Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I didn’t really grow up with anime as a child, or even a teen. It was something I first explored in my early twenties in the aughts when it seemed like the last remaining sanctuary for hand-drawn animation in modern cinema. And even since then my familiarity with anime has been very surface-level, defined by major genre touchstones like Miyazaki, Sailor Moon, and Satoshi Kon. The one major exception I can think of in this late-to-the-table anime exposure was my childhood VHS tape of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an 80s relic (and a Japanese-American co-production) that I watched countless times as a kid despite it being a drowsy, unhurried mess. Watching its contemporary peer Night on the Galactic Railroad for the first time recently felt like a weirdly comforting return to those childhood viewings of Little Nemo – one of the rare anime titles where I felt at home with the tone & artistry instead of in over my head with a genre I don’t know nearly enough about. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a soothing, hypnotic film for me, which is odd because it’s intended to play as a devastatingly somber fantasy drama.

This is an adaptation of a popular 1930s children’s novel from Japan, in which a lonely young boy escapes the isolation of caring for his sick mother in a small town where hardly anyone notices him by riding a magical late-night train with his only friend his age. For reasons unexplained, the movie decided to remain faithful to the book’s plot but recast most of its characters as talking cats. But not all of them! It’s in no rush to emphasize or justify this major alteration to its source text (or to clarify exactly why most characters are cats, but some remain human). In fact, it’s in no rush to do anything at all. It takes nearly 40 minutes for the titular magic train to arrive, before which we mostly watch our melancholic feline protagonist attend to his daily chores at work, school, and home. Once on the train, he has lowkey conversations about the immensity of the galaxy and the meaning of life with a series of passengers – including his aforementioned bestie and, most surprisingly, passengers of The Titanic. The tone is grim & low energy, slowly chugging along to a major reveal about what riding the train symbolizes in its closing minutes, long after an adult audience would have guessed the twist. If young children had the attention span to follow its story and parse out its symbolism, it’s devastating enough that it could really fuck them up. Instead, it plays like a minor-notes lullaby, a warm naptime blanket made entirely of grief & regret.

Besides my recollections of Little Nemo, Night on the Galactic Railroad reminds me of when I had Final Fantasy on Gameboy as a kid but didn’t really know how to play it, so I would just wander around the game’s villages talking to fictional strangers. Absolutely nothing happens in this movie and the feline character designs stray disturbingly close to online furry art, but it still works like a soothing salve on a troubled mind. This film is potent catnip for anyone who can lose themselves in the pleasures of looking at cute cats & outer space imagery for the eternity of a lazy afternoon. Its unrushed tedium isn’t boring so much as it’s a time distortion device, making 100 minutes stretch on for 100 pleasantly melancholic hours – like contemplating the nature of Death while drifting through outer space all by your lonesome. It’s not the dazzling, intricate artistry and propulsive excitement of anime that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years as I’ve sought out the legendary standouts of the medium, but rather the dozy nostalgia-prone slow-drift of 80s anime that I grew up with as a kid.

-Brandon Ledet

Millennium Actress (2001)

Satoshi Kon may be the first of the major anime cinema legends whose filmography I’ve seen in its entirety, despite my being an eternal n00b in the genre. This is more of a deeply sad circumstance than a personal accomplishment, as the innovative director died young of pancreatic cancer in his mid-40s, just four feature films into his career (not counting his unfinished project, Dreaming Machine). Watching Millennium Actress on the big screen (via Fathom Events, in anticipation of its new digital restoration for Blu-ray) was the perfect way to wrap up this bittersweet relationship with an artist who’d left us before I fully became aware of his legacy. Although the film arrived midway through his career, it almost feels like an old, retiring auteur looking back on their own work (and the art of cinema at large) with a retrospective eye. I wouldn’t say it’s my personal favorite film of his, nor the objective pinnacle of his artistry, but Millennium Actress does feel like an amalgamation of everything Satoshi Kon accomplished in his other three features – combining the fluid cinematic dream logic of Perfect Blue & Paprika with the tender warmth of Tokyo Godfathers in one succinct, convenient package. It was wonderful to experience that full Satoshi Kon spectrum for the first time in a proper theatrical environment, watching with the same perplexed amusement I found when Paprika premiered on American big screens back in 2007 and I had no idea what I was getting into.

A linear plot synopsis of this surreally animated mind trip would almost seem disrespectful, as the film generally uses its narrative conceit only as a means of exploring a poetic crossroads between memory, fantasy, and cinema. It begins simply enough, with a movie studio executive and a young documentarian interviewing an elderly, retired actress about her life and career. As she recounts her story of growing up onscreen, however, the boundaries between memory & fiction erode beyond recognition, making the distinction pointless. The interviewer & cameraman follow the actress through the physical & temporal locations of her memory, filming the events of her past in a way that is only possible through the fluid, unrestrained logic of movie magic. All the movies the actress has starred in over her long career (whether they be samurai epics, wartime romances, kaiju action spectacles, or sci-fi space operas) blend into a single continuity as she and her two modern-day admirers run through a blur of fantasies & timelines in pursuit of an all-powerful MacGuffin: a literal key to “the most important thing in life.” Whether the most important thing in life is Memory, Passion, Art, or Love remains open for subjective interpretation. Mostly, Millennium Actress is a beautifully surreal melting pot of details from every movie genre through out the history of the artform – swordfights, monsters, ghosts, war, romance spaceships, betrayals – all propulsively animated to an early 00s techno beat.

