The Backwater Gospel: a darkly grim Gothic satire on religious fanaticism, mob rule and the fear of death

Bo Mathorne, “The Backwater Gospel” (2011)

In a total running time of just over nine minutes, this raw and stark animation is a superb comment on the combined power of religious fanaticism, mob rule and scapegoating. In a tiny backwater town somewhere in 19th-century Gothic Americana, the Grim Reaper in the form of an undertaker with blazing lights for eyes arrives to the consternation of a fire ‘n’ brimstone preacher (voiced by Lucien Dodge), the local community leader. Death’s arrival brings fear to the desperate townsfolk, already crazed from poverty, hardship and a never-ending drought. The fiery reverend turns his maddened flock against the local tramp (Zebulon Whatley) for poking fun at the church sermons and the people stone and bludgeon the outsider dead. Still, grinning Death does not depart and his continued presence inflames the people even more. His cup soon runneth over with blood and when the rain stops, the sun shines once more and a rainbow forms in the distant horizon, Death pretty much finds his work all cut out in cleaning up Main Street.

The art-work is stunning in its contrasts of blinding light and sinister dark shadow and the tormented comic-book figures, gaunt and angular of body and twisted in face, express broken spirit, passivity and sudden anger and savagery from deep repressed wells of emotion and torment in turns very well. The gradual escalation of tension and hysteria is controlled and the eruption of fury is handled effectively in scenes of violence and horror. The denouement is shattering. The plot is very creepy and there is much grim black humour.

The laid-back guitar music suits the animation, its narrative and theme although I can’t help but think that Nick Cave would have given the short an even better musical soundtrack had he been asked to do one.

This is definitely not something for young children to watch due to the high violence and gore quotient. I found this very enjoyable indeed.

The Kinematograph: a familiar and bittersweet story done better by others

Tomek Baginski, “The Kinematograph” (2009)

Here is a bittersweet story of a lone inventor labouring to produce the first moving picture with sound and colour only to lose both his wife and a claim to take out that first patent and to be forever remembered as the world’s first film-maker. The story is a familiar one – the inventor is so obsessed with his technology and his discoveries, that he forgets to care about his loved ones until too late and he is left with only his lifeless machines and memories, while the world moves on, indifferent to his sorrow and loneliness – and Baginski does it no favours by relying on a sparse and unimaginative dialogue, a flat delivery by his voice actors and trite background music that tugs at the heart-strings in an irritating way.

While the animation is quite good and transitions from past memories to the inventor’s current reality are done well and subtly – the inventor is portrayed as elderly while his wife is shown as always youthful (because the film shows him as living in the past) – it does move too quickly in parts and viewers can feel a bit dizzy from all the dynamic spinning of the point of view of the “lens” which purports to be that of the viewers. The film looks rather like a video game as a result and this detracts somewhat from the sketchy story.

The emotion is very forced and viewers can feel manipulated by the short’s plot and message. The characters are one-dimensional and seem very stereotyped: the wife as self-sacrificing to the point where she refuses to see a doctor about her tuberculosis until far too late, the husband as too obsessed with his work to notice that his wife is unwell.

For a better treatment of a similar theme, viewers are encouraged to watch Andrei Shushkov’s “Invention of Love” which has been reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Zero: not quite reaching the levels of infinity in ambition and scope

Christopher Kezelos, “Zero” (2011)

A heart-warming little short that could have been a lot more than it was with a bigger budget and more ambition, “Zero” tells us that something, even infinity, can come out of … well, nothing. Into an imaginary class-conscious and hierarchical society where one’s status in life is determined at birth literally (because one’s lotto number is imprinted one’s body)  is born Zero from coarse wool wrapped up in a ball and stuck on a body of pipe-cleaners wrapped in cloth then covered with more wool. From childhood to maturity, Zero suffers discrimination and bullying and ends up among outsiders like himself on the streets. Shunned by polite society, all of which look suspiciously Aryan in their pink wool and yellow or white top-knots, Zero seems condemned to skulk forever among rubbish-bins, cardboard boxes and garbage dumps … until he meets his soul-mate Zero-ette (for want of a better name). In spite of the continuing oppression which includes jail-time for Zero, the two discover love and a beautiful world in nature, and eventually their love produces a miracle that elevates them above all the other numbered beings in their world.

