Girls und Panzer der Film (2015)

This film throws us straight into the action with a battle between Ooarai Girl’s School tank club and an international school. The story presupposes that you are familiar with the characters and the world, following on from the “Girls und Panzer” series. For those who are not, the film takes place in a world where there is such a thing as a school tank club, in which teams take command of tanks in large scale battles (as opposed to the usual sports clubs). Following this opening battle, the film’s plot kicks into gear when the girl’s school (which happens to be on a large carrier ship) is taken away. They manage to retain their tanks and organize a tournament against a University team, the prize of which is to be the saving of their school.

The film is directed by Tsutomu Mizushima from a screenplay by Reiko Yoshida, carrying on from the original series. It is a premise that is simple yet endlessly entertaining and the film gives fans exactly what they want. The battles which bookend the film are long and show a great deal of creativity. A historical supervisor was involved and it is interesting to see the large variety of different tanks and tactics discussed. The script is packed with fun dialogue, replete with historical references and meaningful quotations alongside the quirky, off-beat humour of a high-school comedy drama. The characters are all voiced by the original actors and do a great job with their characterisations. Although this film does not reintroduce characters, rather assuming foreknowledge of the show, there are many great moments that show the camaraderie and affection between them. The music by Shiro Hamaguchi is a mix of soft melodies for the character moments and a bombastic action soundtrack during the battles.

Absolutely worth a watch for fans of the series; the film has a heartwarming message about friendship and co-operation. It is a meaningful lesson for the characters that could be said of any school activity. The fact that it is tank warfare offers an unusual element to the typical school drama of overcoming adversity to save the school. The historical parallels are never drawn too starkly, but it is interesting to note Japan’s relationship with war, particularly the Second World War. Almost all political notions are stripped from the story and the tanks and flags are decontextualised. The underlying humanity of the characters shines through and the positive aspects are emphasised. Following the battles, the girls always respectfully thank their opponents and ideas of honour and respect play a large part. Alongside this, virtues of quick-thinking, strategy, boldness, compassion and more are played out on the battlegrounds.

Garden of Words (2013)

Takao Akizuki skips school each morning to go to Shinjuku Park. Here he meets a Yukari Yukino, an woman who is also shirking her job to sit alone drinking beer and eating chocolate. Takao dreams of becoming a shoemaker while Yukari has her own problems. As rainy season begins  the two sit together in a park shelter, discussing their lives and learning more about one another, forming an intimate friendship.

Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has an instantly recognizable style, with incredibly well-rendered locales and emphasis on the minute details that many would ignore, but which are of paramount importance in creating a sense of place and time. “Garden of Words” is no different in this regard and his depiction of Shinjuku and the park in the middle of the sprawling city is a joy to behold. It is a space that you could spend an eternity in, picking out each droplet of rain and marvelling at the reflections. The art, animation, sound design, and direction all work to build a tangible, living environment. The film is short but this works in its favour considering the story. Where many films would stretch the run time with unnecessary subplots, each scene in “Garden of Words” is poignant and essential in understanding the characters. There is a poetry in the script that compliments the beauty of the imagery.

Given the premise of the film, it would be understandable to expect a romantic drama. However, the film is far more subtle, painting a believable and touching vignette of these two characters who simply share time together, influencing each other in a quiet yet important way. In a world grown increasingly cold and isolating, this simple act of sharing a quiet moment becomes almost transcendent. The sublime visuals, and the mesmeric piano score by Daisuke Kashiwa that drifts effortlessly between melancholic and uplifting, create a space in which to contemplate your own thoughts along with the characters. “Garden of Words” is beyond film, it is a truly special piece of art, confident in its message and delicate in its delivery.

Appleseed XIII (2011)

In the idyllic city of Olympus, a paradise amidst the ruins of World War Three, humans and bioroids (artificial humans) live together in peace. The city itself is controlled by a giant supercomputer, Gaia, under the auspices of the bioroids, whose superiority over humans makes them perfect governors of this utopia. However, not all humans are happy and a terrorist group known as the Argonauts is working to destroy bioroids. Deunan Knute and her partner Briarios of the E-SWAT team must work to uncover who is behind the Argonauts’ plot to kill bioroids and their motivation.

This thirteen part series follows on from a franchise that began with Shirow Masamune’s manga and has seen several film entries. This takes the series back to its roots, reminiscent of the 1988 animated film, with a brightly coloured aesthetic to Olympus and often more humorous take on the characters of Deunan and Briarios and their relationship as a couple. The screenplay by Junichi Fujisaku is densely plotted, with the Argonauts plot running throughout while several subplots spin off from this. Fujisaku also worked on Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (similarly based on a Shirow Masamune manga). Many of the episodes are structured round a single mission, with E-SWAT assigned to protect somebody, or investigate something, creating individual moments of triumph or failure amid the ongoing investigation. It is also interesting to see more focus placed on the two protagonists as a couple, as they bicker and play off one another well. Appleseed has always referenced Greek Mythology, in its character and place names (Athena, Olympus, Poseidon), and each of this series 13 episodes are named for one of the labours of Heracles. This doesn’t distract from the story to a great extent, but likewise for those unfamiliar with the mythology it offers little in the way of explanation. There will often by flashes of mosaics or statues depicting a scene from mythology, but the link to what is happening in the show is tenuous. When it does work it is a powerful tool, showing the eternal nature of particular struggles, of humans trying to discover their purpose or standing in the world, and other theological and philosophical questions that the series raises. At other times these cutaways appear only to serve as filler content or meaningless scene transitions.