I don’t think this film requires a familiarity with Satoshi Kon’s general filmography to be appreciated. If anything, expectations for the cruelty & despair of Paprika & Perfect Blue might be prohibitive to meeting this work on its own quietly sweet, melancholy terms. Millennium Actress should be enjoyable to anyone with an active interest in its artform – both as an exquisitely crafted anime from the dying days of hand-drawn animation and as a guided tour throughout the history of Japanese film genres. We’re treated to the full spectrum of what Movies can accomplish as we travel time throughout the most distinct eras of the artform in a lyrical, transportive version of movie-magic dream logic that’s impossible to pull off in any other medium. Similar to other movies-about-movies masterworks like Singin’ in the Rain, Cinema Paradiso, and Hail, Caesar!, Millennium Actress is readily accessible to anyone who can gush emphatically about the history & artistry of cinema as an artform. Still, it does hold a special reverence for Satoshi Kon fans in that it feels like a Greatest Hits collection of his best big-screen accomplishments. It’s absolutely tragic that we couldn’t experience even more grand visions from this late animation wizard, but this film alone is an excellent encapsulation of what made the work he was able to leave behind in his short life so special. I couldn’t imagine a better way to wrap up my precious little time with the enigmatic auteur, even if this film’s sentimentality wasn’t as geared specifically to my interests as harder-edged works like Perfect Blue

-Brandon Ledet

The End of Evangelion (1997)

As someone who only casually watches the most surface-level specimens of anime, I’m likely the least qualified person to register an opinion on Neon Genesis Evangelion. The show was a major reinvigorating boon for anime as an industry in the mid-90s and has maintained a strong cult following in America in the decades since, to the point where I remember at least 50% of all non-porn Tumblr posts being dedicated to the show’s meaning & legacy. I am one of the many, many Americans who didn’t bother seeking out Neon Genesis Evangelion until it became conveniently available to stream on Netflix earlier this year, though, running through all 26 of the episodes that fans have been obsessing over since the 90s in just a week’s time. It was a trip. The show starts off as a proto-Pacific Rim kaiju vs. mech suits action series, but then rapidly transforms into a psychedelic, philosophical crisis in which Humanity must escape the consequences of playing god by finding unexpected refuge in The Singularity. That is, if I understand even a tenth of what was happening in the defiantly convoluted & unconventionally structured story – an intricate web of conspiracy theories, flashbacks, Biblical references, and intense psychological breakdowns. It’s a show I should probably sit with over several years and a few rewatches before I speak on anything it’s attempting to accomplish, outside praising the artistry of its gorgeous, intricately detailed 2-D animation style. And yet, I still feel compelled to talk about a major aspect of the show’s legacy that I find outright fascinating: its ending(s).

The conclusion of Neon Genesis Evangelion is somehow even more difficult to parse out in words than the show’s perplexing premise. Most of the series details a government program that militarizes young children by psychologically linking them to organic mech suits to fight invading kaiju threats to their city. Mysteries about the government’s intent with the program, the origins of both the mech suits & the monsters, and the psychological effect of weaponizing children open the show up to sprawling obfuscation & subjective interpretations, but for the most part its story fits into a genre template we’ve become familiar with in the decades since its initial run. I was stunned, then, when the final two episodes in the series abandoned the mech suit program entirely to stage a psychedelic breaking down of each character’s individual identities, so that the world can be saved through reaching The Singularity rather than through battle. I loved this swerve. It reminded me a lot of the “How are you connected to yourself?” philosophical crises of Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, except interpreted through psychedelic animation instead of the gory payoffs of early-aughts J-horror. Apparently, contemporary fans of the show did not feel the same way. They complained violently, for years, that the series creator Hideaki Anno (who later directed the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla) ruined something truly special with this esoteric conclusion, to the point where they sent him death threats for the offense. Eventually, Hideaki Anno responded to this fandom bullying the way many modern pop culture creators find themselves doing these days: caving in to deliver more of the show, promising fans the ending they believed they deserved. Things only got weirder from there.

Reconstructing a proper ending for Neon Genesis Evangelion took two whole feature films to pull off. The first, titled Death & Rebirth, was mostly an incomprehensible editing room nightmare meant to refresh fans’ memory of the series arc in a glorified clip show. Anything new it added to series lore (besides a flimsy wraparound in which the weaponized children form a string quartet) has since been removed and added to the front end of the proper movie sequel The End of Evangelion – thanks to a series of revisions that’s too convoluted to be worth explaining. That puts all the weight of sending off Neon Genesis Evangelion with a fandom-satisfying ending on a single 90min feature film, which is structured as a three-episode arc of the show. What I love about The End of Evangelion in its final edit (at least the one that’s conveniently streaming on Netflix) is that it only pretends to play nice in satisfying the fandom for so long. The film rewinds the clock to before the Singularity experiments of the final two episodes (known as The Instrumentality Project in series lore) to provide a more linear, logical conclusion where the government base is under militaristic attack and each character gets a proper send-off in the fray (mostly through onscreen deaths). I initially hated this choice, as it seemed to be caving to fans’ demands entirely by reorienting the plot to be more of a conventional story of traditional character arcs rather than a grand philosophical statement on the nature of Existence. Then, with time, The End of Evangelion transforms into its own confounding monstrosity that’s just as bizarrely esoteric & inscrutable as the original conclusion to the show that pissed off fans in the first place. It’s the anime equivalent of an “Up high, down low, too slow!” prank, and I love it for that fandom-satisfying fake-out.

