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science fiction: deserted cityscapes; robot killing machines; and humans struggling to survive in a world that has superceded them.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.

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) by Hayao Miyazaki

Famous thief Lupin the Third has just pulled off an incredible casino heist. Escaping with his partner in crime the two discover that the stash of bank notes they have stolen are in fact incredibly good forgeries. Lupin realises that they are from the legendary Cagliostro. The two arrive at a castle that appears to be abandoned and are soon pulled into a madcap adventure. The crooked count who runs the forgery scam is planning to marry a young woman to fulfil a prophecy that is said to grant whoever finds it a great treasure.

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and based on a manga by legendary writer Monkey Punch, “The Castle of Cagliostro” is a film that is packed with enjoyable moments. The plot races along from action scene to action scene, but sketches out likeable enough characters along the way. Lupin is a loveable rogue whose crimes never overshadow the fact his heart is in the right place. It is a typical hero rescuing a princess narrative, but styled as a modern crime caper. The blend of medieval architecture and modern technology creates some fun sequences as they try to sneak into the castle and evade detection. The animation and artwork are solid and as with many works of this period display a great range of character designs. The castle provides a fantastic setting with plenty of variety, and the use of camera angles gives us a full picture of the environment. The sequences on the roof in particular show off the amazing work of the artists and animators to their fullest.

“The Castle of Cagliostro” is a film that is a fun family friendly romp for all ages. Slapstick humour, a simple yet well executed plot and great action sequences mean there is never a dull moment.

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

Nonoka is the youngest child of the Yamadas, an ordinary family living in Japan. She lives with her older brother, her mother and father, and her grandmother. The film is a series of vignettes showing their everyday interactions. In one of the early segments we see Nonoka being left at a supermarket by her family after she falls asleep, and their panicked attempts to find her again. Another shows attempts by the father to bond with his son. While they are not tied together by theme or an overarching plot, these segments give a full picture of family life that is sure to resonate with many people.

The film is based on a manga by Hisaichi Ishii with a screenplay by director Isao Takahata. The story feels very much like a serialised comic strip, with some scenes being no more than a single joke or reflection on family life. They  are punctuated by haiku which give a wry reflection on the behaviours of the characters, by creating a poetic image to symbolise the commonplace experiences. The animation is done in digital watercolours, that give the sense of a moving picture book. Similarly, the chaptered approach keeps things interesting. There is no real structure and the film is more akin to watching a series of shorts than a single narrative. The humour in the film is well-observed, relying on the family dynamics and characters. In particular, the bickering between husband and wife, the grandmother’s nonchalant rudeness, or Nonoka’s stoic acceptance of the bizarre situations she encounters. The script in this regard is excellent in reflecting everyday conversations between family members and different generations. There is also great use of fantasy sequences that are perhaps a reference to Nonoka’s understanding of events. The melodic piano score and bright visuals create a peaceful atmosphere that gives levity to any threat, such as the parents losing their daughter, or confronting a biker gang.

“My Neighbours the Yamadas” is a film that has a timeless quality, with eternally relevant subject matter, and an art style that is sure to be enjoyed for years to come. There is a poignancy to several scenes that manages to compliment the humour without becoming overbearing. This is a film that can be appreciated by different generations, with different experiences and perspectives colouring their response to the film. Children are sure to find humorous parallels to their own lives, while adults may share the parents’ frustrations at older relatives. Overall, the film is a joyful experience that manages to perfectly capture the family experience.

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.