Sanzoku no Musume Ronja – 01 & 02

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Sanzoku no Musume Ronja is an adaptation of Swedish author Astrid Anna Emilia Lindgren’s tale of a bandit king’s daughter who grows up in a magical forest. The series was developed by Studio Ghibli, though that may not be totally obvious, because everything except the backgrounds is cel-shading style CGI.

Studio Ghibli has certainly dabbled with CGI elements in the past, and their expertise with detail, lovingly rendered animals and warm, childlike colors all shine through. I found their take on anime-style hair in 3D especially respectable. However, the over all result is jarring, simultaneously too fluid and too robotic.

It’s… kinda unpleasant to look at, if I’m honest.

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Where most anime is uniform and the people and their expressions are purely place holders for our own projection, Ronja’s overly-diverse looking characters with typical anime expressions cause a disconnect. I’m speculating here, but that’s my gut tells me.

At least the aesthetic is fairly consistent. There’s a handmade quality to everything and a blend of Viking and Princess Mononoke that all gels in a believable, medieval way. That said, this realistic approach also makes Ronja jarring when less believable things happen.

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Ronja’s mom, Lovis, is by far the best character. Her deadpan timing and annoyance with the rest of the cast is spot on!

This double premiere takes us from little Ronja’s birth during a lightning storm to the day she leaves on her first unsupervised trip to the forest.

We start off in Mattis’ perspective, sorta. He’s the leader of a bandit tribe who live in a castle, deep in a forest. He and his many men are quirky but kind, and generally happy. Above all else, they are excited that a Mattis’ wife has a baby on the way.

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The bandits wear monster costumes to frighten their targets. This seems largely unnecessary, since the bandits are able to take out three armed knights via “rope attacks” before anyone has any idea what is going on.

In a clever twist, we learn the forest really is home to magical creatures. I say clever, because dressing in costumes put me in a non-fantasy mindset and so I just assumed that Lovis was annoyed at shrieking hawks outside her castle window.

I never expected a real Harpy to land and have a conversation with Mattis…

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The harpies are the best drawn element of the show and their scenes, while ultimately without purpose, have great angles.

Later, during the happy party that follows Ronja’s birth, lightning strikes the castle and apparently is able to blast through 80 feet of rock. In fact, the damage is so serious that we see the castle remain ‘split in two’ for the rest of the show.

Here’s where the show starts to lose me. Despite being rendered in a way that should make everything feel more real, the show’s totally un-grounded, happy-go-lucky weirdness makes it feel the opposite.

There’s just no weight to anything. No conflict. Ronja just feels so…insubstantial.

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Baby in a burrito!

Cute, it has in spades, but Ronja seems to mistake weird for funny. For example…

During the next ambush, we see what appears to be two horse-drawn carts with no guards moving through the forest. Again, this is from Mattis’ point of view and everything about his expression and how it looks like guards could be hidden from view in the rear of the carts, made me expect a trap. Possibly even a sudden tragic loss of Mattis to shape Ronja’s childhood.

Nope. Mattis is distracted because he wants to feed Ronja rice pudding and his men want to watch. So they abandon the raid and rush back to the castle.

I can see how that should be funny, but it just misses and comes off weird.

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Ronja eats her first porridge, unless she’s had it before and its not as special an event as Mattis is making it out to be.

Then, for the first time we see from Ronja’s perspective. She imagines the dancing men are frolicking lambs. She crawls around a bit then gets tossed into the air by a happy Mattis. Then she transitions into being an older child and is being tossed still.

Its a simple transition and it makes her childhood clear: it was full of song and dance and cheer. she has every right to be the happy dancing acrobat child she appears to have become.

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The final act is dedicated to Ronja’s first day being allowed to leave the castle and enter the surrounding forest on her own. It’s really still about her dad and his coming to terms with it being time to let her grow up. It’s not really about the forest. She just sees it in the distance and runs toward it before then the credits roll.

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I honestly have no idea what to rate this show. Ronja is the third show this season that’s definitely not intended for me as an audience. However, unlike World Trigger and Joker, Ronja has a lot more serious artistic thought put into it.

It feels like an 8 but a very weird one that I don’t have any interest in watching. Oh Well? We’ll see what Preston thinks, when she has a chance to start reviewing it next week. For now? 8 it is.

