Kotatsu Japanese Animation Festival Preview

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The Kotatsu Japanese Animation Festival is a small event that takes place over the course of a day at Chapter Arts, a small but trendy (read, hipsterish) art house cinema and theatre space tucked away in a borough of Cardiff, South Wales.The festival may be small but thanks to the passion of its founder it is bright and rapidly expanding with an increasingly ambitious line-up of feature-length and short anime films across a number of genres and for a number of ages. A sign of the changes comes in the change of date, instead of the wintry atmosphere of November, this year’s festival takes place in the heat of Spring and in two locations with the sea-side town Aberystwyth joining the action.

I attended last year’s festival where I made the mistake of not pre-booking a ticket and missed the chance to see Makoto Shinkai’s Children Who Chase Lost Voices which was sold out. Instead I had to spend three hours at the cafe bar nursing a couple of coffees before I watched the rather good Berserk Golden Age Arc I: The Egg of the KingI have been following this festival with great interest because the line-up of films programmed picks some of the best of the titles released in Japan and touring the UK.

The festival is less than a fortnight away and the details have been released. Here are the dates and the films on offer.

Cardiff: Chapter Arts, Saturday 7th June 2014

Aberystwyth: Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Saturday 21st June 2014

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Mai Mai Miracle Meets Kickstarter Goal

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I was blown away by an unexpected anime called Mai Mai Miracle at last year’s Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme. 

Mai Mai Miracle Film Poster 2

After watching it, I wrote a glowing review and took to recommending it to others via this blog and on the Anime UK News website where it featured in end of year picks and news reports.

Last month, Anime Limited launched a Kickstarter campaign to help deliver Mai Mai Miracle to the English speaking world and that campaign finished today in spectacular fashion!

Continue reading “Mai Mai Miracle Meets Kickstarter Goal”

Best Anime of 2013

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One of my new year’s resolutions for 2013 was to review more anime and I have done that. By combining my writing for Anime UK News with my blog and by carving out 30 minutes a day for viewing titles I have upped my anime output. As a result of these efforts I have lot of titles to choose from for my Best Anime of 2013. I’ll split this into the two categories of film and TV simply because I have seen some great films and TV. When I originally wrote this Spirited Away was on Film4 so it continues!

My top ten anime of 2013 is below followed by my final choices for my favourites of the year.

Continue reading “Best Anime of 2013”

Mai Mai Miracle / Mai Mai Shinko and the Millennium-Old Magic マイマイ新子 と千年の魔法 (2009)

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Mai Mai Miracle / Mai Mai Shinko and the Millennium-Old MagicMai Mai Miracle Poster

Japanese Title: マイマイ新子 と千年の魔法

Romaji: Mai Mai Shinko to Sen Nen no Mahou

Release Date: August 15th, 2009 (Japan)

Running Time: 93 mins.

Director: Sunao Katabuchi

Writer: Nobuko Takagi (Autobiography), Sunao Katabuchi (Screenplay)

Starring: Mayuko Fukuda (Shinko Aoki), Nako Mizusawa (Kiiko Shimazu), Ei Mai Mai Miracle Film Poster 2Morisako (Nagiko Kiyohara), Tamaki Matsumoto (Mitsuko Aoki), Keiichi Noda  (Koutarou Aoki), Manami Honjou (Nagako Aoki), Eiji Takemoto (Tousuke Aoki)

Mai Mai Miracle was the third film I saw at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme and it was the first anime to have been screened at the festival.¹

The film is based on Nobuko Takagi’s autobiography and is set in 1955, Hofu City, Yamaguchi Prefecture. One thousand years ago during the time of the Heian Period (794-1185) Hofu was the site of the ancient capital of the Province of Suo (Suo no Kuni) named Kokuga and ruins are still dotted around the rural city. Shinko Aoki (Fukuda) is one of the modern-day inhabitants. Born in1946, she is a nine-year-old elementary school student and a bit of a tom-boy. She lives with her sister, parents and grandparents. Her grandfather was a teacher and taught her all about the local area and its history and so Shinko loves constantly wandering around the countryside and daydreaming about the past and wishes to travel back to the days of the Heian period. The only nuisance in her life is a curl of hair she can never make straight. She has named it Mai Mai and thinks it powers her imagination which is all well and good but trying to get it to stay in place is hard to do!

Hofu city has a new arrival in a doctor named Shimazu from Tokyo who has taken a job in a factory. He is moving into a new housing development in the suburbs of the city and brings his daughter Kiiko Shimazu (Mizusawa) who is very withdrawn. When she appears in Shinko’s class as a transfer student Shinko is curious about her in a way her classmates are not. Indeed, the classmates rather cruelly ignore Kiiko but Shinko follows her home. After breaking the ice the two begin playing together and Shinko invites Kiiko to ‘time travel’ by the power of imagination and join her circle of friends. The two begin to form a deep friendship right around the time they learn about the story of a princess who moved to Kokuga. Her name was Nagiko and like Kiiko she came from a bigger city and was isolated and wanted friends but finds circumstances are difficult.

