The Boy and the Heron (2023) by Hayao Miyazaki

When his mother is killed in a firebombing that destroys the hospital she was in, Mahito (Soma Santoki) and his father (Takuya Kimura) move from Tokyo to live with Mahito’s aunt Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura). While the Second World War continues, and despite his father’s work at a factory producing parts for fighter planes, and the recruitment drives in the local town, Mahito finds himself in a tranquil, rural paradise, grieving his mother’s death. Things are interupted when a grey heron (Masaki Suda) that lives on the estate begins talking to him and he discovers a mysterious tower in the grounds, overgrown and hidden by forest. He learns that his great-uncle (Shohei Hino), involved in dark magic, created the building that has since been sealed off. When his aunt goes missing in the vicinity of the tower, Mahito sets of to find her and is transported to a paralell world, where his great-uncle is the creator and anthropomorphic and militaristic parakeets rule the realm. Aided by a woman named Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki) and the heron, Mahito also finds a younger version of his mother (Aimyon), and tries to rescue them and return to his own world.

Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film features many of the elements we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli, with the war-time setting reminiscent of “The Wind Rises” and a fantastical world akin to “Spirited Away”. The Japanese title “How do You Live?” is taken from a 1937 novel of that name by Genzaburo Yoshino. The novel appears briefly in the film, but the film’s plot is distinct from it. In essence the film is a simple tale of a boy attempting to come to terms with the death of his mother, while embodying the values and characteristics of a traditional hero in his unwavering attempts to save his family: bravery, compassion, and intelligence. The film has darker moments too, with the heron’s appearance being often accompanied by sinister proclamations, and a sequence in which Mahito is swarmed with frogs that completely engulf him. In short it is not a film for very young children, but those on the cusp of adolecence, with its messages about growth and coming-to-terms with the darker aspects of humanity. The animation is spellbinding, from the aforementioned frogs, to the magical creatures known as wara-wara and flocks of birds, the film has a vibrancy and kineticism that is exciting to see. The opening sequence, seen in flashback throughout, has an impressionistic feel, that perfectly captures the horror and confusion of the firebombing, perhaps mixed with Mahito’s own memories of this traumatic event. The score, by longterm collaborator Joe Hisaishi, of sparse, plaintive piano further heightens the sense of loss and loneliness of Mahito’s journey. The film’s more surreal moments, the otherworld being a place that often defies logic, give the sense that the whole alternate reality is a place of metaphor and meaning, less fantastical and more meta-physcal or psychological in aspect.

An incredible example of simple yet effective storytelling that balances comedy and tragedy, whimsy and dark emotional drama. The film leaves it to the audience to find their way through this often confusing mix of tones and styles, with elements such as the wara-wara being unborn children in the ‘real’ world, and the relationships between people Mahito has met and their doppelgangers in the otherworld. Similarly, while the references to war are minimal, they are clearly important as we see the fighter-plane cabins being lined up at Natsuko’s house. Whether there is a connection between the parakeet king and his army, or the anthropomorphic inhabitants of the magical world’s insatiable appetites, and the militarism of this period in Japanese history, again is left for the audience to puzzle out. “The Boy and the Heron” is a wonderful example of what films can do best, leave you with stunning visuals that provoke a deep emotional response without necessariliy explaining to you the whole meaning. As with the best art, it allows you to be carried along by the mystique and grandeur of the creation, raising questions about life, loss and spiritual growth.

Suzume (2022) by Makoto Shinkai

High-schooler Suzume (Nanoka Hara and Akari Miura as young Suzume) has lived with her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu) since her mother passed away 12 years prior. On her way to school one day, she passes a mysterious older boy Souta (Hokuto Matsumura) who asks her if there are any ruins nearby. It seems that their quiet coastal town contains a door that offers a view through to a parallel world and one that contains within it a violent force in the shape of a large worm. Souta has arrived in town to prevent the worm breaking loose and causing a devastating earthquake. Suzume unwittingly removes the Keystone that takes the form of a white cat named Daijin (Ann Yamane) and transforms Souta into a three-legged chair. Feeling responsible for the impending disaster, Suzume sets out to chase the cat across Japan, carrying Souta with her as the two attempt to prevent the worms from emerging through the doors.

