Evangelion 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (2007) by Hideaki Anno

The earth is under attack from giant extra-terrestrial beings known as Angels. The only hope for humanity is the secretive organisation NERV who have created huge robots known as Evas to counter these assailants. The robots require a pilot and so Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata), son of NERV commander Gendo Ikari (Fumihiko Tachiki), is conscripted to command the second of the Evas (the prototype being piloted by a mysterious girl named Rei Ayanami (Megumi Hayashibara)). Shinji is soon thrown into a battle that he does not want to fight, aided by Colonel Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi), and urged on by his school friends, Toji (Tomokazu Seki) and Kensuke (Tetsuya Iwanaga).

This feature film brings together the story of the opening episodes of the popular and influential 90’s anime television series “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, being the beginning of a “Rebuild of Evangelion” project. The film includes new scenes and improved visuals, utilising computer aided artwork to create beautifully detailed animation. The scale of the Evas is emphasised as they rise up from the underground base to stand alongside skyscrapers, or dwarf forests and powerlines. One scene shows the empty shell casings crushing cars as they fall from hundreds of feet. The film features a fresh soundtrack by Shiro Sagisu, who also worked on the series, that moves with the shifting tones of the drama; classical piano pieces, comedic sitcom-esque tunes for the scenes at Katsuragi’s apartment, and triumphant battle music when Shinji is fighting to save the world. The story benefits from being brought together in this way, making it easier to follow the numerous plot threads and see ideas develop without being divided into smaller episodes. Director Hideaki Anno has said that this is an attempt to present the story as he intended it to be. Although there is a lot going on, not only the vast city-sized duels between the Angels and Evas, but also complex interpersonal struggles, the film does a good job of keeping everything moving. “Evangelion 1.0” manages to create an absolutely believable world and introduce us to several concepts (Angels, Evas, LCL fluid, New Tokyo-3) naturally through the dialogue. We are brought into the story in media res and though there are numerous things that are inexplicable at first, it helps to establish a sense that these characters and events are real, that we are simply along for the ride. Only occasionally the film will slip into exposition, but largely the audience is credited with being able to keep up with what is happening. Things move from frenetic action during the battle scenes to more sombre moments as characters come to terms with what is happening in their lives.

The film is packed with mysteries that give it a forward momentum. No sooner have we got our heads around one concept, something else appears. This continues until the film’s final moment which comes completely out of the blue and provides a great hook for the future films in the series.

The strength of “Evangelion” is in its fantastic characters, who are relatable through their foibles. Shinji displays many anxieties and fears that are relatable, such as an unwillingness to put himself into danger and feelings of inadequacy. His relationship with his absentee father, who calls him back only because he needs him as a pilot is tough to watch, but creates a strong sense of empathy for him as we will him to find happiness. The character of Katsuragi, a hard-working and hard-drinking employee of NERV, is endlessly entertaining, both an incredible military commander, but also with a sense of fun. “Evangelion”, as the name perhaps implies, is a series that leans heavily on biblical allegory and references to Christian theology. The struggle of humanity against the angels can be seen as a struggle to liberate people from a dangerous ideology, or in a Nietzschean sense to exceed their current limitations. Characters not only face an external enemy, but an internal one and there is an argument that these may be one and the same. The appearance of Angel 4 at the time Shinji arrives on the scene suggests that the angel’s behaviour is in some way linked to that of the protagonists. “Evangelion” is a series that has so much to enjoy, whether it is the giant mech battles, the emotional and psychological complexity of the characters, or the philosophical ideas concerning the future of mankind. An absolute must-see for fans of thought-provoking science-fiction and beautifully scripted stories.

Whisper of the Heart (1995) by Yoshifumi Kondo

Childhood romance blossoms in this light-hearted Ghibli film directed by Yoshifumi Kondo. Bookish schoolgirl Shizuku (Yoko Honna) is intrigued when she discovers the same name on a number of library cards. She decides to find out who the mysterious Seiji Amasawa (Issei Takahashi) is and is surprised to learn that he is at the same school as her. Their fledgling romance appears doomed to be short-lived however when Seiji reveals his plans to travel abroad to become a violin maker.

