In some of my previous anime reviews I’ve described the current state of the industry as “creatively stagnant”. I think it’s a fair assessment; economic woes in Japan and abroad have pushed studios to cater more and more to a small subset of ultra-devoted hardcore fans who can be counted on to buy Blu Ray and DVD releases and expensive merchandise no matter the cost. It’s also served as an incentive to pander to a series of niche sexual fetishes that effectively torpedo any chance of new series gaining any sort of mainstream appeal. There’s a general sense among long-time fans and pundits that the industry needs a refresh, a creative breath of fresh air. As it turns out, going to back to basics might be the best way to do that.
Produced by Studio Trigger and funded by the Japanese government as part of a program intended to train new animators, Little Witch Academia is a 26 minute long short film set in a Harry Potter-esque world where magic and witches exist alongside mundane humanity. As a child Akko Kagari was a fan of Shiny Chariot, a witch who uses her powers to put on elaborate stage shows for adoring audiences. Now in her teens Akko is enrolled in Luna Academy, a witch school populated by eccentric oddballs where Shiny Chariot isn’t looked on with fondness and Akko’s childish clap-your-hands-and-believe ideas about magic are treated as a joke. After her rival and resident queen-bee Diana bites off more than she can chew during a treasure hunting assignment Akko jumps into action to save the school and prove that her brand of magic is worthwhile after all.
If you’ve ever watched a Disney movie- if you have any familiarity with children’s fiction at all- you can probably write the rest of the plot in your head. It’s the classic story of the plucky underdog who saves the day by holding true to their convictions and beliefs, as long as those beliefs consist of ideas about friendship, believing in yourself and vanilla non-conformity that wouldn’t make the traditional values crowd uncomfortable or expose young audiences to anything challenging or different. Little Witch Academia does not in any way deviate from this formula, but there’s a lot to be said for a cliched premise that’s executed well.
Those 26 minutes are used with exceptional efficiency and elegance to build up the movie’s setting, a cast of shallow but very endearing characters and a complete story arc. There’s no wasted motion here- every line of dialogue pushes the plot forward, reveals something new about the cast or just delivers a smirk-worthy joke. The action is fast and energetic when it comes time for the junior witches to start flinging spells around and Studio Trigger packs every frame with something new and interesting to look at, including background plot details like the location of Luna Academy and shout-outs to the movie’s many fantasy and pop culture influences.
While retaining a distinct anime style, Little Witch Academia’s visuals take some obvious influences from western cartoons. Characters stretch and squash in response to the frequent slapstick humour and several of the action scenes bear an obvious resemblance to classic cartoons from American television (there are even two side character named Hannah and Barbara). I have to wonder whether this may have been an attempt at courting a more widespread international audience. Either way it’s a nice visual breath of fresh air for a medium that tends toward sameness. The actual animation on display isn’t quite theatrical level but is still far superior to a tv series, particularly during the hyper-kinetic action scenes. If this is what we can expect from the next generation of Japanese animators then the industry has a bright future ahead of it.
There isn’t a whole lot to say about Little Witch Academia- it’s short, it’s not all that complex- but If I can indulge in a bit of childish idealism myself its greatest strength is, well, heart. Studio Trigger clearly had a blast making this thing and their enthusiasm for the project shines through in every aspect. It’s a cute, fun watch that I think anyone, regardless of whether they’ve seen anime before, would enjoy. Give it a chance and you, too, will discover that a believing heart is your magic.
Little Witch Academia is currently available to watch for free on Youtube, in 1080p, with an unfortunately not very good English subtitle track. The popularity of the project prompted Studio Trigger to launch a Kickstarter for a second episode which at the time of writing has surpassed its goal by more than $300,000. Hopefully some enterprising production committee will some day open the purse strings for a full tv series or even- dare I hope- a theatrical film.
Hey all, just a quick update on Only God Forgives, which I reviewed yesterday. I came across the following video by a Youtube reviewer named Chris Stuckman that does a good job of analysing the film’s themes:
I didn’t particularly care for the movie, but the video is interesting and since it’s hard to find good analysis like this I figured I’d give it a shout-out in case anyone is looking for that sort of thing. The creator of the video has a similar video on Drive that you should check out if you’re a fan of that movie.
Drive was a fairly polarizing movie. Thanks to a dishonest advertising campaign many viewers walked into the cinema expecting a stylish action thriller; what they got instead was a slow-burning mood piece about a nameless, morally ambiguous vigilante who engages in acts of stomach-churning violence. A lot of people hated it. A lot of other people (myself included) loved it. A smaller but still disappointingly large group of people didn’t seem to realize that you weren’t supposed to like the Driver, leading to a modest uptick in the sale of white jackets with scorpions on them. Director Nicholas Winding-Refn’s followup, Only God Forgives, was promoted as a stylish action thriller but instead turns out to be a slow-burning mood piece about a morally ambiguous vigilante who engages in acts of stomach-churning violence. Can neon 80s-flavored lightning strike twice?
Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his brother operate a Muay Thai gym in Bangkok that’s actually a front for a drug ring. One day Julian’s brother ambles into a brothel and monotonously requests a fourteen year old girl to have sex with. After being rebuffed he tracks down and murders the 16 year old daughter of the brothel owner and waits serenely in her blood-stained room for the cops to arrive. Unfortunately for him he attracts the attention of Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a violent renegade super-cop with the apparent ability to produce swords from thin air. Julian’s criminal empress mother arrives in town and orders Julian to avenge his brother’s death, a task he doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about. Before long a series of escalating revenge killings plunge him into a nightmarish underworld that may or may not be entirely real.
Only God Forgives is an art movie. I know this because it spends most of its run-time announcing the fact in the most ham-fisted and shallow way possible. Someone evidently told Nicholas Winding-Refn that art movies are slow and serious, and so he has his actors drift languidly across the screen as if underwater and wear a permanent expression of stern disapproval, suggesting that there is a dog peeing on a carpet just off-camera in every scene. Having perfected the craft of arthouse cinema nirvana he then flipped through IMDB comments pages to find movies that people who don’t watch a lot of films consider pretentious and ripped them off. No real attempt is made to either disguise these inspirations or mesh them together into a unified whole, so we get a David Lynchian traipse through surreal eerie dreamscapes, then a Quentin Tarantino-esque taut verbal stand-off, then No Country For Old Men-ish visual and auditory sparsity. It gives the impression that the movie can’t make up its mind about what it wants to be and ends up feeling like nothing in particular except a pale imitation of better films.
All of this cinematic faffery is in service to trite and simplistic Freudian notions of masculinity and impotence delivered in a manner so thuddingly obvious I had worked out exactly what the movie was trying to say within the first fifteen minutes. No doubt there are hidden depths to Only God Forgives that I’m not seeing. I’m sure a torture scene being set in a club full of women who have been ordered to keep their eyes closed has some deep thematic meaning, but I can’t say I’m particularly arsed to figure it out. That just leaves a revenge thriller that takes frequent breaks so Ryan Gosling can stare at his fists or glare at the off-screen dog some more, populated by paper-thin characters that we’re given no reason to care about.
Julian himself is a complete non-entity, a spineless inert character brought (barely) to life by an uncharacteristically wooden performance from Gosling. It’s been suggested that Julian’s pathetic nature may have been intended as a dig at audiences who didn’t realize they weren’t supposed to like the protagonist of Drive- if so then well done, we have all been thoroughly trolled. I hope it was worth sabotaging the movie for that. Chang is more interesting, largely due to a strong performance from Pansringarm, who seems to be the only person in the film capable of pulling off the permanent death-glare he’s been saddled with naturally, but his stoic angel of vengeance routine quickly loses its impact after the first few times you see it leaving us with an emotionless killing machine whose sheer level of sadism ends up making him look worse than many of the people he hunts down over the course of the movie. By far the most interesting character- and really, the best part of the movie- is Julian’s grimy, thoroughly unpleasent mother, whose scenes show off the Tarantino influences in a particularly entertaining way. She’s morally reprehensible to the extreme, virulently racist and has a disturbing quasi-oedipal relationship with her sons, but she’s also the only character in the film who feels like she has any personality at all, probably because she’s the only one who gets to display any emotions besides pent-up rage or penis-depression. There’s an awful lot of penis-depression in this movie, with Gosling spending a long time fantasizing about beating up Thai people and sleeping with prostitutes because his dick-fists aren’t working properly.
If the characters don’t enthrall you (they wont) then at least the environs they drift lifelessly through will give you something interesting to look at. This is a spectacularly good looking film, with a Kubrickian eye for strong colour choices and framing that results in a lot of absolutely sublime images. Winding-Refn has a lot of fun splashing neon lighting all over the place and generally laying on the same 80s grindhouse aesthetic he used in Drive, to generally attractive results. If you’re just looking for style and don’t care about how wafer-thin and tedious the substance behind it is, consider giving Only God Forgives a look.
Is this movie absolutely terrible? No. The basic structure of the story is perfectly decent and the last third or so drops the arty nonsense in favour of telling a straight revenge story, while simultaneously keeping the off-kilter dreaminess of the preceding hour intact. The movie improves immeasurably at this point, with some genuinely nail-biting set pieces and a character reversal that’s been done too many times before to be surprising but which still manages to entertain. There’s a good movie in here somewhere; occasionally it rises to the surface enough to be glimpsed, such as in Chang and Julian’s stylish throw-down late in the movie, but it’s just too dis-jointed and confused to ever really achieve its full potential.