The animation piece is lovely to watch and viewers will feel for the main character and his friend, poised on their own against a hostile society, but its narrow scope and ambition and the form of the narrative restrict it to merely being a good little piece. Tolerance is not urged for the more unfortunate people in our society who have failed to live up to social expectations. Zero’s society has not really changed after the miracle arrives: Zero and his mate might have won new respect but only for themselves and their child, not for their class. Viewers get no sense that Zero and Zero-ette together have done something that demonstrates their intelligence, ability or self-sacrifice to their society; the other numbers may well treat them as glorified freaks for producing infinity.

The need for an off-screen narrator (Nicholas McKay) robs the story of some impact: had the action been all silent, there might have been more imaginative and experimental animation, the musical soundtrack would have been pushed to be more expressive and illustrative of plot developments, and the characters would have been forced to show more emotion and be more active, rather than passive. Real change in the numbered people’s attitudes towards the zero class in their society might have been possible.

There is not much explication of the kind of society that Zero lives in and the presence of an oppressive police force seems an after-thought. We are left to infer that the society is a strictly class-based one eerily resembling the civilised classes of Aldous Huxley’s novel “Brave New World” in which humans are moulded from conception on to fit their designated roles in society as alphas, betas, gammas, deltas and epsilons. At the end of the short, no major change is implicit in Zero’s society.

I would love to see Kezelos revisit Zero and his world and make much more of it. The result need not be complicated but just have enough to suggest that Zero’s society is changing to be more tolerant and to recognise that everyone has intrinsic value.

Tolerantia: a plea for religious tolerance and diplomacy over war

Ivan Ramadan, “Tolerantia” (2008)

An animated 3D short made in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2008, “Tolerantia” is a plea for religious tolerance. Set at the end of the last Ice Age (or the next Ice Age perhaps when the planet is done with the ups and downs of global climatic change), the film is completely silent save for necessary sound effects. A Shrek-like character thaws out of a block of ice and immediately sets about finishing off his personal stone ziggurat which he had planned and started to build countless millennia ago before the Deep Freeze set in. Completing the job with a shrine to the sun, he begins his worship but is rudely interrupted by another fellow who has also just completed his solar-focused pyramid and is irate at being overshadowed. In those days, folks couldn’t apply for council development applications that would restrict overshadowing so the two prehistoric (or post-historic if you will) chaps start the mediation and negotiation process their own way, tossing rocks at each other until they achieve a sort of stalemate resolution.

It’s pretty obvious that if the guys had engaged in jaw-jaw rather than war-war, the sun would have proved quite generous in sharing its bounty between the two and viewers are to assume that if people worshipping different religions could just sit down together and talk, a lot of the pain and dislocation caused by religious intolerance leading to war could be overcome. I do not know how much this is true of Bosnia-Hercegovina in recent times if it is; much of the conflict in that country must also be attributed to resurgent nationalism among the Croatians and Serbians spilling across borders after decades of being suppressed or unresolved under Yugoslav Communist rule.

The reality beyond Bosnia-Hercegovina is that more often than we realise religion is used as a cover for other causes leading to a breakdown in communication among two or more different religious communities and a resort to violence. How does one explain the situation in parts of the Middle East where for centuries Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other religious communities co-existed and co-operated more or less peaceably and it is only during the late nineteenth century and onwards that these communities started experiencing inter-faith conflicts? If we take each major conflict and dissect the causes behind each and every one of them, we will find the causes are much more complicated and often (though not always) involve interventions by foreign actors intent on playing one religion off against others. Current conflicts in Iraq and Syria, two countries with long histories of major and minor religions co-existing side by side in the same communities, turn out to have been stoked and encouraged in part by forces outside those two countries, in particular Britain, France, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States.