Based on a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, with a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, “Whisper of the Heart” differs from the more fantastical Ghibli films in having an entirely real world, non-magical setting. It excels in bringing the studio’s incredible artistry to urban city streets, creating a wonderful sense of place, with extreme care taken in depicting the quotidian details of schools and apartments. From the opening panoramic shots of the city to the final credits where we see cars and people passing, incredible efforts have been taken to create a believable world with all its peculiarities. This sense of capturing reality rather than creating it is heightened by the humble direction, that never feels as if it showing off the incredible work of the background artists, but allows you to notice the small things as the action unfolds. The movie is largely set around a real-world location in Tama city, which is depicted beautifully in the animation, including the hills and mix of buildings and greenery that typify this kind of residential area.

Shizuku’s family apartment with piles of books and papers and all the great confusion of life packed in there helps to completely transport you. Likewise, the way shadows play over characters, or the reflection in train windows, each moment is packed with many subtle yet startling details that help build a tangible and enrapturing drama. Shizuku is a likeable protagonist, as with many Ghibli heroines she is defined by curiosity and passion, with her first charming romance being the perfect subject for a young audience. The pace can be sedate at times, with Shizuku’s story having few twists, instead it revolves around a number of ‘moments’ that manage to beautifully capture the feelings of the protagonists without ever stating them explicitly. Surprisingly perhaps for a children’s film there is much more subtext than story. Some of the best moments involve the antique shop owner, Shiro (Keiji Kobayashi), as he shows her an old grandfather clock, and the statuette of an elegantly dressed cat known as Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. The film will spend time over these quaint moments, allowing us to truly feel a sense of wonder at things that might otherwise go unobserved. This does mean that is a film that will be appreciated more by those who spend time considering these scenes and their meanings, as opposed to expecting to be guided through a generic romance plot.

“Whisper of the Heart” deals with themes of personal growth and sundered love. Precious gems buried deep under rock is used as an analogy for individuals discovering their particular talents or uncovering what is most meaningful to them. The first love experienced by the youthful protagonist is beautifully depicted in its faltering, unsure nature, the uncertainty twinned with an indescribable happiness. The poignancy of Shiro’s story about his own unrequited love, separated many years prior, is one of the most touching moments of the film. The film can also be seen as a commentary on the power of art, song, sculpture and the written word. Shizuku’s love of books, and Seiji’s love of music, along with Shiro’s passion for restoring antiques all speak to the important connections they feel with these things, that represent some eternal emotion of humanity: love. A subtle yet powerful love-story that speaks to deeper emotions of human connection and kinship.

Shangri-la (2009)

In a future where global warming has caused mass devastation, the world has implemented a carbon-exchange mechanism to control the amount of carbon produced. Japan has become largely desolate, either underwater or covered in a vast forest. The people live in partly ruined buildings, a shadow of their once great civilisation. The exception to this is Atlas, a large tower that rises high above the Tokyo skyline. The ultra-modern society that dwell there are in stark contrast to the ordinary citizens below. The only way they can reach this tower is by winning a lottery. The series begins with Kuniko Hojo (Mikako Takahashi) being released from jail. She is greeted by Takehiko (Kenyu Horiuchi), Momoko (Joji Nakata) and Miiko (Hochu Otsuka). They are part of Metal Age, a revolutionary group that aim to take down Atlas and allow the ordinary people to enter. Atlas itself is ruled over by Ryoko Naruse (Rei Igarashi), an authoritarian with sadistic tendencies. Also residing in Atlas is Mikuni (Yui Ariga), who lives the life of a princess with her handmaidens and attendant Sayoko (Rie Ishizuka) and Karin Ishida (Yuka Iguchi), a computer genius who has developed a programme to disrupt and profit from the carbon market fluctuations. She spends her time blackmailing foreign governments and amassing a vast wealth while the people outside the tower struggle.

