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Short Review of Mary and The Witch’s Flower

Welcome, all, again.  I last night (Thursday, 18 January) watched Mary and The Witch’s Flower, and I encourage you to see it.  Studio Ponoc’s first feature film shows a lot of promise, as well as Ponoc’s Studio Ghibli roots.  Mind you, there were problems, with limited character development and one arresting moment of lazy, sloppy artwork being chief amongst them.  But overall, this was a well-scripted and well-executed film.  Lots of color, lots of movement, lots of beautiful English countryside.

This story is a busy one, working on several different levels.  Mary has moved into the home of her Great Aunt Charlotte, where she awaits the arrival of her parents.  She is adventurous and overly energetic, tending to break delicate things through inadvertently rough handling.  With a week to pass before school begins, Mary meets and instantly dislikes a boy named Peter, who is about her own age.  But she is much more friendly with Peter’s cats Tib and Gib, who lead her into the woods and to a strange flower which her aunt’s gardener identifies as a fly-by-night, or the witch’s flower.  Mary is accidentally imbued with the flower’s magical powers, and finds herself whisked away into a world of witchcraft and sorcery (things complementary yet quite different).  It turns out that some very powerful magic-wielders, Headmistress Mumblechook and Dr. Dee of Endor College for witches, have been seeking the selfsame flower found by Mary, putting her at eventual odds with them.  Then things really go south right as Mary discovers that her newfound powers last only one night.  And that’s the basic gist of the story, without giving too much away.

Except that there’s much more to consider.  As I mentioned in the post about acquiring tickets for last night’s premiere opening, Mary and The Witch’s Flower is based upon Mary Stewart’s book The Little Broomstick.  This book was published in 1971, during a time when the back-to-earth and self-sufficiency movements were really taking hold.  (Consider that Mother Earth News began publication in 1970.)  There is a strong theme running through our story about the need for mankind to respect nature and natural order.  Both magic and science, which are blended in Dee’s research and Endor’s curricula, alter the natural order, and we the audience are forced to gaze upon resultant abominations.  (Let it be noted that witchcraft–and shamanism–traditionally work through and in conjunction with nature.  But changes are still effected.)  Mary is disgusted by the corruption she witnesses, both of nature and the human heart, and fights desperately to purge it.  And yet, her opponents–while perfectly willing to employ unscrupulous tactics–have the ultimately noble intention of seeking to create a world wherein everyone can use and benefit from magic.  Does the end justify the means?  Of course not!  But how much do the means tarnish or possibly invalidate the end?  This story accused and condemned us based upon our willingness to de-sanctify nature for the sake of our own convenience and comfort.  But Mary represents the hope of mankind’s return to a more harmonious coexistence with our environment.  Her triumph would be our own.

Now, then, what else?  Well, about the “lazy, sloppy artwork” comment from earlier.  I am referring to one scene in particular late in the movie, when Mumblechook has set her minions upon Mary and is rushing away with her purloined spoils.  As Mary and her pursuers fade into the distance, they of course lose detail.  That is only natural and is to be expected.  But rather than a gradual loss of detail, the viewer suddenly only sees moving, swirling blurs without any detail whatsoever.  And I remember a momentary pang of disappointment, thinking to myself that with all these refugees from Studio Ghibli working on this project, how did this happen?  That would never have passed muster at Ghibli!  And mind you, Studio Ponoc was founded by Ghibli refugees as a response to Ghibli’s cessation of production in 2014 after Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement.  These folks were so passionate about continuing to make movies that they first made their own replacement studio.  Still, maybe it’s unfair to hold them to Ghibli standards.  That single brief moment was really the one complaint I had about the artwork, and it was only a few brief seconds out of an entire movie.  Personally, I would also have liked to have seen a little more in the way of character development, but I realize that the theme of nature under attack took precedence on that front; those were the times in which the original story was written.  Hopefully, viewers of the general release will see the same interviews and commentary at the movie’s end as did we at the premiere showing.  It was a fascinating bit of insight into the thought processes and goals of the folks who made this film.

So, was it worth seeing?  Yes!  This is a marvelous film overall, especially considering that it’s the first feature film from a fledgling studio.  The story is very direct and easy to follow; the characters are charming despite their slightness of depth; and the English countryside is portrayed in loving vision, if somewhat Impressionistic style.  I look forward to even greater things from this collective of talent, but for right now, I’m very grateful for and appreciative of their first offering.  Kudos, Ponoc!  And, thank you.