I don’t think it would be especially useful (or even possible) to describe what happens in The End of Evangelion here. If the series it’s wrapping up is to be understood as a warped, nightmarish Biblical allegory, this is certainly the Book of Revelations portion of the text. Images of The Rapture, in which characters pop like balloons or swell to the size of celestial gods, mix with Donald Hertzfeldtian animation that assaults the viewer in psychedelic mixed-media collage. It’s just as horny, grotesque, and stupefying as the best episodes of the show ever were, except that it’s now set free to melt down the confines of reality on a global scale, whereas the original ending of the show was more of an internalized crisis. What I love most about it, though, is how it resets the narrative of The Instrumentality Project only to ultimately reach the same conclusion: a psychedelic visual essay on humanity reaching The Singularity. The End of Evangelion calls for “Death to God, man, and all life so that we may become One.” I’m still not convinced that the movie sequels to the show ever needed to exist in the first place, but I greatly respect them for promising a more logical, linear result to the narrative only to backslide right into the same confounding breakdowns of reality, except now on a bigger scale. To make that prank on the fandom even more satisfying, Hideaki Anno even included images of the death-threat emails he received after the original finale as part of the multi-media collage. He might as well have appeared on camera himself to give his audience the finger.

Honestly, I wish more modern creators would have this openly hostile of a relationship with their own fandoms. Watching people like Rebecca Sugar, Rian Johnson, and the Game of Thrones dorks suffer nonstop hyperbolic complaints from the entitled brats they’re only trying to entertain has been insufferable in recent years, so it’s wonderful to look back to what Hideaki Anno­­ accomplished in The End of Evangelion as an anti-audience pushback. He pretended to cave into his most abusive fans’ demands of a “proper” conclusion to his series, only to double down in a grand, grotesque spectacle. I wish more creators could get away with letting their “fans” squirm this way. It’s just as much of a dying art as traditional animation (as evidenced by the fact that even Hideaki Anno­­ himself is working on more Neon Genesis Evangelion sequels as I type this, so that his own victory over his fans was somewhat short-lived).

-Brandon Ledet

How a Japanese Anime Theme Song Found Way into an Italian Romcom Set in Greece

When discussing our current Move of the Month, the horned-up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon, one of our major fixations was on the chaotic nature of its soundtrack. This early-aughts romcom, set in the Spring Break-style hedonism of the Grecian island Ios, features a jarringly eclectic collection of tunes that seemingly have nothing to do with each other: romantic sitars, pop music from Culture Club & The Village People, post-punk from Wire, a lengthy homage to musicarello star Mina, and every other spur-of-the-moment indulgence the film wishes to entertain itself with. The track that really stood out to me, though, was a very short disco number that the two main characters (a heartbroken aunt who’s recovering from a breakup and her lovelorn teenage niece who’s aiming to shed her virginity) walk down the street to, singing along with every rapid-fire syllable. Given the disco-flavored rhythms of the tune and the film’s setting, I assumed the track was an Italian entry into the wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest. As such, I was shocked to learn later that it was titled “UFO Robot” and was, in reality, a theme song to a 1970s anime television show.

Running for 74 episodes from 1974 to 1975, the Japanese sci-fi action cartoon UFO Robot Grendizer was only a brief blip in the overall output of the country’s long-running success in exporting animation abroad. Arriving as Force Five: Grandizer in the US, the show never quite found the domestic cult following other properties like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Sailor Moon enjoyed here. However, it was a massive hit in other countries – including France, French-speaking Canada, across the Middle East, and—wait for it—Italy. Packaged as UFO Robot for the Italian market, Grendizer was retrofitted with an Italian-language soundtrack from the (seemingly fictional) disco group Actarus, who provided several dance-beat themes for the series, including the titular one featured in Ginger & Cinnamon. While the original Japanese theme to the show has a serious, militaristic tone, all the Actarus songs I can track down on YouTube are much more fun & playful, which I’m sure helped make the show iconic for the Italian kids who grew up with it. That would at least help explain how the titular “UFO Robot” track was treated with the same nostalgic weight as major hits like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?,” “Y.M.C.A.,” and Mina’s “Ta Ra Ta Ta.”

Nostalgia actually seems to be the unifying force behind Ginger & Cinnamon’s chaotic soundtrack choices in general. The “Ta Ra Ta Ta” sequence directly recalls the traditional musicarelli the wistful, nostalgic aunt character would have watched on television as a young child. The “1.2.X.U. “ cut from Wire (along with the more traditional 80s club hits) evokes the more rambunctious era of her teen years, when she was just as dangerously young & horny as her niece. In that way, “UFO Robot” fits right in with the rest of the collection. The aunt is the exact right age where UFO Robo would have been her standard Saturday Morning cartoon viewing as a child, making it a song selection just as primed for nostalgia as a Village People single – as long as you grew up in Italy at the exact right moment.