Makoto Shinkai is a director who seems to have found the magic formula for creating intriguing, engaging and moving stories. Following the success of “Your Name” and “Weathering with You”, this film brings together many of the familiar elements from those works, combining it with an original story that outdoes both in terms of it’s epic scope and emotional impact. From the first moments, the animation is exceptional, with swaying grasses, glittering water, sparkling constellations, ruins brimming with incredible detail, and every conceivable weather lovingly rendered. RADWIMPS return again to provide the soundtrack to the film along with Kazuma Jinnouchi. There are also a number of pop hits played during a road-trip sequence that are sure to have you tapping along. At this point Shinkai’s sublime animation, the sound design that wraps you in a believable world of wind, rain, chirping cicadas, and bustling background noise, is perhaps taken for granted. The story this time around relies less on the romantic boy-meets-girl plot of previous works, instead functioning as a coming-of-age story for Suzume and containing a much deeper theme relating to the tragedy of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Rather than referring back to his own works, Shinkai pays homage to Hayao Miyazaki, in the adventurous female protagonist tackling not only a magical world, but also deep seated personal trauma. The Ghibli connection is made explicit in a couple of nods to “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. The road trip approach to the story, taking us from Kyushu, through Shikoku, to Kobe, Tokyo, and on to Miyagi, gives the film a forward momentum, enlivened by the epic confrontations of gods and demons from a parallel underworld, light humorous touches, and the colourful characters Suzume encounters (voiced by a number of great actors including Sairi Ito, Shota Sometani, and Ryunosuke Kamiki.

“Suzume” discusses the trauma of death, both general and specific, in a way that is accessible enough for a young audience without shying away from the harsh reality. By personifying the earthquakes, the film captures the sense of indiscriminate danger caused by them. We learn later in the film that Suzume was displaced from her home, taken to Kyushu to live with her aunt, following the earthquake of 2011, an event that still casts a shadow over many lives. The film treats its subject respectfully and earns the emotional pay off in Suzume’s story, which in less skilled hands could have seemed trite and exploitative. The film also returns to some of the ambiguity and complexity of Shinkai’s earlier works, with a moment of raw drama between Suzume and Tamaki that captures their fraught yet loving relationship. Even for those unfamiliar or not directly touched by the disaster, this story of a girl struggling to come to terms with the sudden, untimely death of her mother, is heart-wrenchingly believable.

Drifting Home (2022) by Hiroyasu Ishida

A group of children find themselves stranded in a derelict building floating through an endless ocean in this fantasy adventure tale. Kosuke (Mutsumi Tamura) and Natsume (Asami Seto) spent their childhood together in the same apartment block. Following the death of Kosuke’s grandfather Yasuji (Bin Shimada), the two have grown apart. As the summer holidays approach it seems that they are no closer to healing their relationship. Kosuke’s friends Taishi (Yumiko Kobayashi) and Yuzuru (Daiki Yamashita) drag him along on a ghost-hunting expedition in the now condemned apartments. They find Natsume hiding inside and are later joined by classmates Reina (Inori Minase) and Juri (Kana Hanazawa). During a storm the children are transported to a world where the only thing that remains is the building surrounded by a seemingly endless sea. They find another inhabitant of the apartment block named Noppo (Ayumu Murase) who seems to have a peculiar connection with the building. While they occasionally pass other floating buildings, there are no other people and the group begin to wonder if they will ever find their way home.