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Patema Inverted

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Even though we’ve collectively logged over 1,900 hours of anime, we still consider ourselves humble tourists in the field. As such, we’ve developed and clung to assumptions more experienced and/or knowledgeable parties might find quaint. One of those is that the Miyazaki/Ghibli juggernaut has classically had the “wondrous fantasy with wide appeal” market cornered.

After this film (originally released in November), the first work we’ve seen from 34-year-old Yoshiura Yasuhiro (Eve no Jikan) which is ostensibly his magnum opus (so far), that assumption has been…inverted. SPOILERS THROUGHOUT.

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Hannah Brave (Braverade): I’m still reveling in the afterglow of this phenomenally gorgeous film. There honestly wasn’t a bad shot in the whole running time. From the opening moments depicting a wide-scale calamity to the transition to an underground world, it just kept dishing out awesome, exquisitely-detailed environments, determined to out-do Ghibli in sheer density of memorable imagery.

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Preston Yamazuka (MagicalChurlSukui): I too found myself spellbound by the sights, but even the best-looking film can be undone by subpar music or voice-acting. This had neither of those problems: the stirring orchestral score, the hauntingly beautiful theme song; the voice-acting and ambient sounds—all conspired to complete our transportation to this new world.

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Zane Kalish (sesameacrylic): The sights and sounds were spot-on (and very Ghibliesque at times, I might add), but where this film really shone was in its premise, brilliant in its elegance and almost universally approachable: what starts as a humble fish-out-of-water tale balloons into an epic tale of two worlds with opposite gravity connected by two young, open-minded representatives of said worlds, who share a passion for exploration and a yearning for the new.

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Hannah: Yeah, I sure did think this was just going to be about the Adventures of Upside Down Girl, but the film became so much more than that as it progressed. The science of what exactly happened to cause this phenomenon is wisely kept vague; it’s the impact of the phenomenon on society that really impressed.

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Preston: To returning to the genesis of the Ghibliverse, Patema sure did resemble Princess Nausicaä, and her village was the kind of individualistic egalitarian utopia ruled by a kindly king the Valley of the Wind was. Meanwhile, gravity may be “correct” in Age’s world (in that the sky is up, but more on that later), but feels like Nausicaä’s unseen Tolmekian Empire; run by a man not afraid to spill blood to validate his ideals.

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Zane: Forget just Ghibli: Aiga, a stark, authoritarian nightmareland where it’s taboo to look up, called to mind Nineteen Eighty-Four, Blade Runner, Brazil, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. In any case, no where you particularly want to be. Once Patema arrives in Age’s world, the cameras favor Age’s perspective, making her inverted, but it’s Aiga world that’s “upside down” in terms of philosophy.

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Hannah: When Age (pronounced “Eiji”) hides Patema in that little shed, we knew it was only a matter of time before the “anti-invert” state got wind of her and brought the hammer down. If we had to give this film a demerit, it would be for having such a Laughably EEEEVIL Antagonist in Governor Odious Izamura, who spouts dogmatic bullshit but at the end of the day only worships the god Izamura, believing the vast power he has entitles him to keep Patema as a pet…or worse.

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Preston: I can kinda forgive the scenery-chewing arch-villain, because while this film is often broken up into extremes of good and evil or up and down, it’s just as concerned with the “in-between”, the “third way”, and in finding a way to connect the two worlds, which starts with the two kids Patema and Age. And even Izamura’s evil is diluted by his right-hand man, who operates in more of a moral gray area for most of the film.

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Zane: Izamura’s character was definitely informed by the old-school bad guy immortalized by Muska, whom even Miyazaki said he was a bit disappointed in, but when two crazy kids start makin’ eyes at each other, you need a strong, unrelenting force to break them apart in order to make their reunion that much more of an accomplishment. And I loved everything about the friendly love triangle of Patema, Age, and Porta, including how the two guys put their rivalry aside to save the girl.

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Hannah: That was one hell of a rescue…even though it technically failed! But while Patema and Age’s escape back down (or up? Oh dear…) to her world was delayed, the standoff on the roof of the skyscraper left us breathless, and led to one spectacular aerial vista after another, until they grow so close to the stars in the sky, they learn they’re actually lights from a huge network of structures. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting that.

