Rapid-Fire Reviews | The Secret World of Arrietty

Info:

Genre: Animation, fantasy

Director/s: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Running Time: 94 mins

Budget: $23 million (US)

Released: 17 July 2010

Thought I’d try something new by introducing ‘Rapid-Fire Reviews’, these articles will not be replacing my standard film reviews, instead their purpose is to inform readers of films that caught my attention, but don’t necessarily require 1500 – 2000 words of explanation.  I watch a lot of films and don’t always have enough time to write about them, thus Rapid-Fire Reviews will serve as an informative, fast-delivery platform that will inform readers in a speedily fashion whether or not I thought a film was particularly good, mediocre or just plain crapola.  Anyway, so I don’t really watch that much anime anymore, but Studio Ghibli always has my attention due to the sheer quality and entertainment value of most of their films.  And I say ‘most’ because not all of the studio’s films have Hayao Miyazaki behind the wheel – Miyazaki, one of the industry’s greatest directors a man whom the West have referred to as the Eastern Walt Disney.  Moving on, The Secret World of Arrietty is an adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952), focusing on a young borrower (a 4-inch tall human) named Arrietty who together with her father, embarks on her very first borrowing.  Unfortunately for Arrietty, she is discovered by a young sickly human named  Shō (Shawn for the US dub) who attempts to befriend her.  However Arrietty’s father has made it clear that once a Borrower has been discovered they must move.  Needless to say Arrietty and Shō form a friendship much to her parents disapproval and the film is somewhat predictable as a result, but it makes up for it in production value as the film is beautifully animated in the traditional Ghibli style.  The animation alone makes the film well worth your time, however if you’re expecting something as imaginative as Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away then you will be sorely disappointed.

Conclusion

Not the best that Ghibli has to offer as the story is predictable and rather unimaginative (compared to their usual work) but the animation alone makes The Secret World of Arrietty worth ninety minutes of your time.

Grade: B

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Space Battleship Yamato | ヤマト

Info:

Genre: Science-fiction, drama, adaptation

Director/s: Takashi Yamazaki

Running Time: 131 mins

Budget: $23.9 million

Released: 1 December 2010

Plot:

The crew of the space battleship Yamato set out on a journey to the planet Iscandar to acquire a device that can heal the ravaged Earth – imdb

Review:

I’ve decided to make this the first in a series of Asian film reviews over the next few weeks, just to spice things up a little due to the fact that the majority of my film reviews focus on the American film industry (though that’s not to say I won’t review any American stuff in-between), and I’m interested to see what our Eastern counterparts have been up to.  As it stands, I intend on reviewing a yet-to-be determined number of films both old and new, some of which are adaptations of popular manga or animes (like this review) and some being original stories.  So without further ado, I present to you – Space Battleship Yamato.

Based upon the 1974 anime series of the same name, Space Battleship Yamato – also known to English-speaking audiences as Space Cruiser Yamato (the original English dub being heavily edited) and Star Blazers in North America and Australia, is a live-action adaptation that has been in development since 2005.  On July 17, 2009, Noboru Ishiguro – director and staff member of the original anime series confirmed the film’s development at Otacon with an expected release date around December, 2010.

Right from the onset, Space Battleship Yamato throws you into the thick of it, opening with an epic space battle reminiscent of the battles seen in the popular Star Wars franchise, in fact, one of the scenes is basically lifted from A New Hope (1977), whether this was intentional (perhaps as a hats off to George Lucas) or coincidental, the similarity is undeniable.

A screen cap taken from the opening scene of Space Battleship Yamato...

...and here's a screenshot from Star Wars - A New Hope...homage to George Lucas or simple coincidence...?

So for the premise of the film – the year is 2199 and an alien race known as the Gamilas have ravaged Earth and reduced it to an irradiated wasteland.  Mankind’s last hope rests with a message sent from a distant world called Iscandar with promises of a device that will eradicate all the radiation on the surface. So Captain Jūzō Okita (Tsutomu Yamazaki) sends out a request for volunteers for the mission, one volunteer being Susumu Kodai (Takuya Kimura) – a former pilot, whose brother sacrificed himself to allow Okita and his crew to survive during a battle five years ago.  So with humanity’s last battleship – the Yamato, the crew sets off on a journey that will determine the survival of the human race.

