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.

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.

Ponyo (2008) by Hayao Miyazaki

5-year old Sosuke (Hiroki Doi) lives in a seaside town with his mother Lisa (Tomoko Yamaguchi), his father captaining a ship that is not yet due to return to harbour. While playing by the shore one day he discovers a goldfish whom he names Ponyo (Yuria Nara). This is no ordinary goldfish however; Ponyo is the daughter of the goddess of the sea herself and has escaped from her father, the wizard Fujimoto (George Tokoro). She uses her own magic to turn into a human. Her transformation sees a great storm blow up around the town submerging many houses underwater and Ponyo and Sosuke set off to help.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Ponyo” is somewhat unique in featuring a young boy as its protagonist. It perfectly captures the joy and adventurous spirit of childhood, with Sosuke’s mannerisms both charming and fun while also giving the character agency and intelligence. The opening sequence of the film is an incredible display of the talented animators, with shoals of fish and marine species brought to life. What the film does well is in having a simple yet expressive style. The first introduction of Ponyo is a perfect example, her design consisting of little more than a pair of eyes and a mouth, yet still able to capture a whole range of emotions. Another of the film’s strengths is the sense of movement and momentum. Being set by, on and in the sea, we have waves rolling and crashing, rain pouring, and a constant sense of flow that helps drive the plot forward and adds visual excitement. This follows through to other elements, whether Lisa’s car that swerves around the road, or Sosuke and Ponyo’s childish gambolling, everything keeps your eyes fixed to the screen.

As with many Ghibli films, Joe Hisaishi again provides a memorable, light-hearted score, riffing on the theme song that plays over the credits. It’s hard not to find yourself humming the heart-warming tune after a few listens.

While the film is clearly pitched at a younger audience, with 5-year old protagonists, a story of magic, and plenty of humour, it treats them with respect. The story’s most clear influence is perhaps “The Little Mermaid”, with the story of a fish wanting to become a human and the love between Sosuke and Ponyo, but the film also has themes of environmentalism, self-sufficiency, the dangers of natural disasters, and the power of the ocean. At heart it is a story about humanity’s relationship with the sea. Ponyo’s restless energy seems to reflect the sea itself, as she rushes around, while Sosuke is almost a stand in for mankind. His affection for Ponyo shows us that we should respect and care for the sea. Sosuke’s bravery and kindness comes from him being a child and seeing clearly, as opposed to the adults around him, who have lost sight of what is important, succumbing to greed and laziness. Sosuke is not afraid of the sea, but sees it as a companion and something to be lived with as opposed to conquered. An incredible fairytale story with action, laughs and lots of heart.

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.