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Birthday Wonderland バースデー・ワンダーランド Dir: Keiichi Hara (2019) [Kotatsu Japanese Animation Festival 2019]

Birthday Wonderland     Birthday Wonderland Film Poster

バースデー・ワンダーランド Ba-sude- Wanda-rando

Release Date: April 26th, 2019

Duration: 115 mins.

Director: Keiichi Hara

Writer: Miho Maruo (Screenplay), Sachiko Kashiwaba (Original Creator)

Starring: Mayu Matsuoka (Akane), Akiko Yajima (Doropo), Anzu (Chi), Keiji Fujiwara (Xan Gu), Kumiko Aso (Midori), Masachika Ichimura (Hippocrates),

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After a career with titles that flirted with fantasy, from 2010’s Colorful and the 2015 award-winning smash-hit Miss Hokusai, director Keiichi Hara leaps straight into the genre with this movie adaptation of Sachiko Kashiwaba’s 1988 children’s story “Strange Journey From The Basement”. This Ghibli-esque tale is a delightful family-friendly female-led fantasy that is sure to entertain all but the most cynical individuals with its jaunt through a cute wonderland full of colourful characters and creatures in its story of a girl who learns how to stand up for herself and take responsibility by saving another world.

Akane Uesugi is our protagonist. A shy elementary school student (around 12 years old), she has trouble telling other people how she feels and this causes a crisis for her after one dicey situation in school where a friend is ostracised by her social circle while she stands by and does nothing. Feeling a little guilty, she decides to hide out at home by feigning an illness. The day before her birthday, Akane’s mother, Midori, sends her on an errand to go get her birthday present from her aunt Chi who owns an antique shop.

So far so normal as we see Akane’s everyday environment. Fantastic background art which is close to photorealistic depicts recognisable objects and furnishings that show the cocoon Akane inhabits as she covers herself in the duvet on her comfy bed and is surrounded by items such as iPhones and MacBooks and a cute tubby cat. Once outside, we see the suburban landscape and then Chi’s shop which has the atmosphere of one of those new age places that sell kooky knick-knacks from around the world (and there’s an impressive comic book library with covers that carry references to Hell Boy and Tintin).

Aunt Chi is a free spirit who loves to travel having had adventures in Bolivia and elsewhere as objects in her shop attests. Boisterous and independent, she rubs the sometimes sullen and mostly reluctant Akane the wrong way and she proves to be an excellent travelling companion when the young girl is dragged into a fantasy land.

This happens after Akane slots her hand into an imprint in a mysterious stone slab prompting a small fairy named Pipo and a strange man wearing a suit and top hat named Hippocrates the Alchemist arrive from the basement of Chi’s home to whisk Akane and her aunt to Wonderland.

And this is where the comparison to Ghibli begins.

With an atmosphere and set-up not so far away from The Cat Returns (2002), Akane and Chi find themselves transported to a fairy tale kingdom where there is an emerging crisis involving the world losing its vitality because of a water shortage. Akane is labelled the “Green Goddess” and told she must save the land but she resists the idea with as much sulkiness as she can muster. Chi, meanwhile, is more than happy to be along for the ride as she gets to go on an adventure. Thus begins a high stakes and low peril adventure for the ladies as they find themselves embarking on a laid-back road-trip.

Birthday Wonderland Film Image 1

The film becomes something of a delightful travelogue across the massively different colourful landscapes of Wonderland from the ruby red and lemon yellow sands of a desert, the sherbet blues and vivid violets of an icy valley crowned by an aurora borealis, the emerald greens of a pastoral paradise that feeds the fluffiest sheep you will ever see and what seems to be a recreation of Victorian London complete with smog and drunks clogging the cobblestone streets. Every location is distinctive and hosts creatively designed creatures and characters such as giant flamingos and a spiderweb road weaved by spiders sporting moustaches, glasses and top hats. Most places are completely fantastical, very different from our reality and a lot of fun because of it.

Each area is plagued by a specific environmental crisis that is sparked by the water shortage and while Akane is positioned as the one true saviour she has to be pushed to go on her journey which is more like a sojourn than a mission as she and aunt Chi saunter from place to place. The girl has to overcome her reluctance to engage with difficult situations to complete her character arc. This works because the character dynamics between Akane, Chi, Pipo and Hippocrates are entertaining to be around as they tease each other and laugh at their misadventures and admire the landscape they are in. Chi is a real standout with her hard-drinking uber romantic lifestyle which gained a huge laugh from the audience I saw it with whenever it surfaced.

With each encounter, Akane gains the confidence to be herself in character development that is simple for people to get behind.

Pushing the story along is the mildest of threats from an armoured antagonist named Zan Gul and his tiny henchman Doropo who roll around in their mouse-shaped tank and terrorise the locals in each area as they seek their own, rather violent, way of solving the water crisis. The narrative gives enough of their perspective for the audience to realise that the bad guys mirror Akane in their goals and even their personal problems with how they address tough situations. Indeed, the world reflects the problems we face in our own as there is a misuse of power and resources by the people tasked with looking after the environment.

While I was not sold on Ilya Kuvshinov’s character designs – Akane doesn’t look like a 12-year-old girl – its evocative enough and everyone has some charm including Akane who learns to overcome fear and take responsibility for herself, her environment and others to give the film a heart to go underneath the pretty images that are all lovely to look at. All in all, good fun.