The Drifting Classroom (1987) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Based on the horror manga by Kazuo Umezu, “The Drifting Classroom” follows a group of International School students in Kobe after their classroom is lost in a time-slip. Shou (Yasufumi Hayashi) leaves home after arguing with his mother, heading out to school where he meets up with his other classmates. Not long into the school day the building begins to shake. At first believing it is an earthquake, the teachers and children try to remain calm as they assess the damage. However, looking out of the window they see that they are in a mysterious desert-like world. They are later threatened by aliens attacking the school. They must learn to adapt and survive in this hostile new environment, while back in Kobe the people speculate about the sudden disappearance of the school.

“The Drifting Classroom” is a chaotic, action-packed, children’s adventure film with dark undertones. It shifts rapidly from a spirit of light-hearted comedy as the children explore this new world, their familiar surroundings made unfamiliar as they are now filled with sand, and terrifying horror as giant insect-like aliens arrive to terrorize them. The film mixes in other elements such as survival drama as they elect a leader and try to work out how to live on the supplies available in the school. The young cast do a great job, bringing a youthful exuberance to their roles. The primary characters are Shou, Mark (Thomas Sutton), Ayumi (Aiko Asano) and the youngest Yu, but the supporting cast do a fantastic job in creating a sense of barely controlled chaos, such as you might expect in a school full of children in such circumstances. Obayashi’s direction is suited to this bizarre blend of science-fiction, horror, and adventure, with the sympathetic camera moving wildly in concert with the cast. The ambitious story, involving time-slips, other worlds, and aliens, is achieved with a blend of CG special effects, green screen, and stop motion creature work. It is a story full of twists that is endlessly entertaining.

While the premise of the film, a school caught in a timeslip, seems like it would lend itself to a relatively slight fantasy drama, there is a dark subtext to “The Drifting Classroom” that sets it above a simple throwaway adventure tale.

If you wish to avoid spoilers, please check out the film before reading further.

Part way through the film, Shou finds a memorial in the desert with the names of all the teachers and pupils he is stranded with. Other hints in the film, such as a character telling Shou’s mother that “children always go to the future”, and the slow pull out shot at the end of the film, indicate that in fact these children are marooned on a hostile post-apocalyptic earth, devastated possibly by nuclear war (an earlier scene sees one adult shouting “they finally pushed the button”). The film doesn’t shy away from death, with many students perishing due to a lack of food, and the aforementioned memorial. It confronts it’s audience, primarily children, with these harsh realities about life. The filling of the school with sand is an incredible visual metaphor for the timeslip they have gone through. They are literally trapped in the sands of time, left abandoned by previous generations thoughtless or reckless actions. Though there is hope at the end of the film, it is slight, with the children abandoned to their fate on this inhospitable planet, presumably ruined by those that came before. The ecological, anti-nuclear message is never made explicitly, but it is clearly there. A fantastical adventure with a troubling message about the world we leave to future generations.

Demon Slayer (2019)

When Tanjiro Kamado’s (Natsuki Hanae) family are brutally murdered by a demon, he is set on a path to become a demon slayer, an elite of warriors tasked with protecting the world from these creatures.  His mission is complicated by his sister, Nezuko (Akari Kito), who has been transformed into a demon. Unlike most demons, Nezuko is able to restrain herself from devouring humans, and Tanjiro hopes that his journey may lead him to a cure for her eventually. The two are joined by fellow fighters, Zenitsu (Hiro Shimono), a boy constanly on the lookout for love, and Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka), a reckless swordsman who wears a boar’s head mask. Together they take on various demons, in the hopes of one day catching up with their leader Kibutsuji (Toshihiko Seki).

