As I have mentioned several times on the blog and podcast we have been getting anime movies in English far sooner than we have in the past. In the age of streaming in English, an hour after a TV show comes out in Japan movies and OVA are much easier to forget. When a movie comes out a year after the fanfare has died out in Japan it can be easy for it to get lost in the shuffle. Now titles that are part of big franchises or are from certainly noted directors are remembered but everything else depends on marketing. I mean how many people remember that Harmony existed or that The Empire of Corpses got an English release? Now let’s be honest. Not every film would be memorable if it got a simultaneous release. Some mediocre and rotten films were made to be forgotten. But there has been a distinct move with the help of new distribution methods like Fathom Events that make it much simpler to help the great films that would find a wider audience if they come here sooner.
That said the release of Ancien and the Magic Tablet is sort of crazy. It played at the New York International Children’s Film Festival the day after it was released in Japan. When we got Your Name as quickly as we did I was impressed. The fact that Kenji Kamiyama was doing the Q&A in New York not long after the Japanese debut is impressive if somewhat masochistic. I hardly expect such an amazing turns around on a regular basis but it is amazing when it happens. (If they want to do such things with the Heaven’s Feels movies I won’t complain.)
One of the major benefits of the near simultaneous screenings is that I went into Ancien and the Magic Tablet with almost no expectations or preconceived notions. I only really saw the little picture on the NYICFF website and nothing else. I knew it was directed by Kenji Kamiyama but I did not even read the synopsis. I wanted to experience it as pure as possible. Considering how bombarded you can be with trailers, previews, spoilers, and interviews you often have to take a very conscious effort to go into a movie fresh so I decided that I would take the opportunity when it was presented to me on a silver platter.
If Kokone Morikawa has one defining ability it is the fact that she can fall asleep almost anywhere at anytime. More than anything she wants to leave her sleepy little town and study in Tokyo. But her quiet life is soon interrupted when her waking life and dreaming life begin to center around a certain tablet. In the dream world, she is a princess on a quest to destroy a great monster with the power inside the tablet. In the waking world corporate goons and a shady VP want her father’s tablet. Kokone must decipher why the two stories are related while protecting the tablet in both worlds.
Just a quick note: The movie is called Ancien and the Magic Tablet and the manga is called Napping Princess in English. They are the same story they just have different names. Apparently, a lot of people seem to think that Ancien looks like someone accidently misspelled Ancient. (My spell certainly feels that way.) I feel like without someone telling you that they are the same there would be no reason to assume by name alone that they are in any way related.
As I mentioned when I went into this cold so when the movie started in the dream world at first I was a little surprised by the fantasy setting. But as the pace of the intro continued I quickly realized this was not the whole story. I knew there was some sort of narrative curve ball coming but I was not exactly sure what it was going to be. So when Kokone wakes up it was more of a confirmation of my suspicions than a shock.
Past that point, one of the big mysteries of the movie is what exactly is the relationship between the two stories. Since this movie just came out it would be criminal for me to spoil what the answer to that question is. That said I wanted to talk about the execution a bit since it is such a major element of the movie. I was a little surprised how much the movie leaves for the audience to figure out. The major and important revelation is clearly laid out so the overall point is not obfuscated in any way but the rest of the connective tissue is up to the audience to decipher. This is not anything even close to Kunihiko Ikuhara levels of “put this pieces of the puzzle together” but it is more than I expected. I’m still not sure how one or two pieces fit together but overall most of it can be picked up by context.
The major point of technological examination self-driving cars. Kenji Kamiyama usually has two elements in his works: Politics and Technology. (Well most of this works that are not Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit.) Interestingly enough he lays off the politics and is rather soft on the technology. It being more of a kids show that makes sense but I expected a little more of a dig into the concept of self-driving cars.