Directed by Hiroyasu Ishida, with a script by Ishida, Hayashi Mori and Minaka Sakamoto, “Drifting Home” is a simple yet effective children’s adventure tale, featuring magical elements, exciting action, and deeply emotional themes that will resonate with audiences young and old. The majority of the film takes place in the same block of apartments and other derelict buildings, with the cracked concrete overgrown with moss and weeds , exposed and rusted rebar, providing an impactful background for the story. Similar to the post-apocalyptic sunken cities of “Bubble” (2022), these spaces are recreated with details that make clear they have many stories of their own to tell. The film is also reminscent of “The Drifting Classroom” (1987), with its children lost in time and space, but here the actual mechanics of what is happening are more fairy-tale than science-fiction. The characters are enjoyable, with believable dynamics amongst the familiar stereotypes and entertaining conversations. This is helped by great voice acting, leaning into their exuberant, youthful joie de vivre. There is plenty of action too, with the computer-enhanced animation allowing for some amazing moments, such as the children climbing up the side of the building or ziplining across to a new rooftop, turning the commonplace structures into stone pirate ships. The incredible animation is bolstered by sound design that draws the audience into this world of pattering rain and crashing waves; and the score by Umitaro Abe is suitably epic, not shying away from the raw emotionality demanded by the story.

The film’s simplistic plot belies a depth of emotion and complexity in the interpersonal relationships between the characters. The reason for Kosuke and Natsume becoming friends, involving problems at home, and their falling out following Yasuji’s death, are both difficult issues for a children’s film to tackle, but are handled delicately. Running throughout the film is a melancholic atmosphere that is perhaps more likely to speak to an older audience. Noppo’s character, it is revealed partway through, is an anthropomorphic manifestation of the abandoned, condemned, building; one who yearns to be reunited with his former inhabitents, whose laughter made the building what it was. Perhaps the most tragic character in the story, there will be no salvation for Noppo, only resignation to his inevitable fate. The film asks us to contemplate what the places we are familiar with mean to us, do they posess a spirit or anima, that makes them more than simply a stage for our own lives. Noppo’s impending fate also symbolises for the characters their own loss of innocence and childhood’s inevitable end. As they move on with their lives, they are reminded of the importance of places that they know, and the very concept of ‘home’. “Drifting Home” manages to weave together a fun, action-packed story, with themes of environmental awareness and growing up.

It’s a Summer Film! (2020) by Soshi Matsumoto

Uninmpressed with her school film club’s current project, a saccharine romance, ‘Barefoot’ (Marika Ito) along with her friends ‘Kickboard’ (Yumi Kawai) and ‘Blue Hawaii’ (Kurara Inori) sets out to make her own passion project, a samurai film inspired by classic black and white movies. She manages to recruit a motley crew for sound and lighting, and finds the perfect lead in the shape of the mysterious Rintaro (Daichi Kaneko), who suddenly appears in her life. As they are making their film, competing with rival Karin’s (Mahiru Koda) romantic drama, they discover that there may be more at stake than the film premiere at the upcoming school festival.

Directed by Soshi Matsumoto, with a screenplay by Matsumoto and Naoyuki Miura, “It’s a Summer Film!” is a charming love-letter to classic historical cinema with a meta twist. ‘Barefoot’ is an engaging protagonist, and Marika Ito’s energetic and expressive performance is enjoyable. She plays a typical outsider hero, with her interest in historical epics, short-cropped hair, and passion for cinema marking her out as a geek, in contrast with Mahiro Koda’s mainstream heroine Karin. There is great chemistry with the trio of ‘Barefoot’ and her friends, ‘Kickboard’, a member of the astronomy club, and kendo-club member ‘Blue Hawaii’. All three of them represent slightly unusual hobbies that bind them together. The story’s meta-element is not explicit, but the film itself follows many tropes of the teen romantic comedy: a rivalry with a more popular student; the outsider heroes; the third act declaration of love. There is certainly an irony that ‘Barefoot’ is attempting to make a samurai epic, but finds herself entangled in a romantic comedy in her relationship with Rintaro. Early in the film ‘Kickboard’ mentions making a science-fiction film and this element also finds it’s way into “It’s a Summer Film!” with the inclusion of a time-travel sub-plot, that functions to distinguish the film from other ‘film-making’ comedies. Most of the humour comes from the difficulty of making a film and the uncharacterstic, but inspiring, interest in high-quality samurai dramas over cheap romances of the lead characters.