…the characters in these films spend far too much time moaning about a problem (such as escaping from a bad situation or defeating an enemy) instead of actually doing something about it…

Given the considerably low-budget of this film, I’m amazed at what director Takashi Yamazaki and all those involved managed to produce.  Approximately 80% of the film incorporates supposedly the latest CGI technology, however I think that statement is subjective as while the CGI is good, compared to its American counterparts, it’s quite obvious that the CGI present is not the best available, and perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the CGI incorporated in the film is the best possible with the given budget.  The spaceships, space environment and so forth look quite impressive,

One of the aliens up close, while it doesn't look bad, it's definitely not conceived by the 'latest CGI' technology.

but the Gamilas themselves look quite artificial and detract from the overall enjoyment of the film somewhat.  But perhaps more annoying is the acting in the film, maybe it’s just a case of a culture clash, but I find it incredibly difficult to connect or feel anything for any of the characters in this film.  This feeling isn’t limited to Space Battleship Yamato, as several Asian films that I’ve watched (including the odd romantic film) have felt devoid of any emotion at all, especially with the Japanese films, and I think this is due to a major difference in culture and how East and West tackle everyday things such as love, loss, honour and duty.  What I find with Japanese films in particular, is that the concept of ‘leave no man behind‘ really doesn’t compute with the Japanese as self-sacrifice seems to be the order of the day and the remedy for solving most problems and when they try to do the opposite it comes across as a feeble attempt to emulate a Western ideology, with the result that the actors are incapable of making the audience believe what they’re saying, in fact most of the time it comes across as either being insincere or just plain goofy.  Perhaps it’s just me, but this is how a lot of Asian films come across to me so while Space Battleship Yamato held my interest, the performance of the actors prevented me from being able to take anything seriously as even the most ‘intense’ scenes lacked a sense of urgency.  Incessant whining

Yamato under siege.

also seems to be a prerequisite of Asian film (culture perhaps?), as a lot of the time the characters in these films spend far too much time moaning about a problem (such as escaping from a bad situation or defeating an enemy) instead of actually doing something about it.  So while I understand that dialogue is necessary to build atmosphere and progress a story and so forth, sometimes, that huge threatening alien that’s stomping towards you needs to be put down quickly and silently (cough..cough…Gantz…).   On another note, I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of Hiroyuki Ikeuchi who plays as commando leader Hajime Saitō in the film, you may also recognize him from Ip Man as Miura.

Conclusion

Space Battleship Yamato is a film not without scope, as the creators have managed to create a decent science-fiction experience, using a meager budget to put out an action-packed film that will please fans of the original anime show.  While I felt that the acting in the film lacked depth or believability, Space Battleship Yamato is fast-paced and interesting enough to keep you watching, even if you have only the mildest interest in science fiction films.  So while it lacks the grandeur of films like Star wars, Space Battleship Yamato is a fine science fiction film and vastly superior to the majority of Western sci-fi films of similar budget and subject matter.

Grade: B

Cat Shit One – Episode 1

Info:

Genre: Action, drama, military

Studio: Studio Anima

Director: Kazuya Sasahara

Running Time: 22 minutes per episode

Number of Episodes: 12

Aired: 17 July 2010 – ??

I first saw the trailer for this series last year and was very impressed by it.  Planned as a 12 episode series, Cat Shit One episode 1 has aired, so is it any good? In a word – yes.  Instead of using the traditional 2D cell animation that’s synonymous with Japan, the animation studio has opted for using lifelike 3D animation and the result is quite impressive.  In fact the animation is so impressive that it makes me wonder whether or not the production company will be able to keep up the same level of quality consistently over 12 episodes. The animation is of film calibre and time will tell whether or not it stays that way.

The animation is superb and somewhat disturbing seeing as how cute and cuddly rabbits are running around shooting and stabbing 'people' as opposed to munching on lettuce...

