Tag Archives: anime

Born on the Fluff of July

Unicorn Wars

by Daniel Baldwin

Blood. Steel. Pain. Cuddles.

That’s the motto constantly being pummeled into the minds of the teddy bear soldiers by their theocratic, fascistic leaders. Their enemy? The unicorns, a seemingly peaceful race that resides within a natural wooded paradise called the Magic Forest. The bears want what the unicorns have and they aim to take it with deadly brute force. Emphasis on brute.

Albert Vazquez’s animated Spanish-language war satire is, simply put, a sight to behold. Vazquez takes all of the hallmarks and horrors of Vietnam War cinema and wraps them in a lusciously cartoonish new skin, rendering incredibly grisly terrors all the more potent. Too often, societies send their children off to fight their wars and what is more child-like than a teddy bear? Instead of putting guns in the hands of human teens, Vazquez arms impressionable teddies with bows, arrows, knives, and grenades, sending them off to destroy the natural world around them for its resources.

If it sounds like a scathing indictment of human behavior for the entirety of our history, that’s because that is exactly what it is. Man’s inhumanity to man is on full display here in numerous ways, both in a war between two vastly different cultures and in how the bears treat one another. Nearly all the film’s main characters are a vicious miserable lot, despite their Care Bear-ish looks. Every punch, stab, shot, bludgeoning, and impalement packs a wallop as it lays the horror of war bare for all to see. Pun intended.

If Unicorn Wars has any major failings, it’s that its crude sexual humor sometimes undercuts the deathly serious satirical message. The unicorns are also underdeveloped. The film cannot decide whether to showcase their side of all this or just leave them as an enigmatic (and largely peaceful) race. As a result, an early subplot involving a few unicorns peters out by the midpoint of the film and never really resolves in any meaningful way.

Vazquez is aiming for something as potent as Watership Down and The Plague Dogs here. While his reach ultimately exceeds his grasp, he still manages to conjure up a very striking and occasionally moving piece of adult animation – right down to an absolutely haunting final sequence. That Unicorn Wars is only his second feature makes it all the more impressive. Keep your eyes on this filmmaker, folks.

The Day the Music Lied

One Piece Film: Red

by Daniel Baldwin

What if Taylor Swift lured everyone to a huge music festival, promising to save the world with her new songs, literally through the power of music, Bill & Ted-style? Would you believe her? Would you go?

(Psst…you should say no.)

One Piece Film: Red is the fifteenth film in the One Piece franchise, which has also spanned 20 seasons of television and multiple other forms of media. It posits a world where magic exists, roving bands of superpowered pirates sail the oceans and seas, and a one-world government wields a powerful navy set on destroying them. So you can see why one might want all of the fighting to end. Enter Uta, a talent & supernaturally-gifted singer. She has a plan to save the people of the world and give birth to a new era of carefree fun. The problem is that everyone has to die first! That’s a mighty big ask.

This might be the fifteenth film in this series, but it functions pretty well as a standalone story. Viewers with a greater familiarity with the franchise might gain a deeper appreciation for what unfolds within, but the filmmakers have been careful to make everything (and everyone) make sense for novices. If you are willing to roll with a universe filled with superhero pirates, a music demon, merfolk, a talking skeleton with a sword cane, snails that double as radios, a rock & roll band staffed with manimals, portals, alternate worlds, and magic that can manifest just about anything, then you’re in for a pretty wild time.

The animation is top-notch and is full of striking imagery from start to finish. If you happen to be a fan of musicals, you’re in luck, as there are over a dozen tunes laced throughout its 2 hour running time. If there’s any real negative here, it’s that – at 40 minutes – the final battle goes on a bit too long. This is undoubtedly done to make sure that the huge cast of characters all get standout moments, but it’s a bit too overindulgent and causes the film to drag during its third act.

One Piece Film: Red isn’t the most original anime feature out there, but its delightfully chaotic world and wacky pop-rock opera apocalypse storytelling elements make for a fun ride. If you’re inclined to love this corner of cinema, you’ll have a good time with it.

Ashikaga Rhapsody


by Matt Weiner

Inu-Oh is one of those movies where the less you know going in, the more of a delight it becomes as the story unfolds. Stop right now, go see the movie and you won’t be disappointed.

To call director Masaaki Yuasa’s take on feudal Japan a Noh rock opera undersells the delirious places the movie goes, even for Yuasa (although if you watched his Devilman Crybaby on Netflix, you know what you’re in for). What starts with a ghost story and a brief history of the birth of Noh in 14th century Japan becomes a rollicking, righteous homage to the likes of Queen and Bowie.

