Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) by Hayao Miyazaki

From the opening scenes of a giant walking castle, it is clear that this film is going to be a magical experience. We are introduced to Sophie, a young girl making hats in her mother’s hat-shop. When the Witch of the Waste puts a curse on her, turning her into an old lady, she finds herself swept up into an often unexpected, but always thrilling world of wizards and spells. Sophie sets off to find Howl, whose improbably constructed castle can be seen wandering the landscape, in order to remove the curse, learning about life and love along the way.

The film is full of inventive moments, with the magic element giving the film a truly unexpected quality. Abundant spells mean that anything could happen, and often does. Sophie is a likeable character, with some funny moments and a plight that makes the audience care for her. One of the things the film does well is create a believable world. The artwork and animation is a wonder to behold with all the minute details on the walking castle and street scenes keeping your eyes busy trying to look at everything. The depiction of landscapes, mountains and lakes, do a perfect job in creating a sense of amazement at the natural world, and the action sequences are similarly engaging. The story takes place in a world at war, with a strong anti-war message. The way the film puts across this message is unusual in largely ignoring the war, showing it to be pointless and stupid, and instead focussing on the magic of the countryside and the enjoyment of peace. Instead we see battle-cruisers heading for war, or planes overhead, and the beautiful landscape surrounding offers a counterpoint to this, almost asking the audience to choose between the ugly mechanisation of war, or the rural idyll that the main characters spend most of their time exploring. The times when the war is depicted, it is a dark, dangerous place. The plot can be mysterious at times, but this further adds to the sense of this being a real place with complex characters all of whom have a past, and hopes and dreams. The music is fantastic, with an uplifting score that compliments the gorgeous visuals.

A highly enjoyable film, with creative use of magic and an style that makes every moment a pleasure. As well as a central love story, the film features several themes, including an anti-war message and ideas of aging and maturity. The transformation of Sophie into an old lady, and other transformations further emphasises the themes of growth and change. I would definitely recommend this film as it is packed with so many memorable moments, an engaging plot, likeable characters, and an incredible visual style.

Sinking of Japan (2006) by Shinji Higuchi

Following a devastating earthquake, Toshio Onodera (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) comes around from his crashed car to chaotic scenes. The city is on fire, and he sees a young girl, Misaki (Mayuko Fukada), stumbling along alone and confused. Before being killed by falling electrical wiring the two are rescued by Reiko Abe (Kou Shibasaki), an emergency services worker. At a government briefing the prime minister is told that due to natural phenomena Japan has no more than five years before it will be entirely underwater. Yusuke Tadokoro (Etsushi Toyokawa), a scientist looking at the tectonic plate activity. realises that in fact they have only a year before this catastrophe is to occur. Japan needs to find a solution to this problem and quick before the whole country disappears.

“Sinking of Japan” is based on a 1973 book by Sakyo Komatsu, and was made into a film the same year. This update, from a screenplay by Masato Kato, takes advantage of modern special effects techniques to show off the power of natural disasters. The story sticks closely with its main characters, telling the story from their perspective. Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Kou Shibasaki have good chemistry, although the love story between them is a little melodramatic at times. Mayuko Fukada does a great job with her character Misaki, who has perhaps the most tragic story. The film also puts a lot of emphasis on the pragmatic concerns that such a disaster might entail. We see the government making decisions on whether and where to evacuate people and the potential backlash such an influx of refugees may entail. There is a darker subtext too as the government at first decide not to tell people the whole truth about their situation. Special effects are used sparingly, but to good effect. By using only glimpses of the destruction, along with scenes of reaction and much conversation regarding what’s happening, the film manages to avoid putting excessive strain on the effects department. However, it could be argued in a film about a natural disaster such as this there should be more action-oriented scenes. The sets used in the film are good and the cinematography is beautiful (albeit in a heavily stylised way). The soft sunset lighting, even the odd choice of a pop ballad during one scene, show the film to be a product of blockbuster culture that is more interested in emotional drama than realism.

Japan is no stranger to natural disasters, with earthquakes a regular occurrence and a number of major incidents prominent in the national psyche. “Sinking of Japan” plays on the fear of a catastrophic event occurring that is sure to resonate with people. Even more so today with climate change making these events increasingly likely. The film does a reasonable job of looking at what may be the response, both of government and people, to something a devastating as a nationwide natural disaster. A stylish disaster movie with a serious message.

Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005)

A collection of surreal shorts, including dance routines, animated segments, nonsensical comedy skits, aliens, canine film directors and more. Throughout a two-hour run time the audience is assaulted with an eclectic, stream-of-consciousness, merry-go-round of drama, slapstick, puerile jokes involving bodily functions, dadaist segments in which you begin to wonder whether this is intended to entertain or frustrate you, and parts which defy explanation entirely. The film will occasionally tease you with a recurring character, a common theme or concept mentioned in different scenes, but on the whole it is fascinatingly, even hypnotically, anarchic.