The world is populated by anthropomorphic rabbits and camels – rabbits being the good guys (American equivalents no doubt) and camels representing the Middle-Eastern insurgents.  In the first episode, Cat Shit One and his partner must rescue a couple of prisoners and they manage to do it in a wonderfully realistic fashion.  Based upon a manga called Apocalypse Meow – a three-volume series created by Motofumi Kobayashi.  Unlike the manga, where the story is focused on a group during the Vietnam era, the Cat Shit One series has been updated to modern times and mimics the war in Iraq.

This scene reminded me of the gunship sequence in Transformers - simply awesome.

The one thing I think the Japanese should really improve upon is their choice of titles for their films and series.  I mean ‘Cat Shit One’ – what were they thinking?  I don’t think the Japanese really have a grasp of the English language and decide to use any string of English words for the title as this will be ‘undoubtedly edgy’.  Here’s a thought, if the Japanese have such arduous requirements for learning their language how about they take some time to learn ours?  Anyway, I shall be keeping a close eye on this series and see how it develops.  Do yourself a favour and watch this series and if possible, watch it in high-definition – it looks awesome.

The Land of the Rising Sun; Is it really all cupcakes and rainbows?

A lovely view of Kyoto.

When you think of Japan, the words; politeness and friendliness seem to be synonymous with the country but is that really the case?  Is Japan really all about sunshine and cupcakes?

Well perhaps if you yourself are Japanese, then the day-to-day living of your life will seem normal or uneventful, yet here in the West, Japan is still looked upon as a land of mystery and technological brilliance.  For many Western otaku, Japan may appear to be the Holy Grail of their lifestyle, whereby the source of their obsessions flow like water.  Yes, many Western otaku (though generally we’re refered to as ‘geeks’) wish to either visit Japan or even emigrate there in order to ‘live the dream’.  Unfortunately, ‘the dream’ seldom lives up to reality as many foreigners will tell you.

I, myself wish to go to Japan, but only to visit.  If you stay in the country for a few days, or a couple of weeks, you will probably enjoy your stay. I would probably check out Tokyo first to get a taste of the high-tech (albeit overcrowded) capital, visit the various famous districts like Akihabara, and then check out some of the more traditional towns like Osaka or Kyoto, all the while taking thousands of photographs to reminisce over later when I’m back home.  However, if you stay for a year or longer (the easiest way is probably to become an English teacher), you will begin to see past the ‘happiness & tranquilty’ as the true cracks of society begin to show.

The fact of the matter is, that the Japanese people, mainly the older generation, are extremely xenophobic.  The younger generation embrace change and will generally accept foreigners, but it’s the elders who are pretty much stuck in their ways, I guess having two H-Bombs dropped on your country will result in deep-seed disdain for foreigners .  Even if you are fluent in Japanese, If you have not completed a level one proficiency test and you’re trying to apply for a job, the odds of you being employed are next to zero.  The Japanese will simply ignore the fact that you are fluent in the language because you do not have a piece of paper telling them so.  Basically you will be treated as a child.

A level 3 certificate, presented after completing the test.

Use of the word gaijin is also quite prevalent, it is a derogatory term for foreigners meaning ‘outsider’ and is used when referring to a non-Japanese person.  If you do intend on moving to or visiting the country, ensure that you arrange to stay with a family (check the internet, you should be able to find various advertisements of families willing to offer you food and board at a reduced rate) as hotels are extremely expensive and the last thing you want to end up in is a gaijin house.  A gaijin house is basically a derelict old house, older than ten years that is kept aside for foreigners.  These houses are generally unsafe and are horribly overpriced.

The other thing to bear in mind is that food is also pretty expensive, especially meat, which is why a lot of rice and noodles are consumed.  While you and your friends may sit down in a ’sushi bar’ at home, you need to realize that the average Japanese native doesn’t eat sushi as it is a delicacy and thus expensive.  You are able to purchase ‘ready-made’ sushi in plastic containers though I’d strongly advise against that.  The best shot you will probably have at becoming a permanent resident is to get your level one proficiency certificate and teach English, an acquaintance of mine has chosen to go that route and I’m interested to see how it all works out.  He’s one of these deluded weeaboos who thinks that living in Japan will be exactly the same as the anime and manga stories that he reads.

