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

Pokémon: The Movie 2000 (2000)

As a film series, Pokémon does little to bring outsiders into the fold, assuming all of the clueless parents & professional critics dragged into seeing its individual movies in isolation are familiar with the full canon of its various television series, trading cards, Nintendo games, manga, and so on. There’s a huge time jump in adventures between the first Pokémon film, Mewtwo Strikes Back, and this follow-up, Pokémon: The Movie 2000, that’s even more confusing than the jumbled inconsistencies in their titles. In the Missing Adventures between these two titles, gaps presumably filled by the televised anime series, our hero Ash has acquired far more pokémon & travel partners we don’t have any time to meet before the new plot kicks in. His worried mother is apparently now in the picture as well and the animation style has evolved to include more aid from CGI. The series’ dedication to a Just Another Adventure ethos is entirely baffling to those on the outside looking in and is doing me no favors as I attempt to get acclimated to its pocket monster-infested universe, but I’m sure 90s Kids™ who regularly watched the television show were stoked to see an extended episode of something they loved dearly projected large & loud with the reverence of a summertime blockbuster.

The plot in this uninclusive sequel concerns a wealthy pokémon collector who disrupts the balance of Nature when he starts hunting rare, big game pokétypes. After overreaching narration explains that fire, ice, and lightning are the elements that control the ocean (huh?!) the villainous collector is shown catching the corresponding pokémon that command those elements from their posts in a very specific set of small islands (Lugia, Articuno, Zapdos, Moltres, all of which had significance in a recent rollout within the Pokémon Go game). Ash & his pokébuds happen to arrive on those same islands (the chances!), where they’re greeted by Princess Mononoke-style tribes who speak of a Chosen One (Ash, duh) who can restore order to their realm. With the help of a Team Rocket face turn and hoards of wild, free range pokémon who show up just to pitch in (due to being more in tune with the ebb & flow of Nature than humans, of course), Ash is able to fulfill his Destiny and free the captured pokémon to restore their balance of power over the islands and the oceans that house them. This isn’t as exciting of an obstacle as the mutated Mewtwo plot of the first film, but the evil collector & his sky ship poképrison do help establish an interesting pattern. In the first installment, a climactic fight between a stadium full of pokémon and their corresponding clones was met with a pacifist message about how violence is entirely senseless, despite “battling” being an essential aspect of pokémon culture. In Pokémon: The Movie 2000, the main evil is an act of selfish collecting of pokémon, despite “catching them all” being so essential to the series that it’s the hook of its theme song. My best guess is that the next film in the series will focus on the inherent evils of one of three possible topics: miniature monsters, naming kids Ash, or animated children’s media.

As with the first film, the pleasures & rewards of Pokémon: The Movie 2000 (or, in its more literal translation, Pocket Monsters The Movie: The Phantom Pokémon – Lugia’s Explosive Birth) are constant, but moderate. I was once again won over by the earnestness of the film’s music, especially in the opening banger “We All Live in a Pokémon World” (which includes a pokémon-themed rap breakdown) and the closing Donna Summer ballad “The Power of One,” which has since gained fame from being quoted at multiple Herman Cain political speeches (under the guise “A poet once said . . .”). Although both movies are mired in their mundane obsession over bad weather conditions disrupting travel, the sequel does make strides to develop some of its central relationships in a way that suggests narrative progress. The most prominent female character in particular, Misty, is constantly needled about her unspoken romantic feelings for Ash, much to her embarrassment. More importantly, Team Rocket is given plenty to do despite not being the central baddies. Not only do they have a role in saving the day, but Jesse & James are allowed throwaway lines about their not-so-secretly queer identities (referring to relationships with the opposite sex as “trouble”) and meta commentary about the ridiculousness of their even being a Pokémon movie: “Prepare for more trouble than you’ve ever seen. And make it double, we’re on the big screen!” The only thing this pokésequel can offer audiences is more of the same, but since “the same” is so (moderately) pleasant, that’s not so bad of a proposition.

I did walk away from Pokémon: The Movie 2000 with a new theory as to why these films were so hated by critics, however. I wasn’t previously aware that theatrical versions of these films were each proceeded by inane short films featuring fan favorite pokémon, the adorable electric rodent Pikachu. In these 20min shorts, Pikachu and other pokémon get into brightly colored hijinks with little human interference to break up their gibberish repetitions of their own names on loop (as is the pokéway). I can see how getting through one of these introductions, which play like an anime version of Teletubbies, would sour critics & parents on then following up the experience with an 80 minute adventure film that makes no effort to reach out to the uninformed. The Pikachu shorts that accompany the Pokémon movies are undeniably cute, but they likely didn’t help an already perplexed audience get in the proper, receptive mood.