Apart from all my rambling about its theme, the film is well made with slapstick humour, considering that Ramadan did pretty much everything save for the music, composed and done in traditional Bosnian folk style by Mostar Sevdah Reunion. The message is simple and very straightforward, the story structure builds up steadily and the conclusion is at once devastating and blackly humorous.

Royal Space Force – the Wings of Honnêamise: a handsome coming-of-age film about individual and communal redemption

Hiroyuki Yamaga, “Royal Space Force – the Wings of Honnêamise / Ôritsu uchûgun Oneamisu no tsubasa” (1987)

A very visually handsome and often stunning film to watch, “Royal Space Force …” reflects something of the global politics and various conflicts, expressed in war, society and culture, of the time when it was made. In a parallel universe to ours, on an alternative Earth, a kingdom and a republic – both representing the pinnacle of industrial civilisation – are on the verge of total war. In the kingdom of Honnêamise, a young man, Shirotsugh Lhadatt, lacking in direction fails his entry exam into the royal airforce and drifts into the nation’s moribund space program. He meets a young religious woman, Riquinni, who sees in him a potential messiah of sorts and who urges him to try out for the project to put a man in space for the first time. Shirotsugh follows Riquinni’s advice. There then follows a sequence of events that test Shirotsugh’s character and those of the other men in the project: they are assailed by doubt, technological problems, the disdain of the airforce, their government’s machinations and the pressure arising from their media celebrity and the kingdom’s hopes and dreams. The men discover that the rocket that will launch Shirotsugh into space is to take off from a launch-pad in a demilitarised zone between the kingdom and the enemy republic; this was planned deliberately by the kingdom’s top military personnel to provoke the enemy into a hot war. Sure enough, the republic reacts with extreme firepower and the project to send Shirotsugh into space is in doubt due to the danger from war.

The film’s greatest achievement perhaps is in the creation of a convincing world and civilisation that mix tradition and modern technology, out of which emerges a complex society with distinct values that are often contradictory and which give rise to social and cultural tensions. The kingdom is a hierarchy and its government appears to be bureaucratic and corrupt. The space program has been neglected at times and is the butt of humiliating jokes about its worth. At the same time, viewers are aware that this civilisation is an alien one, albeit one they accept quickly on its own terms: weapons, planes and other technology seem vaguely familiar and look like an amalgam of major late 19th / early to mid 20th century technology squished together until they blend into fantastic shapes and sizes. Thus at once we recognise them as familiar and as strange. Although a significant element in the film, the style of technology as a kind of cyberpunk retro-modern is consistent and it is very much at the service of the humans in transport, communication and fighting.

The path that Shirotsugh takes to become his planet’s first astronaut shapes his character and outlook and the film can be seen as a coming-of-age flick in which the protagonist finds new purpose in life and gains redemption and enlightenment in an endeavour which initially brings him scorn, then fame and celebrity, and finally a realisation that he is being used as a pawn. Nevertheless Shirotsugh achieves a significant goal for humanity and becomes an intercessor for his planet and the cosmos beyond. In this, he conveys a message of peace to his people far below, urging everyone to lay aside weapons of killing and war and to work towards repairing the damage they have wrought upon their planet. Redemption might come to humanity as a result of restoring their relationship with nature.

The film can be seen as a subtle criticism of religion, especially the type of unquestioning and passive religion which threatens to turn Riquinni into an eternal submissive victim. The very personal and intimate spiritual enlightenment Shirotsugh achieves can be compared to institutional religion and religious cults with the latter shown up as wanting. There may or may not a subtle critique of the patriarchal hierarchy that dominates the kingdom’s life and culture: nearly all significant characters are men and the one notable female character, Riquinni, appears as a figure of pathos.