“Shangri-la” is directed by Makoto Bessho (Death Note) with a script by Hiroshi Onogi (Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne) The series is based on a science-fiction novel by Eichi Ikegami, also made into a 2009 manga, and has some really interesting ideas. The premise of a world that is ruled by a carbon market as a way to tackle the climate crisis is one that is timely and inspired. It allows for the perfect set-up of the elites and the commoners, both in Atlas and in the outer city of Duomo. The series is also forward-thinking in having two strong transgender characters, Momoko and Miiko, who play an important role throughout. Momoko especially is hilarious, able to laugh at herself, resilient and fiercely loyal to Kuniko. There is a huge cast of characters and all are given plenty of time to shine. Many do take typical roles, such as the schoolgirl heroine Kuniko, with uncanny martial abilities; the almost dominatrix-esque Ryoko, with her harem of male attendants; the curious Mikuni, who early on seems to be in the wrong series entirely, speaking in antiquated dialect and surrounded by pre-industrial décor. The show fits comfortably the expectations of a particular type of anime fan. One example of this is the inclusion of Akihabara and the three old men who are running a shop there: one a military obsessive, one an idol obsessed camera-man, and the other dressed in schoolgirl clothes and speaking primarily in cutesy anime phrases. These three provide a lot of comic relief and it is fun to see that even in the apocalypse Akihabara, the holy site of all that is geek culture, has still survived.

Akihabara is one example of the fantastic design of the series. It shows a different angle to the one usually presented, as we see the recognizable billboards rising above streets that are underwater. The idea of a heavily forested Tokyo is also one that is unique and appealing, doing away with the normal depictions in favour of something that is more primeval, with overgrown foliage and dense treescapes. The depictions of Atlas in contrast are slightly lacking, being all shiny walls and sparse office space. This perhaps is an indication of the brutalist, money-obsessed, culture as opposed to the bustling real-world outside. The animation certainly has its high-points, particularly in the sequences involving bombing raids.

One of the weirdest things about the series is that it seems like two very different stories jostling for position. The early episodes set up a conflict between the outsiders and the elites of Atlas. We also see Karin as she makes stacks of money off the carbon markets. It seems that everything is set up for a socio-economic satire of capitalism and the climate crises. However, part way through the series we are introduced to several other plot strands. The introduction of Hiruko is where this comes through the strongest. Hiruko resides in a dark chamber in Atlas, with grotesque eyes looking out from the walls. He seems to be swimming in a vat of what may be blood and is covered in ancient scraps of parchment. We learn that he survives by possessing the bodies of poor unfortunates who are thrown to him when the previous body can no longer survive. This second strand of the story, with a magical element, involved Mikuni (known as the “Moon Child”) and increasingly becomes the central strand of the plot. While it is a fascinating story, full of twists, and with a complex history worked out, the focus on this mystical thread does mean that the ideas established early on do fall by the wayside. The story becomes much more a story of a “Chosen One” than a revolutionary tale. “Shangri-la” also has a couple of sudden tonal shifts that make it hard to understand exactly what it wants to be. One of the most jarring of these follows a daring escape from a prison yard via hot-air balloon. This kind of bizarre feat is something that happens a lot to the characters, who are rarely troubled by logistical or even logical concerns. However, it is followed by a moment in which the other prisoners are violently gunned down. It is shocking and unexpected, but it feels that the lack of a consistent world in terms of tone means that some of these moments perhaps don’t hit as hard as they should.

All that being said, there is a lot to recommend Shangri-la. They throw in a lot of interesting ideas, a large cast of characters, fun dialogue and some great action moments. It’s main failing is perhaps in attempting to do too much and following common tropes. It is clear that the creators had some excellent ideas and it would have been good to see them push these original concepts a little further.

The Cat Returns (2002) by Hiroyuki Morita

Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki) is typical schoolgirl who lives with her mother. One day while she is on her way home with a friend, they spot an unusual looking cat carrying a small present across the road. The cat is about to be hit by a truck before Haru darts across the road, scooping the cat up in her lacrosse stick thereby saving it’s life. As she turns to check if the cat is ok, she sees it standing on two legs and dusting itself down before telling her it is grateful for her saving his life. Later that night Haru is visited by the King of Cats and his large entourage who arrive outside her house to offer their gratitude and to say that they will repay her. She is later told by a cat that they wish her to marry their Prince, the cat whose life she saved, and must come with them to the cat kingdom. However, a mysterious voice tells her to look for the Cat Bureau. Following a white cat, Mutu (Tetsu Watanabe), to the Cat Bureau, she is greeted by the Baron Humbert von Gikkingen (Yoshihiko Hakamada) and Toto (Yosuke Saito) a crow who acts as a gargoyle for their town. They warn her against the Kingdom of Cats, but Haru is soon whisked away and must attempt to escape with the help of Mutu, Toto and the Baron.