It turns out she’s not alone. Just last year, for the 2018 Record Store Day, a vinyl LP collection with all of the Actarus disco tracks for UFO Robot was printed for collectors on red, numbered wax. It’s enough of a nostalgia trigger for a specific group of people that it’s freshly back on the market in the most nostalgia-friendly format around. Even if for some reason you don’t want to personally invest in a physical copy of an Italian soundtrack to a Japanese television show you’ve likely never heard of before, though, you should still at least check out the “UFO Robot” track below. It’s a bop, and it’s one of the highlights of the Ginger & Cinnamon soundtrack.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, the horned up Italian romcom Ginger & Cinnamon (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its musicarello inspirations.

-Brandon Ledet

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (2019)

Although it’s at best a cult favorite in America, the animated supernatural teen romance Your Name. was a massive success in its native Japan. Likely fueled by repeat viewings from droves of lovelorn teens, the film broke all kinds of box office records – spawning official merchandize jewelry, planned live action remakes and, unavoidably, knockoffs. The teen anime romance is nothing new as a genre (if nothing else, Your Name. director Makoto Shinkai also made a film titled 5 Centimeters Per Second in a very similar vein as his smash hit an entire decade earlier), but there are some basic elements of Your Name. that have been echoed & rearranged enough times in the couple years since its massive success to establish an entire subgenre of knockoffs. Lightly proggy emo soundtracks, heart-swelling fireworks displays, supernatural shenanigans, and overreaching romantic narration have become almost standard in the post-Your Name. teen anime, as if films were attempting to reverse-engineer its success using the exact same building blocks. Last year’s goofily haphazard Fireworks is a clear example of how the cynical Your Name. riff can fall flat on its face – the butt of some cosmic, absurdist joke. Although it’s more humorously titled, this year’s I Want to Eat Your Pancreas swings in the exact opposite direction – suggesting that the sub-Your Name. genre is worthy of being continued & explored, that there’s plenty of room to keep the formula flesh & emotionally effective.

Part of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’s saving grace as a deliberate Your Name. riff (besides its attention-grabbing title) is that it’s adapted from well-established source material entirely separate from its newfound anime subgenre. A YA teen romance novel that has already been adapted into a manga series and a live-action film titled Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, this is a property that’s already popular & familiar enough to Japanese audiences to stand on its own legs as an individual work. It even comes from a different angle than Your Name. in that its premise isn’t at all supernatural, but instead is a romantic terminal illness teen weepie along the lines of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Fault in Our Stars, and the upcoming Cole Sprouse vehicle Five Feet Apart. A high school student who’s eternally cheerful despite slowly dying of “a pancreatic disease” becomes unlikely friends with (and the unlikely love interest of) a stubbornly antisocial boy who’s defiantly boring & needs help breaking out of his shell, but reluctantly gets roped into helping the dying girl complete her bucket list anyway. The quiet, conversational drama that unfolds from that premise doesn’t sound at all similar to the raucous body-swapping, physics-defying romance of Your Name., which helps the film distinguish itself from that apparently seminal work. However, as the checkboxes of the purple narration, power pop soundtrack, and CG fireworks display are each ticked off the entire exercise starts to feel strikingly familiar. Then, it all ends in a climactic supernatural fantasy that transcends reality in a sequence inspired by The Little Prince on a planet populated by cherry blossom trees – far away from the grounded, conversational tone of its source material – solidifying it as a fully committed Your Name. disciple.

To be honest, distinguishing itself from Your Name. was far from I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’s greatest hurdle to clear. There’s a reason that formula has been echoed in so many recent teen anime titles: it works. If anything, it’s the terminal illness weepie premise of its source material that threatens to sink its enjoyability, especially in regard to its choice of POV. This is the story of a chipper, terminally ill child who seemingly lives without fear; she misshelves library books, kicks bullies in the nuts, runs from cops, experiments with alcohol & sex, gorges on rich foods, and does basically everything else a rebellious suburban teen wishes they could get away with. So why, then, do we instead see the world through the POV of her polar opposite, a killjoy boy who literally feels sorry for himself because he’s boring? It initially seems as if this choice were a textbook repetition of the Manic Pixie Dying Girl trope, where a tragic girl with a rambunctious spirit exists only to improve the life & disposition of a milquetoast male protagonist with a much less interesting POV. If you afford I Want to Eat Your Pancreas a little patience, that dynamic is beautifully subverted in its emotionally cathartic climax, which saves the entire film in one paradigm-shifting information dump. In reading the Manic Pixie Dying Girl’s private diary (morbidly titled Living with Dying), we’re suddenly flooded with her perspective & story of personal growth, something that had been missing for the entire film before it. Not only is there a huge emotional payoff in that reveal, it’s also where the film justifies its animation format by reaching for some Little Prince by way of Sailor Moon surrealism to match the soaring emotional stakes of that catharsis. The trick is trusting the film long enough to get there.