-Brandon Ledet

Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back (1999)

I’ve always interacted with the Pokémon brand from the fringes, a casual fan at best. When Pokémon reached its fever pitch popularity as a cultural presence in the United States, I happened to be making my awkward transition into a mood teen, wary of being associated with Kids’ Stuff, and embarrassingly dedicated to making nu metal the cornerstone of my Personal Brand. Still, the appeal of the “pocket monsters” that populate the Pokébrand’s various trading card collectibles, Nintendo games, and television series was always apparent to me, even if I didn’t know the intricate minutia of its Pokélore. It’s incredible that a Japanese pop culture brand has been able to get American kids hooked on collecting & trading what’s essentially a stylized version of yokai, despite having no real connection to its cultural significance. What’s even more amazing still is the longevity of that obsession. Not only has the smart phone game Pokémon Go recently reinvigorated a lot of what BuzzFeed would call 90s Kids’ interest in the brand, but in the couple decades of its international cultural presence, its output has not really subsided for those who never left. I may not personally be able to rattle off more than a handful of pokémon types off the top of my head, but after following family & friends around to the city to “catch” the little digital bastards on their phones and seeing the hordes of like-minded players doing the same in massive clusters of dork, it’s become apparent that they do have a kind of cultural longevity that can’t be ignored. This fact is convincingly backed up by the evidence that there are twenty feature length Pokémon films to date, including five that earned theatrical distribution in the United States. That’s a whole lotta catching/battling of miniature monsters.

As immediately apparent as the appeal of hoarding & imagining the staged battles of various pokémon types (that resemble creatures as varied as space aliens, dragons, ducks, and kittens) is to kids who encounter it at an early enough age, it can be exasperating to an outsider. In his 1999 review of the first Pokémon movie, Roger Ebert is stunned in his befuddlement. He spends most of the review attempting to define what pokémon even are and struggling to find reference points to entertainment media he does understand, which is how he ends up comparing the film (unfavorably) to My Neighbor Totoro. His confusion is entirely justified, to be honest. Even the film’s title, Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back, is an intimidating warning that it is not a self-contained story that can be easily grasped by the uninitiated. Mewtwo Strikes Back wastes no time explaining the gyms, stadiums, “catching,” pokéballs, teams, trainers, or even the little monsters of its world (although it does waste time elsewhere). Instead of starting with a clean slate, it functions as a 90 minute episode of the original television show. Our human heroes (Ash, Brock, and Misty) are introduced in a brief narrative paragraph about their penchant for getting into all kinds of pokémon-related adventures, but much more attention is paid to staging a pokémon match in the middle of the opening credits (complete with a dance remix of the television series’ theme music) to set the mood. If you’re new to the Pokémon universe, I’d recommend at least watching the pilot episode for the series to get a hold of the basic narrative. Otherwise, the best you’ll be able to grasp is that The Good Guys and The Bad Guys are competing To Be The Very Best in a world of tiny monsters where the main objective is to Catch Them All and train them for battle (where victory means both establishing supremacy & collecting more pokémon).

This particular episode in the Pokésaga concerns the creation and the radicalization of the titular Mewtwo, The World’s Strongest Pokémon. Much like how the rarity of certain specimen in all trading card circles (Pokémon, Magic, baseball, or otherwise) increases their value, there are rare pokémon that tower over more common types in their strength & narrative significance. According to this film, the rarest of them all is a psychic pokémon named Mew, so much so that it’s considered by most trainers to be extinct. An Evil Corporation (the standard go-to villain for kids’ media) that seems tied to the series’ Team Rocket baddies employs scientists to clone this long lost creature, which resembles a hybrid between a kitten & a space alien, into a more powerful form, known as Mewtwo. Bigger, stronger, and more leopard-like than Mew, Mewtwo is essentially the nuclear bomb of pokémon, even leaving behind a mushroom cloud in his wake as he destroys the scientists who created him. He’s so psychically powerful that he can control the weather with the wave of a finger, but he struggles with questions like “But why am I here?” is his RoboCop-inspired rise to sentience. Mewtwo does eventually find meaning in his own existence: righting what he perceives to be a power imbalance between pokémon and their human trainers based in his interactions with his evil Team Rocket creators. Believing that “Humans and pokémon can never be friends” and that pokémon have disgraced themselves by serving humans as slaves, Mewtwo crafts an army of pokémon “superclones” to attack the world’s greatest trainers, hoping to level society so that it can be properly rebuilt. Ash & his travel companions, of course, became central figures in this massive battle and just barely hold their own against Mewtwo thanks to the help of other trainers and (*gasp*) the original Mew. In the heat of the battle, Ash sacrifices himself to save his closest pokémon companion, fan favorite Pikachu, and is turned to stone. The pokémon in the battle bring him back to life with their magical monster tears and, realizing he was wrong about the human exploitation of pokémon, Mewtwo calls off his revolution and flies his superclones off to Pokéheaven or somewhere pokéadjacent.

