A Place Further Than the Universe

Mari Tamaki wants to do something bold with her life, but she can’t even skip school because she lacks the imagination to go anywhere. Everything changes when she meets Shirase Kobuchizawa, a girl who is hell bent on getting to Antarctica as soon as possible, and has forsaken friends and hobbies, working herself to the bone to gather the money for the trip. When Mari expresses her sheer admiration at Shirase’s tenacity and drive, she finds herself becoming part of the plans and soon they are joined by two others, Yuzuki Shiraishi, an actress who just wants to make some friends and Hinata Miyake, a boisterous, easygoing girl.

I really appreciated the pacing of this anime – I had expected the entire anime to be about the girls’ friendship in the run-up to the trip, but by episode five they’re already packing their bags and getting ready to go, and it’s clear that this anime isn’t afraid to step out into a bigger scale. I will say that sometimes the pacing can be unrealistic. When the girls set off on the ship, they’re plagued with seasickness and overwhelmed by the fitness level they’re expected to attain in order to have the stamina for the trip, but by the end of the episode they have seemingly overcome this and adjusted in the space of a day or two. Though this feels a bit unrealistic it does allow the anime to continue plowing forward and dealing with different issues each episode.

The girls had some work to do to find Antarctica appropriate clothing…

A Place Further than the Universe offers some beautifully detailed characterisation, often grounded in fairly typical real world situations which work well to keep the unusual situation from feeling too fanciful and fantasy-like. One example of this I thought worked particularly well was Megumi’s jealousy of Mari’s situation. A childhood friend, Megumi had always been the mature one that Mari looked up to, and when Mari begins to step out from under her wings in preparation for the Antarctica trip, Megumi instinctively tries to sabotage it out of fear of losing her friend.

Leaving friends behind is hard

When Mari finds out, she’s angry and upset, but she still rejects Megumi’s offer to end their friendship. This short exchange brilliantly showcases how quickly Mari has grown whilst still retaining her kind and considerate nature. Not only that, but it’s great to see an anime that recognises real, emotionally weighted consequences of big life decisions, even for ‘secondary relationships’.

This emotional depth runs throughout the entire anime, and is particularly impressive in relation to Shirase, whose main motivation for going to Antarctica is that it was the last place her mother was seen alive, and whilst she knows her mother is gone, she needs closure. The conversations she has with her mother’s old expedition members who are also going on the trip, and her friends’ gentle understanding of her situation all serve to create a mature acknowledgement of death and grief that reflect the fact that the journey for the teenagers will be arduous and dangerous, and Antarctica may be a beautiful place, but it is also a barren and harsh environment that should not be taken lightly.

This is a beautiful anime that tackles the complexities of grief, friendship and family with grace and optimism. It may be cold in Antarctica but A Place Further Than the Universe has a warm heart!

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Our Love Has Always Been 10cm Apart

Last year I wrote a short review about I’ve Always Liked You, a romance anime about a group of teens all nursing secret crushes on each other. This anime recently caught my eye as a cute looking romance, and I didn’t realise until I started watching it that it’s about the same group of teens, taking a particular focus on one almost-not-quite couple, Haruki and Miou.

Haruki and Miou make for a heart-tugging teen relationship. Longtime friends, the kind who walk home together every day and know each other inside-out, both are gradually falling for each other but unsure about how to take the next step into something more. This situation isn’t helped by all of their peers assuming they are already a couple and teasing them about it, which shy Miou can’t handle.

Like I’ve Always Liked You, this anime takes the classic romance format, with various obstacles emerging that prevent the pair from confessing their feelings and uniting until the very end. To begin with, this obstacle is their own shyness and inexperience in love. Miou notes wistfully when they are together that they always seem to be ‘just ten centimetres’ apart and unable to bridge the gap (giving the anime its name).

Will they, won’t they? They probably will but first we gotta drag it out…

What prevents this anime from becoming too predictable in its plot choices are the characters. Miou and Haruki are well realised, both as individuals and in their relationship. Miou could have felt like a feminine anime cliche with her gentle and modest nature and natural art talent, but her low self-esteem makes her someone you can most likely relate to, and even if you’ve never struggled with your self-esteem, her kindness makes her easy to root for. Haruki is also easy to connect with, a smart, usually easy-going teen who struggles to manage his emotions when Miou begins to distance herself from him after finding out a secret about his family that she blames herself for.

Although the centre of this anime’s driving force is romantic angst, Haruki and Miou also have their own hobbies and future plans in mind, which adds a nice layer to the story. Haruki wants to be a film director, and is hoping to win a competition that will allow him to study film in America. Miou, although dismissive of her talent, is a brilliant artist. This is present from the beginning, and I really appreciated that the anime was realistic and honest that their dreams mattered to them, and they were both willing to pursue them even if it might mean that they had to say goodbye to each other.

Miou didn’t know how to tell Haruki that he’d forgotten his camera…

I would definitely recommend this anime if you like romance. Haruki and Miou are fairly stereotypical male and female protagonists (he’s easygoing but can get a little hot-headed, she’s kind but also shy), but they have a good, three-dimensional dynamic that makes it easy to be invested in the slightly cliche reasons that keep them apart. At just six episodes long, you can easily binge it all in one go or a few episodes at a time if you’re looking to enjoy a romance story that you won’t have to wait a long time to get a pay-off for.