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Preston: Actually, when Age and Patema watched the stars together for the first time, I was truly hoping against hope they were actually the lights of another city. That the film actually went there really made my evening. And in a glorious moment of continuity and coincidence edging on kismet, Patema finds her backpack, which just happened to land right beside the Age’s dad’s wrecked flying machine.

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Zane: Kismet or not, I really liked the way one life-threatening situation after another led to the Patema and Age growing to trust each other implicitly with their lives, and even becoming comfortable in their inverted hugging. The tender romance takes an important step forward up there in the “stars” where Age is the Inverted, and thus truly understands what Patema went through. As a recovering acrophobe, every instance of someone looking at their version of “down” generated a visceral response, a combination of primal fear and excitement. Unfortunately, there was no Spider-Man (or girl, in this case) kiss.

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Hannah: Part of me hoped the lovebirds could just stay up there, but not only did practical issues preclude that (it gets really hot up there during the day, plus there’s no food), they’re the hero and heroine of the story; they can’t just run away from their responsibility—and their desire—to serve as the bridge between their worlds. When they arrive at Patema’s village, it’s in the middle of her memorial service—now that right there is some Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer stuff!

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Zane: Yes, Duty Before Booty.

Preston: Please don’t type that. Also, you cut in line, it’s my turn to write something.

Zane: You going to subtract points and revoke my citizenship?

Preston: No, there’s no need to go Aiga on you. Ahem…anyway, yeah, Izamura’s plan to invade Patema’s realm with a handful of men using a flying device he has no idea how to operate seemed a bit short-sighted. You’d think someone who has that many weapons on his person would more carefully prepare for such an operation. It was akin to Dennis Hopper’s President Koopa travelling to Manhattan armed with Super Scopes in the live-action Super Mario film.

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Zane: Damn, nice reference. That was a properly nutty movie. But regarding Izamura, he was so obsessed with crushing the Inverted and taking personal possession of Patema (best illustrated by his tirade about why she chose Age – because he’s the same age and not a dick, duh!) it dulled the survival instincts he’d ostensibly cultivated as ruler of Aiga, resulting in his excellent death-by-falling-up into an endless sky.

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Hannah: Izamura’s was a Bad Guy Death you can set your watches to, made more deliciously ironic by his long-held belief the sky swallowed up sinners. By then, his right-hand man is fed up with his evil shit and saves Patema, Age, and Porta with his trusty casting-net gun. That leads to a happy ending in which the first steps towards amity between the worlds are taken. And at that point, Patema and Age have been holding each other to prevent the other from falling to their doom for so long it becomes second nature. What do you think guys: too tidy an ending?

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Preston: I don’t think so. The happy ending felt earned, after all the heavens and hells they went through together. Their success is also a handy allegory for real world conflict: Just because my up is your down and your down is my up doesn’t mean we have to be enemies. A difference of perspective, literal or not, will always lead to isolation and strife…but there will always be outliers in those groups who realize it doesn’t have to be that way, and work to unite rather than divide.

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Zane: I second Preston’s opinion. By the end, Patema and Age are sweethearts, pioneers, and diplomats, but also very important symbols of the viability, and benefits, of harmony and accord. Aiga’s hardcore Orwellian society is far more brittle than it looks when exposed to the sight of a cute couple soaring through the sky like birds. I like to imagine a sequel taking place a decade or so later, when the two societies coexist amicably in a new shared infrastructure resembling Escher’s Relativity.

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RABUJOI World Heritage List

MAL Score: 8.31

 

From Up On Poppy Hill

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We’ve only seen Gendo Senki (Tales from Earthsea), Miyazaki Hayao’s son Goro’s first film, once, and prior to this, it was the most recent Ghibli film we had seen, having skipped out on Ponyo and Arriety (for the time being.) While repeated viewings are not a requisite for a film’s greatness as far as we’re concerned (sometimes, watching a great film just once can be enough), suffice it to say we don’t remember much about it, other than the fact we didn’t hate it. What drew us to this film was the promise that it was a relatively straightforward slice-of-life romance, not based on any beloved epic series with defensive authors and built-in skeptical fan bases. On its face, this film reminded us of perhaps our favorite Ghibli film, Kondou Yoshifumi’s Whisper of the Heart, the review for which you can read here.