You can tell as soon as the title that Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back will have no real finality as a self-contained story and will ultimately function as Just Another Episode within the larger Pokémon brand. Given that same ongoing narrative structure’s popularity in popular media like pro wrestling, soap operas, and The MCU, that’s not necessarily a problem. The film does little to wow anyone who’s not already devoted to the Pokémon brand, but it’s entertaining enough as a kids’ fantasy animation to feel worthwhile. Its various monster battles are old-fashioned kaiju fun, Picachu & Mew are absurdly cute character designs, and the hand-drawn animation is much more complex, & visually interesting than what modern CG kids’ media has devolved into (especially considering the recent release of The Emoji Movie). I can only point to a few details where Mewtwo Strikes Back‘s novelty amounted to much more than that. Besides the absurdity of the title and climactic choices to treat both Ash and Pikachu as christ-like figures (complete with a hilariously tragic Turn the Other Cheek sequence), I can really only single out the final battle as a must-see highlight. Clones of various pokémon fight their originating doubles to the point of fatal exhaustion while a heartfelt acoustic ballad titled “Brother My Brother” overpowers the soundtrack with bleeding heart cheese. Lyrics demand “Tell me, what are we fighting for?” and the movie takes a strong, tear-filled “Fighting is meaningless & horrible” stance of pacifism, despite being a part of a universe where battling for supremacy over other trainers is everything. The narration’s ponderings about “the great mystery and the great miracle” of Life sometimes approach the over-the-top absurdity of that “Brother My Brother” scene, but the movie generally lacks that kind of energy throughout. At the very least, there are some glaring missed opportunities in Mewtwo’s abuse of pokémon cloning technology, which could have easily led to to some Cronenbergian pokémonstrosities radically different than the ones that regularly appear on the television show. Instead, we’re treated to exactly the kinds of entertainment offered by the show, just for a longer stretch of time.

I sympathize with Ebert’s desperate in-over-his-head feeling in being assigned to professionally review this movie, which he had no real business watching. Even having a longterm semi-familiarity with pokélore, I found myself frequently confused with rules of the universe established in Mewtwo Strikes Back, especially in regards to the volume & variety of particular pokémon types and the scope of the evil Team Rocket. As there are nineteen more feature films in this series (the most recent of which was released just this year), that sense of knowing the rules of the Pokéverse is either more easily grasped by those who regularly play the brand’s various video & card games or doesn’t matter at all, even to devotees. Maybe watching more of these features will better acclimate me to the rules of its lore, but I’m going to need a lot more of that “Brother My Brother” absurdity to carry me across the finish line if that’s the kind of dedication it requires. Pikachu is pretty damn cute, but not cute enough to pull all that weight on their little electric rat back alone.

-Brandon Ledet

5 Centimeters per Second (2007)

One of the year’s best surprises so far was the animated Japanese romance epic Your Name., which felt like it came out of nowhere before jumping into shockingly wide American distribution. Audiences who closely follow Japanese popular media were probably a lot less surprised by the film’s stellar quality and critical word of mouth success, however. Not only was Your Name. the top-grossing film in Japan last year, anime or otherwise, but it’s director Makoto Shinkai had been praised as “the next Miyazaki” for at least a decade now, despite not having much name recognition abroad. What really should have telegraphed the arrival of Your Name., though, was Shinkai’s sophomore feature, 5 Centimeters per Second, which shared a lot of basic DNA with the director’s breakout hit despite being released a decade in the past. It’s not nearly as significant or as cohesive of a work, but it is certainly fascinating as a wind-up to the pitch.