The animation is as fluid and rhythmic as the music, and Inu-Oh is always beautiful to look at. But the music is where the film soars—along with its almost relentlessly on-message theme. The story focuses on the friendship between Tomona (Mirai Moriyama), a blind biwa player looking to avenge his father, and Inu-oh (Avu-chan), a demonic child who can only exorcise his curse through storytelling.

But these aren’t just any stories. Tomona and Inu-oh form a band and start staging modern rock performances that inspire crowds but anger the shogun and the more traditional troupes that will become the highly regimented Noh.

For Tomona, there is a creative imperative to be yourself and decide who that is, even under threat of execution. And for Inu-oh, their new form of expression is even more essential. As he tells these forgotten stories of dead Heike warriors, he slowly becomes more and more human.

The message isn’t subtle, and just in case, it’s spelled out explicitly by Tomona and Inu-oh. The songs are a way to honor memories. If our stories are forgotten, what do we have left?

Still, it’s hard to argue. And harder still to resist when delivered in the form of Yuasa’s brilliantly conceived stage performances that blend traditional, modern and downright trippy into something wholly new. It’s about as joyful a movie as you’re likely to get for a feudal ghost story about curses and family tragedy. It’s also a movie that manages to be both epic and immediate. History for Inu-oh is alive. And art needs to be as well if it’s going to have any lasting relevance for an audience

Into the Woods

The Deer King

by Matt Weiner

An empire torn apart by war. A fatal disease spread by wild attack dogs. A lone warrior who would do anything to protect his young cub. And the directorial debut of a legendary animator.

On paper, The Deer King has all the elements of a modern animated classic. And visually, there is plenty to admire in Masashi Ando’s first feature film, co-directed with Masayuki Miyaji and based on the fantasy novel by Nahoko Uehashi.

The story follows the exploits of Van (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the last surviving Lone Antler warrior. The battle heroics of this fierce group of fighters from the kingdom of Aquafa helped lead to an uneasy peace with their ruling empire, Zol. These two nationalities have enjoyed a decade of fragile co-existence that threatens to collapse with the resurgence of a deadly fever.

Ando is a giant in the animation world, having served as animation director for Hayao Miyazaki on Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, as well as on 2016’s wildly successful Your Name. That’s a lot of pressure for a feature debut when your resume includes some of the best of Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon and others.

On the animation side, at least, The Deer King succeeds. The sprawling epic fantasy offers up a lush world that takes great enjoyment in slowing down the action in favor of small details—iridescent grass, otherworldly hallucinations, the love between Van and his adopted daughter, Yuna (Hisui Kimura).

Too often though, The Deer King is a lot better looking than it is comprehensible. The pacing is admirable for allowing the relationship between Van and Yuna to take center stage, but it also compresses the action into some erratic plotting choices—things are surprisingly quiet for an epic realm facing down a genocidal epidemic.

At the same time, the film refuses to linger too long on the sort of world-building that makes diving into a new fantasy world so enjoyable, even with languid action. It falls to a mix of brief flashbacks and heavy-handed exposition to put all the pieces in play.

From the rebellious court machinations that may be playing a part in the disease to hints of the great wars between the two cultures, The Deer King shows occasional flashes of a wider world that would have been very much worth spending time on. It’s a testament to Ando and the work of his animators that there are enough moments of beauty to hang onto, though they never truly come together as a whole.

We Didn’t Start the Fire


by Matt Weiner

As the first feature-length film from Studio Trigger (the studio behind the well-received TV series “Kill la Kill”), Promare has its work cut out for it. It’s no easy task to maintain the studio’s unique blend of over-the-top yet self-referential action for a tight animated feature.

It’s a coup for director Hiroyuki Imaishi that Promare manages to do all that and more, while fleshing out characters who rise above their archetypes. (Well, most of them.) The film follows the members of Burning Rescue, a civil firefighting team that fights fires caused by “Burnish,” the name given to people who have mutated to spontaneously combust and must continue to start fires to survive.

The action begins 30 years after the first worldwide mutations took place, and most Burnish have been tracked down and imprisoned (or “frozen”). The plot manages to be both convoluted and contrived at various times, but the animation powers the events forward so relentlessly that I stopped caring. The style is wildly entertaining, and with enough hyperactive neon to make Into the Spider-Verse look like a Merchant Ivory film.

Art designer Shigeto Koyama is credited with the character designs. Western audiences are likely to know his work as designer of the robot Baymax from Big Hero 6, and he’s the perfect choice to make sure the futuristic mechas still allow the warmth and relationships from the characters piloting them to shine on screen.

