Napping Princess: The Story of the Unknown Me

Kokone is distracted from making a decision about where to attend university after graduation when her father is mysteriously arrested and men she has never seen before arrive at her house to steal his tablet. It all seems connected to a parallel world she experiences in her dreams, but how?

Napping Princess has a slow start, as it builds not one but two worlds, trying to tease the audience without giving too much away. Kokone’s dream world ‘Heartland’ feels like a very standard anime fantasy world but it offers up lots of visually spectacular moments such as the Princess Ancien (the heroine in Kokone’s dream world) sneaking back to her room after using magic when she’s not supposed to. Personally though, I prefer Kokone’s awake ‘real world’ scenes for the majority of the film, perhaps because the plot and character relationships are more clearly established.

Eveything is just a bit more exciting in Heartland

Two things pleasantly surprised me about this film. The first is that the humour is pretty good, and there were many more laugh out loud moments than I expected. Early in the film, after her father has been arrested, Kokone has to try and hide and escape from men she doesn’t recognise who come to the house in search of her father’s tablet. Some silly slapstick ensues as she tries to fit herself around corners and into cupboards while they search. I particularly loved that the film openly makes jokes about the men being the stereotypical ‘dumb goons’, even down to one moment when one of the men demands to know why he wasn’t warned about Kokone coming to steal the tablet back, and the goon tells him he didn’t want him to be upset so he said nothing.

Kokone’s dad is hiding something, but what?

The second thing I really enjoyed was Kokone’s friendship with Morio, an old friend she reconnects with, who helps her on her quest to uncover the truth behind the tablet and rescue her father. Even though there’s a moment where they have to nap in a motorbike together and Kokone tells him not to touch her butt, the movie doesn’t feel the need to shove them together romantically just because it can, which is always refreshing to see.

Safety first – always wear a helmet when riding your magical bike!

The ending of this movie is a pretty strong payoff as it ties in themes of family, and tradition versus embracing the modern with an obvious but brilliant metaphor. Some of the plot devices along the way feel a bit too convenient – Kokone doesn’t know anything about her deceased mother because her father won’t talk about him, but it seems unlikely she never would have tried to find out more about her by herself, especially in the age of the internet when you can easily google people. Still, in spite of some of the slightly far-fetched plot elements this film is an enjoyable ride, and it offers lots of laughs and some great anime visual spectacle too. Definitely worth seeing for any anime fan.

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Hanayamata 

Naru is a self-labelled “average teen” who wants to shine but feels inadequate next to her gorgeous, popular, in-a-band friend, Yaya. A chance encounter with a mysterious blonde girl called Hana at a shrine leads her into the world of yosakoi, a traditional Japanese dance.

In spite of its cutesy graphics, Hanayamata adds some emotional depth from the first episode which I was pleasantly surprised by, and we see the main characters struggle with their insecurities and fears in an understated way. Naru, for example, agrees to join Hana’s Yosakoi group but only as an assistant at first, betraying her anxiety that she isn’t a good enough dancer to “dazzle” and be worthy of the group. Tami is a well-behaved daddy’s girl who chooses to break away expectations from of her to join the group, and Yaya in turn battles with her own jealousy as she sees Naru step out of her insecurities and start to believe in herself again.

Hana’s motto – life’s too short not to be happy!
Although I was impressed with Hanayamata’s commitment to clear-cut character motivation and insecurity from the beginning, it did then move back to comfortable and cutesy territory once this had been established. Some of the scenes are excessively sentimental – Naru gives more than one emotional speech about how much yosakoi means to her, and how much her friends mean to her, which might be more powerful if it was more than five episodes in, but luckily a lot of the more sugary emoting is usually balanced with some light comedy. Perhaps because of the solid character establishing at the beginning, even the simpler scenes in Hanayamata feel weighted enough to avoid slipping into pure fluff territory.

