Stephen reviews: Voices of a Distant Star (2002)

Voices of a Distant Star [ほしのこえ, Hoshi no Koe] (2002)
AKA Voices of a Star

Starring Sumi Muto, Chihiro Suzuki, Donna Burke, Mika Shinohara (original version), Makoto Shinkai (original version)

Directed by Makoto Shinkai


It’s hard to find an anime that can truly be called a low-budget film. You can’t grab a camcorder and some like-minded amateur actors and whip something up over a few weekends for a few thousand bucks. Animation is very labor-intensive work that requires some rather specific, and expensive, tools. Few anime justifiable as a film are ever made on a shoestring budget. And then you want one with an English release? Well, that basically leaves you with Voices of a Distant Star.

The entire production was done by Makoto Shinkai over a seven month period. It’s only a 25 minute film, but the amount of work it must have taken for one man to do it all is staggering. He directed it, he animated it (both the CG and hand-drawn elements), he edited it, he wrote it, he did just about everything in it except the acting. Oh, wait, he did that too for an early production version, and one of the DVD features is to watch the film with his original voice work, where he acted opposite his fiancée as the lead. So really the only thing he didn’t do himself was the music.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Voices of a Distant Star (2002) →

Stephen reviews: Legend of the Millennium Dragon (2011)

Legend of the Millennium Dragon [鬼神伝, Onigamiden] (2011)

Starring Kenshō Ono, Satomi Ishihara, Shidō Nakamura, Kentaro Ito, Yasuyuki kase, Takashi Kondō, Shotaro Morikubo, Akio Nojima

Directed by Hirotsugu Kawasaki


I love mythology. Myths are the oldest stories we have, and they are a tie to what stories are and why we tell them. Those stories have captivated audiences for centuries and millennia. I am always fascinated by how potent they are, and how they strike to the core of human nature. As an anime fan, it should come as no surprise that I have a special love for Japanese mythology. Legend of the Millennium Dragon is based heavily on Japanese myths, taking some of the more important characters and throwing them into an action film with a hefty dollop of magical explosions. This is exactly the kind of thing I love to see. Except that Millennium Dragon is boring as hell. I really don’t know how you can make huge explosions, hectic sword fights, and furious monsters dull, but they certainly can be. If you doubt me, go ahead and watch this. You’ll learn the sad truth.

Part of this film’s problem is its overuse of computer effects. I don’t just mean that I hate CG and it makes the film look ugly (and boy is that the truth as well), but that Kawasaki seems far too enamored of his ability to pan the camera around. Whole scenes seem devoted to the fact that he can show a panoramic view of the room. He tried to infuse a sense of awe through the film, but it’s only awe at what the computer can do, not at the characters or events. It doesn’t impress, and it doesn’t entertain.

The plot adds nothing of value to the experience either. It’s just a generic tale of a young man who finds out he has some amazing power, and then needs to save the world, or at least ancient Japan, from a rather uninspired villain. Add to that a cheesy “why can’t we all just get along?” theme to the whole thing, and we get a wholly uninteresting story.

I liked the designs for the Oni, and the idea that they are just people wearing war masks rather than monsters, but that was about the only good thing this movie has to offer. Well, there’s also the goofiest and most impractical looking catapult I have ever seen, but that was just unintentional humor. Millennium Dragon tries to impress by making everything huge, and the climax is a contest of one-upmanship with each side simply pulling a bigger monster out its ass, back and forth while you yawn away the evening. But like a cat arching its back to look more menacing, it’s all just fluff.

Stephen reviews: Kimagure Orange Road: I Want To Return To That Day (1988)

Kimagure Orange Road: I Want To Return To That Day [きまぐれオレンジ★ロード あの日にかえりたい, Kimagure Orenji Rodo: Ano Hi ni Kaeritai] AKA Kimagure Orange Road: the Movie, Johnny y sus amigos: Una difícil elección

Starring Tōru Furuya, Hiromi Tsuru, Eriko Hara

Directed by Tomomichi Mochizuki


This is one of the stranger anime I have seen. It is based upon a romantic comedy series that is heavy on the comedy and light on the romance. In typical anime slapstick mode, it had all sorts of bizarre physical jokes reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons. A boy named Kyosuke and his entire family had super powers with fairly loose definitions (Think Jedi knights without lightsabers or heroics). They tried to hide their powers from the rest of society, and much of the show revolved around trying to keep it secret. He then becomes entwined in a goofy love triangle with Hikaru, a hyper, obnoxious girl who is obsessed with him, and Madoka, a quiet, temperamental girl who makes a habit of beating up thugs using nothing more than a guitar pick. From my first statement, you probably expect this film to take those concepts to new heights of Japanese weird. Not this time. It is almost pure romance with only a few halfhearted, and failed, attempts at humor. No super powers. No shrill obnoxious whining. No hurtling guitar picks of doom. Just the three main characters and their love triangle. This sudden shift in style and tone from its source material is why I call it strange, and I’m afraid that if there is any explanation, I am unaware of it.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Kimagure Orange Road: I Want To Return To That Day (1988) →

Stephen reviews: Slayers: the Motion Picture (1995)

Slayers [スレイヤーズ, Sureiyâzu]

Starring Megumi Hayashibara, Maria Kawamura, Osamu Saka, Tessho Genda, Minami Takayama

Directed by Hiroshi Watanabe & Kazuo Yamazaki


As you might have guessed by the title, Slayers: the Motion Picture is by no means the first product in the Slayers franchise. But unlike other anime movies, this is not a summary of a longer series or a sequel relying on previous events. It has no influence on the rest of the series, nor does the rest of the series influence it in any meaningful way, and its place in the timeline is mostly indeterminate. (Various websites assure me it’s a prequel, but there is nothing in the film to indicate that.) Therefore, it makes as good an entry point as any to the series.