We were immediately enthralled by Whisper’s fiercely beautiful picture of West Tokyo in the nineties, the intricately-detailed, loving depiction of life for a middle class family during in that time and place, and most importantly, the touching romance that developed between Shizuku and Seiji. “This is how it’s done,” we thought as we watched it. These are the heights anime is capable of.” With that lofty praise in mind, don’t think we’re bashing Up On Poppy Hill because it didn’t quite reach the soaring heights of Whisper. In fact, we urge any romance, Ghibli, or just plain anime fans to pick up a copy of Poppy Hill (we got a deal on the Blu-Ray through Amazon) and give it a watch as soon as you can. We found it to be an exceedingly lovely film.

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While many Ghibli films are portals to fantastical dimensions, Poppy Hill is a time machine to 1963, the year before Tokyo hosts the Olympics for the first time ever—and just eighteen years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This means our protagonists—Umi and Shun—are of the postwar generation: not a party to the horrors of the past but well-versed in the scars their elders bear. To that end, old-style pre-war buildings all over the country are being torn down at a steady pace, as if they were contaminated by the past. One such building is the “Latin Quarter” – a magnificent but thoroughly-trashed French-style mansion on school grounds used as a headquarters for many of the school’s clubs. It’s the fight to save this house that brings Umi and Shun together.

From the beginning we see that Umi is a strong, hardworking no-nonsense young lady; even her bouncy little side braids suggest she’s somewhat “tightly wound”. She’s the first to wake up to cook for her family and the boarders who share her house, which is perched upon a hill overlooking the harbor. She is haunted by the loss of her father, a sailor killed aboard a supply ship in the Korean War, and raises flags every morning as a message to him that is never answered. When a poem in the school newspaper mentions her flags, she seeks out the author, just as Shizuku sought out the guy who checked out the same library books as her. Her first face-to-face encounter with the boy is when he jumps out of the house into a pool, and she reflexively offers him a helping hand, not thinking how it would look to the assembled masses of her peers.

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Umi’s grandmother is worried Umi is working too hard for everyone and not looking after her own happiness, while dwelling too much on the loss of her father. She hopes Umi will meet someone to help her find that happiness…and she does. It’s fun to watch her step into another world—at the behest of her little sister, who wants Shun’s autograph—as the two brave the appallingly filthy and chaotic Latin Quarter to find him. Where before she had been content with her studies and house duties and not interested in boys, her first taste of that world changes her mind in a hurry, and she’s smitten. For his part, Shun, while having a reputation for being a “live wire”, is never anything but respectful, warm, and chivalrous to Umi.

It’s Umi who first plants the kernel of an idea in Shun and the leaders of the Quarter that if it were cleaned up, prepare and made into a place where guys and girls alike would want to be, perhaps the demolition ball could be stayed. The film, like us, is firmly on the side of those who don’t want the building to go. Poppy Hill doesn’t just excel at portraying an utterly gorgeous slice of Japan’s past in terms of the buildings and bustling seaside vistas, but in the pulse of the youth of the moment, angered by their elders’ insistence on erasing history and culture to make themselves feel better. The debate over the Quarter is charged with passion, and Umi is in the back of the hall, soaking it all up.

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The campaign to beautify the Quarter is initiated, and like Kiki’s room at the bakery or Howl’s Moving Castle, once it’s cleaned up, it’s a much more welcoming and comfortable-looking place, rather than a dank cave. But as things look up for the Quarter, after a visit to Umi’s house when she shows Shun a photo of her father, there’s a distinct change in Shun, and he starts avoiding her. She can’t make out what’s eating him, even though we do. When she finally confronts him, he tells her: they’re brother and sister. Umi’s dejection after learning this truth may be more subtle than, say, Shizuku’s, but no less powerfully felt; as even the mundane tasks she used to take pride become a struggle with such dispiritedness hanging over her.

Siblings or no, the two remain friends and follow through with the Save the Quarter campaign, traveling to Tokyo and waiting in a hall way for many hours to speak to the man who will decide the building’s fate, and indeed already has, not knowing the transformation it’s undergone. Umi’s unassuming, earnest appeal instantly impresses the man, who agrees to an immediate inspection tour. The students pull out all the stops welcoming him, and the vastly-improved state of the building, as well as the enthusiasm of the kids themselves, compel him to change his mind.