It’s tough being the only glass half full member of the group sometimes
For me, Hanayamata is a nice “middle of the road” sort of anime. It offers enough character depth and drama to avoid floating away on its own fluffiness, and Naru’s stage fright and insecurities will be easily understandable and relatable to many. But it is still a fairly lightweight cutesy anime about five girls embracing friendship and a new passion. If you’re looking for something with pretty shoujo style animation, silly comedy and engaging main characters it’s definitely one to put on your ‘to watch’ list.

March Comes in Like a Lion

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As a young boy, Rei’s world is torn apart when his family are killed in a car accident. There’s hope for a new family when a kindly man takes him in and the two bond over shogi, much to his own children’s jealousy. Flash forward and Rei is on the cusp of adulthood, living alone in an apartment funded by his shogi game wins. Still lost in loneliness and grief, he is surrounded by new friends who gently support him.

For me, one of anime’s outstanding qualities is its ability to capture the subtle but important nuances of emotion and March Comes in Like a Lion does this wonderfully. An example – when Rei meets three sisters, Akari, Hinata and Momo Kawamoto who frequently invite him over to their home for dinner, Rei’s own inner monologue reflects the home he finds there. At one point he describes holding some warm leftovers as he walks home as being like a small animal that warms his heart and it’s painfully clear how starved of love and kindness he has felt up to that point. This anime is full of poetic monologues in that vein that really show how mature and sensitive Rei is in spite of his reserved outward personality.

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Rei’s inner monologues are poetic and often heartrending

Visually, the anime is much less subtle. Rei lives in hues of black and grey, and many of his flashbacks and monologues are cast in a strong monochromatic style. In contrast, the Kawamoto house is filled with warm orange tones and the love and affection the girls show to Rei shines off the screen as he appreciatively sits down to delicious homemade meals with them. Rei himself can be a quiet and introspective young man for a lot of the time so the intense visuals work really well to communicate his thoughts and feelings about the world around him.

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Rei’s apartment is stark and bare
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The Kawamoto house is filled with life and love

Rei himself is a fascinating character, and I was pleased that March Comes in Like a Lion also extends this complexity to other characters. For example, Harunobu, Rei’s longtime shogi rival, is shown to be a chronically ill man who finds it frustrating to continuously lose to Rei. All the same we see him supporting Rei in his shogi games. He could have been reduced to a plot device or one dimensional character, but he never blames his losses on his illness, and is never shown as someone to be pitied but rather as a kind and good person with a positive outlook on life and a drive to better himself.

I was impressed with the realism the show devotes to shogi as well. As well as describing moves and strategies, we see Rei playing in real time, sometimes at least five minutes of an episode patiently displaying the silent, paced methodology of a real match as if it were being filmed. The show also accounts for viewers who aren’t familiar with shogi, and an episode early on explains the how to play the game with a cute and silly cat animation which reappears later on during the occasional match.

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The pacing and detail shown in shogi matches offers a nice realism

I’d forgive you for getting impatient with this anime. It starts off promising, then gets a bit wacky with a very disjointed mood change, and overall takes a while to provide some of the emotional backstory you might want to feel invested. Do stick with it, you’ll find some very rewarding scenes that tackle depression, loss and the contrasting rigidities of honour in competition versus honour in Japanese family. If you’re a seasoned anime viewer and looking for something to invest in that will reward you over time, this is a great choice.

March Comes In Like a Lion is now available on Crunchyroll. The original manga by Chica Umino can be read online here.

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?

Amanchu!

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Ooki is a shy girl still preoccupied with her old life and friends on moving to a new town. When she meets Hikari, a bubbly and eccentric girl who embraces everything in life from her new desk seat to that fresh textbook smell with equal enthusiasm, things look like they might be set to change for the better. Hikari is an experienced diver, and Ooki is persuaded to join the school’s diving club.

Hikari is initially the main draw to this anime. If you don’t like characters who are positive to the point of eccentricity you might find her peppiness grating, but her excitement for everything in life sets Amanchu! up as a positive and sweet anime. Hikari’s outlook is juxtaposed with Ooki’s sadness about trying to adjust to a whole new life – we see her apathy about joining any high school clubs and excitement for getting texts from her old friends. Hikari is the catalyst for change and when Ooki joins the diving club she gradually begins to re-emerge from her shell.

