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KIMI NO NA WA (Your Name) – (2016) Makoto Shinkai

5 Nov

My life is perfect. I know it. I don’t need other people to know it. I don’t even tell my friends how perfect my life is in order to protect it. They don’t need to know. Yet improvements continually occur. In Shinjuku tonight a leap was made. I took the Yamanote line—with the green trains—to the biggest and busiest station in the whole world. I came out the most convenient exit, then stomped across the road to a sushi restaurant. The seats with the view I sought were taken. The staff sat me round the counter with my back to the window from which a view of Kabukicho and its neon lit streets can be seen.

Outside the sushi restaurant, looking towards Kabukicho, lies one of my favourite urban scenes. Trains snake through buildings above the road, framed by electric signs and bright flashing lights, in linear chaos. I made my way to the movie theatre. Your Name is one of the most popular Japanese anime movies within Japan. I decided to add to the billions of yen in revenue it’s made. 16 billion yen to date. My theatre ticket was ¥1800. Does that mean 9 million tickets have been sold since it was released in August? That’s difficult to imagine.

The leap I took tonight was going to watch a movie entirely in Japanese. It’s an accomplishment. Obviously I might have not understood it all. I might not have understood any of it. In the end the gist was clear throughout the entire thing though the detail was lost in places. There were quite a few jokes I caught onto. A Japanese spirit entered my body and gathered the meaning without my having to translate.

Spirituality is rife in Japan. Shinto is Japanese organised nature worship. It comes from ancient tribal practices and consists of ritual spells and honouring spirits. It was outlawed outside officiated shrines. Shinto is widespread yet nobody owns it. Superstition surrounding a belief in spirits makes it prone to being laughed at. They don’t explain it so that the outside world can’t ridicule it. At its heart is purity. Everything involved in its rituals is kept special and sacred: pure.

Mitsuha and her younger sister are miko. They’re young girls, with pure souls, who channel the work of spirits. Somehow, after performing a ritual, Mitsuha and a boy called Taki find themselves in each other’s body. Taki feels himself up in Mitsuha’s body. Mitsuha as Taki emerges looking flushed from a bathroom experience. What would you do if you were a high school student in the body of the opposite sex?

Mitsuha lives in a traditional area in the countryside. Taki lives in Shinanomachi in Shinjuku. We can tell it’s Shinanomachi because we recognise the surroundings. We’re familiar with the Tokyo we see in this movie. Shinanomachi is one stop along from Sendagaya, where the Olympics are taking place, in fact when the new stadium is built it will probably be accessible from Shinanomachi too.

There is a place in the movie where a character is stood right by my work looking at the same view I have from the window. If they were to turn their head, they would be looking directly at me. This kind of appeal about the animation (anime) is widespread. It touches the heart of everyone in Tokyo. We’re acquainted with Roppongi and the National Art Museum. The parallel orange Chuo and yellow Sobu, the green Yamanote lines, the most idiosyncratic non-bullet trains in Japan. They’re like the Victoria and the Circle lines. Likewise the skyline of Shinjuku is loved by many people. Yes, there really are trees everywhere, and abandoned rowing boats. The shadows of skyscrapers pass over them and us.

Switching spirits is explored in the animation by creating shadows around birds flying above the lake. Birds are a universal symbol of spirit. Drawing attention to their shadows draws attention to the impression the birds make. Almost more important to body swapping is the impression the teenagers leave for one another. The pictures Mitsuha draws when she’s Taki. The writing Taki leaves on Mitsuha’s hand. Impressions are reinforced by a fleeting observation of a leaf falling to float on the water’s surface. Something bigger casts off our bodies and they come to rest in perfect unison together. Coincidence. Getting a glimpse of a loved one through train doors which align in perfect synchronicity.