Mitsuboshi Colors

Welcome, all, again.  I’m currently counting the hours until I watch Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but have also been enjoying this season’s bounty of great new shows.  Among my early favorites is Mitsuboshi Colors, set in the Ueno district of Tokyo.  Three young girls–Yui, Sat-chan, and Kotoha–comprise the group Colors, dedicated to keeping peace in their town.  In their own minds, they act as basically a cross between superheroes and private detectives.  In the minds of those whom they protect, they appear as anything from adorable, carefree children to outright public nuisances.  But they will not be deterred, and continue their crusade against injustice from their hidden lair within Ueno Park.

So, what makes this show so good?  Well, seeing as it’s set in a real place with lots of tourist traffic, the background artwork is especially well-drawn and detailed.  Meanwhile, the humor overwhelms and overflows its own subtlety.  But what really sets this show apart is its accurate portrayal of childhood: the wonder and games; the difficulty with boundaries; the ability to both focus intensely and lose interest at speeds of 90-to-nothing.  Appropriately, neither these kids nor their antics get much in the way of sugar-coating.  Even the girls’ interactions with local adults seem largely realistic–they interact closely with only a very few adults, people whom viewers can tell they’ve known for a while and trust (albeit they are themselves too naive to recognize that trust).  And those interactions can be as playful or respectful as any you might experience with a real child.  Equally realistic and endearing is the way those adults respond to the Colors, watching over them while generally playing along with their activities.  Being a police officer myself, I am especially sympathetic to Saito, who tries to find minor tasks for these self-appointed public guardians even while protecting them from their own occasional overenthusiasm.  Heck, he even buys their cat food for them.  And all this despite being consistently targeted by their games.

But who are these girls?  Yui is the leader of Colors, a shy and timid child who tries to live by the rules.  She is easily upset, and tends to cry a bit overmuch.  Still, even Saito alludes to her as the only decent one out of the bunch.  Kotoha is constantly distracted by her hand-held games, but is also the brains of the operation.  She has a quick mind and is good at deductive reasoning.  Sat-chan, however, is the real problem child.  She acts without thinking (without even thinking about thinking), and has something of an anti-authoritarian personality.  It’s usually Sat-chan teasing poor Saito, despite his patience, and it will definitely be her yelling “poop!” at the top of her lungs.  So, yeah.  And there’s a cat, too, but that’s a story for episode 1.

We’re two episodes in already, and I’m having a ball watching these chibi sleuths!  It’s relaxed, lighthearted fun.  Slice-of-life is a genre with many flavors, and this is a heapin’ helping of Neapolitan.   So get comfortable, then get yourself entertained!

Explore A Place Further Than the Universe!

Welcome, all, again.  I’d like to use my first post of 2018 to recommend a brilliant new show, A Place Further Than the Universe.  This was exactly what I needed to combat the cold, miserable conditions of real life right now.  This original series by studio Madhouse follows the growing friendships amongst a group of girls as they share one’s dream to journey to Antarctica.  And although I’m writing this with just one episode extant, that one episode showed me plenty!  This is a quiet, polished slice-of-life offering that firmly believes in the warm fuzzies, and wants you to believe, too.  In fact, if you remember Amanchu! (reviewed in September of 2016), then you already have a reference point for the general feel of this series.

Mari is a second year high school student living a life of quiet desperation, wanting to experience adventure but scared to venture from the norm, despite the support and efforts of her stalwart friend Megumi.  All of this changes, however, after a passing encounter at the train station with fellow student Shirase Kobuchizawa, who in her haste drops a small but valuable item.  Mari sets out to return the found item to its mysterious and as-yet unidentified owner, finally tracking Shirase down just as she is realizing the full extent of her loss.  Mari’s generosity then prompts Shirase to open up to her a little, explaining that it is her life’s purpose to visit Antarctica, where her mother was lost.  And this goal doesn’t just motivate her, but rather drives her.  Shirase sees herself as devoted and focused; Mari sees her as terribly, terrifyingly alone.  But Mari is simultaneously awed by Shirase’s unapologetic pursuit of her very personal dream.  Nor is she the only one.

