Category Archives: Animated

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

One magical summer, I met Hayao Miyazaki and entered the strange universe of Studio Ghibli. I remember listening to Eandra play the theme of Howl’s Moving Castle and being convinced to watch the movie, which soon prompted me to unearth more. I wept over Grave of the Fireflies, laughed through My Neighbors the Yamadas, and marveled at the mysterious worlds of Ponyo and Nausicaä. For a year I awaited Studio Ghibli’s next film, then titled The Borrower Arrietty.

The movie centers on Arrietty, an adventurous girl born to a family of borrowers—little people who live under the floorboards and “borrow” from humans the things they need for survival. She knows that this peaceful co-existence hinges on one very important tenet: that the borrowers remain undiscovered by humans, whom they perceive as cruel and dangerous. But one day a frail boy named Sho arrives at the house and strikes up a friendship with Arrietty, transforming her understanding of humans but also endangering her family’s existence.

A legend among anime fans, Hayao Miyazaki is a name that has become inseparable from Studio Ghibli. He serves as the production planner for Arrietty; animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi takes on the director’s role. Even after repeated viewings, Ghibli’s animation does not disappoint. There is always something new to admire in each film. In Arrietty we find a strong emphasis on detail highlighting relative properties: short distances become chasms, a clock’s ticking is amplified to insistent banging, and tea flows out of a pot in gigantic drops. This magnified scale imbues house interiors with a sense of newness, inciting wonder at what we deem ordinary—this I consider the film’s chief achievement.

Content-wise, what I liked most is the subtle dynamics of Sho and Arrietty’s relationship. Neither character overwhelms the other; they are equal in their weakness. I especially appreciated how Sho did not presume to solve the borrowers’ lodging problem, even though it was well within his capacity to do so. That struck me as the ultimate sign of respect. Because of this, I am prompted to deem the film’s few didactic lapses forgivable.

While Arrietty holds none of the exuberance of Spirited Away (my favorite), it possesses the same qualities that made the latter such a success. Charming and splendidly uplifting, this movie shows that it doesn’t take all that much to bridge two worlds. Sometimes, all you need is a cube of sugar.

‘We’ll make do, we always have. You don’t know anything about us!’

‘You protected me after all. I hope you have the best life ever. Goodbye.’

Voices of a Distant Star (2003)

Twenty minutes is a short time for anything, especially for a movie. But Makoto Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star shows how much you can do within those few minutes. The movie opens with a lonely Mikako struggling to come to terms with life’s consequences. The year is 2047, and she has just finished middle school. Earth has begun a war against an alien race called Tarsians, and the UN Space Army has drafted this fifteen-year-old girl for their forces. And so Mikako leaves everything behind—high school, ordinary life, her friend Noboru. Even after the UN spacecraft heads off to outer space, the two continue communicating through email; but as Mikako drifts farther away from Earth, their messages take longer to reach each other, eventually spanning years and possibly a lifetime.

This movie reminds me so much of Shinkai’s other film, 5 Centimeters per Second. Similarities encompass theme and technique: both films tackle the topic of distance in relationships, and both rely heavily on atmosphere to set the mood. More specific overlaps also occur, like the many train scenes in the middle and the synchronized soliloquys at the end. I liked 5 Centimeters per Second a lot more though, perhaps because I watched it first, and also because it’s much longer. Plus I noticed an abuse of weather-correlatives in Voices of a Distant Star (not sure about 5 Centimeters per Second, but at least I didn’t notice it then). On Earth as in distant planets, always, one of these is falling: rain, cherry blossoms, snow, shafts of sunlight. Despite this, I still felt teary-eyed by the end. Maybe I’m just a sucker for these kinds of films, but there it is. I found the movie’s outer space aspect a fitting representation of the various kinds of distance that plague relationships. When things stretch beyond our control, all we can do is hope. “We are far, far, very, very far apart, but it might be that thoughts can overcome time and distance.” This, this is infinitely sad.

The time between Mikako and I drifts further and further apart. That is why I have made a goal, to make my heart harder, colder and stronger.

Tangled (2010)

Surprisingly, one of the most debated movies in recent weeks. Some of my friends love it, while others deem it disappointing. I know I’m probably too late for this, but here I am finally writing my bit after watching it three nights ago with my little brothers Sean and Kevin. Based on the original tale, Tangled tells the story of Princess Rapunzel, whose magical hair compels a scheming Gothel to steal her from the castle and raise her in a hidden tower, kept away from all humanity. There Rapunzel remains until her eighteenth birthday, when she ventures outside for the first time with the help of wanted bandit Flynn Rider. Together, they pursue her dream of seeing the yearly lantern ritual her kingdom holds in her memory.

It’s a standard fairytale recipe: a beautiful princess, a swashbuckling rogue-prince, and an evil hag hankering for immortal youth; but frankly I cannot hate the movie for that. True, as Jason said, Disney has offered us far more memorable princesses like Jasmine and Ariel, but that does not mean Rapunzel is altogether un-quirky. She will never rank among my favorite princesses, but that does not mean she is altogether forgettable.