Unfortunately, there are several flaws in this series that put it on a lower rung to other entries in the franchise. The CGI anime style that has become a mainstay since its reincarnation in the 2004 Appleseed film seems to have taken a step backwards here. While it does provide an interesting aesthetic it can be distracting due to the contrast between handdrawn and digitally rendered images. The animation is occasionally jerky and unnatural and background characters often appear to have had little time spent on their animation, thrown around like plastic toys. The city of Olympus also seems strangely unpopulated, with empty streets and a noticeable lack of vehicles and people. This is circumvented in many places by having the episode set in a unique location, such as a submarine or a building where there should not be many people present.

Appleseed XIII is a mixed bag. It is hard to pinpoint exactly where the series went wrong, aside from the animation which could be chalked up to budget constraints. It is worth a watch for fans of the series as it does give you more of the main characters, the technological and philosophical debates that are familiar from other entries, however things seems somehow small scale here and you never feel much for many of the side characters. For those new to Appleseed it would be better to begin with the films.

Millennium Actress (2001)

Chiyoko Fujiwara is an actress with a long and illustrious career spanning several decades. When two reporters travel to her secluded home in the mountains to interview her they are taken on a mesmerising journey through her past. She recounts her earliest experiences on screen and the chance encounter with a runaway political activist that was to prove a formative experience. While running away from the police this rebel artist is first protected, and later taken in by Chiyoko. He gives her a key, telling her to return it to him the next time they meet. This leads her into her acting career and provides a fixed point throughout her life as she strives to be reunited with him.

Written and directed by Satoshi Kon, Millenium Actress features the same fourth-wall breaking and subjective approach that characterise his films Perfect Blue and Paprika. Similarly to Mima’s journey in Perfect Blue, Chiyoko’s story is told not only through her interview, but through a series of flashbacks which are increasingly interrupted by the journalists themselves, who appear to be recording the scenes in the past, or even appear as characters in the films. This is a novel way to tell the story and provides a great amount of humour as well as pulling the audience along forcefully with the narrative. It is one of the triumphs of the film that despite being essentially a sequence of flashbacks, it maintains a real sense of tension during the action sequences, in part by wrong-footing the viewer and blurring the line between drama and reality. The story itself is fairly straightforward and focused on Chiyoko with a fascination that is fitting for her role as a movie starlet. We are forced to concentrate due to the shifting nature of the narrative, never sure what is real or part of a film. The central love story and the mystery surrounding the key provide a rigid framework around which ideas of identity, the power of art and cinema, fame and celebrity are woven. The score is emotional and heightens the drama. As with other works by Satoshi Kon there is a great attention to detail and it is interesting to see the various periods depicted as Chiyoko works on films through the decades.

Millennium Actress is a fascinating journey through this character’s subjective reality. We are never quite sure what is happening, that heightens the importance of her emotional response to the world. It is made clear throughout that the line between film and reality, in the impact they have on one another, is blurred. This means the only thing that characters can rely on are their own feelings. The film also touches on the importance of finding this goal in leading a successful life. Chiyoko is told by her mother not to become an actress, and to settle down and start a family. This represents the traditional view of many. But it is clear that Chiyoko’s life and importance to others as a movie star vindicates her independence of thought and desire to pursue her own career and interests.

Cocolors (2017)

Fuyu and Aki are friends living in an underground community following an unknown catastrophe. All of the denizens of this subterranean city wear large helmets obscuring their faces, adding to a feeling of mystery that continues throughout the film. “Cocolors” raises a number of questions. What are they doing down here? What happened to the outside world? Will they ever return to the surface? Fuyu carries round a picture of the outside world, something he has never seen. This black and white line drawing comes to symbolise a hope that there is a better, brighter world above. Seven years later, Aki is sent to the surface and returns with coloured crayons for Fuyu to finish his drawing. As the film progresses, we slowly learn a little about their society and what happened to the world

“Cocolors” uses computer animation with a hand-drawn aesthetic that is engaging and interesting. There are a lot of little details in the backgrounds, pipes and machinery, along with the character design that add to a sense of realism. The film spends little time on explaining the world, but immerses you in the details and makes everything seem believable, drawing on elements of steam-punk and post-apocalypse fiction.

The film has a strong anti-war message about the devastation that would be caused following a nuclear holocaust. One of the great strengths is the subtlety and mystery that are sustained throughout. Especially the mystery of who or what is beneath the helmets, how they came to be underground, and what they are working towards. The film understands that most of these things are of secondary importance to the central theme of hope in hopeless situations. It certainly has a couple of head-scratching moments where reality begins to break down, something that works well with the animation style. By creating a slight sense of unreality, and keeping the characters faces obscured, the film is able to contemplate its themes without the need for the typical clichés of heroes and villains.