Mai Mai Miracle Princess Nagiko (Ei Morisako)The story of both Kiiko and Nagiko run almost parallel and the two learn a lot about real life and the power of imagination.

The poster and animation feel a lot like a Ghibli film but it was animated by Madhouse who are known for brilliant psychological thrillers like Paranoia Agent, Perfect Blue and Monster. It was directed by Sunao Katabuchi, a man with an eclectic filmography including directing the explosive first season of Black Lagoon. Crucially he acted as assistant director of Kiki’s Delivery Service. The latter title is a perfect comparison as Mai Mai Miracle hits all the magical realism notes that Ghibli are known for. It fits the magical (in this case, the power of imagination and small miracles) into the everyday.

I had little idea what to expect but tagged it as Totoro in 1950’s Japan. The visuals and Mai Mai Miracle Shinko (Mayuko Fukuda) and Her Sister Mitsuko (Tamaki Matsumoto)plot are similar: two extremely cute girls and the power of imagination in rural Japan. Such a reading was glib because unlike some of Ghibli’s stories which feel like dark fables with clear-cut endings (I am being extremely glib here), Mai Mai Miracle reflects the messy and uncaring nature of the universe and the unexpectedness of life much like The Wolf Children did. Indeed, while I detected a child-friendly message about using your imagination and persevering to overcome tough situations you may encounter in life and find a better future, the narrative is involved what with its magical fantasies and jumping back and forth in time and delivers situations with an unexpectedness that is real and very dark.

My dismissiveness was washed away when I became absorbed in the simple yet effective way of delivering the story and the great animation.

We get a kids eye view of life and the world. We only ever see and hear and things at the pace they do and we only uncover important things related to the plot like character motivation in moments like the kids getting into very serious scrapes or overhearing adults gossiping and it is sometimes a cruel shock as it is not glossed over. Like real life, Shinko, Kiiko and Nagiko find their concerns are just a selection amongst many and that life can be very different from what they expect. We see that even on summer days full of imagination and play death and dishonour can be found under the same sun.

Mai Mai Miracle Sadness Strikes Kiiko (Nako Mizusawa) and Shinko (Mayuko Fukuda)

This is where things take a real dark turn as the world of adults intrudes on that of children and makes them question reality. Characters are forced to grow and it can be affecting to watch (and it was affecting!) because there is a feeling of verisimilitude and reality. You feel like life is being lived an even the most minor of characters gets something of an arc that feels real. I was surprised at the force of feeling (I had to wait in the cinema before leaving just to compose myself!) but I was sucked in.

The animation was intoxicating in its detail and the camera work was assured. It is like total immersion as every scene and character design help to convey a sense of place as well as the tones of the story, situation and character.

The film is animated with a high degree of detail and life. The audience are always aware of things on a global scale like the age we are in thanks to hindsight of over 50 years. It is post-World War 2, an age of growth after devastation so there are signs of renewal and reconstruction with new buildings being put up on idle land and cranes about town. It is an age of innocence, children play with mud, marbles and kewpie dolls and wander about everywhere in complete freedom and safety. Characters marvel over such modern wonders like gas-powered refrigerators and the mere idea of television. It evokes tones of nostalgia and transports us to a simpler age.

The animation is more than just for setting as everything from colour, shading and character animation it also informs the audience of the character’s mental space.

Mai Mai Miracle Shinko (Mayuko Fukuda) DaydreamingShinko and Kiiko are totally different characters. Shinko lives in a colourful and vibrant world full of sunshine streaming from skies of infinite blue on fields of gorgeous green. We hear the sounds of lively shouting and nature. She likes lazing around in tall grass and dashing through wheat fields. Highly energetic, brave and a bit of a rebel, her demeanour is lively and she throws herself around the screen causing the camera to become ever more active in trying to chase her and keep her in frame.

Mai Mai Miracle - Shinko's Imagination at WorkThis life is reflected in her imagination which she uses to make houses and people of the period pop up in her everyday surroundings. A city develops around her, starting off as crayon drawing from a colouring book to almost accurate reconstructions straight from text books all the way to the real thing populated by people from the time. At first the contrast in animation is garish but it becomes a joyful evocation of inspiration. I personally loved Shinko all the more for it!

In complete contrast is Kiiko, a girl who is totally timid and withdrawn and marked by a degree of sadness in life which is reflected in her physicality and her surroundings.