Told in a series of three interconnected vignettes, 5 Centimeters per Second is a kind of romance anthology, adopting a format usually employed by the horror genre. A young boy named Takaki yearns for intimacy with a classmate who moves to the countryside, several gruelling trains transfers away. In the first segment Takaki journeys to meet her at the station. In the second, he’s slightly older and painfully unaware that his current highschool classmate has a crush on him. His mind is still wrapped up in his childhood crush. The third segment finds Takaki as an adult with a job as an office drone, still living in an unfulfilled life as he mentally searches for a childhood love that never saw its due. Much like Your Name., it’s a film about two romantics separated by time & distance who yearn for an impossible shared space where they can fully explore their feelings for each other. Unlike Your Name., this film feels like a series of loosely connected, lightly detailed sketches that never truly come together in a cohesive way.

The three segments that make up 5 Centimeters per Second are obviously differentiated by drastic shifts in time: Takaki’s life as a school age boy with a devastating crush, his year as a hunky but oblivious highschool senior, and his adult state as a depressed, unfulfilled office worker. What really differentiates between these periods, however, and what keeps them interesting, is their individual senses of pacing. The opening puppy love segment is shot rapid fire at the screen with the excited energy of a young child to whom everything means so much. The highschool episode slows things down significantly, making room for reflective stargazing, matching Takaki’s off-in-the-distance sense of mental wandering. The concluding segment oddly ties the whole thing together by starting with Takaki’s aimless descent into dull adulthood tedium, but then reigniting the excitement of the film’s romantic spark with a music video crescendo that incorporates imagery from Takaki’s entire life onscreen. Each individual part has a clear sense of how to match its story with a corresponding cinematic energy, even if Shinkai is much less deliberate in how he brings them all together.

You can feel so many of Shinkai’s pet obsessions just starting to take shape in 5 Centimeters per Second that it makes sense it would take a decade for them to fully form. The film not only plays with the same city boy & country girl sending messages long distance dynamic of Your Name., but anchors that romance to a lot of similar imagery: cityscapes glistening like natural formations, birds flying against outer space backdrops, travel by trains, teens staring into cellphones in anticipation, etc. However, Shinkai seems less confident in this earlier work how to incorporate supernatural sci-fi into its central romance and how to conclude a story that spans such a long distance in both space & time. 5 Centimeters Per Second does stand well enough on it own as “a chain of short stories,” but it often feels like the sketchbook plans of the much better feature to come. Fans enamored with Your Name. should be able to find a lot to connect with in that respect, even if the movie is a loosely defined experiment.

-Brandon Ledet

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

I feel like I was uniquely qualified to enjoy watching the live action Ghost in the Shell, a hunch that paid off nicely. First, I watched the movie weeks after its fiercely negative hype had already died down. I also caught a free screening, which eased a lot of its potential moral dilemma in regards to its white-washed casting. Then there’s the fact that I have no personal attachment to its source material, having never read the original manga or seen the anime film that followed in the 90s. I went into Ghost in the Shell expecting nothing more than Blade Runner-runoff eye candy and a deliriously vapid sci-fi action plot. The movie did not disappoint on either front. It’s an intensely beautiful, intellectually empty spectacle overloaded with laughably stilted dialogue and nonsensical plot machinations. I would never hold it against anyone who takes offense with how the movie functions as an adaptation or how it handles the casting of its front & center protagonist, but divorced from that context and considered solely as a trashy sci-fi themed shoot-em-up, it’s a deeply silly, surprisingly entertaining film.

In two upfront information dumps, one provided by onscreen text and one delivered by a slumming-it Juliette Binoche, we’re explained to be living in a dystopian techno-future where the cutting edge of robotics is bio-enhancements to the human body. Routine cosmetic surgery outfits citizens of a Future Tokyo with everything from robo-eyes to robo-livers to enhance both the practical and the recreational aspects of modern life. Scarlett Johansson’s cyborg protagonist is the next logical step in this technology: a human brain/soul (“a ghost”) implanted into a completely synthetic body (“a shell”). She’s not allowed to be her own autonomous person with this new merchandise, however. It turns out the Evil Corporation that implanted her ghost in its new shell intends to use her solely as a militarized bio weapon, erasing memories of her true past and ordering her to strike down people she might consider comrades if given freedom of choice. This inevitably leads to a dual quest to both track down her (embarrassingly ill-considered) origin story and to take down the corporate monsters who own her. And if that weren’t enough of a by-the-books superhero plot for you, she begins & ends the film perched like Batman on the edge of Tokyo rooftops, surveying the city she’s reluctantly doomed to protect.