Ladybug Bush: How March Comes in Like a Lion Handled Bullying Brilliantly

Note: This article contains spoilers for episodes 25-35 of March Comes in Like a Lion.

March Comes in Like a Lion is an anime that has continually impressed me with its realistic, often understated depictions of issues such as depression, loneliness, ill health and finding family. But one storyline that has gone above and beyond is ‘Ladybug Bush’, which addresses middle schooler Hina dealing with bullying.

The storyline begins with Hina trudging home despondently, with a shoe missing. When she finally makes it home, she collapses and begins to cry, and her older sister coaxes the truth out of her. Hina reveals that her friend Chiho, a quiet and kind-hearted girl, was being bullied by the popular girls of her class. Unable to look the other way like the rest of her classmates, Hina becomes a friend to Chiho. When she finds out that Chiho is being transferred to another school, Hina is distraught and eventually lashes out at the bullies for laughing and shrugging off the matter, and becomes their new target.

So what makes this storyline so brilliant? For me, it’s not the events that take place but the incredibly human and realistic reactions to them.

HIna is angry and upset – and she has every right to be

Hina of course, is angry and upset that the bullies have ‘won’, forcing Chiho to leave the school, and leaving Chiho with the fear that she will be bullied again at her new school. The injustice is further magnified when Hina goes to a teacher for help and support, and is told that she is being ridiculous and creating problems where there are none. Not only does Hina feel that she has nowhere to turn, but she has to suffer the isolation and cruelty the bullies have imposed on her every day, as all her classmates are too afraid that if they speak out, they’ll be targeted next.

Not wanting her family to see how upset she is after she tells them the truth, Hina runs out into the night and is chased by their family friend, Rei. When he catches up with her, she breaks down, admitting how terrified she is about how alone she’ll be at school now, but defiantly stating through her tears that even though it hurts, she can’t regret it because she knows she did the right thing.

It’s incredibly moving to see Hina admit that despite her pain she knows she did the right thing

For me this is an incredibly moving reminder that the world doesn’t always reward you for doing the right thing, sometimes it even punishes you for it. But it’s still the right thing to do, and Hina knows this even though a teacher much older than her contradicted this.

It’s hard to watch how powerless Hina seems from this point on. She knows that anything she says against the bullies will not be believed as she has already had her actions dismissed out of hand. When an older boy she likes shows kindness to her at school, the bullies write cruel things about her on the blackboard. Hina expects to finally have a moment of justice, but instead it is her that is called back after class and reprimanded.

Hina’s claims are continually dismissed out of hand

Hina’s older sister admits to Rei that she feels powerless to help and guilty for not having a solution. Rei seeks a practical solution, and confides in his own teacher, Mr. Hayashida, who tells him that despite pages and pages of internet forums about bullying, there is no obvious answer. To bring in the parents and engage them in an angry dispute might make the victim feel even worse, and would not necessarily bring a stop to the bullying. It becomes clearer and clearer that there is no magical solution, and it’s impossible not to feel increasingly for Hina in just trying to get through each school day when the injustice is allowed to continue.

Hina feels lost and alone at school

March Comes in Like a Lion also shows us the long lasting effects of bullying. We see Hina suffer from multiple stomach aches, one of which is the night before a class trip that she’s afraid to go on. The show has always used its medium of animation well, and we see the emotional effects of bullying depicted in everything from a subtle crosshatching of glazed, depressed eyes, to a murky ‘black mist’ that threatens to engulf an entire classroom. We see Hina battling through oppressively silent classrooms and barely audible insults.

In spite of the injustices and uncertainty, Hina presses on, determined to show her face at school every day and show the bullies that they haven’t won. She continues to bravely push back against their cruelty until finally, the situation begins to unravel and the truth comes out. With the help of a new homeroom teacher, things begin to return to normality, and Hina is able to re-engage with her classmates, and even receives a letter from Chiho who is slowly healing and wants Hina to visit her.

Hina won’t stoop to the bully’s level – but she won’t back down either

March Comes in Like a Lion doesn’t try to wrap everything up in a neat little bow, and in keeping with the intensely emotional story it has created, Hina says unapologetically that she won’t forgive the bullies, because ultimately, their being made to apologise for their actions doesn’t undo the torment that she and Chiho have gone through, or the fact that Chiho had to leave. But like Chiho, she begins to heal and move on from her experience.

Although this storyline is a powerful tool in itself, I have to applaud Japan for also using it as part of a campaign to raise awareness about bullying, by sending 18,000 posters to junior high schools and colleges throughout Japan. Each poster features Hina and Rei, and also features the message ‘I’ll be your friend through it all’ and the phone number for MEXT’s helpline.

March Comes in Like a Lion is now on Crunchyroll and I would urge you to watch it for this beautifully nuanced storyline, and every other brilliantly handled human emotion that this anime so delicately and gracefully depicts.

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.

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?