Life after Miyazaki

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
With the retirement of its greatest living auteur, where to for anime from here? Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children, plus other past and present discoveries at Madman’s Reel Anime festival, prove that the medium is in good hands.

If you’ve been wondering why Japanese animation (save for the latest from Hayao Miyazaki and his protégés) has been conspicuously absent from recent New Zealand International Film Festival line-ups, look no further than Madman’s Reel Anime festival. The boutique event, a springtime fixture showcasing four new feature-length anime films, has been running annually in New Zealand since 2010 (or 2008 in Australia), and in the long shadow of the national film festival, deserves more attention outside of the fan culture it ably services. For the record, the New Zealand International Film Festival hasn’t programmed a non-Studio Ghibli anime since Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars in 2010. Meanwhile, Hosoda’s terrific follow-up, Wolf Children, screened without so much as a whisper at last year’s Reel Anime. As the kind of mature, progressive anime that rightly challenges popular stereotypes and tropes—ultra violence, skewed sexuality, giant robots, and saucer-eyed babes, among numerous other clichés associated with Japanese comics and animation—Wolf Children is as good a reason as any not to miss this year’s edition, which promises at least two dramatic gems worthy of any major film festival, let alone one devoted solely to the all-too-rare sight of anime on the big screen.

Reel Anime 2013 does include the third of four planned ‘rebuilds’ of the iconic Neon Genesis Evangelion series—an archetype of the modern anime franchise, its resurrection perfectly timed in the wake of Guillermo del Toro’s debt-owning Pacific Rim—however Madman’s curatorial sense also strongly favours visionary directors who’ve made the medium their own. Hosoda is an exemplar of an auteur working outside of the circumscribed view of what is traditionally animated—stories that are located in an imaginary world as opposed to an everyday reality—even though he has been successful at merging both realms. (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a thoughtful tale of high school love wrapped around a time travel narrative; Summer Wars is a big family comedy with a futurist dilemma at its core.) Like the late Satoshi Kon, whose resolve to animate ‘real world’ human dramas made him a true maverick of the industry, Hosoda is forging a similar path for himself. Wolf Children is clearly his breakthrough in that it is an anime genuinely committed to emotional veracity—a serious fantasy through which real human experience is sensitively explored.

On the face of it, Wolf Children panders to the current vogue for supernatural love stories. Its premise of a young woman who falls for a wolfman and gives birth to two children by him sounds awfully fey, but it is quick to downplay the mawkishness of the setup. With rare understatement and brevity, Hosoda establishes their relationship in the opening act through a series of ordinary still moments, and the minutiae of life becomes an important theme as the film moves into its second phase. Unceremoniously, the woman’s lover is killed—well before the story can digress into a cherry blossom-laden romance—and the widowed mother must cope with raising the crossbred children on her own. Rather than delve into the mythology of werewolves or contrive a dramatic plot development around their existence in the world, the film modestly, but no less compellingly, turns its attention to simple realities: the challenge of pregnancy; the burden of single motherhood; the pain of growing up different; the grief of losing a loved one; the resilience required to move on.

I can’t say that I’ve seen another anime so invested in the emotional journey of its protagonists, and yet so restrained in the delivery of their emotional crests and troughs. When the young woman discovers her dead lover—the lifeless body of a wolf submerged in a flooded canal—the entire scene unfolds from a heartbreaking distance, where she watches, in horror, as two municipal workers retrieve the corpse from the water and load it onto a rubbish truck for disposal. At no point does the camera break from its stance into a heavy-handed close-up, even when she runs towards the workers, distraught yet unable to explain the significance of the wild animal’s death. Cell animation has always lacked the dimension to portray supple and muted facial expressions, which is perhaps what motivated Hosoda to frame this, and other poignant moments, from tactful angles, often from behind, where the characters’ faces are appropriately obscured. Simultaneously, Hosoda is not shy about lingering, sometimes uncomfortably, on grave situations and near disaster. The result is a film at once tender and quietly devastating, couched in a naturalist aesthetic evocative of, if not more sophisticated than, the works of Miyazaki. Wolf Children is sweet and exuberant when it needs to be—and it does not skimp on the cute quotient as far as its titular offspring go—but at all other times is contemplative and matter-of-fact in its storytelling. Only Satoshi Kon has prioritised dramatic realism more as an animator, and both his and Hosoda’s films really do reject the argument that their stories would be better served as live action. Indeed, the seamless aging of the wolf children, from troublesome toddlers to troubled adolescents, proves how animation of this quality generates its own kind of verisimilitude, where real and imaginary experiences are rendered as one, and through which the continuity of the world it depicts is possible.