Everything in the film flows steadily, enabling major characters to fill out as rounded individuals whom audiences can warm to and identify with. The first half of the film can be quite slow and most of the heavy action is in the last half-hour. Even so, in scenes of fighting and violent destruction the film’s emphasis remains on the Royal Space Force’s attempt to send Shirotsugh into space. The fight scenes are not treated as huge spectacles of complex technology being mashed up under a hail of bombs and fire-power; there is just enough action and killing to demonstrate the intense nature of the war between the kingdom and the republic.

Shirotsugh comes across as a likeable everyday man and most other characters have their quirks and eccentricities. Riquinni fails to inspire much sympathy even during an attempted rape by Shirotsugh; her later apology for bopping Shirotsugh and stopping him from ravishing her might shock viewers but is in agreement with her character.

One disappointment about “Royal Space Force …” is the mostly forgettable music by renowned musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto; there are some musical passages of delicate emotion but on the whole the soundtrack is not outstanding and has a staid air.

Although over 25 years old as of this time of writing, the film hasn’t aged much and stands up well against more recent animated competition thanks largely to the strength of its plot and themes, and of the well-rounded characters. While the plot is not complex, it is a character-driven piece and much of the pleasure in watching the movie is in seeing how Shirotsugh grows in maturity and wisdom. The art of the film is detailed though not too much so and background scenes can be very beautiful and serene in a self-sufficient way. As family fare, the film may be a little advanced for young viewers and older children who are not quite teenagers might need repeated viewings. It’s a film that believes wholeheartedly in the potential of the human spirit and the gifts that await when that potential is fulfilled.



Steamboy: epic cyberpunk film shooting its load too quickly and running out of steam

Katsuhiro Otomo, “Steamboy / Suchimoboi” (2004)

A decade in the making, Katsuhiro Otomo’s second full-length film is an epic cyberpunk fantasy that carries a message about how science and technology should be used to benefit humans and promote peace over profit and war. The fairly basic story revolves around a young boy, Ray Steam, living in an alternate 19th century Britain, whose father Eddie and grandfather Lloyd have invented a revolutionary machine called a steamball. It contains immense power that is self-renewing and the Steam family’s financial backers intend to profit from the steamball by selling it to the highest bidders. Lloyd Steam flees the United States with the prototype after an accident has felled Eddie and sends the steamball onto his family in Manchester. No sooner does Lloyd’s daughter-in-law Emma receive the steamball than agents immediately surround the family home and Ray escapes with the steamball on his own monowheel invention. He meets Robert Stephenson, for whom Lloyd Steam had intended to send the steamball, but is quickly whisked away by the agents. Ray soon finds himself hostage with the Ohara Foundation which has continued to hire his father (whom Ray had believed dead) to work on more steamballs.

Ray learns that his father and grandfather have fallen out over how the steamball’s power should be used. Lloyd is a utopian idealist believing that the steamball must be utilised for peaceful purposes and its benefits given freely to all, rich and poor alike. Eddie is drunk on the power and influence he imagines the steamball will bring to him. As is the case with epic action sci-fi family-friendly flicks, whether the steamball falls into the hands of people with noble intentions or not comes to depend on young Ray being able to decide if his father or his grandfather is right. In this unenviable situation which has the potential to change the course of history in this alternate Victorian universe, Ray finds an unexpected ally in the unlikely form of the spoilt heir to the Ohara Foundation, Scarlett (groan!) and maybe her pet chihuahua.

Aiming for an international audience, perhaps to recoup the immense costs of its production, the film features a bland story that packs in as many implausible narrow escapes for Ray as possible as he navigates the treacherous currents resulting from the moral dilemma that he shouldn’t have to face. Both Eddie and Lloyd represent two extremes – one collectivist, one individualist – of a continuum that reduces them to warring mad scientists. Characters are stereotyped to the point of giving offence to most people – the brave boy, the spoilt rich girl, the grim jut-jawed father figure, the eccentric grand-dad – and many viewers may recognise the stereotypes as typical Japanese stereotypes drawn from samurai dramas. Honour in the form of family honour and personal moral honour becomes important. Too many coincidences exist for the plot to be plausible: Lloyd arrives home after a long absence in the nick of time to warn Ray just as the agents have parachuted into the family home and Ray meets Robert Stephenson very much sooner than he anticipates. Surprise, surprise, we discover later on that Dr Stephenson is not such a good guy either and this really poses a moral problem for Ray who realises that maybe grand-dad Lloyd, for all his knowledge and wisdom, might not be entirely altruistic himself.