The Japanese police force are also notoriously racist and harsh towards foreigners, including incidents where people are arrested for no reason other than sitting on a park bench and then detained for months on end while being denied access to a phone.  That’s pretty scary if you think about it, I mean you go to Japan for a holiday and end up behind bars with no way to contact your loved ones, or a lawyer for that matter.  And this is a big problem for the country as many foreigners will think twice about visiting and Japan relies on exports and foreign currency to remain afloat.  Not too long ago a massive (costly) campaign was launched in order to revitalize Japan’s tourist industry and for their sake I hope it works.

I’m not trying to dissuade people from going to Japan, I just want them to realize (and this is mainly for the otaku’s benefit) that the idea that they have of the country isn’t the same as reality.  Reality seldom lives up to one’s fantasies and Japan isn’t an exception.  Like any other country, Japan has its fair share of problems; natural disasters, racism, sporadic economy and so on, and it’s the otaku sub-culture who need to realize this.  I love anime, manga and video-games (PS3 ftw) but I’m not in denial, I realize that Japan isn’t perfect and am not a mindless Japanaphile who will argue to the bitter end that paradise does in fact lie in the East.  If you intend on using anime and manga as a reference of life in Japan, you will be sorely disappointed.

Even though I have not yet visited the country myself and have yet to experience these things first-hand, I do however have plenty of knowledge on the subject through years of research and first-hand accounts by friends and fellow bloggers alike, check out this site for an idea of what you’d be in for.

Anime and manga; not exactly an accurate depiction of Japanese people...

Hopefully this article will provide you with a bit of insight into the truths of Japanese society, if you can come to terms with the fact that there will more than likely be a difference between your idealized version of Japan and the actualized version of the country then you will probably enjoy your stay there much more.  As I said before, Japan has its problems but if you embrace the truth you will uncover a wonderfully unique and quirky country, specially if you’re an otaku.

Otaku Life

Collectibles play a large role for many otaku.

What do you find yourself talking about when in the presence of friends or family? If the subject is usually games, film, anime or manga you may indeed be an otaku.  A common criticism of the otaku is that they spend vast amounts of time and energy immersing themselves in a world of fictional characters that have no real bearing on the ‘real’ world, but is that true?

The fictional characters and worlds are created by real people and as such, both the characters and the fantasy locations occupy reality as they are present in everyday life.  Does one have to talk about the weather, stock market or sports?  I fail to see the difference, sports are played by people and anime/manga is created by people and both are aimed to entertain so what’s the difference between cheering for David Beckham during a soccer match, or for L in Deathnote?

Both David Beckham and L can be seen as role models, role models are there to inspire people so it shouldn’t make a difference that one occupies a field while the other is in the pages of a book.  The same can be said for hentai, people may mock someone for finding a drawing arousing but a pornographic photo and an erotic piece of artwork are both designed to stimulate the viewer, what is the difference exactly?  Otaku are seen as introverted, anti-social people who generally confine themselves in their rooms or houses spending all their time watching TV or playing video-games.  Sometimes that is the case, such with hikikomori who usually consist of people who seldom venture from the confines of their houses (save for food) and when they do it’s often at night.  Many otaku (myself included) have like-minded friends and as a result there will be social gatherings, just like any other group.  There are many conventions around the world that facilitate the needs of the otaku and they are places where like-minded people can meet and greet.  Be it the Tokyo Game Show or various Comic Cons (I assure you there are a myriad) strewn throughout the world.

The other thing that many people fail to understand is that the world of otaku/geeks is invariably connected via cyberspace.  The internet is literally bringing people closer together as more and more people are becoming involved in MMO games, forums, blogs and social networking sites and these number in the millions.

