometimes on their phones. Unfortunately, the two of them never remember each other’s names when they wake up back in their own bodies, prolonging the suspense as they don’t know whose life it is that they keep finding themselves in the middle of.

The film doesn’t focus too deeply on the effects their swapping has on each other’s lives, but it does show the obvious awkwardness of them having to ask their friends questions like “Where do I work?”and having to juggle things that are completely foreign to them – Taki attempting a traditional weaving technique is contrasted against Mitsuha running around like a headless chicken in Taki’s job. In spite of their superficial differences, the universality of their adolescent feelings shines through – Mitsuha manages to get Taki a date with his long-time crush while inhabiting his body, but realises once she’s back in her own body that she’s actually quite jealous.

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“Dear Taki, stop feeling up my boobs, Yours, Mitsuha”

The second half of Your Name takes a more serious turn than I had expected, dealing with a thread about a comet set up from the beginning. The film uses this to further expand on its themes of family, duty, and love and open out the film to a grander scale, and build much higher stakes. There are a lot of very Japanese themes thrown into the second half (I won’t spoil them here) which is one of the things bound to help this film stand the test of time as a Makoto Shinkai classic.

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This is just one example of the astounding landscapes Your Name features

Your Name is visually spectacular. The contrast of city life to country life is stunningly illustrated. Taki’s hectic urban jungle is brilliantly showcased, each sharp angular line of the skyscrapers and twinkling city lights popping off the screen. Mitsuha’s verdant town is a lush delight, and I also really loved seeing the details of her traditional life, such as when she performs a traditional Japanese ritual in her family’s shrine. I also love that the film makes multiple references to the red string of fate, inserting the symbolism in a beautifully simple but striking way throughout the film.

A gorgeous anime needs a great soundtrack and this one does not disappoint! As well as some beautiful strings pieces that really evoke the nature scenes of Mitsuha’s beautiful rural town, RADWIMPS, a Japanese rock band, offer some furiously energetic pop tracks for the chaotic life-swapping scenes of Mitsuha and Taki’s teenage lives. I’ve included the trailer below which features one of the brilliant RADWIMPS tracks.

From Garden of Words and 5 Centimetres Per Second, to Your Name, Makoto Shinkai seems to be continually building on his work, with each anime offering a greater and greater emotional scope that extends into impressive far-reaching themes of the traditional against the modern, long distance love, and figuring out our place in the world.

I love everything about Your Name: its staggeringly beautiful animation, its expressive characters with deep hearts and its moving soundtrack. It’s Japan’s highest grossing movie of 2016, if you haven’t already watched it, what are you waiting for?

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ReLIFE

ReLife_Beitrag

27 year old Arata has no full time job or career plan and nobody to tide him over when his parents cut him off financially. When he bumps into a charming man named Ryo who offers him an all expenses paid get out for a whole year Arata instantly agrees, not realising the consequences of his decision until the morning after. Ryo works for ReLIFE laboratory and Arata has taken an experimental drug which makes him physically transform to his 17 year old self. Ryo reveals that ReLIFE is actually a rehabilitation programme for unemployed NEET types like Arata who are sent back to high school for a year to reinvigorate them and help them learn what it means to work hard.

ReLIFE wastes no time setting up an entertaining fish out of water situation in which Arata struggles with the practicalities of being a teenager again. He forgets that he shouldn’t be smoking, scores badly on the high school tests and unthinkingly lends larger sums of money than a student would be expected to have. Interestingly, although Arata seems to be alone at 27 when he becomes a student again he easily connects with the boys and girls around him, making it obvious pretty early on that his time in ReLIFE will have a positive impact on his new friends as much as they will on him.

Arata has some trouble behaving like a 17 year old...
Arata has some trouble behaving like a 17 year old…

I went into this anime expecting the focus to be entirely on Arata’s development but whilst we get his internal monologue throughout during his interactions with his high school peers, the anime sets up most of the drama about his new friends. The first few episodes are deceptively lighthearted, almost to the point of goofiness in places but ReLIFE begins to build emotional investment from the get go as Arata’s new friends struggle with their own insecurities and the impact they have on their relationships with each other. The animation is pretty standard with the odd lapse into chibi style at comedic moments, and the discordant and erratic piano soundtrack works well to support each teenager’s internal conflicts and provide a quirky backdrop to the tension.