Ooki feels sad and lonely to begin with
Ooki feels sad and lonely to begin with

Ooki’s thoughts and behaviour indicate someone who struggles with anxiety and low self esteem that has been made worse by having to try and process the changes in her life, and the sensitive way her peers respond to this adds deeper emotion to what would otherwise be a simple fluffy story. The anime focuses closely on Ooki and her immediate peers – Hikari, and two other friends who are part of the diving club. The fact that scenes often include no more than four or five people really cements Amanchu! as an intimate anime and allows Ooki and Hikari’s characters in particular to be focused on to a stronger emotional effect.

Hikari is endearingly in love with life
Hikari is endearingly in love with life

Yuri fans will also delight in the ongoing subtext of Hikari and Ooki’s chemistry. Ooki’s tendency to get flustered and blush around Hikari can easily be explained away as part of her introverted and bashful nature…but there’s enough there to suggest an underlying attraction too. Their relationship forms the heart of the show and Hikari’s unquestioning support of Ooki in diving and beyond often tugs at the heartstrings. Although their scenes together are moving, they have strong moments alone too. One moment that really warmed my heart was when Hikari takes a train journey just to catch a brief but stunning glimpse of some blooming hydrangeas on its route, (she plans to get off at the next stop and then head back). She frequently embodies this “live in the now/enjoy all of life’s little wonders” attitude that slowly rubs off on Ooki. Hikari’s carefree attitude also works well alongside the anime’s aesthetic of light pastels, sparkling oceans and a relaxing soundtrack which make this a perfect summer watch.

You won't have to dive too deep for lesbian subtext here...
You won’t have to dive too deep for romantic subtext here…

Amanchu! disguises itself pretty convincingly under a veneer of fluffiness and light comedy, but from the get go it grounds itself in emotional honesty with a strong character arc as we see Ooki opening up to others and learning to embrace a new life that resonates across even the goofiest of scenes. The parallels of learning to dive underwater with learning to dive into a new life are a beautiful metaphor as we see Ooki overcome her sadness and anxiety step by step.

Check out this warm gem of an anime, Amanchu! is now available on Crunchyroll.

When Marnie Was There

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I was very eager to see what is tipped to be Studio Ghibli’s swansong, When Marnie Was There, and was fortunate enough to see the original subtitled version. Relocating the original novel’s British backdrop to Japan, the story follows Anna, a young girl who is sent to the countryside to live with some relatives as the city air is bad for her asthma. That’s her mother’s excuse, but the truth is that Anna has been acting increasingly quiet and withdrawn, and her mother hopes a stay in the countryside means she will come back “happy and healthy”.

The film’s opening is simple but powerful. We see Anna drawing at school, sat alone. She looks at a group of her female peers sat together and sadly reflects that some people are on the inside and some on the outside. Although the asthma attack she has is presented as a physical ailment, the frustrated way she snaps her pencil against her sketchbook suggests the suppression of her feelings is making her ill, and her quiet frustration instantly makes her a sympathetic character for anyone who has ever felt helpless and alone.

Anna is lonely at the movie's opening
Anna is lonely and introverted at the beginning of the film

When Anna travels to the countryside, she meets her relatives, the Oiwas. Kind and caring people, they immediately welcome Anna and encourage her to befriend another daughter of the town. Anna hesitantly attempts to fit in, but a clumsy comment hits a nerve and she runs away in distress. I would have liked to have seen even more of Marnie’s interactions with her family, as the Oiwas are a little too laid back about Anna disappearing at late hours and insulting one of the local daughters – some kind of confrontation scene would have worked well to add further tension and insight into Anna’s thoughts and feelings.