The flashier, attention-grabbing details of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas are likely to draw in most of the audience, but also promise a much wilder, louder movie than what’s ultimately delivered. Once you look past its weirdly cannibalistic title, its Your Name.-riffing aesthetic, and the severity of tis terminal illness romance premise, however, you will find an intimate, minor teen drama that (outside the visualization of its climax) makes total sense as a work that was previously translated into live action. There are slideshow sequences & CG animation shortcuts that call into question the film’s need to be animated at all, outside the opportunity to ride the wave of Your Name.’s success, but it’s a decision that’s eventually justified, even if at the last minute. More importantly, I Want to Eat Your Pancreas eventually finds distinct, emotionally satisfying things to say about how teens establish their sense of identity & self-worth that feel entirely separate from its value as a post-Your Name. anime or a post-John Green teen weepie. It takes a lot of work for the film to stand on its own beyond those comparison points and the novelty it its title, but it does get there with time & patience.

-Brandon Ledet

Perfect Blue (1997)

The debut feature of tragically-deceased Japanese animator Satohi Kon (Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers) is taking a 20th anniversary victory lap in digital restoration, so I had the unexpected opportunity to see it for the first time in a theatrical setting. What a fucked-up delight! Because Paprika is one of the few anime films I’ve watched repeatedly over years of admiration & study, I was somewhat prepared for the sugary pop psychedelia & loopy nightmare logic Satoshi Kon established in this predecessor. What I did not expect going in blind was that the film would fit so comfortably within my beloved Evil Internet horror genre, given that it arrived so early in the development of online culture. The internet is fertile thematic territory for the horrors of the Unknown because its mechanics & functions have continued to feel like a novel, depthless mystery to the average user. I can only imagine that effect was even greater in 1997, when a global network of intercomputer communication felt like a man-made miracle. Perfect Blue not only exploits the eeriness of that brand-new unknown by reflecting it in the similar subliminal space of a bad dream & an unraveling mind, but it’s also prescient of the Internet’s worst functions as a future real-world evil – both as a tool for misogynist bullying & as a corrupter of personal identity. Unlike other early Evil Internet thrillers like The Net or FearDotCom, it’s remained effectively creepy instead of devolving into a quaint joke precisely because it got the internet exactly right. It perfectly captures our ongoing, collective online nightmare, despite arriving in a time when the internet was mostly a tangle of blogs & message boards.

A female pop singer is pressured by her managers to leave her music career behind to pursue acting. This professional shift is coded as her public image growing up, leaving behind the girlish innocence of her pop idol persona to pursue a more adult, sexualized career. She lands a small role on a racy “Japanese psycho thriller” TV series (the kind of sensationalist drama that plays for high ratings on HBO in the 2010s), requiring her to perform increasingly sexualized acts for the camera, including participation a brutal rape scene. Pretending she’s okay with this career shift so she appears agreeable to her talent agency causes a rift inside herself, where her still-innocent inner voice (visualized as her former pop idol persona) screams out in dissent. Meanwhile, an online stalker blogs in first-person as her former self, reinforcing the bifurcation between her two personae. The pressures of her job & the online harassment amount to a fever pitch as she starts losing time and waking to find that the entertainment industry goons who pressured her into sexually compromising positions are being found systematically murdered. Her pop idol self, her TV show character, her dreams, and her false online persona all collectively unravel her sense of identity to the point where she can’t say for sure whether she is the mysterious murderer or even if the murders are actually happening. She can’t even answer basic questions like “Am I dreaming?” or “Am I alive?” with any confidence or certainty. Pressures from her pop music fans to remain an innocent child clash with the television industry’s pressures for her to expose her body & pretend to be a rape victim for commercial entertainment – two opposing, impossible standards only she suffers the consequences of as their target du jour. It’s no surprise that the internet is the primary tool of this misogynist cycle, as it’s only served that function more intensely in real life in the decades since.

Early on in Perfect Blue the protagonist receives a threatening fax from her stalker and the machine’s mechanical scrapes & hums mutate into an industrial pop score that overwhelms the soundtrack, heightening the eerie threat technology poses in her insular world. That’s when I knew I would be all-in for the movie’s technophobic feminist nightmare, which only became more rewarding the further it broke apart from reality to sink into the (literal & figurative) machines of misogyny. Like most well-regarded anime, Perfect Blue is technically impressive as a feat in traditional animation, fully utilizing its medium to achieve logic & imagery unattainable in live action cinema. The particulars of how it uses that medium to reflect the eeriness & artifice of the internet, nightmares, and the entertainment industry are a more rarified wonder, especially since it’s an effect that actually has something substantial to say about the exploitation & commodification of women in the public sphere. Perfect Blue can occasionally be super uncomfortable in its depictions of sexual assault, but at least in a way that’s relevant to those themes. Overall, it’s a strikingly beautiful, effectively creepy work of animated psych-horror, one that approximates the full danger & eeriness of the internet in a way that’s only since been matched by the likes of Suicide Club, Unfriended, Nerve, and #horror. I mean that as the highest of praise, as this is a genre I find consistently fascinating, but rarely this effectively scary. It’s worth noting too that the 20th anniversary digital transfer of the film has not seemed to sharpen, flatten, or distort its original appearance the way some digital “restorations” of animated classics have. Perfect Blue looked to me of the exact grainy, matte quality you’d expect an animated 90s movie to appear like on the big screen. Our relationship with the internet may have intensified drastically in the last 20 years, but Perfect Blue appears to remain untouched as a pristine, enduringly terrifying object – a beautiful technophobic nightmare worthy of continued discussion & preservation.

