Cesium and a Tokyo Girl
セシウムと少女 「Seshiumu to Shoujo」
Release Date: April 25th, 2015
Running Time: 109 mins.
Director: Ryo Saitani
Writer: Ryo Saitani (Screenplay),
Starring: Kaira Shirahase, Masumi Hara, Yusuke Kawazu, Hatsuo Yamaya, Nankin, Takao Iida, Masato Nagamori, Keiji Yamasaki, Miho Kaneno,
Cesium and a Tokyo Girl is the debut feature film from Ryo Saitani, an animator who runs Laputa Asagaya Art Animation School in Tokyo. His film is a fun and inventive time slip tale which combines live-action and animated sequences to create an adventure that also delivers a serious message about the effects of urbanisation on Japan, destruction of the environment and the threat of radiation following the meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi after the 3/11 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.
The story starts in the present day with a normal highschool girl named Mimi (Kaira Shirahase) in a canoe in Tokyo bay.
How did she get there?
Mimi is a seventeen-year-old who lives with her parents in the Tokyo suburb, Asagaya. She is intelligent, precocious and virtuous, the type to grill a teacher over something she doesn’t understand and flip ideas around to fully understand them and the type to do the right thing and stick up for people and champion environmental causes. Mimi finds herself called to act in a national crisis when, three days after the 3/11 earthquake tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear accident, cesium is detected in Tokyo and worse still, radiation-contaminated rain has left Mimi with terrible pain in her tongue.
Mimi is determined to find out about the impact of radiation on the environment and this gets connected to the disappearance of her grandmother’s pet mynah bird which flew away at the same time as the meltdown at Fukushima. The bird is connected to her hospitalised grandmother’s childhood and in its absence, her grandmother has become seriously ill. What Mimi doesn’t know is that her search for her grandmother’s bird will lead her to a meeting with the Thunder God and the Wind God and they will introduce her to more Japanese deities from the past, all of whom are also concerned about the environment of Japan.
Mimi and her newfound divine friends embark upon a magical journey through space and time, leaving behind modern-day Tokyo and going back to Tokyo circa 1942 in their search for answers to the changes in the environment and the location of the mynah bird.
Cesium and a Tokyo Girl is an apt title since it suggests the impact of something as huge as nuclear energy on a person’s life and the film uses the juxtaposition of the personal with a huge issue to examine the environmental impact of nuclear power and also urbanisation. Mimi, the idealised schoolgirl, is our lens into the changing environment in Japan and the Gods and adventures soften and make palatable the profound issues that writer/director Ryo Saitani wants to explore.
The film is split into three chapters: Mimi’s childhood, her adventures through time and the completion of her mission. In every scene and sequence there is an element of characterisation or information about Japan’s environment. It all mixes together quite naturally and we see Mimi’s trajectory from layman on the natural world to full on environmental activist quite clearly through her experiences and the film ably justifies how she ended up in Tokyo Bay. Audiences are sure to understand why she feels the way she does about the issue brought up because of the fun encounters and there is also a narrator who informs us of historical facts.
Despite the seriousness of the subject it is rarely overwhelming thanks to the delivery of the scenes. The film alternates between being a travelogue and a caper, a documentary and a musical. There are discussions of moral questions surrounding environmental issues which are delivered in a variety of styles such as drunken rants by the Gods as they guzzle wine at one of the many bars visited by the gang. There will be a musical interlude showcasing fashion trends in Japan and the diatribes against nuclear power are shown with archive footage of mushroom clouds and museum exhibits like the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, the infamous fishing ship whose crew suffered acute radiation syndrome after getting caught up in a hydrogen bomb test. There is discussion about how newspapers manipulate people into believing the benefits of nuclear energy and on-screen maps and charts will be interrupted by a character in a polar bear suit getting into fights. The time travel alone makes sure there are lots of different fun things to see.
The slide from the real to the fantastical is down to the mystery of the mynah bird which is named after the poet Hakushu Kitahara (1885 – 1942) who acts as a brilliant excuse to go back in time and meet different people and see various things including Kitahara himself.
Mimi’s journeys from present day Tokyo to her grandmother’s childhood contrasts the changes from a more natural age and some of the negative developments of modernisation. Mimi’s Tokyo is choked with concrete buildings and bridges, cesium is found in all sorts of places and animals are disappearing. Her grandmother’s Tokyo is a more idyllic place which is all traditional low-rise wooden buildings and green spaces (just before the firebombing of the Second World War) and shot in a sepia tone to evoke nostalgia. There are many musical sequences when Mimi meets her grandmother as the girls go out on the town and showcase the fashions of Modan Gaaru’s while jazz music plays.
The rhythm of the film is fast, the visuals colourful and flashy, the tone fun. Ryo Saitani favours pacey editing and mixes a lot of camera angles to make palatable an otherwise overloaded narrative. There are inventive ways of framing everything. It isn’t enough to have a conversation, extreme close-ups or shooting with a Dutch angle happens a lot. Better yet, the Saitani departs from the conventional and generously uses musical segments and blends in animation inspired by ancient Japanese art such as the Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga scrolls to make things even more fun. The variety keeps events flowing and it keeps getting more inventive. As Mimi meets the Gods they are introduced via animated musical sequences or given odd entrances. She encounters characters which are models brought to life with stop-motion animation and her time travelling can take the form of images of Mimi and other characters dancing across historical photograph of old cultural hotspots like Shinjuku’s Moulin Rouge. There is a sense of joy brought about by this mix of styles and it’s hard not to lose yourself in the fun when the plot stops so a song and dance number can explode on screen, a particular highlight being one that takes place in a public bath where Mimi and a group of other women while singing a jazzy version of a Kitahara nursery rhyme (quite an addictive song).
These techniques, sequences and interludes sound messy but they all fit together seamlessly and are effectively used to paint a picture of a fun adventure while showcasing some of the unique locations in Tokyo and keep the audience engaged so that the message of the director never feels like a lecture and that message urges us that while we can appreciate what we have lost we should work hard to protect our environment. Hard to disagree with that. And so, as Mimi’s adventure comes to an end a bigger one is beginning for her as her desire to protect the environment awakens and audiences may feel the same thing happen for them.
Cesium and a Tokyo Girl is a genuinely fun and inventive time slip tale which combines live-action and animation to create a fun adventure. The environmental message may be a bit heavy-handed but its heart is in the right place and it is delivered with a cheery smile. I am glad I saw it on the big screen and I hope others can enjoy it as much as I did.
The film plays at Sci-Fi London on May 05th and I recommend it!
I also met the director of the film after the screening and he kindly gave me an autograph and posed for a photo.