Good thing, too, because without the laugh-out-loud characters and battles, the rest of the sci-fi plot would never make it off the ground. Even here, though, Kazuki Nakashima’s screenplay takes pains to give you permission to sit back and have a good time. He’s not above getting in a few digs at the absurdity: this is a movie, after all, with a literal Deus Ex Machina.

Promare is full of laugh-out-loud moments from the characters and the background animations—there’s a buoyancy that also makes the film a joy from start to finish. The real story behind the Burnish threat gives an unmistakable nod to global warming, but in the world of Promare what matters less is that we save the world (that’s a given, obviously), but rather how essential it is for our shared humanity that we save it by connecting more deeply with one another.

This plays out between the young firefighting hero Galo Thymos and the supposed terrorist leader, Lio Fotia. Here, too, Promare seems to delight in spurning convention: there’s no need for fans to wistfully ship the two adversaries, as the movie clearly does it for us. When the two burning souls connect and discover they must let go of what is holding them back and combust, I think we’re well beyond subtext.

Together, they offer a message of hope drenched in enough sharp, angular colors to fill out a 1990s t-shirt collection. Promare is an exciting first feature outing for Studio Trigger, and a sign that their distinctive brand of frenetic action hasn’t burnt itself out yet.

Family Matters


by Brandon Thomas

Confession: I’ve never seen an entire Japanese animated film.

Spirited Away? Nope.

Howl’s Moving Castle? Sorry.

Akira? Not even a single frame.

I don’t have any kind of unreasonable hatred for this type of film, but I’ve never had much interest either. Thankfully, Mirai was a nice introduction for this anime novice.

Kun is a typical toddler. He enjoys playing with his toys, looking at books, and being the center of attention to his mom and dad. That changes when his baby sister, Mirai, is brought home. Confused by the changes happening around him, Kun retreats to a world where he is able to meet family members at different periods of their lives.

What struck me first about Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai is how the film doesn’t shy away from letting Kun behave like a real kid. He’s selfish, loud and cannot control his emotions. He’s not the easiest protagonist to like at first. The delightful part is seeing Kun grow, and learn to put these bad behaviors to bed.

Mirai is interested in looking at how difficult it is to be a family. It’s tough for parents to bring home another baby when they already have one at home. Cleaning still needs to be done, dinner still needs cooking, life still happens… and that can cause friction. Likewise, it’s hard to be a kid in this kind of dynamic. One minute, you’re the center of mom and dad’s universe, and the next – you’re not.

Kun’s travels through time via the garden never feel like cutesy spectacle, as each of his meetings is rooted in character. Kun learns about empathy, and that his own parents struggled with things when they were younger. By becoming more in touch with previous generations, Kun is able to fully realize his place in his own family.

Emotional yes, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had with Mirai. Kun finds himself turned into a half-boy half-dog at one point, and takes an exciting motorcycle ride with his great-grandfather at another. There’s a joyfulness to Kun’s interactions with this fantastical world that’s perfectly childlike.

Mirai might lack the belly laughs that accompany a Pixar movie, but the message is just as potent. Once the credits start to roll, that message is what sticks with us.

Holding Out for a Hero

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

by Hope Madden

Teen Titans was a beloved, fairly-serious, sometimes thematically challenging Cartoon Network program based on Glen Murakami’s comics.

Teen Titans Go! was Cartoon Network’s sillier spinoff show. Think Muppet Babies versus The Muppets: smaller, cuter, sillier and basically inferior in every way.

No, that’s too harsh. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies—the diminutive superheroes’ cinematic leap—is not without its share of charm. Directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail (both from the TV series) bring the same zany, juvenile, self-aware sensibilities to the big screen that burst for years from the small one.

Robin, Cyborg, Raven, Beast Boy and Starfire aren’t being taken seriously by the superhero community. What they need is their own superhero movie! Everybody else has one! That’s how you know you’re really a hero, and not just a sidekick with a bunch of costumed goofball buddies.

What follows is a comment on the oversaturation of the superhero film punctuated by a lot of poop jokes.

The voice talent from the TV show (Scott Menville, Hynden Walch, Khary Payton, Greg Cipes and Tara Strong) is joined by big names (Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Will Arnett, Patton Oswalt, Jimmy Kimmell) in fun cameos.

The best, most on-the-nose cameo belongs to Stan Lee, who sends up his own omnipresence as well as the Marvel/DC conflict and general nerdom with a spry little number.

There are laughs—some of them tossed with a surprisingly flippant sense of the morbid—and energy galore, but it’s all a kind of sugar rush. It’s fun for about 22 minutes, but by minute 23, you’ll be checking your watch.

By minute 50, you will be squirming restlessly in your seat.