At her lowest point, Anna meets Marnie who lives at the old marsh house across the lake that has captured Anna’s attention. Anna and Marnie instantly hit it off, which is helped by Marnie’s kind gentle demeanour, and her instant honest confession that she really wants to get to know Anna. The two learn about each other’s lives, and Marnie even takes Anna to a sophisticated party at the marsh house.

Marnie becomes Anna's trusted confidante
Marnie becomes Anna’s trusted confidante

Anna is completely captivated by Marnie’s mystery and beauty, and attempts to see her whenever the tide goes down so that she can visit the marsh house. Her sketchbook, the only place she really opens up and expresses herself honestly, becomes filled with pictures of Marnie, and it is clear to see how Marnie represents freedom and safety at once for Anna.

Anna and Marnie’s relationship is really the heart of this movie, and as ever, Studio Ghibli tenderly and touchingly capture the heady excitement of a relationship that is exciting, intimate and safe all at once. Marnie and Anna go on moonlit boat rides, picnics and forest walks. They dance together, confide in each other, declare their love for each other and support each other unconditionally. To see tomboyish Anna blush in front of Marnie and sketch her like a lovestruck youth, and Marnie openly claim that their relationship is their “precious secret”, alongside all the hand holding and embracing – this is a pair that acts as much as, if not more like a couple than many of the actual couples Studio Ghibli have ever depicted before.

“This ship could never sink, right Marnie?”
Anna hoped Marnie would be as kind as her DeviantArt commenters were
Anna hoped Marnie would be as kind as her DeviantArt commenters were

Whilst Marnie is visually interesting with her stunning blonde hair, old fashioned feminine dress sense and her open kind smiles for Anna – her personality remains somewhat lacking. She giggles and flounces and doesn’t offer much depth. It’s easy to be happy that Anna has found someone to open up to after seeing the depth of her sadness, but until we get more context to Marnie’s own backstory and life, we don’t know why we’re really supposed to love her. And that context isn’t fully given until the last quarter of the movie. With such an intense, borderline romantic build up between Marnie and Anna throughout the movie, the ending, whilst poignant in its own way, may feel like a big, queerbaiting slap in the face (I’ll let you make up your own mind though).

"There, there Marnie. Queerbaiting upsets me too."
“There, there Marnie. Queerbaiting upsets me too.”

However, this is a movie about Anna’s journey and while Marnie is a little one dimensional for most of the film, it is nonetheless gripping to watch Anna’s journey from a withdrawn, depressed girl to someone actively exploring her surroundings, chasing for answers about her life and slowly opening up to the people around her. The twist ending reveals that Marnie’s love for Anna is every bit as powerful and resoundingly deep as we’re shown throughout the movie in each interaction between the girls, it just isn’t in the way you might expect. The healing journey we see Anna make from a lonely depressed girl with low self esteem, to someone gradually altogether whole again and happy is a painfully honest and moving depiction of what it means to grieve, seek love and acceptance and eventually come to terms with loss.

Anna at first is withdrawn and timid
Anna at first is withdrawn and timid…
...she begins to come out of her shell in a touching way
…but slowly she starts to come out of her shell in a touching way

When Marnie Was There is a beautiful tale about accepting and overcoming the depression and low self esteem that tragedy and loss can create, and learning to recognise and embrace the support around you. I particularly enjoyed how cleverly the film visually emphasises Anna’s movement from being someone on the outside looking in, to someone in touch with and at peace with her surroundings, with a repeated window motif. This is a touching addition to the Ghibli collection with all the beauty and emotional honesty the institution is renowned for, a definite must see for any Ghibli fan.

Did you like Studio Ghibli’s latest release? Let me know in the comments!

Psychic School Wars (Nerawareta Gakuen)

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You’d be forgiven for seeing the title Psychic School Wars and picturing a no-holds-barred action anime. But that’s really not what it is at all. A more accurate title might be Psychic Romance, as this anime is really about love, feelings and romance, with a bit of science fiction thrown in for good measure.