“It’s a Summer Film!” is a lot of fun for people who love cinema. It’s subtle self-referential style, including a joke about one of the “students” looking like a 30-year old man, who they nickname ‘Daddy-Boy’, is entertaining without having to force the humour. The time-travel element is likely to split audiences, but works in the context of the meta-narrative, of a self-aware ‘summer film’ that falls into many of the same narrative cliches that they are simultaneously critiquing. ‘Barefoot’ discovers in the future that films are only 5-seconds long, and that there are no longer cinemas. This is probably the film’s most unsubtle criticism of modern trends in film-making, audiences’ dwindling attention spans and the preponderence of people consuming media on mobile phones in short bursts. Although “It’s a Summer Film!” hits all the notes of a typical high-school romantic-comedy, its charm and self-awareness make it supremely watchable. The likeable cast and light-touch comedy are comfortable and remind people of the enjoyment of watching films and the power of cinema to take you on a journey.

Child of Kamiari Month (2021) by Takana Shirai

Primary school student Kanna (Aju Makita) lives with her father (Minako Kotobuki). As the school marathon approaches it stirs up difficult memories of the death of her mother at the previous year’s event. When Kanna breaks down at the marathon and runs away, she meets Shiro (Maaya Sakamoto), a rabbit god who tells her she must run to Izumo in Shimane Prefecture, gathering victuals from various shrines for a feast of the gods that is due to take place soon. Shiro tells her that her mother was an Idaten, a god of running, and Kanna is to take on that mantle. The two are also joined by Yasha (Miyu Irino), a demon with a grudge against the Idaten running gods who lost them their own place among the deities.

“Child of Kamiari Month” is aimed firmly at a younger audience with a formulaic and familiar plot and characters, including a strong-willed heroine and magical side-kicks. The film follows Kanna on a journey of acceptance as she comes to terms with her mother’s absence, creating a fantasy framing to better help both her and the potential audience learn how to grieve. The animation can be static at times, but the film ably sidesteps this issue of motionless backdrops with the introduction of a magical bracelet that freezes time. This provides an interesting environment, real world yet transfigured by raindrops hanging in the air and people frozen in place, as Kanna, Shiro and Yasha, along with various deities, remain mobile. It is fun to see the gods of the various shrines, but it seems like an opportunity was missed to do more with them. Most only appear briefly in a montage of Kanna collecting the produce for the feast. It would have been interesting to explore some of the characters and significance behind them. The score by Jun Ichikawa and Naoki-T is one of the highlights of the film, part whimsical fantasy but shifting to darker tones as the weight of Kanna’s sense of loss becomes more apparent.

The film’s has a simple yet noble message for its audience, showing young children what it is like to deal with the death of a parent, with a comforting and supportive cast of characters helping the protagonist overcome her grief. This is well done, subtly transforming the lost parent into a magical persona with exceptional abilities, no doubt how she is seen by her daughter. Her mother’s divinity forms the second strong theme of the film, with Kanna lacking this ability and perhaps concerned about living up to her expectations. Later in the film Kanna learns that it is a person’s will rather than their genes that define their greatness. It is an excellent message for children, especially those dealing with something similar. The film is also and interesting look at the religious heritage of the society, showing the various gods and shrines emblematic of a polytheistic, collective society, as opposed to a monotheistic one. This is further emphasised by Kanna’s reliance on Shiro and Yasha as companions on her quest. Kanna is both coming to accept the loss of her mother and also reconnecting with a wider society, coming to understand that she is far from alone. “Child of Kamiari Month” is a fun fantasy adventure that tackles difficult themes, though it may lack appeal outside the younger age group.