She is highly contained and walks at solemn pace, following people at a distance in Mai Mai Miracle Outsider Named Kiiko (Nako Mizusawa)silence, head down and closed off to the sights around her. Shinko loves wildlife while Kiiko is absolutely terrified of it and knows little of nature. Her home is a silent place wreathed in shadows and a pallid light there is a definite sense of coldness. The audience could be witnessing something submerged in the sea. She is extremely pale when compared to the tanned children who surround her in her new classroom and something of an outsider both physically and mentally. She does not don a school uniform and her clothes are subdued colours.

As the two become friends, Kiiko’s world becomes all the more and filled with the liveliness of Shinko and she discovers an inner-strength through imagination and friendship that gives her new life. This story is also played out through the tale of Princess Nagiko which runs adjacent. It is not merely a flight of fantasy and imagination but a reminded that things in life are timeless. Even though there are a thousand years separating the girls they deal with similar problems, ones where a character is forced to confront the fact that life is not clear cut and there are many curved balls and no overarching narrative to set things right and they must find inner-strength and imagination to overcome their problems and take control of their future.

Mai Mai Miracle Kiiko (Nako Mizusawa) and Shinko (Mayuko Fukuda) at Play

It is not trite. It is thoroughly absorbing. The use of imagination and reality, playing on what the audience knows and what the children believe and shaping a narrative in which the growth of the characters is compelling and their world feels so vital and alive is done here to perfection. The changes in tone from light-hearted to serious are delivered matter of factly. Things happen just like in real life. Deal with it. This, like all the changes in tone and the switching between imagination and reality is handled with such confidence that I have to admire the film and I think that it carries a great message for kids and is also adult enough to entertain grown-ups. Indeed, this review turned out longer than I thought it would but it is just because I hold the film in high regard. With the chances of this being shown on the big screen in the UK again being slim, I am very happy to have watched it!


¹ It was sold out and there was an audience made up of children and adults. If  the screening is considered successful, the Japan Foundation may programme more anime for future festivals. Judging by the positive reaction of the audience that is probably a dead certainty because I heard nothing but praise for the film. Consider this review another voice of praise!

Mai Mai Miracle Imagination Run with Shinko (Mayuko Fukuda) and Kiiko (Nako Mizusawa)

The Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme 2013

Once Upon a Time in Japan Banner

The second film festival of the year which I am covering is a roving one! The Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme

The festival’s name and theme for this year is “Once Upon a Time in Japan: Reinventing the Past Through the Eyes of Japanese Contemporary Filmmakers”. The festival programme has works from notable directors who “all share the same aspiration to reinterpret and relive moments of times gone by through a variety of genres, styles and tones.” Said notable directors include Takashi Miike, Koji Wakamatsu, Lee Sang-il who has two films screened with Hula Girls and one of the four sections of Kaidan Horror Classics. The other two sections are directed by Hirokazu Koreeda and Shinya Tsukamoto. There will also be anime in the form of Mai Mai Miracle which is directed by Sunao Katabuchi.

Before I get into that, here are the locations:

London – Institute of Contemporary Arts: February 1-7,
Sheffield – Showroom Workstation: February 8-17,
Birmingham Mac Birmingham: February 18-27,
Belfast – Queen’s Film Theatre: February 22-28,
Edinburgh – Filmhouse: March 1-7,
Newcastle Upon Tyne – Tyneside Cinema: March 3-24,
Bristol – Watershed: March 9-16,
Nottingham – Broadway: March 22-27,

What I like about this festival is that it covers a lot of the major periods of Japanese history through different genres and it has a variety of talent in each film. I will be attending the London part of the tour and I am hyped up. Tickets have been ordered. Supplies and transport have been arranged. Where are the films???

Rebirth                                                                                   Rebirth Film Poster

Japanese Title: 八日目 の 蝉

Romaji: Youkame no Semi

Running Time: 147 mins.

Director: Izuru Narushima

Writer: Mitsuyo Kakuta (Novel), Satoko Okudera (Screenplay)

Starring: Mao Inoue, Hiromi Nagasaku, Eiko Koike, Jun Fubuki, iwako Ichikawa, Yoko Moriguchi, Kimiko Yo

This sounds like an intriguing mystery/drama and it comes from Izuru Narushima who had a hit at the end of 2011 with Admiral Yamamoto. This is totally different and much more feminine by the look of things. It has a script by Satoko Okudera (The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki, Kaidan, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) and there is a strong female cast with names like Mao Inoue (Kaidan), Hiromi Nagasaku (Doppelganger), Eiko Koike (2LDK, Penance), Yoko Moriguchi (Key of Life) and Jun Fubuki (Séance).

Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust        Bubble Ficiton Boom or Bust Film Poster

Japanese Title: バブルヘ GO!! タイム マシン は ドラム 式

Romaji: Baburuhe GO!! Taimu Mashin ha Dorama Shiki

Running Time: 116 mins.

