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.

Instant Swamp (2009)

In a frenetic opening monologue, Haname Jinchoge (Kumiko Aso) introduces us to her life and philosophies. She goes through her daily routine as a chore, enjoys a sludge of ten spoons of coffee in milk each morning, and lives with her mother (Keiko Matsuzaka), her father has left for a more wealthy woman. Haname loses her job at failing women’s magazine publication and her mother takes ill resulting in a coma. They manage to fish a letter out of a sunken post-box that tells Haname that her real father is not who she thought, but is instead a bohemian figure called Light Bulb (Morio Kazama), who is now running a bric-a-brac store. The eternally upbeat Haname sets out to meet him, hoping that her discovery of her mother’s former partner might return her to consciousness.

“Instant Swamp” has a bizarre and convoluted plot that is perfectly in keeping with its protagonist and her eccentric behaviour. The film is an off-beat comedy that relies heavily on slapstick humour and unusual scenarios. It often delights in subverting expectations with ridiculous reveals. Much of the dialogue is clearly designed more for laughs than realism and it plays like a series of sketches that happen to involve the same characters. Not all of the jokes work, but there are enough of them that this does not matter. In the same way, the plot moves along at such a pace that there is always something else to be invested in, albeit temporarily, like a wild treasure hunt that is constantly throwing up more hints to follow. The jokes are helped, even when the material is weak, by some great comedic performances. Kumiko Aso is very charismatic in the lead role and really sells every gag. Morio Kazama as Light Bulb gives a good performance as the humorous yet untrustworthy shop owner. The supporting actors, Eri Fuse as Haname’s co-worker Ichinose, and Ryo Kase as a punk electrician named Gas, are also excellent in their roles. The film is written and directed by Satoshi Miki, whose fertile imagination shows in every scene.

“Instant Swamp” is a peculiar film about the magic of everyday life. In an early scene, Haname’s mother tells her there is a kappa in the garden. Haname refuses to be drawn in, believing this to be a silly delusion. Similarly, when she is tasked with writing an article on ghosts for her magazine she is highly sceptical, despite her co-workers’ belief in the supernatural. However, by the end of the scene Haname has experienced her own transcendental moment of magic, finally converted to the idea that the world is a wide and wonderful place where anything can happen. The film is not attempting to suggest scepticism is wrong, but that most people spend their lives in narrow channels and often miss out on the opportunities that may be surrounding them for experiencing “magic”. This idea is also emphasised in the use of antiques dealing as a central plot point. Haname’s meeting with Light Bulb proves to be important as she learns that the value of an object is not necessarily in its price, but in its emotional weight. She learns to value things based not solely on their use. Again, this is shown in her own attachment to a bent nail, the importance of which is lost on almost everyone she shows it to. The theme of luck plays throughout the film in parallel with this idea. Haname believes that throwing away a lucky black cat statue in her youth has led to her streak of misfortune. However, when she is tricked into buying something that is seemingly useless at the end of the film, she has grown enough to appreciate the potential in even the lowliest of things. Life, she realises, is not based on luck, but instead on making the most of what you have and in seeing opportunity in every new day.

Cutie Honey (2004)

An office worker by day, Honey Kisaragi (Erika Sato) has the extraordinary power of being able to change her appearance at will with a press of her heart necklace. She keeps her power up by eating copious amounts of her favourite food: onigiri. Her alter-ego Cutie Honey is a powerful crime-fighting superhero who as well as being able to transform into various costumes and disguises is virtually indestructible and fairly handy in a fight. When the Panther Claw group, led by Sister Jill along with her four supervillain underlings, Gold Claw, Cobalt Claw, Scarlet Claw and Black Claw, appear causing trouble, Cutie Honey steps in to save the day. She is assisted by Natsuko Aki (Mikako Ichikawa) and Seiji Hayami (Jun Murakami).

Directed by Hideaki Anno (Love and Pop), the film revels in a hyperactive comic-book style. Rather than attempting to turn the fantastical premise into a real-world drama, it instead embraces its origins in manga and anime. The manga was written by Go Nagai and later adapted into several television series. The opening scenes, with outlandish costumes, wacky special effects-driven fight sequences, frenetic editing, and ridiculous levels of destruction setthe stage for much that is to follow. The film is an out-and-out comedy and there is rarely any serious threat or emotion on display. Cutie Honey is a likeable lead. Kisaragi is absent-minded, obsessed with onigiri, while Cutie Honey is strong, resourceful and more than capable of taking on the bad guys. A great performance and Erika Sato excels in both roles. There are also nods to the somewhat exploitative anime version with former model Sato either in the bath, or in her underwear. The supporting cast gleefully ham things up in this comedic melodrama. Cutie Honey is full of surprises, unrestrained by a desire to be realistic, such as when one villain introduces themselves with a song and dance number. The extravagant costumes of the villains show an attention to detail and a desire to faithfully recreate the feel of a live-action anime.