Another day, another derp moment
Another day, another derp moment

Although ReLIFE features realistic characters with believable quirks and struggles, I wish that it had done more to give some of the emotional moments greater impact. We’re shown some poignant backstory for Arata’s life as a 27 year old and also for Ryo’s life working on another case in the ReLIFE laboratory but most of this isn’t until the last part of the anime. The focus remains on the melodrama between Arata’s classmates and whilst they are likeable and interesting enough, their characters are never built up enough to provide the right kind of emotional depth to make their conflicts with each other as interesting as they could be.

Arata's backstory plays out to powerful effect
Arata’s backstory plays out to powerful effect

The ending frustrated me most about ReLIFE, this anime offers powerful twist at the end and then just doesn’t do nearly enough with it. It’s a shame that the potential for a real emotionally moving finish fades away in favour of the light humour and fluffiness that has been present throughout, when it would have been easy to provide a strong emotional finish for two of the central characters.

ReLIFE provides plenty of laugh-out-loud moments without resorting to lazy stereotypes or over the top fanservice. It also tackles some darker topics, so if you have the patience to stick with it through some predictable drama situations you’ll find some moving scenes towards the end and there are enough touching moments throughout to maintain your interest. It is an easy watch whether you’re relatively new to anime and looking to ease yourself in gently, or just looking for a funny anime with some standard high school drama.

ReLIFE is now available on Crunchyroll.

Celestial Method

When it comes to an anime series, I am used to reaching the halfway point before the intense emotional stuff starts to happen. Celestial Method made me Feel Things from the very first episode which in my book is always a good thing.

As a child, Nonoka had a tight knit group of friends, so much so she couldn’t bear to tell them that she had to move away. In a last ditch attempt at bonding, she suggests they call down a magic saucer together. Unbeknownst to her, the saucer’s arrival and her leaving has a strong emotional impact on her friends which is still in effect when she moves back to the area many years later.

The arrival of the saucer also brings with it a mysterious blue haired girl named Noel. Noel acts much like a puppy in human form, and her innocent nature helps prevent the anime from becoming too emotionally heavy all the time and brings a sweet touch to significant moments. It soon emerges Noel is the saucer in human form, something I expect will come into play towards the finale.

Yes, Noel really is that adorable
Yes, Noel really is that adorable

Don’t let these supernatural elements fool you, this is a relationship drama anime through and through – the opening titles alone look like a trailer for an emotional high school dating sim. There’s plenty of wide eyed gazing and dramatic tension between the female high schoolers to keep yuri fans satisfied, but whether you see friendship or hints to something more these relationships are well realised. I particularly enjoyed that while the central characters have base archetypes – the quiet one, the aloof one, the passionate one – they never felt like clichés.

With moments like these we can forgive you for seeing yuri pairings
With moments like these we can forgive you for seeing yuri pairings

That may be the key drawing point of Celestial Method. It renders Nonoka and each of her friends as three dimensional human beings, portraying their pain, fear and hope with a gentle sensitivity. This is aided by a simple but effective soundtrack that underlines each mood and moment without being obtrusive. This one might be too slow for some, but for me it’s a reminder that what good anime does well is understated character development and emotional honesty, and Celestial Method offers us both.

Ouran High School Host Club

Haruhi Fujioka is a bookish girl, clever enough to be granted a scholarship into the prestigious private Ouran High School. However, she remains a “commoner” amongst the wealthy and elite around her, so when she accidentally breaks a priceless lamp, she finds herself paying off her debt in the most unusual manner.

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                   Meet the host club!

Enter the host club – a group of attractive young men who spend their time entertaining and charming the young women of the school. This group is comprised of each kind of anime male archetype – the prince, the stoic quiet one, the cynical smart one, the adorable one and mischievous twins. Haruhi finds herself joining the group and dressing as a male host to pay off her debt.