-Brandon Ledet

Night is Short, Walk on Girl (2018)

My mental library of anime titles is embarrassingly shallow; if it’s not Miyazaki or Akira, I likely haven’t heard of it. As someone who cherishes the artistry of hand-drawn, traditional animation, however, I’m often a huge sucker for the stray titles from the medium I’ve seen (I was even mildly positive on the egregious Your Name.-knockoff Fireworks from earlier this year, at least as a novelty). Since the animation artistry itself is often what I’m typically drawn to in these works, it’s the freewheeling, psychedelic end of the anime spectrum that most attracts me – titles like Paprika & FLCL that indulge in dream logic sequences of fantastical mayhem simply because it looks cool. That disposition makes me the perfect audience for Masaaki Yuasa’s latest feature film, Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Surely, anime & manga die-hards familiar with the film’s source material (an eponymous novel & a television show titled Tatami Galaxy) will have a much richer contextual experience with Night is Short than I, but as a previously uninitiated appreciator of psychedelic visual indulgences, I still had a total ease in enjoying the film as a stylistic exercise isolated from extratextual concerns. A plot-light immersion in visual excess & tonal drunkenness, Night is Short is wonderful as an exhibition of the virtues of traditional animation, a chaotic night of unhinged fun that requires very little familiarity with its medium to enjoy on a purely aesthetic level.

The POV of Night is Short, Walk on Girl is split between two unnamed characters: a teen girl brazenly entering “the adult world” through a wild night of drinking & a slightly older boy who’s following her from a close distance in a hapless effort to woo her through stalking. Of course, the film is most fun when seen through the girl’s perspective, but their adventures are evenly weighted & equally absurd. “The night that felt like a year” stretches on endlessly ahead of them as they plow through cocktail bars, open-air used book markets, porno auctions, strangers’ parties, and guerilla theatre happenings all over the city of Kyoto. Time is explained to move much slower for young folks (interpreted literally in the ticking of wristwatches), so their single night of missed connections stretches on for an impossible temporal bacchanal. Besides the way youth distorts our perception of time, the film also contrasts different age ranges’ philosophies on interconnectivity. Older late-night drunks feel isolated, prone to despair, while the titular girl is so bursting with life & feelings of interconnectedness with the people of Kyoto that she sees cocktails across the city only as precious jewels to be collected as flowers bloom in the air around her. When asked “How much do you drink?” she defiantly responds, “As much as is in front of me,” spending her entire night binging on the simple, immediate joys of life while oblivious to the lovelorn boy with eyes only for her.

If I have one regret about seeing Night is Short on the big screen, it’s that I didn’t have the option to watch it dubbed. I realize that tarnishes my anime credibility more than anything else, but in a film that’s most notable for its visual achievements it would have been nice to not have been distracted by the subtitles while taking in the artistry. For all the film’s vague philosophy about youth, interconnectivity, and the passage of time, its plot mostly amounts to a frantic night of drunken, incoherent yelling. It only really comes alive as an achievement in narrative storytelling in the 15min stretch when it mutates into a full-blown musical. Otherwise, it’s the film’s poetic, freeform animation style that commands the tones & rhythms of each sequence—shifting from storybook illustration to erotic printmaking to Powerpuff Girls-style retro cutouts to whatever the mood dictates as the moment blooms. I was reminded of the recent restoration of Yellow Submarine while watching it in the theater, if not only for both films’ willingness to exploit their shared medium for the full spectrum of absurd, anti-logic indulgences it allows, whereas most modern animation feels dispiritingly restrained & unimaginative. I can’t say with any authority whether Night is Short is an especially remarkable achievement as anime, but I can say with certainty that in our modern era of CG animation doldrums, it’s an invigorating, intoxicating elixir.

-Brandon Ledet

Fireworks (2018)

It’s always interesting what international media does or does not culturally translate in its voyage to America. The animated supernatural romance Your Name., for instance, seems like it should have been a massive crossover hit in the US, but it barely made a splash. The top-selling anime film of all time, Your Name. expertly plucked lovelorn teens’ heartstrings to a gorgeous visual palette and emo mall punk soundtrack, inspiring so many repeat visits to the theater in its target demographic that it became an instant cultural phenomenon. That phenomenon translated to a mere faint whimper in its US release, however, where the movie quickly died in near-empty theaters (despite being one of last year’s best domestic releases in my estimation). Meanwhile, in Japan, Your Name. was so successful that it’s already inspired a wave of pale imitators. Advertised as being “from the producers of Your Name.,” Fireworks (full title: Fireworks – Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?) is another animated teen romance that filters low stakes emotional crises through a high stakes supernatural plot. With a reliance on cheap commuter animation to fill in its gaps and a ludicrous story that barely holds itself together in any intelligible way, it’s clear that Fireworks was rushed to market to capitalize on Your Name.’s (Japanese market) success as quickly as possible, quality be damned. It can’t help but open itself up to direct comparison because of that lineage, a side-by-side that is unforgiving to Fireworks’s lack of emotional depth, intelligent construction, and genuine beauty. Even so, the film is mildly enjoyable as a novelty, a quirky footnote to Your Name.’s instantaneous legacy (outside the USA).