Seki is a simple, messy haired boy with a crush on class rep Kahori. Unfortunately for him, she’s rather taken a shine to the attractive, mysterious new student to their class, Ryoichi. Ryoichi has a real talent for playing Debussy on the piano…and for manipulating people psychically, which he plans to use to gradually bring the entire school under his control.

Other than his using this to make one of the female classmates his psychic servant, we don’t see much of him using his psychic powers to begin with. Instead we see the story focus on the love triangle between Seki, Kahori, and Natsu – Seki’s childhood friend. When Seki embarrasses himself in front of Kahori by leaving his fly open during a conversation with her, Natsu jokingly nicknames him “Mr. Open Fly”. She later reveals in an inner monologue that she’s been alongside Seki her whole life, and is not only literally the girl next door to him, but also figuratively as he remains oblivious to her deep love for him. We see a beautiful flashback of her memories of their time together as kids watching the fireworks together at a festival. The abstract nature of the memory and her romantic feelings are beautifully evoked with a plethora of watercolour effects.

Natsu recalls her precious childhood memories with Seki
Natsu recalls her precious childhood memories with Seki

Yes, as you might have guessed by now, the the shining strength of Psychic School Wars is the breathtaking visuals. Alongside the constant picturesque stream of cherry blossoms, dappled light effects and starry night skies, even the minutiae of day to day life is rendered with exquisite attention to detail such as the fluttering of a paper plane, or the flicking of pages in a notebook.

Personally, we think this anime could have done with more cherry blossoms
Fateful meeting? Check. Outrageous amount of cherry blossoms? Check.

This anime often goes out of its way to create a feast for the eyes, with characters needlessly blowing bubbles outside a rural shrine or riding a glass elevator overlooking a sunset over the ocean (yes, really) just to create dazzling scenes for the viewer. It’s hard not to want to screen grab every moment for posterity, the only downside being that sometimes the scenery porn moments can overwhelm and distract from what’s actually going on. Every moment is a spectacle, which is glorious but also means that the moments that are meant to really be a spectacle have slightly less impact.

How to look pretty while you pine after your crush: an anime 101
How to look pretty while you pine after your crush: an anime 101

Alongside the romance, the anime opens with and repeatedly refers to an ongoing storyline about a debate within the school regarding banning mobile phones. Whilst this seems to be completely irrelevant at first it does eventually play into the larger picture of Ryoichi’s manipulation to a degree, and echoes the ongoing theme of the anime about forms of communication in relationships. The discussion of modern technology as an alienating device is nicely contrasted with Natsu’s memories of communicating with Seki through tin cans and string as a child, and the repeated emphasis on love as being the reaching for a connection is honestly moving. That said and done, the mobile phone discussion quotient is still much, much higher than it really needed to be.

Psychic School Wars takes its time to really get to the heart of the characters, and their connection with each other. When it does, the portrayals of teen love and friendship are genuine and touching in an understated way. The constant presence of dreamy colour palettes and sweet music often reduce the effect of the otherworldly elements of the story, and even goofy comedy can occasionally interrupt any building romantic or supernatural tension. This isn’t a problem if you enjoy the romantic and emotional elements of anime, but when the psychic elements come into play it isn’t always clear who has been manipulated and whether we’re supposed to consider Ryoichi a friend or foe.

Don't hate the psychic player, hate the psychic game
Don’t hate the psychic player, hate the psychic game

The main downside to this anime is that a lot of the psychic elements feel vague and confusing. Just when the story picks things up, it sets them aside to move back to the romance, and sometimes the movement between serious and silly, or sci fi and sappy is strange and jarring and doesn’t quite gel. There are a lot of elements that just aren’t developed in the right way, which is frustrating and confusing.

Psychic powers and romantic angst...but they still managed to fit a beach scene in
Psychic powers and romantic angst…but they still managed to fit a beach scene in

Even if Psychic School Wars isn’t your cup of tea story-wise, if you’re looking for a pretty anime this one is a visual feast. Sometimes it feels sappy and saccharine, but there are enough touching and powerful moments to pack an emotional punch and make this worth your time. Just…don’t expect it to fully make sense.