Character isn’t really this movie’s strongest point, and neither is it plot (though I did like one unexpected reversal involving the final cutting of Rapunzel’s hair). It’s not the music either: Angel once remarked that the soundtrack does not really impress on its own. So what is it that makes this film work? In one word: glitter. The colors and lights, the animation, the golden hair—visually, the movie does not fall short of amazing. At first I couldn’t believe I fell for all that glitter, but in retrospect: so what?

I have to share a story. While watching, I asked, “Why do they always have just one child?” Sean answered, “So it would be dramatic.” Apparently, at nine, kids already know all about manipulation, but they still manage to enjoy themselves. Unlike them, most of us choose to focus on the predictable resolution, the unexplained epiphany, the inevitable plot holes. Disney makes millions while we sulk and complain: who gets the shorter end of the stick? So Tangled isn’t the best animated movie out there, and yes, it is overrated, but it’s still pretty good. Watch it with kids: at least for ninety minutes, you’ll love it.

‘And for that one moment, everything was perfect. And then that moment ended.’

‘A fake reputation is all a man has.’

‘You were wrong about the world. And you were wrong about me!’

‘No! I won’t stop! For every minute, of the rest of my life, I will fight! I will never stop trying to get away from you!’

Waking Life (2001)

I’ve been watching the oddest films lately (eyes on you, Maki). Waking Life is no exception, but it stands out as probably the strangest movie I’ve ever encountered. This digital animation of a live-action recording follows an unnamed protagonist through a series of dreams featuring discourses on language, destruction, collective memory, existence and free will, among other topics. But although he initially enjoys this persistent dream state, he eventually endeavors to exit the cycle and in his desperation resorts to consulting his own mind’s characters about the possibility of returning to reality.

“Dream is destiny,” a little girl tells a younger version of the main character in the film’s opening scene. At first a mere product of a paper game, this statement becomes the defining prediction of the boy’s life. Dreams become his destiny, whether he wants it or not. At the same time, Waking Life allows its viewers to share in the same fate through digital manipulation. Its combination of animated effects creates a visual experience that mimics, or at least recalls, the blurring of illusion and reality that too often happens in dreams.

I did like this movie to the extent that I found its script interesting and recognized the vision behind it, but its overall monotony and lack of narrative prevented me from enjoying it. With no plot or setting and only a vague hint of character, it didn’t really have much of anything to propel it forward. The monologues proved interesting enough to hold my attention for a while, but from the middle part onwards I kept hoping for something else to capture me visually. None came. Instead the swirling colors and shifting outlines (plus my raging astigmatism) combined to induce a headache in me. At one point I stopped watching altogether and simply listened. I only looked whenever conversations stopped to note scene transitions. I didn’t feel like I missed anything.

I recognize the experimentation in this film and applaud it (avant-garde is the way to go!), but I didn’t enjoy its length. Perhaps if it had been shorter, I would have appreciated it more. The movie oversaturated my mind with ideas, and not in a good way. I loved the monologues individually, but their presentation as a seemingly endless succession just didn’t do it for me. By the end, I didn’t want to listen to them anymore. The closing credits came with relief.

‘Tell you what, go three up more streets, take a right, go two more blocks, drop this guy off on the next corner.’ ‘Where’s that?’ ‘I don’t know either, but it’s somewhere, and it’s gonna determine the course of the rest of your life.’

‘So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed, it’s unspeakable. And yet, when we communicate with one another, and we feel that we have connected, and we think we are understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. And that feeling might be transient, but I think that’s what we live for.’

‘We’re irresistibly drawn to that almost orgiastic state created out of death and destruction. It’s in all of us. We revel in it.’

‘I mean, yeah, maybe I only exist in your mind. I’m still just as real as anything else.’

‘They did this study. They isolated a group of people over time, and they monitored their abilities at crossword puzzles in relation to the general population. And then they secretly gave them a day-old crossword, one that had already been answered by thousands of other people. Their scores went up dramatically, like twenty percent. So it’s like once the answers are out there, you know, people can pick up on ‘em. It’s like we’re all telepathically sharing our experiences.’

‘…it’s like we go through life with our antennas bouncing off one another, continuously on ant autopilot, with nothing really human required of us. Stop. Go. Walk here. Drive there. All action basically for survival. All communication simply to keep this ant colony buzzing along in an efficient, polite manner. “Here’s your change.” “Paper or plastic?” “Credit or debit?” “You want ketchup with that?” I don’t want a straw. I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be ant, you know?’

‘The worst mistake that you can make is to think you’re alive when really you’re asleep in life’s waiting room.’

How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

Who among us didn’t have a dragon phase (or are still in it)? Exactly. This movie takes this childhood fascination and transforms it into something wonderful, magical—in 3D, no less. (It’s too bad I only watched it on my laptop.) Whereas everything around us today feels like it’s all about marketing to the largest possible audience, it is a rare, honest, feel-good film: it doesn’t try to be anything else, and it works that way.