Two teen boys long for the love of the same troubled classmate, who has just learned that she’ll be moving away to a different town at the end of the school year. Unbeknownst to the boys who carry a torch for her, she plans to escape her fate by running away on the next train to Tokyo with one of her would-be suitors in tow for company. She decides the lucky victor based on a swimming pool race, which is treated in-film as the single most significant athletic event of all time. After the two teens pair off for a date at the town’s celebratory fireworks display, the left-behind, heartbroken third makes a wish on a magical orb that the swimming match had gone differently. If this is all sounds absurdly melodramatic, it’s because it very much is. There might be something to how teenage crushes are treated in Fireworks the way they feel in real life: like the biggest deal in the world, a monumental flood of lust & embarrassment. For the most part, though, the characters’ heightened earnestness over minor social exchanges feels entirely inhuman & absurd. It’s a good thing, then, that most of the runtime distracts itself with the supernatural machinations of the wish-granting orb, which the teens use to keep resetting their young-love predicament until the right couple can successfully escape fate & run away to happiness. The more they reset the loop of their fateful swimming race & fireworks date, however, the further their version of reality slips away from the physical world we know, allowing the animators to play around with surreal, computer-smoothed fantasy-scapes overloaded with underwater distortions, golden adornments, and abstracted fireworks.

There is one thing Fireworks gets exactly right about human behavior: teenagers are grotesque, horned-up idiots (I can confirm this because I used to be one myself). As much as the kids of Fireworks might feel like over-the-top caricatures in moments when they’re frozen motionless by the slightest confrontation with social anxiety, they feel entirely real in the stretches of juvenile dialogue when they’re cracking poop jokes, drooling over teachers’ breasts, and having relentless, inane arguments about whether fireworks appear round or flat when they explode (a topic that repeats so often it’s included in the film’s long-title). Besides its bastardization of Your Name.’s basic formula, most of Fireworks’s novelty lies in the juxtaposition of its beautifully cheesy, heavenly screensaver imagery and its central subject of grotesque teenage horniness disguising itself as romance. Your Name. generated a deep well of empathy, curiosity, and genuine beauty that convinced audiences its central romance was powerful enough to supernaturally break through the barriers of space & time. When the shit & tits-obsessed knuckleheads of Fireworks attempt the same romantic transcendence (with the help of a fireworks display and a magical orb) the sentiment plays like a bizarre joke. It’s charming in its own way, though, if not only for its very existence as a mockbuster version of a much better film that, at best, barely has earned a cult status in the U.S. If Your Name. failed to translate to American audiences in all its transcendent beauty, it’s difficult to imagine this rushed-to-market frivolity faring much better. Even more dedicated anime nerds will likely struggle with finding much value in its mediocre charms as an occasionally beautiful, relentlessly cheesy, oddly grotesque teen melodrama. I (mostly) got a kick out of it, though, as it helped further illustrate what makes its more substantial predecessor so goddamn great.

-Brandon Ledet

Batman Ninja (2018)

Stretching back to the 1940s serial shorts, there have been over seven decades of Batman cinema to date, which makes adaptations of the unfathomably long-running comic book series common enough to be considered their own separate movie genre. As such, there are plenty of tropes & verbatim repetitions of scenes in onscreen Batman content that have become punishingly familiar to audiences who regularly seek this stuff out. No Batman movie need ever show a young Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents’ murder in a back alley again, for instance, as it’s an image that’s been deeply chiseled into our minds over the decades (right down to his mother’s broken strand of pearls skittering across the pavement). Many recent Batman movies have reached for a more distinctive novelty in their narratives as a result, especially the animated DC movies. 2018 alone has already seen the release of a film where Batman teams up with Scooby-Doo, one where he battles Jack the Ripper in a steampunk arena, and one where he crosses over into the treacherous, transcendent world of anime. It’s that last example where Batman cinema has likely reached its most absurd novelty to date, even promising in Catwoman’s opening dialogue, “You think you’ve heard every Batman story? I promise you haven’t.” The story Batman Ninja proceeds to tell after that tease is indeed one I’ve never seen before. What’s up for debate is whether it’s, factually speaking, a story at all, as opposed to a chaotic collection of incongruous tangents & flights of fancy. What’s clear, either way, is that it’s admirably bonkers in a way more Batman movies could stand to be, animated or otherwise.