By minute 80 you may have that fidgety kid next to you in a headlock, but who’s to blame him for kicking and wriggling and causing a ruckus? He’s as bored as you are!

By the 93-minute mark, you may be rushing for the door, and that’s too bad, in a way, because the bittersweet stinger you’ll miss with your hasty exit only brings home how slight and silly a spinoff Teen Titans Go! really is.



Lu Over the Wall

by Rachel Willis

To give away too much of the plot of Lu Over the Wall would be to steal the joy of experiencing this unique, quirky film. Director Masaaki Yuasa has crafted a sweet fantasy that explores the moving friendship between a boy and a mermaid.

The first half of the film offers an unpredictable journey that follows Kai as he gets to know the buoyant Lu. Along for the ride are Kai’s friends, Yuho and Kunio.

Before Lu, Kai is sullen and morose, having recently moved from Tokyo to a small fishing village with his dad following his parents’ divorce. Yuho and Kunio try their best to engage Kai, even talking him into joining their band. But it isn’t until Lu appears, drawn by Kai’s music, that he begins to open up to the world around him.

Though the first half of the film is unusual, and, at times, downright weird, the second half falls into a more predictable pattern. However, the shift into a more traditional story doesn’t detract from the film. And though the second section is more certain, the quirks and oddities of the story are maintained through the animation. Lu and Kai, along with Yuho and Kunio, face challenges as old prejudices and new curiosities are aroused by the arrival of Lu.

At times, the animation is reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but it also occasionally has the slapstick style of Tex Avery’s old Bugs Bunny cartoons. The blending of styles, along with the film’s own specific elements, merge together to serve the unconventional story well. From the monstrous creatures to the everyday people to the village’s shops and streets, the visuals are the most memorable part of the film.

Music also plays an important role, but the soundtrack is a little stale when paired with the rich animation. Too often, the score and soundtrack fade forgettably into the background when the movie would be better served by sound that enhanced the animation onscreen.

Though often strange and unusual, Lu Over the Wall is a touching tale.



I Don’t Want to Go Out—Week of April 30

Great animation, very good foreign drama, better-than-expected war drama and one seriously disappointing ghost story—these are the choices. Let us help you with that.

Click the film title for the full review.

Peter Rabbit

In the Fade

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

12 Strong


Who’s a Good Dog?

Isle of Dogs

by Hope Madden

First note in my Isle of Dogs screening notebook: God damn it, I want a dog.

Second note: Wait, Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton are in another film that appropriates Asian culture? Come on!

And that about sums up the conflicting emotions Wes Anderson generates with his latest stop-motion wonder.

Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s second animated effort, coming nearly a decade after another tactile amazement, 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. A millennia-long feud between the Kobayashis of Megasaki and dogs comes to a head when corrupt Mayor Kobayashi uses a dog flu outbreak to whip up anti-canine sentiment and banish all dogs to Trash Island.

But his orphaned ward Atari (Koyu Rankin) steals a miniature prop plane and crash lands on Trash Island looking for his beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber).

The little pilot is aided in his quest by a scruffy pack including Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), gossipy Duke (Jeff Goldblum, a riot), King (Bob Balaban), and reluctant helper/lifelong stray, Chief (Bryan Cranston).

Other voice talent as concerned canines: Johansson, Swinton, F. Murray Abraham and Harvey Keitel.

Explained via onscreen script in typically Anderson fashion, dog barks have been translated into English and Japanese remains Japanese unless there’s an electronic, professional or exchange student translator handy. The choice shifts the film’s focus to the dogs (in much the way Peanuts shows remained focused on children by having adults speak in squawks). It also means that moviegoers who speak Japanese are afforded an enviably richer experience.

But for a large number of American audiences, it means that Japanese characters are sidelined and the only human we can understand is the white foreign exchange student, Tracy (Greta Gerwig). From Ohio, no less.

Between an affectionate if uncomfortably disrespectful representation of Japanese culture and Gerwig’s white savior role, Anderson’s privilege is tough to look past here, even with the scruffy and lovable cast.

The animation is beyond spectacular, with deep backdrops and meticulously crafted characters. Atari’s little teeth killed me. The voice talent is impeccable and the story itself a joy, toying with our dictatorial nature, the need to rebel and to submit, and how entirely awesome dogs are.

Set to an affecting taiko drum score with odes to anime, Ishiro Honda, Akira Kurosawa and every other Japanese movie Anderson watched as a kid, the film is clearly an homage to so much of what he loves. His skill remains uniquely his own and nearly unparalleled in modern film.

And Isle of Dogs is a touching, flawlessly crafted animated dream. That probably should have been set in America.