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That same day, Shun gets word news from his adoptive father: the third man in the photo is aboard ship in the harbor, who confirms that Umi and Shun had different fathers, the two others in that photo. Umi and Shun aren’t related by blood, which is good, because they’re in love with each other. Is this ending quite neat and tidy, and all the twists and turns somewhat soap opera-y? Perhaps, but because we were so emotionally invested in Umi and Shun, and held out hope Shun was mistaken about their lineage, it didn’t bother us. We didn’t think it would’ve necessarily been a better film had they been deprived of a happy life together, any more than if the Quarter had been torn down.

A powerful idea Umi conveys in her confession to Shun on a streetcar platform stuck with us throughout the rest of the film: all the while she’d been raising those flags up on the hill, Shun was responding with flags on his dad’s tug, only she never had the angle to see them. Now that she knows about them, she decided to believe her father answered the flags too: by sending Shun into her life. Her long wait was over: no longer a girl living only for a day that would never come—the day her father returned—she found a place in her heart for someone new—someone alive—and discovered how new and exciting and nice life could be when you’re in love. We discovered that Ghibli has a bright future. This is how it’s done.

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Stray Observations:

  • The hallmark of every Ghibli film is a constant feeling of “I want to go to there,” and Poppy is no different.
  • While it lacked the sublime soaring orchestrations that are another Ghibli hallmark, we were really into the period-specific soundtrack. It was at times moving, soulful, joyful, and downright toe-tapping.
  • We’ll also fully admit to having our heartstrings tugged on on numerous occasions; there was nothing shallow or forced about any of the drama; we felt Umi’s pain and frustrations and often teared up when she teared up.
  • On the note of Ghibli tropes is the dream that starts with a girl walking along, crying in a golden field, which dates back to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which turns thirty this year (our review of that here.)

Suisei no Gargantia – 02

Amy, Red

Red gives up Amy but hides behind Chamber, and remains in a stalemate as the fleet leaders decide how to proceed. Amy volunteers to commence dialogue, and shares a roasted fish with Red in a ritual of welcome to Gargantia, a floating city. Red shows her there’s no one inside Chamber, and Amy tells him about her world’s history and how they harness energy from the ocean. When pirates attack Bellows’ salvage fleet, Amy begs Red to help them. Red and Chamber proceed to destroy all pirate ships and vaporize all pirates, leaving Bellows’ ship and crew unscathed.

You know how first episodes can mislead you by being extremely pretty and well-animated, only for the episodes that follow to reveal the budget limitations of that series? Well, didn’t happen here. While about half of last week was space battle porn, this week was all verderous steampunk porn. If anything, it was more beautiful, and we found ourselves pausing the action often to gaze at the staggering stills. This has the look of a Ghibli film, and it keeps up this quality – and we have no reason to think it won’t – this could end up being one of the best-looking series we’ve ever watched. But like a Ghibli film, it’s not just about the eye candy. It has heart, too.

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We loved watching brave, peace-loving Amy make steady progress with Red and Chamber (voiced by the voice of Kyon and Switch!), and we learn with Red about this gorgeous world. Red’s ancestors left earth when an irregularity in the sun caused the entire planet to freeze over. Presumably, they never went back, because if they had, they would have discovered the ice melted, making it a waterworld, and the humans who remained survived by lashing together anything that floated, and harnessing electricity from “lightbugs” that absorb lightning in the sea in “galaxy currents.”

Therefore despite its comparably primitive level of technology, Amy’s world is most likely Red’s future, not his past. The Galactic Alliance he swore allegiance to may still be out there somewhere, or it may have crumbled centuries ago. We just don’t know, and the mystery is most intriguing. But as we said, look past all these huge fleets and huge ships and huge ideas, and there’s the message that as long as people keep talking, peace can be achieved, good things can happen, and unlikely friendships and new alliances can be formed. Of course, in the end when asked to assist against pirates, Red may have frightened his new friends by not holding back.