The film was written and directed by Katsuhiro Ishii, Hajimine Ishimine and Shunichiro Miki, who obviously delight in completely bamboozling their audience. Although the film might be accurately described as unconventional, there is undeniable talent on show here. Each segment does have at least a few clever ideas, and they know how to provoke a response when necessary. With each segment being short, there is also the chance that if you are not enjoying one, there will be something else that you will like. The film features a large cast, including some well known actors such as Rinko Kikuchi and Tadanobu Asano, as well as Evangelion director Hideaki Anno (some of whom appear in multiple roles).

The film should be enjoyed as a collection of short sketches, more akin to a variety show, than a traditional beginning-to-end story. Ridiculous as much of it is, I felt that it was far from meaningless. It does what great art should and provokes you, it provokes you to wonder what is happening, perhaps even offering you a perspective on life that you may not have considered. It is certainly one of the weirdest films you will ever watch, and I would recommend that you give it a try, especially if you are a fan of surrealist comedy. It is an experience that you are not likely to forget in a hurry.

Blame! (2017) by Hiroyuki Seshita

In the future humanity cowers in a vast city that extends down to unfathomable depths and stretches away limitless in all directions. Humans lost control of the robots many generations before and now the machines continue without instruction, building the city and hunting down any remnants of humanity. A group of scavengers come across a mysterious traveller named Killy, who is looking for any surviving humans with the “Net Terminal Gene”, which would allow them to interact with their environment, thereby neutralising the threat from the roving Exterminators. When he reveals to them a potentially limitless food source in another part of the city, they agree to accompany him on his quest.

Based on a manga by Tsutomu Nihei, “Blame!” is directed by Hiroyuki Seshita from a screenplay by Sadayuki Murai. It features elements that will be familiar to fans of post-apocalypse science fiction: deserted cityscapes; robot killing machines; and humans struggling to survive in a world that has superceded them. One of the most exciting things about the film is the scale of the world that they have created. The art direction is mesmerising to look at, with vast expanses of uninhabited skyscrapers. There is an eerie atmosphere surrounding everything. Likewise the design of the scavenger, or “electro-fisher”, suits shows great care, blending both ancient samurai and futurist aesthetics. The scuffs and scratches on their helmets and the decrepitude of the buildings do a fantastic job of making the world feel lived in. The robots, with their insect-like look and movement, provide several creepy yet thrilling action moments. The film benefits too from having a relatively small cast, which we are introduced to little by little. There are three young scavengers, Tae, Zuru and  Fusato, their elders, Killy and a scientist Cibo whom they meet on their journey. The story is pared down to its essentials, and follows a straightforward quest narrative: mysterious outsider, small band setting out on a quest, and a final climactic struggle for supremacy.

“Blame!” differs from many cyberpunk stories in that it wears its pessimism about the future of humanity on its sleeve. This is a world that has quite literally outgrown humans. They are shown to be minute figures scuttling around in their meaningless lives, while the robots they created have taken over control of the world from them. This provides a rather dark and depressing backdrop to the story. The film also touches on the idea of a loss of history and culture. The people here are not only cut off from any other survivors by their distance, but they are cut off from the past. They cannot remember a time when humans were in control of technology. In this regard the film takes present concerns about the efficiency and dangers of Artificial Intelligence to a devastating conclusion. There are theological themes at work here. The main computer system is an almost god-like figure, while the humans appear to have no religious affiliation. It is interesting to consider a time when humans will no longer be the dominant power in the world, having ceded control to computers. “Blame!” is a hugely entertaining watch for fans of cyberpunk or apocalyptic science-fiction, with great design, exciting action and interesting underlying philosophy.

Robo-G (2012)

When their robot falls out of a window a week before a major robotics exhibition, three hapless engineers need to find a way out of their dilemma. They decide to hire an elderly actor, Shigemitsu Suzuki (Mickey Curtis),  to get inside the remaining shell of their creation and pretend that it is still functioning normally. The old man wows attendants at the robotics show with his displays of dexterity and lifelike movement, seemingly able to do anything, causing the three engineers to panic that their ruse will soon be uncovered.

This light-hearted family comedy has a great premise which is amusing enough to carry a sometimes weak script. There are moments of slapstick humour with most of the jokes deriving from the public’s ignorance of the old man inside the robot suit. Mickey Curtis, playing the elderly Suzuki, does a great job with the character, who is shown to be struggling with modern life and feeling a little abandoned by society. The three engineers (played by Gaku Hamada, Junya Kawashima and Kawai Shogo) also have some great moments. We also follow a young engineering student (Yuriko Yoshitaka) who is obsessed with the marvellous robot, and members of Suzuki’s family. I found that it was an entertaining film, very similar to others in the genre (director Shinobu Yaguchi’s other films include “Waterboys” and “Swing Girls”), with a fun story and central performances, although some of the sub-plots are only very briefly addressed with the film’s main focus being on the jokes.

Despite being a knockabout comedy, the film also involves an emotional heart in the portrayal of the elderly Suzuki. We see him largely ignored by people around him due to his advanced years, and when he gets inside the robot suit there is an interesting dynamic as he is beloved by everyone and highly entertaining, but nobody sees him. A fantastic reflection of society valuing youth over age, further highlighted with the advancement of robotic technologies making people partially obsolete. I would recommend this film as an easy watch with a few great comedic moments.