The concept of mashing up Batman with anime sounds like a nerd’s wet dream, a juvenile pleasure impulse Batman Ninja attempts to live up to in every self-indulgent frame. With intense character redesigns from Japanese manga artist Takashi Okazaki and an impressive team of traditionalist animators, the movie is almost well-crated enough to pass itself off as an art piece instead of what it truly is: nonstop over-the-top excess, a shameless sky-high pile of pop culture trash. The film begins with Batman being transported back to feudal Japan with “a time displacement device,” where he must stop anime-redesigned versions of his infamous foes from taking the country over & rewriting history. The Joker, Poison Ivy, Two Face, The Penguin, etc. are introduced like Pokémon selections in a video game. Each present a different setting-appropriate challenge to the Caped Crusader as he anachronistically drives his shape-shifting Batmobile around feudal Japan. The movie chases its own impulsive whims from moment to moment in these barely-connected conflicts as Batman subdues his enemies one by one, struggling most to conquer The Joker, as always. The resulting spectacle is pure lunacy. Batman sumo-wrestles Bane in a mech suit. The Joker’s goons manifest as samurais in welded clown masks. An army of monkeys assembles to form one giant monkey that challenges a similar gigantic Batman gestalt (composed of bats, naturally) to a climactic kaiju battle. I don’t know that I can praise Batman Ninja as disciplined comic book storytelling, but it’s certainly a novelty as visual spectacle, something that must be seen to be believed.

Ostensibly, there’s a long-running connection to ninja training in Batman’s origin story that could potentially be used to justify this absurd indulgence. If nothing else, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins could’ve easily been retitled Batman: Ninja School without much of a fuss. The truth is, though, that Batman Ninja seems entirely unconcerned with justifying its own for-their-own-sake impulses. Its experiments in the newly discovered artform of Batmanime seem to be born entirely of “Wouldn’t it be rad if __?” daydreaming. It’s a refreshing approach to Batman storytelling, as most of the character’s feature-length cartoons are much less comfortable with fully exploring the freedom from logic animation affords them. In an era where memorable novelty is essential to keeping Batman narratives viably fresh, it’s difficult to imagine Batman Ninja being outdone on a measure of pure imagination, even if it makes zero goddamn sense.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the exact kind of movie that’s destined to be undervalued & taken for granted on sight. The first picture from the Studio Ghibli spinoff production company Studio Ponoc, it’s automatically going to suffer many unflattering comparisons to classic Hayao Miyazaki works like Kiki’s Delivery Service & Spirited Away. Adapted from the 1971 fantasy novel The Little Broomstick, which heavily features a school for witches & wizards, the film is also likely to be compared unfavorably to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (which likely borrowed just as much from its source material as it did elsewhere; Rowling’s work is practically a pastiche). Instant familiarity is destined to temper a lot of enthusiasm for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but that kind of dismissive ungratefulness doesn’t consider just how rare of a treat this kind of thoughtful, traditionally animated work actually is on the modern children’s film cinema landscape. Given how much of a sucker I was for the goofy magic of The Worst Witch (speaking of works that likely heavily inspired Harry Potter) and the anime-lite tones of Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland at the time, I’m convinced this would have been my favorite movie as a kid, were it released in the early 1990s. Anime has gradually become the last refuge for thematically thoughtful, intricately crafted traditional 2D animation. It’s worth celebrating a new studio’s arrival as a contributor to keeping that tradition alive instead of brushing them off for feeling like they’ve always been around. Besides, as a subject, witchcraft is just inherently badass.

The titular Mary is a bored preteen wasting away the final scraps of her summer in her great-aunt’s gorgeous country home. This idleness inspires her to follow a couple mischievous kittens into the woods in a down-the-rabbit-hole experience that lands her in a magical realm of witchy universities, mad scientists, and wild hybrid beasts that resemble psychedelic Pokémon. She accidentally stumbles into a Chosen One plot arc in this new world thanks to a magical flower & a sassy broomstick that temporarily grant her extraordinary witch powers. From there, it’s a race against the clock for Mary to save a damsel in distress Anime Boy from the clutches of the evil schoolmarm & her side kick scientist and to put a stop to put their cruel animal experiments before she’s found out to not be the Chosen One at all, but rather an intruder & a fraud. The story Mary and the Witch’s Flower tells isn’t nearly as complex thematically as it is impressive visually. The lessons learned here are, again, familiar to classic children’s media narratives: learning to be confident in your own abilities and accepting the things you cannot change about yourself (especially your physical attributes). The movie is much more interesting in the way it wakes its young audience up the magic of the mundane. Simple, everyday activity like the pleasure of gardening and the science of electricity is framed as a kind of real-world witchcraft, enticing children to find interest in both magic & science and the grey area between them. It may not be a mind-blowing feat in intricate storytelling, but it is adorably animated and easy to love. This is the exact kind of immersive comfort food I would have ground into dust, were it released in the days of obsessively repeated VHS viewings.

Instead of focusing on how Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t quite as intricately animated as Ghibli classics or as immersive in its books-long world-building as the Harry Potter series, I was swept away by its warm, familiar charm. It’s an increasingly rare treat to see traditional animation on the big screen in recent years, anime or otherwise, and I greatly appreciate the arrival of Studio Ponoc (and the surprisingly trustworthy distribution company GKIDS) for keeping the experience alive. The onscreen witchcraft was dazzling. The glockenspiel-heavy score occasionally felt like a G-rated Suspiria. The world it created was a fantasy space I’d love to mentally dwell in for a magical eternity. The only real bummer for me was that the theater was sparsely attended by appreciative cinema & anime nerds instead of being packed with wide-eyed, witchy children. I would have loved for Mary and the Witch’s Flower’s easy familiarity to have been a result of it always being in my life the way titles like Little Nemo & The Worst Witch have; I hope it finds the right kids at the right time so they can have that experience in my place.

-Brandon Ledet