I don’t think the word ‘geek’ can be seen as a derogatory term anymore, the word ‘nerd’ was popular in the ’80s and was a term used by dumb people to describe smart people and in modern times geek is just another ‘character class’ like jock.  I think people fall into different social groups for different reasons and that if something does interest you then you should pursue it.  Besides, otaku have the most fun IMO, I mean; cartoons, cosplay, comics, and movies, what’s not to like? The aforementioned are designed to allow one to escape reality, real life can be pretty mundane so why not create something superior?

An enthusiastic cosplayer. Sure, dressing up as your favourite footballer may be fun, but dressing up as a character from a video-game is far more interesting.

The realm of fiction is all about immersion, I don’t limit myself to fictional stories, though oftentimes they are far more entertaining than their non-fiction counterparts.  I choose to live my life the way I do.  A life of fiction is a fantastic and unpredictable one as the possibilities of what the human mind can come up with are endless.  There’s a finite amount of things one can do in ‘the real world’, but in the realm of fiction and cyberspace, the possibilities are limitless.

CGI; it’s not all good m’kay?

I’ve been watching Japanese anime and American ‘toons’ since I was a kid, and now years later I’ve really developed an appreciation for meticulously crafted hand drawn animation.  As a child of the ’80s, I spent vast amounts of time watching such shows as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Starzinger, Robotech, Moomin, BraveStarr, Bionic Six, The Real Ghostbusters and so many more.  The ’90s were no different with Freakazoid, Biker Mice from Mars, Darkwing Duck and Ghost in the Shell topping my list.

Are you old enough to remember BraveStarr?

For decades, Disney animation has been bringing joy to children and adults alike with their hand-drawn marvels such as Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book and the AristoCats but eventually Disney started to integrate CGI into their films such as with Rescuers Down Under, the first Disney film to use the (then) new computerized CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) process.  CAPS was used for digital inking and paint as well as compositing, as a result Rescuers Down Under was the first film to be fully assembled within a digital environment.  CAPS allowed artists to create more sophisticated animations and this paid tribute to the film’s wonderful visuals.  In 1992 Disney released Aladdin, which integrated CGI amongst the traditional hand-drawn cell animation, as did the 1994 production The lion King.  At the time, the CGI segments in the aforementioned films were quite awe-inspiring as CGI was still in its infancy and people had never really seen such things.  It was James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) that kick started the CGI revolution, it proved that CGI did indeed have a place in cinema, for this reason Steven Spielberg abandoned the go-motion technique he had intended on using for Jurassic Park (1993) and opted for CGI.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day kick started the CGI revolution.

In 1995, a small animation studio named Pixar released the first full length CGI animated film entitled Toy Story.  Since then Pixar has continued to release one successful film after the next, with A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and the Incredibles to name but a few.  Their most recent film, Up, is a sight to behold with wonderfully fluid and detailed animation.  What sets Pixar apart is that the quality of the storylines mirror that of the animation.

Pixar's Up is a work of CGI genius.

As CGI became more prevalent in film, Disney basically abandoned the traditional hand-drawn cell animation in favour of more cost-effective CGI.  As hard as it is to believe, the advanced computer generated techniques are actually far more cost-effective in most cases, than their hand-drawn counterparts as production time is greatly decreased since computers are capable of halving the workload.  Not only does Disney have Pixar under its belt, but all of the studio’s own films are now created using CGI as well, such as Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons and Bolt.

Fully CGI animated films are not the exclusive domain of Disney or Pixar, other studios like Dreamworks, have released films like;  Kung Fu Panda, Shrek and Monsters vs Aliens which have been hugely successful, though in my opinion Dreamworks studios aren’t on the same level as Pixar.  The problem I have with CGI is that because it has become (relatively) inexpensive, other small companies are abandoning hand-drawn animation and while CGI may be more cost-effective, it’s still expensive nonetheless and since the indy companies don’t have huge budgets, the productions they release like; Donkey Xote, Impy’s Island and Farm Kids look shockingly bad.

I love animation in all forms and believe that the CGI animated films can be just as good as the traditional hand-drawn counterparts but it saddens me to see how cell animation is slowly dying.  Just because you can use CGI doesn’t always mean you should.