Cutie Honey has some great visual gags and is clearly aimed at a younger audience. An entertaining protagonist and the film’s sense of anarchic freedom gives it an exciting edge. A lot of live-action adaptations shy away from the silliness of their source material, whereas Anno embraces it, attempting at every turn to outdo the original and utilising every tool in his arsenal to do so. The character has a good, if predictable, message about friendship and doing the right thing. But it is surprisingly fitting for the character, whose admirable qualities outshine her apparent naiveite.

Full Metal Alchemist (2018)

Based on the popular manga and anime franchise “Full Metal Alchemist” follows the story of Edward and Alphonse Elrick on their quest for the Philosopher’s Stone. Beginning in a charming, rustic setting we see the two young boys as they witness the sudden tragic death of their mother. The two decide to attempt to resurrect her using the practice of alchemy. In this world, alchemy is a sort of magic allowing practitioners to create almost anything provided the users skill and observance of several laws. These include the Law of Equivalent Exchange, which means that for anything to be created something of equivalent value must be destroyed. The two fail in their attempt to bring back their mother resulting in Alphonse losing his body and his spirit being subsequently bound in a giant suit of armour, and Edward losing his arm and leg. Years later the two are searching for the Philosopher’s Stone and soon cross paths with the military police, other alchemists, and a mysterious trio of Lust, Envy and Greed, a terrifying triumvirate with their own nefarious plans.

With the success of the manga and anime it seems almost inevitable that a live-action film would at some point be made. To begin with the positives, the film’s opening scenes are well-put together. the backstory is told succinctly and emotionally, setting up the two brothers relationship and their fundamental motivation. The following action sequence stretches the budget of the production almost to breaking point, but is nevertheless a noble effort, creating an exciting showdown to get things moving. It is clear that all the actors involved are enjoying their time and the creators utilise the series humour to avoid it becoming a sombre affair. Unfortunately, some of the jokes don’t land and the over-the-top acting in an attempt to ape the art of the anime and manga is often distracting. By far the best scene in the film comes later when the brothers fight in a warehouse after feelings of sibling animosity boil over. In a moment we are drawn in and given an emotional beat that is largely absent from much of the rest of the film. For the most part attention is given to the fantastical and science-fiction elements rather than dwelling on the characters or themes for any length of time. In attempting to compress a long story down to a two-hour runtime we are given many scenes of exposition or plot advancement without much emotional investment. This becomes more apparent in the final showdown when everything does come together in a visually entertaining action sequence but with a stark lack of emotional investment in the characters. The film-makers did a great job with Al’s armour and the character was believable, but ironically it seems they struggled to bring Ed to life as effectively. Ryosuke Yamada seems too old for the character and jokes about his height fall flat due to his not being noticeably shorter than a lot of other characters. Yasuko Matsuyuki was delightfully devilish as Lust, and the rest of the supporting cast did a decent job with their interpretations of various characters.

Full Metal Alchemist has a surprising amount of ideas present for what will be seen by some as a simple fantasy yarn. At its heart the idea of losing something in order to gain something is a powerful trope in literature. The two brother’s exemplify this as they are on a quest to recover Alphonse’s body, which makes the audience question what it is they are losing at the same time. A darker interpretation of this may be that the two had to lose their mother in order to become proficient at alchemy and fulfil their roles as powerful magic-users in the service of others. Alphonse comes to question his own identity, knowing that he is no more than a spirit ensconced in a hollow shell and having been told his memories may be false, he is confronted with the deeply troubling thought that his existence may be only as a simulacrum. This opens up all manner of religious and philosophical argument about the nature of being which is later emphasised in the final act of the film. Another debate that is touched upon in the film is that of science’s importance and how far people should go in experimentation to the end of discovery. The ghost of Japan’s own past with prisoners of war and cruel scientific experiments is raised a number of times along with a more pointed critique of militarism later on. Overall, the film is likely to be seen as a missed opportunity, but it is for the most part an engaging fantasy tale that raises interesting questions albeit hampered by a constrained budget and occasional lack of imagination.