“The Cat Returns” is based on a manga of the same name by Aoi Hiiragi. The idea of discovering a secret world and being whisked away, of unwilling princesses, near-sighted rulers, and dashing heroes coming to the rescue, are all common tropes of the genre. However, having cats be the central focus of the drama transforms this typical fantasy story into something magical. There is something enigmatic about cats, often be seen lounging or padding around the streets, and this film takes the idea that they are living a secret life when they are not being watched and runs with it. Early in the film Haru’s mother tells her that Haru used to say that she could talk to cats. It is this sort of childhood whimsy that the film captures brilliantly. It highlights the power of imagination and creativity that abounds in our youth, but that most people lose as they grow older. As well as this celebration of imagination the film is also a coming-of-age story for Haru. She is a girl lost in a dream world. Although she has a strong relationship with her best friend, her only other obsession is with a boy at her school (understandable at that age). When she is whisked away and forced into a marriage she does not want, she comes to realise that in fact her own wishes should not need to be so narrowly defined. Visiting the kingdom of the cats, whether this is taken literally or as a flight of fancy, shows her just how wide the world really is and that only she can decide what her future holds. By the end of the film she is transformed into a character who is full of confidence and a desire to explore the world on her terms.

The artwork and animation is suited to the fantasy plot. Early in the film we get a great sense of the city, using depth of action to create the sense of a fully realised environment as traffic and pedestrians fill the streets and pavements. When the film heads into the world of the cats there is a shift to a much simpler style. There are some nice touches such as the cat palace being decorated with fish. The designs of the cats are also great, with a unique style for all the central characters. Another fun detail showing the Chinese and Egyptian cats gathered at the king’s court. The King of the Cats is a joy every time he is on screen, with his odd-eyes and tufted fur. A fun film for children and cat lovers, with lots of heart and a plot that never lets up in humour and action.

Paranoia Agent (2004)

A series of interconnected stories tied together by the sinister figure of a roller-blading, bat-wielding assailant known as “Lil’ Slugger” (Daisuke Sakaguchi). The series begins with Tsukiko Sagi (Mamiko Noto), who designs a popular character named Maromi (Haruko Momoi), a pink cartoon dog; a mascot who becomes something of a talisman for her company and their most popular character. She is soon under pressure to create another success on that level, and while walking home is attacked by an shadowy figure wearing golden rollerblades and swinging a golden bat. As she recovers in the hospital, two detectives, Keiichi Ikari (Shozo Iizuka) and Mitsuhiro Maniwa (Toshihiko Seki) are put on the case, tracking down the young boy believed to be responsible for the assault. Throughout the series we are introduced to various characters, each of which suffer some kind of trauma, paranoia, fear, or stress, and all of whom are targeted by the mysterious figure of Lil’ Slugger.

Directed and co-written by Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers), the film has a dark tone throughout, dealing with themes of violence, suicide, abuse, and having realistic and unsympathetic characters. Black humour is often used to alleviate some of the tension, but the overwhelming sensation while watching will be one of confusion. The stories often seem to break down into dream-sequences or other surreal moments, feature characters whose fragile psyches seem to be collapsing as the plot progresses. It becomes clear early on that this is not a straightforward mystery, and that there may be a supernatural or psychological element to the story. I was concerned that the ending would be a let-down, considering the fantastic premise and set-up, but I was not disappointed. There is a sense of fulfilment at the end of the story, a sort of catharsis for the characters, and the whole thing ties together thematically, if not strictly logically. The script is excellent, building up a sense of real characters, living in surreal circumstances, with great voice acting by the whole cast. Some episodes in particular are inspired, such as the episode centred on an animation studio and the various jobs that entails. Emphasising the dualistic nature of the series, the score by Susumu Hirasawa is likewise ominous and cheery by turns. It is best to go into this show not knowing too much about it, as there are some great twists and turns.

The series deals with some very serious themes, depression, anxiety, suicide, mental disorders, as well as painting a picture of a dysfunctional society. The character of Lil’ Slugger is left somewhat open to interpretation, as a psychological phenomenon conjured from the fevered imaginings of the protagonists, or as an elemental force that descends on people who are feeling life is too much for them. I would highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys psychological horror, mystery, and something that will have you scratching your head throughout attempting to figure out the significance of it all.