Kokone and her Father are fairly strong characters. Momotaro is clearly a former delinquent who eventually settled down and became respectable after having a kid but still retains a bit of his edge. His daughter is clearly a response to having a single father like that. In many ways, she is both a reflection and a counterbalance of the former Yankee. In contrast, Morio is rather bland as a sidekick character. While they mainly avoid making him a love interest it also robs him of any extra dimensions. It mostly makes him a bit of a sounding board and not much more. With a second rewrite, he could easily be taken out of the story with almost no consequence. Even when he pops up in the dream world he is mostly there as a bland sidekick. He is less a bad character and more of a pointless one.
I think my biggest criticism of the film comes from the antagonist. Watanabe is a mustache twirling villain right from the start. There is even a scene where Kokone’s dad warns her about him which is clearly and nakedly on the nose. I know this is a kids film but they did not need him to be THAT blatant. There is a happy medium between subtle gray anti-hero and scenery-chewing ham. He can just be a greedy backstabbing corporate climber without me expecting a pause so the audience can boo him every time he appears on the screen.
I think I’m a little more forgiving Japanese CG than a lot of my friends. So far I have not seen anything from Japan on the level of a Pixar film but I have faith that it is more a matter of if than when. If you have ever seen the better examples of Precure CG you see it has potential Japanese CG is just not fully there. So while I note when the CG is underwhelming I’m some who usually gives it more of pass unless it is really horrible. The problem is when the CG is bad in this movie it is pretty bad but that stands outs like a sore thumb since everything else is so beautiful. Not all of the CG is horrible. There is a good deal of CG is the type that inconspicuously blends into scenes. Some of it is better than other bits but most of the time it is only there if you’re looking for it.
The problem is there are two scenes that pop to mind when the CG is just awful during decently long scenes. One is when Kokone is in the dream world and flying on a motorcycle under a bridge and the other is her running on a bridge near the climax. Both of them just look plain undercooked. I don’t think either of them ruins the film and overall they are a very small percentage of the entire film but they last just long enough that you also can’t ignore or forget them. They are two black marks on what is otherwise a gorgeous piece of animated cinema.
Random note: Rie Kugimiya plays Kokone’s stuffed animal companion in the dream world. Has Rie Kugimiya decided to stop voicing humans and now only does mascot characters? ēlDLIVE , Granblue Fantasy The Animation, and now this seems to be an odd trend.
On reflection, I think I’m a little harder on this movie than it deserves. It is a solid family friendly adventure film. The dream world/real world dynamic really helps punch up what might have otherwise been a much blander tale of corporate politics surrounding a story about an estranged family. Scenes that might have otherwise dragged have a strong spice thanks to the dream sequences. It also leads to a reveal that is a nice and simple surprise. It has a little heart, a little fantastic adventure, and it mostly looks gorgeous. It was better than Oblivion Island but not as good as Wolf Children if you need a barometer.
Especially after watching Your Name I feel Kenji Kamiyama and Makoto Shinkai have in some respects followed a similar trajectory in their careers. They both started out with some minor successes that then bloomed into critical darlings. Makoto Shinkai had The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Kenji Kamiyama had Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It seemed for a time they were these untouchable golden boys who were as the cliche goes “going to save anime.” Makoto Shinkai was going to be “The New Miyazaki” and Kenji Kamiyama was the second coming of Mamoru Oshii. Then they both had works that tarnished their reputation. They both released projects that showed they were merely human. Children Who Chase Lost Voices was Makoto Shinkai’s less than 5-star work and while Eden of the East started off amazingly strong and then opinions are very divided on the ending. The less that is said about 009 Re: Cyborg the better. They both recently released films after being a star and then crashing down.
In a way, I feel bad because I think I’m being hard because it is from Kenji Kamiyama. I was spoiled by Stand Alone Complex and Moribito. It made me hold everything he does up to that high standard. I have a feeling if this was by another director I would have probably given it much more slack. If anyone asked if they should see the movie I would say yes. If someone asked if they should run out and see it I would be less enthusiastic. It is solid if flawed. Above a workman family film but below a masterpiece. Worth renting but only worth buying when it’s on sale. It gives me faith that Kenji Kamiyama is not in an eternal slump but still not back to the heights of his previous works. Hopefully, his next film will be the Your Name and I know he can make.