What a city it is, though. The delicious synths, neon lights, and post-Blade Runner grime borrowed for this dystopian techno-future make for a surprisingly intense visual experience despite Ghost in the Shell‘s cookie cutter superhero plot. Billboard advertisements have evolved into kaiju-sized holograms, layering an eerie artificiality onto the city like .gifs flickering on a gigantic smartphone. The range of influences on this visual palette cover everything from the legitimately respectable (The Matrix, Advantageous, The Congress, Paprika) to the trashy media I probably shouldn’t champion as much as I do (Nerve, Tron: Legacy, Demolition Man, Johnny Mnemonic). This isn’t the first time I’ve had that reaction with director Rupert Sanders either. I remember leaving his Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman thinking it hopelessly vapid, but hauntingly beautiful, like a feature-length perfume commercial. I’m not exactly sure what product Ghost in the Shell would be selling me as a 120min advertisement. Maybe those Pop Tarts with the bright blue icing or, I don’t know, light-up Reebox? Whatever it might be, I was totally on the hook to make the purchase even while recognizing to an extent just how much of a sellout dweeb with no moral compass it makes me.

The moral crisis at the center of Ghost in the Shell‘s production is the casting of ScarJo in the lead role, a character initially depicted with Asian characteristics in the original anime and manga. The live action version decided to double down on this casting choice by not only outfitting Johansson with an Asian-style haircut and making her & the few other white characters (in an otherwise diverse cast) the constant center of attention, but also by making her character a literal Asian woman trapped in a white woman’s body. If I were at all taking this film seriously, as I assume many dedicated Ghost in the Shell fans have, I could see finding that choice horrifically misguided. Instead, it plays to me as humorously clueless, just another colossal misstep in a film that’s essentially a long line of colossal missteps. Besides the racial implications of ScarJo’s casting, the film also hilariously misuses the cold, inhuman delivery that she’s employed so well in films like Lucy, Her, Under the Skin, and The Jungle Book. It might entirely be a question of quality in dialogue too. I can’t say that Johansson is doing anything especially different in Ghost in the Shell than she does in any of her other non-human roles, but something about her robotic delivery of lines like “I will find him and I will kill him. It is what I am built for, isn’t it?” that plays more like an SNL sketch than a legitimate character study. By the time a villainous Michael Pitt arrives to attempt to out-do her robo-speech, all bets are off and Ghost in the Shell plays like an oddly violent, expensive-looking comedy.

Your personal experience with this disposable sci-fi action spectacle is going to depend almost entirely on how seriously you’re willing to take it. For those expecting an intricately crafted visual feast that presents a glimpse of a haunting, technology-ridden future, Ghost in the Shell will only offer you morsel-sized scraps: creepy “geisha bots” with segmented faces, neon-lit nightclub shootouts, a sea of writhing bodies in a brief dive into a machine’s subconscious, etc. What’s a lot easier to latch onto is the humor in the movie’s overblown absurdity. Spider tanks, robo-Yoda speak, casual references to something called “The Lawless Zone,” digital cloaks, blatant ogling at ScarJo’s naked, Barbie doll-smooth body: Ghost in the Shell is teeming with ridiculous production details and screenwriting choices. Any awe I had for its visual craft was equally balanced out by my frivolous amusement with throwaway lines like, “Your shell belongs to them, but not your ghost. Your ghost is yours.” Like the Super Mario Bros. movie, this strange mess of a film is fundamentally misguided as an adaptation of its source material, but also surprisingly impressive in its attention to its intricate Blade Runner Jr. production design and charmingly dopey in its reductively simplistic superhero narrative arc. It’s a delightfully dumb source of sci-fi action entertainment as long as you don’t ask for too much intellectual stimulation from it. You’re not going to get it.

-Brandon Ledet

Your Name. (2017)

The highest grossing anime film of all time is slowly trickling through American theaters in what’s been a fairly quiet release so far. Subtitled foreign films & traditional hand-drawn animation aren’t the usual hallmarks of a domestic box office smash hit in the 2010s, so it mostly makes sense that Your Name. isn’t lighting up megaplex cash registers here the way it did in Japan last year. What’s a little more difficult to speculate is why, exactly, Your Name. did run away with all of Japan’s box office dollars in 2016 (becoming the country’s highest-grossing film of all-time, animated or otherwise), outpacing even the Studio Ghibli films that obviously inspired it. My best guess is that Your Name. resonated with Japanese teenagers in particular. I can say with confidence that the most I ever indulged in repeat viewings of films in the theater was when I was a teen with summer job money to burn and nothing constructive to do with myself besides watching the latest Wes Anderson release three times in a week to escape the New Orleans heat. Your Name. seems perfectly calibrated for this kind of obsessive teen repeat-viewing. From its tale of star-crossed, long distance romantics to its mildly crude sexual humor, bottom of the heart earnestness, supernatural mindfuckery, and pop punk/post-rock soundtrack (provided by the appropriately named Radwimps), Your Name. is the distilled ideal of a teen fantasy film in the 2010s. It’s also the most beautifully animated and strikingly empathetic picture I can remember seeing on the big screen in a long while.