For a time I thought that Japanese anime was a refuge as most animation studios in the country are relatively poor and as such they stick to traditional hand-drawn animation (due to the fact that the studios dont have millions of dollars to purchase the render farms they’d need for the animation), and most of the studios in Japan still do to this day however, I’ve noticed that even anime isn’t safe as more and more CGI is starting to intrude.  In 1995, Mamoru Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, was a true sight to behold as it integrated many new computer generated techniques that looked absolutely fantastic.  Ghost in the Shell was one of the key inspirations for The Matrix (1999), a film that revolutionized modern cinema with the advent of its ‘bullet time’ special effects.  Sadly in 2008, Ghost in the Shell 2.0 was released and had ‘improved’ CGI segments.  Not only was the CGI of poor quality, but it was also few and far between and rather than render scenes like the tank battle in CGI (which might have been pretty awesome), the creators decided to redo scenes like; Motoko scuba diving.  The animation looked completely out-of-place and they ruined a perfect film with invasive CGI.  Steamboy followed a similar path as Rescuers Down Under, whereby the traditional-looking animation was all done on computers.  I don’t really have a problem with CGI being used to emulate cell animation, If I can be tricked into thinking it’s hand-drawn that’s fine, but when they try integrate a 2D character into a 3D background, specially if there’s rotation involved, oftentimes it looks pretty bad.

The animation in the original version (as seen left) fits in with the rest of the film but the new 'improved' CGI additions (right) look out of place.

Can someone please explain to me how replacing the signature green hue and replacing it with orange makes Ghost in the Shell somehow better?

A new anime entitled Blassreiter, has been released and its overuse of CGI (horribly bad CGI to boot) is completely off-putting, so much so that I couldn’t even get through the first five minutes of the show.  Other popular franchises that have been given the CGI treatment include Appleseed, which uses a cell-shaded (2D-looking polygons) technique to emulate traditional animation, unfortunately the characters look like cardboard cutouts and the ‘realistic’ movement can look quite jerky and stiff at times.  Even the more traditional anime companies, like Studio Ghibli, have integrated CGI into their films.

Cell animation isn’t the only endangered technique; stop-motion animation, as seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas, is pretty much dead as computers are able to easily and more cost effectively replicate the technique.  Flushed Away, created by the people who did the Wallace and Gromit stop-motion animations, was a CGI film that deliberately copied the stop-motion style, down to the jerky speech movements.  Since water plays a large role in Flushed Away, it was deemed too complicated and expensive to animate water using stop motion techniques so the studios opted for CGI.  Even the latest ’stop-motion’ film, Coraline was basically entirely done using computers.

Even stop-motion films aren't immune to CGI takeover, such is the case with Coraline, a film that used many computer-based techniques.

It will only be a matter of time before CGI replaces Hollywood actors, or at the very least, reduces all of them to voice-actors.  As CGI becomes more sophisticated, the realism will increase to the point where the animation is indistinguishable from their real-life counterparts.  It’s already happening in the industry, Square-Enix have proven that realistic 3D models can be used with their CGI films; Final Fantasy – Spirits Within & Final Flight of the Osiris and while most live-action films contain some form of computer generated imagery, films like; The Matrix Reloaded (2003) employed techniques that enabled a hundred copies of Hugo Weaving to be on-screen at once, and while certain scenes do look a bit dated and artificial now, other films like Spider-Man 2 (2004), though CGI heavy, used CGI models where you’d least expect it, including the final scene where Doctor Octopus descends to the depths of the harbour; a completely computer generated Alfred Molina was used for that scene and when I found out I couldn’t believe it.

How long will it be until human actors are replaced by CGI?

On the plus side, when CGI does finally replace all cell animation, it’s nice to know that there’s still a stockpile of traditionally animated anime that would literally take a life-time to get through.  I believe that CGI is essential for modern live-action cinema, and that fully CGI animated films should be able to co-exist with cell animation, rather than replace it because once it’s gone, future generations will miss out on something truly extraordinary although luckily we have plenty of digital storage methods to preserve the classics.