The animation has been lovingly worked over but the film moves at such a cracking pace that viewers are unable to fully appreciate the intricate detailing that has gone into many scenes. Too many dark neutral colours such as fifty shades of grey feature throughout the film. It’s as if Otomo and his team, once they started working on the visual technical details, lost sight of the overall work and allowed it to escape too far away from them. The film divides into two distinct halves, the first half being mostly exposition and the second half turning into no more than a serious of explosions, crises and the narrowest of escapes in which luck figures more strongly than quick thinking, ingenuity and skill. The second half of the film is so crowded with cliched cliff-hangings (and equally banal dialogue about being masters of the universe with scientific knowledge) and cor-blimey explosive scenes in which most of London is destroyed that viewers might well consider fast-forwarding through the lot of them and return to normal speed in the closing scenes where Ray and Scarlett leave his squabbling forebears going down with their proto-Titanic in the Thames River.

There are parallels with Otomo’s earlier work “Akira” and a number of characters could have been lifted straight from that film and deposited into this one with no difference at all apart from a change of clothes. Many viewers are likely also to compare “Steamboy” with the Studio Ghibli classic “Laputa, Castle in the Sky” which features similar protagonists, one of whom also has a compromised relative, and which takes place in an alternative Victorian universe where airborne technology got a head-start over our part of the cosmos.

I’m rather sorry that “Steamboy” founders on such a weak and derivative story and cartoonish characters (well, yes, it is a cartoon but it could have been more than just a cartoon) as the animation is stunning and really deserved a worthy plot and original themes.

She and Her Cat: short visual haiku meditating on doomed romance, loneliness and alienation in an overwhelming industrial world

Makoto Shinkai, “She and Her Cat” (1999)

The debut animé film by Makoto Shinkai as director / animator / script-writer is a charming 5-minute morsel exploring doomed romance, loneliness and alienation. A stray cat, Chobi, is adopted by a young unnamed woman who lives alone in a block of flats. The woman cares for Chobi as best she can while not out to work and Chobi finds the life of pampered pet an excellent one. He makes friends with a young female cat, Mimi, who lives in the same neighbourhood and is infatuated with him but he declines her frequent marriage proposals: his heart is lost to his owner. Unfortunately for Chobi, his owner doesn’t quite reciprocate as she has concerns of her own. However in the autumn, the owner is shocked by a telephone call and as a result plunges into a deep depression. Chobi attempts to comfort her in his own way and together the two companions face life and loneliness through winter, day by day, one step at a time.

The events of the short are viewed through Chobi’s POV so the details of his owner’s relationships are very sketchy as the cat doesn’t understand what’s happening between his owner and the person she converses with on the telephone. Viewers fill in the missing details and the result is an absorbing if sometimes puzzling little story that despite its sketchiness can mirror the viewers’ own experiences. Shinkai deliberately leaves the story incomplete and viewers are to assume that together the woman and Chobi will piece together their broken lives and overcome suffering and alienation.

The animation which relies on collages of black-and-white stills with economic movements enhances the haiku-like nature of the narrative and its sketchy, fill-in-the-dots quality. The black-and-white look heightens the short’s emotional aspects and the oppressive air of the impersonal landscapes surrounding the apartment block where Chobi and his owner live. Everything is portrayed as if in close-up: details of the woman’s apartment are shown in close-up from Chobi’s POV and viewers rarely see complete pieces of furniture apart from the telephone and a chair, much less an entire room or much of the woman’s flat. Even the woman herself appears fragmented: we see her from behind or from the side but we never see three-quarters or the whole of her face. The effect is that the short mirrors the woman’s mental state – in many forms of mental illness, we rarely view ourselves as complete beings or in a positive, wholesome way. Background monuments such as power lines and towers, stationary trains, staircases and carparks appear as monstrous behemoths with a forbidding and intimidating appearance.