The first thing that struck me about Your Name. was the immensity of its scope. Cities and mountains are framed from above the cloudline as a passing comet is meticulously tracked through the star-filled sky from the upward gaze of teens on the ground. Those teens’ lives take on a similar kind of intricate majesty as the comet in the sky triggers a cosmic event that intimately & inextricably links two total strangers, a boy who enjoys a very modern existence in Tokyo and a girl who practices old world religion with her sister & grandmother in a rural mountainside village. Oddly enough, Your Name. begins its strange, unwieldy journey as a body swap comedy. The Tokyo boy and mountain village girl swap places at erratic intervals, initially mistaking their day-long vacations in each others’ skin as hyper-realistic dreams. As the body swap picture is traditionally a fixture of crude 80s comedies and these are horny teens, those alternating positions do involve a lot of “self”-exploration of each others’ bodies and same-sex attraction/flirtation, but never with a tinge of gay panic humor disrupting its intergender empathy. Gender and identity became decisively fluid the more this pair continue to swap places, as does the nature of time, tradition, and reality itself. Small town angst & romantic desperation, cornerstones of teenage inner life, dominate the early proceedings of Your Name., but several monumental narrative shifts completely disrupt those concerns as the co-protagonists’ stories strive to intertwine in a shared, physical space. Leaving notes on each other’s smart phones & foreheads is one thing, but as our distant teen “radwimps” attempt to share a single space in a more significant way, their story explodes in a much wider array of supernatural phenomena than a mere 80s body swap comedy ever could contain. The film’s scope is near-boundless in its thematic & visual explorations of an intangible cosmic event I’ve never seen depicted onscreen before.

Your Name. more than justifies its choice of medium, accomplishing large, supernatural feats that could only be pulled off in animated cinema. The film almost operates like Persona in reverse, where two jumbled identities slowly detangle and then have to desperately search for common ground. This philosophical crisis of identity, punctuated onscreen with blatant questions like “Who are you?,” are matched by an ambition in animation that reaches far beyond the linear & the literal. One sequence in particular makes use of color pencil sketches in a way that wholly distorts the border between reality & fantasy, surpassing even the heights of The Tale of Princess Kaguya in its adeptly loose grip on the certainty of basic human existence. The film’s visual palette obviously pulls heavily from the work of all-time-great Hayao Miyazaki, an influence that becomes very much apparent in its opening frames of gorgeous mountainside landscapes seen from a birds’ eye view. As much as it focuses on Nature, however, Miyazaki’s work isn’t typically as obsessed with the immensity of the cosmos as Your Name., so the film immediately has an in on finding new perspectives to apply that animation style to. It also seems intent on updating Miyazaki’s obsession with natural landscapes to accommodate a newfound wonder in modernity. Tokyo skyscrapers are flanked by birds & sunshine, reflecting the same simple majesty a Miyazaki picture would typically reserve for a forrest or the miracle of flight. This visual clash of tradition & modern innovation perfectly echoes the sentiment of Your Name.‘s narrative as well, where boomboxes & smartphones are incorporated into ancient religious ritual and time is just as fluid as identity & the state of the human body.

I don’t mean to be at all dismissive or reductive when I refer to Your Name. as a teen picture. The supernatural narrative & delicate thematic nuance of the film are handled in a much more richly complex, rewarding way than they’d be in most modern R-rated, live-action “adult” dramas. Still, I got a sense watching the film that it was specifically, expertly designed to resonate with the earnestness of teenage sentiment. The immensity of the story’s ambition and the intricacy of its visual craft leave me with no doubt, even as a thirty year old dinosaur, that the film will remain one of the best domestic releases we see all of 2017. I just also have to admit that I’m admiring it from the outside looking in. Your Name. wasn’t made for me; it was made for teens. And if I were still that age, running around with my heart on my sleeve & my identity still wildly fluctuating on an almost day to day basis, I’d certainly be one of those kids out there who have paid to see it repeatedly play out on the big screen while it’s still an option. It’s more than just a teen movie; it’s the perfect teen movie for this exact moment in time.

-Brandon Ledet