Rather than the usual gang of misfits the series centers around, main character and master wizard Lina Inverse is wandering around on her own and is soon dragged off by fellow sorceress Naga to visit the famous hot springs of Mipross Island. I’m glad they kept the cast small, as the movie avoids the pitfalls of huge casts that plague many other anime films. Instead it is a classic odd couple routine where the two conflicting personalities of Lina and Naga collide.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Slayers: the Motion Picture (1995) →

Stephen reviews: Barefoot Gen 2 (1986)

Barefoot Gen 2 [はだしのゲン2, Hadashi no Gen 2] (1986)

Starring Issei Miyazaki, Masaki Kōda, Kei Nakamura, Takami Aoyama, Yoshie Shimamura

Directed by Toshio Hirata & Akio Sakai


A sequel can be a bit tricky to review. It will inevitably spoil some parts of the original, otherwise you just can’t say anything about it. So, as much as I usually try to avoid spoilers, I’ll just have to accept it here and tell you who managed to live through the first film. Barefoot Gen 2 takes place three years after the destruction of Hiroshima, and Gen now lives with his mother and adoptive brother Ryuta. Three years hasn’t been nearly enough time to repair the damage though, and the three of them live in a shanty town pulled together from the rubble, struggling to find any way they can to make a living. When selling scrap metal scrounged from the ruins isn’t enough, Gen isn’t above resorting to theft on occasion.

There is no grand moral dilemma over the criminal acts. They are living in impossible conditions, and they act out of desperation, doing whatever they must to survive. Another desperate moment is early in the movie when Gen and Ryuta climb the wreckage of a tall building, little more than a ruined framework now, in order to find bird nests and eat the eggs. It’s a strangely lighthearted scene as the boys laugh and joke and play atop a building that looks like it might collapse at any moment. But the joyful feel of the scene is a thin mask over the harsh lives they lead. They are hungry enough that they simply eat the eggs raw on the spot, and when the eggs are gone Ryuta laments, “I sometimes want to eat till I can’t anymore.” The film has that same mix of sadness and goofy antics that the first film had, but without the heavy atmosphere of imminent doom to make it feel out of place.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Barefoot Gen 2 (1986) →

Stephen reviews: Barefoot Gen (1983)

Barefoot Gen [はだしのゲン, Hadashi no Gen]

Starring Issei Miyazaki, Masaki Kōda, Seiko Nakano, Takao Inoue, Yoshie Shimamura

Directed by Mori Masaki


It may be a cliché to say, “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” but any good storyteller knows that to tell a huge tragedy, you need to focus on the small stuff. And there aren’t many tragedies larger than the dropping of the atomic bomb. Barefoot Gen tells the story of Hiroshima and the hundreds of thousands of people killed by the first atomic bomb, and as with any good tragedy, the movie focuses on the small stuff. It deals with the statistics and the massive scale of destruction, but mostly it is the tale of a young boy named Gen and his family during the final days of World War II.

We expect to have the opening scenes showing the innocent lives soon to be lost, but this film does more than that. It shows great details of daily life in WWII era Japan, and really gets into the lives of Gen’s family. The strict rationing in effect during the war has left little food for them, and Gen’s mother is pregnant. She eats what little food they have, and even though it is for the unborn child, her guilt as she watches the rest of her family go hungry is a palpable object throughout the beginning of the film. Barefoot Gen is billed as a story about the atom bomb, and while this is true it doesn’t quite do the film justice. It grabs ahold of your guts long before it gets to the bomb.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Barefoot Gen (1983) →

Stephen reviews: X (1996)

X (1996)
AKA X/1999, X: Their Destiny Was Foreordained 1999

Starring Tomokazu Seki, Ken Narita, Yūko Minaguchi, Atsuko Takahata, Junko Iwao, Tōru Furusawa, Masako Ikeda, Kazuhiko Inoue,Mami Koyama, Rica Matsumoto, Kotono Mitsuishi, Issei Miyazaki, Jōji Nakata, Yukana Nogami, Toshihiko Seki, Emi Shinohara, Hideyuki Tanaka, Kōichi Yamadera

Directed by Rintaro


No, the title X has nothing to do with the film’s rating. It is in fact rated R. There’s no sex anywhere, and the only nudity is in the incredibly creepy opening scene where the main character, Kamui, confronts his naked mother. Before Kamui can do much of anything, his mother rips open her own stomach with her bare hands and pulls out a massive sword, which she then stabs into Kamui’s stomach. And just to end the scene on a confusing note, because it wasn’t confusing enough apparently, Mommy dearest spontaneously explodes in a spray of blood and severed limbs. Things like this are why Japan has cornered the WTF market. It certainly grabs your attention, but even after watching the film I’m not sure whether that scene was a dream sequence, or literal event. It doesn’t matter much though, as there isn’t much difference between the two in this movie. People travel through dreams, and the film is filled with apocalyptic visions.

The movie is about the end of the world, and the two groups fighting over it: the Dragons of Heaven who want to preserve modern civilization, and the Dragons of Earth that want to return the world to its natural state. Each side has six members in addition to the two fortune-telling sisters that lead them, and that means there’s obviously going to be some limits on how well we get to know them. Many characters have a sort of “Hi! Bye!” feel to them, just getting enough time to show off their stuff before dying. This film is an adaptation of a comic book series, and the problem of condensing a longer story will always be present. Rintaro has learned a few things in the decade since he directed The Dagger of Kamui, though, and the pacing in X is smooth throughout the film, giving a balanced focus to as many characters as it could.

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