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Rating: 9 (Superior)

Stray Observations:

  • The fish sharing scene was perhaps the highlight of highlights. Aside from the warmth and comedy of the exchange, that fish looked delicious, and the sunset backdrop was achingly gorgeous.
  • First ep not Ghibli enough for you? This week Amy shows us how they use gliders to fly from ship to ship, and even the pirates use power-assisted kites. Pure awesomesauce.
  • In Ika Musume, Kanemoto Hisako voices the weird alien. Now she’s the normal human. But both like fish!
  • The upside to Red eliminating all the pirates is that rumors of “Gargantia’s new superweapon” won’t spread so quickly. But it will still spread, and the fleet’s leadership will see Red as a double-edged sword.

Mimi wo Sumaseba

During summer vacation, lazy bookworm Tsukishima Shizuku observes an cat riding on the train. Intrigued, she decides to follow him. The chase leads her to Amasawa Seiji, a boy who dreams of becoming a violin maker, and The Baron, a cat figurine who, along with Seiji, inspires her to explore her own creative pursuit: a fantasy novel. Shizuku and Seiji fall for one another just as he’s headed off to Italy for two months, and Shizuku contends with the loneliness by burying herself in her novel, affecting her marks and leading to a family meeting. When her trials are over and she delivers the draft of her novel to Seiji’s grandpa, The Baron’s owner, it evokes in him memories of his own lost love. Seiji returns, and he and an elated Shizuki take his bike to the highest point in town to watch the sunrise together.

We’ve wanted to review this film for a while now. Directed by the late Kondou Yoshifumi (who died before his time) with storyboards by Miyazaki, It’s a classic and perhaps our favorite Ghibli film (our top 3 tend to fluctuate), one that focuses on the real-life struggles of young people and limits the fantasy elements to their imaginations. We take an instant liking to Shizuku, remembering the endless possibilities of summer often boiling down to goofing off (or in her case, reading books indoors) until it’s suddenly gone. It’s full of brilliant moments like the transition from the dark clouds encroaching on a summer afternoon to the first day of school when it’s pouring, enhanced by Nomi Yuuji’s stirring, soaring orchestral score (gives us goosebumps every time). Meeting Seiji requires some degree of coincidence – call it fate – but their budding romance is straightforward and expertly handled. There are times, perhaps, when a kiss is called for, but the lack of overt gestures of affection doesn’t detract from the romance here. It’s understated, mature, and feels very real.

The film takes place in beautifully-rendered, intricately-detailed, sprawling West Tokyo in 1994, which is a character in and of itself. The hum and pulse of the city, with its engines and horns and sirens, people weaving around trains and bikes and cars, it’s all so vital and alive. Shizuku’s various moods as she walks and runs through the twisting streets are all perfectly accompanied by Nomi’s score, and there’s great contrast between Shizuku’s crowded, cave-like apartment (God, we love that apartment) and the gorgeous vistas of the dramatically-perched antique store (the vistas from the deck are superb!). We also enjoyed the side characters, from the very cat-like cat Moon to Shizuku’s pushy big sister and progressive parents, who let her do what she wants as long as she takes responsibility if she fails in her creative pursuit.

We could frankly muse about how much ass this film kicks all day. It transports us back to nineties West Tokyo and drops us right in the middle of the life of a girl tentatively striking out on her own road and, while on it, meets someone she can share the journey with. Whenever we watch it, it always lifts our spirits. It even inspired us to write our own novel, while being mindful not to expect instant perfection, but starting with roughly-hewed ore from which gems can be polished through hard work and patience.


Rating: 10 (Masterpiece)

RABUJOI World Heritage List

Car Cameos: In a word, tons. There are cars, trucks, buses, and bikes zooming every which way, and Shizuku has some close calls while crossing the street or walking alongside it with Seiji. Recognizable models we spotted include a BMW 5-Series (E34); Honda Legend; Hino S’elega bus; an old Mitsubishi Delica; an original Mini Cooper; a Mitsubishi Fuso Canter truck; a Toyota Corolla (E80) multiple Toyota Comfort and Nissan Cedric Y31 taxis; a civilian Toyota Crown (S130); and a  Volkswagen Golf III. We’re not sure what kind of kei van Seiji’s gramps putters around in…or the makes/models of the myriad motorbikes buzzing around.