Curiously Chobi and his friend Mimi are drawn in a crude way, suggestive of Hello Kitty! childish simplicity, compared to inanimate objects and structures which are drawn in great, almost fetishistic detail. This might suggest how small Chobi and Mimi feel in an oversized, perhaps oppressive artificial environment.

The scale and fragmented nature of the narrative do not warrant longer treatment than several minutes but five minutes are all that’s needed to tell a surprisingly involved and quite complex little story.

Ghost in the Shell: Arise (1: Ghost Pain): resurrected science fiction series needs new spark to keep alive

Kazuchika Kise, “Ghost in the Shell: Arise – 1: Ghost Pain” (2013)

First of a new four-part series in the Ghost in the Shell franchise, this episode sees cyborg investigator / hacker Major Motoko Kusanagi called upon by Public Security head Daisuke Aramaki to investigate the murder of her mentor and leader of Unit 501, Lieutenant Commander Mamuro. His coffin is disinterred by Aramaki’s men and found to contain an animated robot landmine. Kusanagi pieces together Mamuro’s last movements and discovers that he has been framed for misuse of government funds and funnelling illegal weapons to foreign buyers. At the same time, sinister and unseen enemies are busily building up a case to frame Kusanagi with Mamuro’s murder and make her look as if she too is misusing government funds.

The plot can be quite convoluted and viewers not already familiar with the series may have a hard time figuring out the details of who is double-crossing whom. The plot starts to look quite incestuous as viewers begin to suspect that Kusanagi’s new boss Kurutsu might have been the one to order Mamuro’s assassination. Even by film’s end, I still wasn’t sure who exactly signed Mamuro’s death warrant and who exactly ordered the landmines to look like Miley Cyrus in her nude-coloured rubber bikini twerking phase. At least most of the film’s loose ends look to have been tidied up by the time Kusanagi hands in her notice to Kurutsu and is told by her bank manager that sufficient funds now exist in her bank account that she can pay for all her prosthetic and neural software additions and her body, brain and black-box add-ons are now her own.

For its length, the film does suffer from an excess of characters and plot detail but that’s forgivable for a first episode of a new series. Humour where it exists is tired and clichéd: a robot bodyguard with a child’s voice? – that’s very cheesy indeed! Issues of identity and truth versus lies and falsification of memories rear their heads wearily in the episode; though I haven’t seen the entire original GITS series, it always seems to be that in films about cyborgs and humanoid robots, the notion of identity and where the thin grey line between human and not-human must be dragged through the mud of the plot and its narrative structure (in the form of flashback scenes) as automatically as night follows day and dogs chase cats.

The animation is good, there is plenty of action, the pace is constant and there are the obligatory scenes of titillating female body shots for male viewers. This first episode is bound to please most fans of the GITS series if not necessarily win any new ones.

Garden of Words: small-scale character study of adolescent infatuation is a lesson on desire, loneliness and alienation

Makoto Shinkai, “Garden of Words / Koto no ha no niwa” (2013)

Makoto Shinkai is a new name to me and he has been billed as the next Hayao Miyazaki so it’s just as well that I caught this film at the 2013 Japanese animé film festival in Sydney. Unlike his more famous compatriot who likes to deal with wide-ranging plots and themes, Shinkai prefers a small-scaled scenario centred around two characters in the 45-minute “Garden of Words”. Set in Tokyo over summer and autumn, the film focuses on a 15-year-old schoolboy, Takao Akizuki, who skips morning classes during rainy days to visit a park where he whiles away the early hours sketching shoes and dreaming of becoming a shoemaker. A mysterious young woman, older than Takao, visits the park as well and the two become friends. The friendship develops into a romance, albeit one burdened by a secret on the woman Yukino’s part. Takao and Yukino’s friendship however comes to a crisis when Takao discovers who the mystery woman is and why she seems to have so much free time in the mornings.