Outside of Japan this movie will find appeal because it documents everyday life: breakfast time, leaving the apartment, wandering round Shinjuku. The images are utterly gorgeous. That’s what the interior of a typical classroom is like. That’s what the views from the mountains are like. That’s what a cafe in Roppongi is like. That’s the magic of Japan. Old Japan, countryside Japan, the new Japan found in a cosmopolitan city. Our lives, seen through our eyes, from the perspective of another person who is looking afresh at the way we live.

Within Japan I guess part of the appeal of the movie is how reassuring it is to see one’s own lifestyle turned into a beautiful animation. Japanese people strive so hard to make every little detail about their lives perfect. To see the way we live turned into fantasy is wonderful. Taki prevents Mitsuha from being obliterated by the comet. Life is fragile. Life is designed by some unseen force. We cannot take even being ourselves in our own bodies for granted. We can strive for perfection – though unforeseen change can strike at any moment.


Grave of the Fireflies (1988) dir. Isao Takahata

28 Sep


Somewhere, a little while back, I read that Grave of the Fireflies was voted number one anime in a poll. When I watched it, the horror of it came as a surprise. It’s not a cuddly animation full of magic and mystery like many. Other Studio Ghibli movies have left the sugariest candy-coated memories in my mind. Their pastel colours and innocent protagonists make me smile at the idea of living in a chalet/barn conversion surrounded by flowers, (which was where I lived when the Studio Ghibli phase happened). It’s worth watching, to be fair, if anime is your kind of entertainment. You might see other anime movies that you prefer though.

Grave of the Fireflies is set during the Second World War. We see Seita slumped against a pillar, relieved to finally be dead, on 21st September 1945. Then a cleaner throws away a candy box he finds in Seita’s pocket. Suddenly we’re enchanted by on-screen glowing fireflies, much romanticised, a sublime encounter with forces of nature. When they go, we’re back in happier times – well, still it’s wartime. An air raid siren has sounded. Seita quickly buries the valuables in the garden, an act that both saves his life and contains some irony, as he resorts to theft of valuables during later air raids to stay alive. That the mother dashes off to the air raid shelter, leaving her two kids behind to follow, could be implausible. But frankly, it’s Japan. The children weave their way through the fire-bombing of Kobe only to survive.

Possibly the mother should’ve stayed with her offspring. She was less fortunate and got caught in the bombings. Badly wounded, she passes away. Seita keeps the news of her death a secret from his little sister, Setsuko. They go to an aunt’s house. She offers them a room. But they quickly outstay their welcome by not being useful enough. Setsuko keeps crying and Seita isn’t at an age where he’s capable of taking command of the social situation. He could try to look like he wants to keep the aunt happy. He could apologise and do as she asks. But he doesn’t. His stubborn ways infuriate the aunt and her family more and more. She takes the mother’s kimono to exchange for rice. Rations are applicable. Food is in shortage. She tells Seita to feed himself. She doesn’t give him any rice.

After finding a means to acquire his own rice, Seita and Setsuko find a shelter next to a lake to create a makeshift house. At night they capture fireflies, the glow from which they use to see by. The following morning, Setsuko buries the tiny firefly bodies in a grave. They feed themselves at first by trading their stuff with a farmer. Next, when rations are stricter, they resort to theft, waiting until the raids to operate unnoticed. Setsuko grows increasingly sick; Seita takes her to a doctor. He confirms what we already know: she needs a decent meal. Seita leaves her temporarily to go and find money to buy food. While he’s away he discovers that Japan has surrendered. It’s also mentioned that none of the Japanese navy remains, which means his father – his beacon of hope – has died too. When he returns to Setsuko, she dies. He cremates her body and puts her ashes in a candy box. The End.

You can do quite a lot in an animation (by the way, anime is a shortened form of the word) that would be too saddening or disturbing if produced in the supposed real world using photography. Body parts, maggots on corpses, a child with malnutrition impacts with less shock when drawn. Scenes like the smoldering city. Depressing imagery, isn’t it? What purpose does it serve? I can’t help but think that the movie must be an allegory. It’s certainly left that taste. After giving it some consideration, let’s see how World War II itself fits.