Let me summarize. Hiccup is an awkward boy. The son of the chief Viking in his village, he has striven all his life to prove himself worthy of his race and his father. On an island in constant war with dragons, every kid dreams of becoming a great dragon slayer, and Hiccup is no exception. The problem is, when he finally gets his chance, he finds himself incapable of hurting a dragon and instead befriends it, realizing that there is so much more to the creatures than he had been taught to assume.

Although a bit lacking in the how-to aspect, this movie is everything else it promises to be—bright, charming, thrilling, sweeping—at times even scary. In a word: it will make you feel like a kid again. Armed with clever characters and an even cleverer script, it crawls its way into the viewer’s heart so well that by the end of the film you’re willing to overlook its faults. Not that there are a lot. How to Train Your Dragon combines all of the good of children’s films and takes with it hardly any of the bad. Its characters are a tad stereotypical (easily identifiable), its plotline predictable (anticipatable), but who’s complaining? Endearing characters, witty lines, great graphics, swooping music—to a kid that’s all you really need. To quote my nine-year-old brother Sean’s first words at the end of the movie: “That was bee-yootiful.”

‘This is Berk. It’s twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death.’

‘Excuse me, barmaid! I’m afraid you brought me the wrong offspring! I ordered an extra-large boy with beefy arms, extra guts and glory on the side. This here, this is a talking fish-bone!’

‘The sun was in my eyes, Astrid! What do you want me to do, block out the sun? I can do that you know!’

‘We’re Vikings. It’s an occupational hazard.’

‘This is Berk. It snows nine months out of the year, and hails the other three. What little food grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here, even more so. The only upsides are the pets. While other places have ponies, or parrots…we have dragons.’

5 Centimeters per Second (2007)

This is a beautiful, beautiful film. Thank you, Kris, for suggesting it to me. I am generally unfamiliar with full-length Japanese animated films, aside from Studio Ghibli productions—all of which I’ve watched up until Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008); I have yet to find a copy of The Borrower Arrietty (2010). But each time I delve into them I find that they are worth going back to again and again. (Incidentally the most recent non-Studio Ghibli movie I’ve watched is Mamoru Hosoda’s 2006 film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, also a good movie, also suggested by Kris.)

Written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, 5 Centimeters per Second follows a young man’s search for romantic fulfillment. The movie is told in three segments and runs for roughly an hour. It portrays the interrelated lives of Takaki Tōno, Akari Shinohara, and Kanae Sumida—three adolescents struggling with the unmistakable hold of first love. It is about the innocence and sadness of everyday life, in which we all long for something far beyond us and hope to find it somewhere in the distance.

This movie has been praised for the beauty of its screen effects. The setting is lovingly drawn out and utilized from start to finish (despite a few Engrish moments here and there like “Starberks Coffee,” “Windows Vasta”), and images are rendered all the more beautiful by their reflection of the characters’ interior landscapes. Throughout it we see charming pictures of our characters’ ordinary lives, and this I think is the ultimate charm of the movie: its success in bringing out the poignant in the mundane. Cherry blossoms, snow, train stations, letters: this is what life is all about; this is the stuff that makes up love. And in the end these are the things that will sustain us, through time, through distance; and without them love—and life—is not even possible.

From before and after that kiss, it seemed as though everything in the world had changed.

It was as if I understood everything that had happened in my life these last thirteen years, and the time which was to come. I became unbearably sad.

It was scary, and each day was filled with anguish. But feeling happy every time I met him was something about myself that I couldn’t do anything about.

By just living one’s life, sadness accumulates here and there.

Then here are the English lyrics to the ending theme song, copied in full because it’s the photo montage in this part that actually got me teary-eyed.

One More Time, One More Chance
Masayoshi Yamazaki

I’m always searching, for your figure to appear somewhere
On the opposite platform, in the windows along the lane
Even though I know you couldn’t be at such a place
If my wish were to come true, I would be at your side right away
There would be nothing I couldn’t do
I would put everything on the line and hold you tight

If I just wanted to avoid loneliness, anybody would have been enough
Because the night looks like the stars will fall, I cannot lie to myself
One more time, oh seasons, fade not
One more time, when we were messing around

I’m always searching, for your figure to appear somewhere
At a street crossing, in the midst of dreams
Even though I know you couldn’t be at such a place
If a miracle were to happen here, I would show you right away
The new morning, who I’ll be from now on
And the words I never said: “I love you”

The memories of summer are revolving
The throbbing which suddenly disappeared

I’m always searching, for your figure to appear somewhere
At dawn on the streets, at Sakuragi-cho
Even though I know you couldn’t be at such a place
If my wish were to come true, I would be at your side right away
There would be nothing I couldn’t do
I would put everything on the line and hold you tight

I’m always searching, for fragments of you to appear somewhere
At a traveler’s store, in the corner of newspaper,
Even though I know you couldn’t be at such a place
If a miracle were to happen here, I would show you right away
The new morning, who I’ll be from now on
And the words I never said: “I love you”

I always end up looking for your smile, to appear somewhere
At the railroad crossing, waiting for the express to pass
Even though I know you couldn’t be at such a place
If our lives could be repeated, I would be at your side every time
I would want nothing else
Besides you, nothing else matters