The film’s narrative focuses on the obstacles that lie in the way of ambition or desire, and the loneliness and alienation that accompany the individual’s determination to forge his or her own way in life and ignore convention. Takao’s desire to make shoes makes him an oddball at home and at school, and blinds him to common school gossip about Yukino. Yukino herself suffers alienation from the school community due to harassment by students and cover-ups by other teachers anxious to preserve the school’s reputation. The loneliness the young teacher and the student experience brings them together, and the connection they feel fuels Takao’s determination to pursue his shoemaking dream.

The film’s strengths lie in the poetic beauty of the natural world in which Takao and Yukino spend early mornings while rain falls around them, the way it changes and how those changes reflect the changes in the two characters’ lives through the summer. Shinkai captures the different forms of rain from early morning shower to tropical summer downpours accompanied by cold winds and hail in his animation (much of it hand-drawn) and uses these forms to help flesh out the film’s ambience and characters’ moods, and advance the plot. Much attention is also devoted to the portrayal of changes in the general city environment around Takao and Yukino as early rainy summer becomes stinking-hot late summer and early autumn. The film often adopts bird’s-eye view points in its delineation of the Tokyo city skyline, urban scenes and train journeys taken by Takao. Birds and trees are drawn and given life in graceful detail.

Actual characters are not drawn very well but the voice actors playing them are very good. Kana Hanazawa is particularly good as the shy and uncertain Yukino who gives every indication of battling depression and lack of confidence in interior scenes where she is alone. The plot unfurls at a leisurely pace, giving just enough information about characters when needed to keep the audience involved yet allowing viewers the space to imagine how Takao and Yukino came to be the alienated characters they are and being pleasantly surprised to be proven right (or wrong).

The film fails at its overly melodramatic climax when it cuts away from Takao’s anger when Yukino makes a decision that has the potential to end their friendship and a melancholy pop song appears over a sequence of city scenes. The conclusion is satisfying if appearing incomplete: Takao continues to beaver away at making shoes in his spare time and Yukino is in the process of making a new life for herself that may or may not have room for Takao.

Takao and Yukino’s paths in life may not cross again but their journeys may serve as a parallel for Shinkai’s own journey in becoming an animé creator and director in his own right, not content merely to be a Miyazaki clone but one to be reckoned as a rising force in the animé industry.

The Changing of the Guard: how love conquers social class and restrictions

Wlodzimierz Haupe and Halina Bielinska, “The Changing of the Guard / Zmiana warty” (1958)

A simply made stop-motion animation piece, this little film is a tragic tale of romantic love that crosses social class and conventions, and causes a scandal in the town where it occurs. The characters are matchboxes representing stereotypes of class. An anonymous soldier falls in love with a beautiful princess; he finagles his way into night-watch duty just so he can see her. While on duty, he gazes at her window and she appears; she comes out to him and their love, hitherto unfulfilled due to their respective social roles and the restrictions upon them, literally bursts into the open in flames.

The narrative is carried by the soundtrack and consists of various noises real people might make: snoring sounds when the soldiers go to bed, and the sighings of the soldier and the princess when they see each other and meet. There is martial music during one scene where soldiers are being drilled.

At the film’s end, the town burghers where the soldiers’ regiment was quartered put up signs stating “No Smoking!” in several languages: this is a message to all citizens to repress their real feelings and thoughts and to obey the rules.

The animation which consists of stop-motion cut-outs of match-boxes and cut-outs of props against a bare stage and background throws the emphasis on the story. The plot is easy to follow up to the point where the soldier and the princess sacrifice themselves for love. Although the mood is neutral, the denouement is quite chilling.

It’s a well-made film whose message will be clear to both children and adults on different levels: children will see it as a love story and adults will see it as an allegory about how love can conquer the strictures placed on people by society, albeit briefly. That the town throws further constraints onto the expression of love is an acknowledgement of how powerful love can be.