I wanted to like Only God Forgives, but in the end I can’t characterize it as anything other than a huge misfire on the part of an undeniably talented director. It’s a hollow shell of a movie, an art film that spends so much time putting on the outward trappings of art cinema that it never really established an identity of its own, a revenge thriller with far too little plot or character development to be engaging, a visual metaphor with nothing particularly interesting to say.
There’s a certain fascination in American culture with “the immigrant experience”, which can come in three flavours depending on who is telling the story. Long-established, mostly white Americans usually write self-congratulatory dreck propping up the notion of the American Dream and tacitly supporting American exceptionalism. The actual immigrants themselves tell some fascinating stories that often depict aspects of American society that the mainstream would rather keep covered up. Accounts written by the descendants of those immigrants tend to involve an aspect of mythologization, with the Old Country (whichever country that may happen to be) turned into an object of simultaneous derision and nostalgia.
The Buddha in The Attic takes the third approach, telling the story of Japanese women who went to America in the 30s to marry Japanese men who they knew only from photos and letters after being fed the classic immigrant story of escaping the gender and class disparities of their own society to a rich life in the Glorious Enlightened West. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with that decade and the one immediately following will know that the reality turns out to be far different. The husbands are nothing like how they presented themselves and most of the women end up slaving away in poverty for a society that sees them as second class citizens and disposable objects of sexual gratification at best and potential traitors at worst. Rather than focus on any one group of characters Otsuka presents the story as the collective experience of an entire generation, always using “we” rather than “I” and almost never staying on any of the book’s hundreds of mostly-nameless characters for more than a sentence or two. It’s an approach that could have allowed a greater breadth of scope at the expense of engagement with the reader, but a lot of the micro-vignettes that make up most of the book are surprisingly evocative, sketching out locations and entire life stories in a few sentences with a level of skill that certain other writers wouldn’t be able to manage in several thousand-page novels.
The book’s writing takes on an almost poetic quality, using repeating phrases for pages at a time and randomly interspersing thoughts and snippets of dialogue to create a quasi-stream of consciousness narrative that flows serenely between subjects and emotions, leaving the reader to pluck out whatever component of the story they find particularly interesting. This can unfortunately devolve at times into pages-long sections where Otsuka simply rattles off examples of suicides and botched abortions and other tragic outcomes for her many characters. The effect is like trying to read through someone’s shopping list, but one that catalogues human misery instead of groceries.
I don’t know how historically accurate the book is- this is Otsuka’s parents generation she’s writing about and she specializes in historical fiction so I’m guessing it’s pretty close to reality- but I did feel that the story tended to apply some cultural biases in favour of the good old US of A even as it presents the ugly reality of the situation that many hopeful immigrants of that era found themselves in. The Japanese husbands are almost universally portrayed as abusive drunks while the women of the book have a tendency to run across kind-hearted brothel patrons, selfless farm bosses and quirky spinsters who consider the Help their dearest friends a bit more often than I suspect happened in real life. Or maybe not, I don’t know. It would be interesting to read some of the first-hand accounts listed in the acknowledgments section for comparison.
While nominally about Japanese women coming to America in the 30s, descriptions of the characters toiling away at work “no self respecting American would ever do” clearly echo the experiences of many South American immigrants in America today, and the latter half of the book dealing with the infamous WWII Japanese internment camps makes sly references to the rising tide of fear and suspicion after “the attack” that all but invites comparison with similar, but often overlooked hostility aimed at Muslims since the beginning of the millennium. That the ugly side of the American psyche tends to just switch targets rather than ever go away is a point I don’t feel can be emphasized enough, and I was glad to see Otsuka weave it into her book in such a central way.
The Buddha In The Attic is one of those books I feel uncomfortable really recommending because I’m basically trying to cast judgement on a retelling of someone else’s actual life experience, which I may have gotten completely ass-backward, but if nothing else it’s imperative that The Immigrant Story, such a central component of how America presents itself to the world, isn’t allowed to be safely prescribed within the experiences of white Europeans coming to the Land of Opportunity to make their fortune, as it so often is for reasons I’m assuming I don’t need to go into. I’m not qualified to say whether The Buddha In The Attic presents the story of Japanese immigrants to the US in the 30s in a way that’s respectful of the historical reality of the situation, but taken as a story based loosely on real events it kept me fairly gripped for its brief 100 pages and served as a wake-up call to the ways in which America’s sins have continued unchecked throughout the decades.