Based on the manga by Koyoharu Gotouge, “Demon Slayer” follows in the tradition of stories such as “Dragonball” and “One Piece”, with it’s young male protagonists on a journey of self-discovery, battling monsters, and growing stronger with each encounter. From the off the story begins with several great hooks, the murder of Tanjiro’s family, a mystery surrounding his father, and his sister’s transformation, all of which beg for resolution. As with many fantasy shows there is a lot of world-building, with the various fighting styles, Blood Demon Arts, and mythology surrounding the demons and demon slayers. Each demon they encounter comes with a unique style of fighting, which helps keep the episodes fresh as more is uncovered about their abilities. There is an often unusual blend of tones and styles throughout, with the show shifting gears rapidly from the comedic eccentricities of Zenitsu and Inosuke, to the sombre and often poignant backstories of Tanjiro and many of the demonic characters. These more wacky moments work to lighten the tone, which would be relentlessly downbeat and disturbing if we only had the melancholic quest for revenge of our protagonist, but often seem aimed at a younger audience than the show would be suitable for. This is certainly not a show for children, with brutal fights that do not hold back on the blood and gore; decapitations and dismemberment are common occurances in the life of a demon slayer.

“Demon Slayer” is set in the Taisho period and does a good job of depicting the dress and lifestyle of the time. The art and animation, in keeping with the story, consists of several styles, with stunning backgrounds and weather effects, and more cartoonishly exagerated character moments. The character designs are very much in keeping with the manga style, large eyes and expressive features, and are used to give everything a sense of energy. Despite being packed with melodramatic moments (many characters are prone to wailing and howling in anguish), the show does manage to be genuinely moving. This is helped by the epic score by Yuki Kajiura and Go Shiina. Alongside the incredible animation, the soundtrack helps build a sense of scale and tension.

“Demon Slayer” is a film about light and dark, life and death. With the transformation of Nezuko early on in the show, we are left with a difficult moral choice (familiar to fans of zombie movies): she is a demon, a flesh-eating monster, but also family. Tanjiro believes in her absolutely and will do anything to protect her, while other demon slayers want to destroy her. Throughout the show we are presented with this kind of moral dilemma, with many of the demons having tragic backstories.Tanjiro’s aversion to killing is understandable and makes him more human than many action protagonists who jump willingly into slaughter. Theological themes around the notion of good and evil abound in the show, and it is this on top of the action that makes an entertaining watch. Zenitsu and Inosuke, and later the elite Hashira demon slayers, are also good examples of flawed characters. Although they are ostensibly the heroes, they often behave irrationally, selfishly, or stupidly, creating a further sense that perhaps demons and humans are not so different after all. An incredible adventure story with dark themes, action-packed moments and a compelling cast of characters.

Spirited Away (2001) by Hayao Miyazaki

The film begins with a young girl, Chihiro, moving house with her parents. Just before arriving at their new home, they come across a mysterious forest track, and at the end of the track, a wall with a passageway leading on into the darkness. Chihiro, at first wary, is forced to follow her parents through into what turns out to be an abandoned theme park. Things soon take an dark and unusual turn when her parents, gorging themselves on food lay out on an unattended stall, turn into pigs. What follows is a magical and spectacular adventure, full of dragons, witches, strange creatures and unforgettable characters, such as ‘No-Face’ and various nature spirits.

The film is a great ride from start to finish, following an odd dream logic that keeps your attention as it moves from one unusual character or scenario to the next. In spite of the dreamlike and fantastical nature of this other world, it is made to feel entirely real. The animation is fantastic, with every scene showing incredible attention to detail – from moss and flowers growing in the crevices of stones, to all the many signs on the spirit world streets. The scenes inside the bath-house are a particular delight, with so many characters bustling around, you are sure to want to watch again to make sure you haven’t missed any little expression or moment. The score by Joe Hisaishi is similarly brilliant, capturing the mood of the film perfectly, not an easy task as it drifts from whimsy to melancholy, from action-packed to thoughtful reflection. The story is constantly twisting and turning, and the unexpected nature of this world means that there are constantly new surprises.

At heart a coming-of-age story as Chihiro, who is moving house in her real life, is forced to cope with a strange new world, full of bizarre and often dangerous experiences. Woven through this is a message of environmentalism, with the spirits representing a natural world that is slowly being destroyed, or at least ‘stressed’ by modernity. Without over-emphasising the point it offers a poignant reminder of the importance of protecting our world. A fantastic film with incredible animation and a great message.

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.