Director: Yasuo Baba

Writer: Ryoichi Kimizuka

Starring: Hiroshi Abe, Ryoko Hirosue, Hiroko Yakushimaru, Kazue Fukiishi, Yuko Ito, Naoko Jijima, Hiroko Moriguchi, Masahiro Sugisaki

Okay, this looks like the most fun at the festival and I won’t be seeing it! Darn! The film looks at Japan in the 80s at the height of its economic bubble. It was a time when it reigned supreme thanks to its mega-corporations, technology and so forth. Just before it came crashing down thanks to its poorly managed banking system which doled out huge amounts of money at low interest rates to all and sundry. I think that about sums it up in a slap-dash way (I’m probably over-simplifying things to death). Anyway this helped start a recession. The story starts out in the present day but thanks to time travel we get to see the glitz and glamour of the 80’s as one character aims to stop the recession from happening! It has a ridiculous plot and lots of physical humour and it stars a hell of a lot of actors I am love like Hiroshi Abe (Survive Style 5+), Kazue Fukiishi (Noriko’s Dinner Table) and Ryoko Hirosue (Key of Life), it is written by Ryoichi Kimizuka (Infection, Parasite Eve, Bayside Shakedown 4: The Final). I love a good time machine story like Day of the Tentacle and Back to the Future and this one looks good.

Mayumi Tanaka (Hirosue) is a debt-ridden bar hostess. Her mother Mariko (Yakushimaru) is a brilliant research scientist. When Mariko turns an ordinary washing machine into a time-machine and she disappears, the Japanese government turn to Mayumi to head back to 1990 and prevent the announcement of a landmark fiscal policy that sparked the recession. Why Mayumi? It just so happens that this ill-qualified time traveller is the only other person the machine accepts. She agrees and so hilarity should ensue, right?

The Blossoming of Etsuko Kamiya          The Blossoming of Etsuko Kamiya Film Poster

Japanese Title: 紙屋 悦子 の 青春

Romaji: Kamiya Etsuko no Seishun

Running Time: 111 mins.

Director: Kazuo Kuroki

Writer: Kazuo Kuroki, Masataka Matsuda, Hideki Yamada (Screenplay)

Starring: Tomoyo Harada, Manami Honjou, Kaoru Kobayashi, Shunsuke Matsuoka

This is the only Second World War story in the festival it was the last film of Kazuo Kuroki and received its theatrical release a few months after his death. It stars Tomoyo Harada (The Summer of Ubume, Tokyo Oasis) is a tragic romance about a navy officer who arranges a marriage between his girlfriend and a friend before taking part in a kamikaze attack.

Castle Under Fiery Skies          Castle Under Fiery Skies Film Poster

Japanese Title: 火天 の 城

Romaji: Ka Ten no Shiro

Running Time: 139 mins.

Director: Mitsutoshi Tanaka

Writer: Kenichi Yamamoto (Novel)

Starring: Kippei Shiina, Toshiyuki Nishida, Shinobu Otake, Saki Fukua, Tokuma Nishioka, Taro Yamamoto, Renji Ishibashi

A lavish costume drama with a large cast by a director who specialises in such things. It looks epic.

1575, Oda Nobunaga (Shiina) defeats Takeda Katsuyori in the Battle of Nagashino after an epic siege. 1576, Nobunaga builds a lavish new castle named Azuchi castle. It must be seen from the capital city of Kyoto and defend the city and it must symbolise the unification of various factions and intimidate rival clans. This is the story of the carpenters led by Okabe Mataemon (Nishia).  

Mai Mai Miracle                                        Mai Mai Miracle Film Poster

Japanese Title: マイマイ新子

Romaji: Mai Mai Shinko

Running Time: 93 mins.

Director: Sunao Katabuchi

Writer: Nobuko Takagi (Autobiography), Sunao Katabuchi (Screenplay)

Starring: Mayuko Fukuda (Shinko Aoki), Nako Mizusawa (Kiiko Shimatsu), Ei Morisako (Nagiko Kiyohara)

Sunao Katabuchi has quite an eclectic filmography. He directed the explosive first season of the awesome anime Black Lagoon and was assistant director of the equally awesome and magical Kiki’s Delivery Service. This is a title that comes highly recommended by Alua from Otherwhere so I made this one of my choice. Plus it’s anime and I love anime!

1955, Hofu City, Yamaguchi Prefecture. One thousand years ago during the time of the Heian Period it was the site of the ancient capital Suo no Kuni (Province of Suo) and ruins are still dotted around the rural city. Shinko is a tom-boyish elementary school student from a venerable local family. She loves dayreaming about the past and wishes to travel back to the days of the Heian period. When a transfer student from Tokyo named Kiiko appears in Shinko’s class, Shinko invites her to time travel by the power of imagination and the two form a deep friendship.  

Continue reading “The Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme 2013”