Makoto Shinkai, a celebrated contemporary of Hosoda’s, is an animator whose intensely romantic films give us hope that there is life after Miyazaki. Screening at Reel Anime 2013, Shinkai’s latest, The Garden of Words, holds true to this pursuit of emotional intensity through a medium not naturally conducive to conveying the rich interior world of human beings. (Displaying a range of emotions in a performance is one thing; evincing it through an animated character is another entirely.) Behind the astonishingly detailed animation (this is, hands down, the most gorgeous film you’ll see all year), there’s a startling maturity and nuance to its portrayal of the affectionate bond between a 27-year-old woman and a 15-year-old boy, distilled through the highly evolved melancholy of Shinkai’s 2007 love story, 5 Centimeters Per Second. Then again, as exquisitely grounded as both those works are, Shinkai’s greatest statement to date has been the epic fantasy Children Who Chase Lost Voices (Reel Anime 2012), a film not only lovingly conceived in the spirit of Miyazaki-san, but one glorious enough to sit comfortably alongside Studio Ghibli’s roster of classics. Influenced by Laputa and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Children Who Chase Lost Voices is note-perfect in its reverence for the 72-year-old animator, right down to its feminist drive and environmental concern. Centred on a young girl who discovers a portal to the mythical ‘Agartha’, a vast subterranean land formed around the Earth’s core, the film charts her quest to restore her dead father’s soul with imagination, scale, and most crucially, a sense of peril and pathos. A big screen anime if ever there was one, it’s worthy of being decorated as an honorary Ghibli, and must surely rank as the best film Miyazaki never made.

As we await the release of Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises, the touching A Letter to Momo will more than adequately fill the void. While Shinkai has drawn inspiration from Miyazaki’s great adventure films, director Hiroyuki Okiura (whose only previous animated feature to date has been the striking Jin-Roh) evokes My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, along with Ghibli’s sidebar of yearning coming-of-age tales, from Whisper in the Heart to Only Yesterday. Quintessentially bucolic, Okiura renders the ordinary with the extraordinary in an earthy palette, where the magical is interspersed with the quotidian, although the emphasis here is on matters of the heart rather than flights of fancy—a refreshing counterpoint to Miyazaki’s exhilarating fantasies, and fitting insofar as this is the story of a young girl approaching adulthood, and leaving behind the safety blanket of an imaginary world. Central to A Letter to Momo, Wolf Children, Children Who Chase Lost Voices, and the Studio Ghibli canon, is the theme of coping with loss, a bittersweet motif handled delicately by Okiura, whose beautifully illustrated film also reminds us of anime’s unique power to draw us in. If Shinkai’s film was a tribute to an old master in his twilight, Okiura’s is a love letter to hand-drawn animation in a digitally obsessed world.

Reel Anime 2013 opens on September 19 in Christchurch and Dunedin. Screenings in Auckland and Wellington (and eight Australian cities) commence from September 26. Session times and programme details at reelanime.com.
In addition to ‘The Garden of Words’ and ‘A Letter to Momo’, the festival is also showing ‘Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo’, ‘009 RE: Cyborg’, ‘Ghost in the Shell: Arise’, and ‘Beserk: The Battle of Doldrey’ (Australia only).
‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’, ‘5 Centimeters Per Second’, ‘Summer Wars’, ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time’, and all Studio Ghibli movies are available on DVD/Blu-ray from Madman Entertainment. ‘Wolf Children’ is released on DVD/Blu-ray in December.
Filed under: Features, FILM, Film Festivals

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.