The key issue is that Seita refuses to live on his aunt’s terms and apologise. He and Setsuko have invaded her house. They’ve also lost their mother. Japan before WWII began to lose its traditions. Japan invaded China and Vietnam, the Dutch East Indies. Japan refused to do what the rest of the world wanted it to in the quest for imperialism and domination. Yes, there’s definitely something allegoric.

So, if we explore, what’s the exchanging the kimono for rice about? Well, if the kimono symbolises traditions or beliefs and rice: power, the Japanese were impressing their beliefs on the rest of Asia in exchange for power juxtaposed by the West. But the rest of Asia became empowered by the West. Not Japan. And the starvation and death of Setsuko? Traditions like wearing a kimono began to lose hold. Some traditions were unsustained and have died out. Eventually Japan itself – as it was before the war – has died out through a lack of sustaining tradition and also through the extensive rebuilding and modernisation that occurred as a consequence of the firebombing.The fireflies are like the Japanese people during wartime, taken against their will and serving a purpose by shedding light, working together to enlighten the nation. Also fireflies burn bright until they dispose of life. Their lives mean as much as that.

Here is a link to the whole movie.

THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926) dir. Lotte Reiniger

15 Aug

When the Aubin Cinema in Shoreditch first opened, back in May 2010, it felt like a special secret. Luxurious, with some of the best acoustics to be found in a cinema, grey velvet sofas and wine coolers, yet to be discovered by a horde. The Adventures of Prince Achmed screened one Saturday morning. There was nobody else in the audience to behold its wonders but one small boy and his father.

 I hadn’t read any blurb about it, just happened upon it (so to speak), becoming utterly captivated by the quality of the animation. It’s lush! In fact, the only thing more beautiful that I’ve seen in a cinema was Voyage de la Lune, with a score by Air, restored in colour. That made me cry, it was incredible, the hairs on my neck stood on end, my whole self trembled. Still, The Adventures of Prince Achmed was thoroughly awe imposing, a sublime endeavour to encounter in the cinema. At the time I knew nothing about it; I supposed it to be a new release.

It’s possible to watch it from the comfort of your laptop via China. I tried it before embarking upon writing this. It’s better to find a copy with the subtitles translated into English (unless you speak German). Otherwise, expect the experience to be lovely and moving but also confusing, like visiting the ballet without first reading the programme, or playing poker without learning the rules. It’s the kind of film a young child might enjoy but you would have to talk them through it. “Now what’s happening? The sorcerer and the witch are fighting each other. Now they’ve turned into a lion and a snake,” catch my drift? (Watch out for the harem scene).

Yes there is a sorcerer and a witch and – in case that wasn’t magic enough –  Aladdin and a goddess called Pari Banu. Outrageous! I probably shouldn’t confess it but the shadowy Achmed is hot! He has a flying horse; it makes me go shivery. Every girl wants to be Pari Banu, let’s face it, she’s the best dressed silloette, even if her clothes resemble creepy doilies. It’s possible to imagine how opulent she would be if she were out of her world and not on top of a light box. Of course, Achmed and Aladdin win in the end. They get the ensorcered lamp back, everyone gets married, but Pari Banu, the shady figurine, has bird-power and settles for nothing less. No pleasing some.

It was a surprise to learn that The Adventures of Prince Achmed is ancient. It has an eternal quality that too few films ever have. Perhaps it is the most timeless film of all time (if some things are more timeless than others). Lotte Reiniger based the story on 1001 Arabian Nights. She worked on the film with other well known avant-garde animators. It was filmed frame by frame. To date it remains the oldest surviving animation. It is remarkable. A more electronic score would probably be of  benefit to the modern ear but the original is fine. The hues of the background linger on the palate with synthesia, sinister characters live on long inside our hearts with exquisite elegance, sixty-five minutes of mystery, silent visual poetry.