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This may be a shoujo anime but it isn’t afraid of a little self-parody

Ouran High School Host Club is a mixed bag. It draws much of its comedy from parodying the shoujo genre with exaggerated motifs such as flower petals and sparkles, alongside postmodern references – at one point Tamaki (our prince figure) observes that he and Haruhi are the key players in a romantic comedy, and the rest of the host club are the “homosexual supporting cast”. Slapstick and melodrama is also frequently used, which can be tiring or distracting in places, but often works well to highlight the differences between the superficial emotional tendencies of Tamaki with Haruhi’s pragmatic nature.

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Expect plenty of over the top moments like this

For all of its fooling around, Ouran High School Host Club offers some hilarious moments, and some truly moving ones too as we witness the blossoming relationship between Tamaki and Haruhi, and are offered some touchingly presented emotional scenes as we learn more about how each host club member has become the person they are.

This is a classic shoujo anime with heart and humour, if you can get used to the over the top antics, you’ll enjoy its spirit.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Puella Magi Madoka Magica looks like a cutesy, fluffy magical girl anime, but do not be fooled by its colourful, innocent exterior – this one packs a heavy emotional punch.

The story opens in a typical manner, Madoka and Sayaka, two Japanese schoolgirls, one day meet a strange catlike creature named Kyubey. Kyubey explains he is looking for girls like themselves to become magical girls and battle witches in exchange for one wish.

Sayaka is the first to become a magical girl, and Madoka is quickly brought into a world of death, destruction and torment. Where anime like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptors tended towards sassy comebacks and routine attacks and transformation sequences, this anime presents a more realistic portrayal of what it means to battle evil forces, placing these young girls into danger, pain and suffering over and over again that is at times painful to watch. The witches that the girls battle are not humans or human-resembling, but strange abstract patterned creatures that add a surreal atmosphere to the ongoing struggle for victory. Battling an unknowable force has a strong effect on the young women and they come into conflict with themselves and each other as their moral instincts clash and they struggle to reconcile their duties with their personal desires and hopes.

The nature of the magical girl lifestyle isn’t the only area in which Puella breaks the mold. Madoka’s own family life is structured of a househusband and a working mother. Although Madoka largely conceals her knowledge of magical girls from her family, she does confide in her mother when the stress of worrying about Sayaka begins to take a visible toll on her, and the relationship she and her mother share is a mature, trusting one. Madoka and Sayaka’s friendship is also more subtly nuanced, taking a nice step away from pure hearted youthful exuberance into the confusing world of adulthood as the two maturing women try to continue to be there for one another whilst making consequence laden decisions – these consequences having world altering ramifications.

More than just a mouthful to say, if you’re looking for a more grown up magical girl anime, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a must see.

Welcome to the NHK

Welcome to the NHK is one of many anime that deals with the concept of “NEETs”. NEETs are people, often young people aged between 20 to 30, who are “Not in Education, Employment, or Training” (hence the NEET acronym).

The NEET issue is a universal theme addressed in many anime (Eden of the East is another one that comes to mind). Whilst the trope of the young socially awkward otaku male is used time and time again in anime, Welcome to the NHK addresses it in a much more serious way.It does this by presenting the life of a particular NEET called Sato. Sato is not just a NEET, he is a “hikikomori”. This term literally means “pulling inward, confined”, and refers to a reclusive lifestyle. Sato’s hikikomori lifestyle is generally explained as a result of social anxiety, and his struggle to battle this condition makes for the ongoing theme of this anime.

One thing that really set this anime apart for me was it’s refusal to shy away from what it means to be a hikikomori, to avoid people, to not know how to interact with them. Sato lies, Sato takes the skirt off an anime figurine so he can perve on it, Sato is tricked into parting with his money, Sato ignores the people who care about him. His struggle seems all the more real because we see him fail so much more than we see him succeed. His lowest moments are neatly portrayed with hallucinogenic trips in which little creatures giggle freakishly and his appliances seem to talk to him, reflecting the true extent to which isolation can warp the mind.

For me, I would highly recommend this anime to anyone. With a strong group of well realised characters, each fighting their own battles, the themes of depression, financial struggle and loneliness of young adults attempting to make it in a modern Japan that doesn’t seem to care for their wellbeing, Sato is ultimately a sympathetic character. The quirks, sometimes embarrassing, but often relatable to some degree, will strike a nerve with anyone who has ever felt alone, lacked motivation or struggled to gel with peers.