Years ago, while working at FedEx, I actually knew a college-student coworker who submitted a research proposal that was accepted for study at a research station in Antarctica.  She was gone for months and returned a more confident and self-reliant person.  The experience proved transformative.  So as we watch a group of students initially inspired by Shirase’s dream organize and gel into a club devoted to an eventual trip to Antarctica, I expect to learn a lot about conditions there, especially pertaining to resident researchers and the conditions in which they live and work.  That is an expectation.  What is already established fact is that this show is a finely crafted exploration of the true nature of friendship, its selfless valuation of the individual over comfort, custom, or convenience.  The characters are likable; the story’s pace is comfortable and unhurried; and the artwork is frequently breathtaking, especially in certain nuanced details.  This is a real feel-good show, so be sure to watch!

Ticket Info for U.S. Nationwide Premiere Showing of Mary and The Witch’s Flower

Welcome, all, again.  Just a quick bit of info to pass along to my fellow anime fans: Mary and The Witch’s Flower–Studio Ponoc’s first feature film–will have a nationwide (U.S.) premiere showing on the night of Thursday, January 18, 2018.  This showing will take place only in select movie theaters and will offer a choice of dubbed or subbed, with respective start times separated by an hour.  Tickets may be purchased through the following link: [https://www.fathomevents.com/events/mary-and-the-witchs-flower].  (Just enter your city or ZIP code where prompted to find participating theaters near you.)

Based upon Mary Stewart’s book The Little Broomstick, this is the tale of an adventurous girl who finds a rare and hidden flower that grants magical powers–but for one night only.  What choices will she make?  And perhaps more importantly, what consequences will remain after the magic is long vanished?

As mentioned earlier, this is Studio Ponoc’s first feature film.  But don’t let that make you hesitate–a collection of stellar talent is gathered here!  Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has been associated with such past projects as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and The Secret World of Arrietty, while composer Muramatsu Takatsugu also scored When Marnie Was There, the previous film directed by Yonebayashi (in 2014).  The voice talent is also top-notch: for example, Mary is voiced by Hana Sugisaki in Japanese and by Ruby Barnhill in English.  This film has every opportunity to be something special, so I plan upon attending this premiere; I hope you’re able to do the same.

Curious but uncertain?  Try watching these trailers:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=888z3ku4t3I
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqUKano2Hm4

AMVs That Really Help Sell Their Anime!

Welcome, all, again, and a merry Christmas and blessed Yule season!  The winter solstice is days past now and the Oak King has ascended the throne, meaning that the days are finally–however imperceptibly–beginning to lengthen.  (But it might still be a good idea to find somewhere warm to spend the next few months!)  The anime viewing seasons are also changing, so I decided to offer this brief, happy post as fodder and filler.  I’ve already discussed certain favorite specific episodes of mine as they relate to my moods, so I thought I might post a few series-specific amv’s (anime music videos) that really capture the spirit[s] of their subject shows.  Have fun watching, then go explore this second-life realm of anime for yourself!

Let’s begin on a high note with Spicy Love, an entry representing Spice and Wolf:

My next offering is a bit more somber, and represents Sora no Woto (Sound of the Sky); please enjoy Dogs of War:

I deliberated a bit with this next choice, as most of the lyrics aren’t in English.  But the mood of the music seems very appropriate to this amv, which itself matches well the overall tone of its show, Flip Flappers.  And removed from the blatant sexuality of the song’s original, official video, the translated lyrics still apply pretty aptly to the show’s story.  Here’s Flipping Illusion:

And for an upbeat ending, my final offering is Notice Me!, representing Gekken Shoujo Nozaki-kun (Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun):

Yes, Seo, it’s over, but there are many more examples of amv’s that really represent well the premise and spirit of specific anime series, not to mention the emotive capabilities of those which gather clips from various series to create their own stories.  Of course, if you’re even reading this, then I’m probably already preaching to the choir. . .but if you somehow haven’t yet explored this side of anime viewing, you should.  Because whatever mood you’re in, there’s an amv for it–probably several thousands.  Now go have some fun!

URAHARA and the Culture of Cultural Appropriation

Welcome, all, again.  Today I watched the twelfth and final episodes of two series which I’ve been closely following this season, KONOHANA KITAN and URAHARA, and neither finale disappointed.  In fact, I feel like I should go back and provide a full review of KONOHANA KITAN, seeing as I only gave some first impressions right after the show began.  It is truly beautiful, both in artistry and story development, and its final episode tied things together in a delicate yet decidedly conclusive manner seldom witnessed in anime.  URAHARA also ended upon a more delicate note than I anticipated, although the closing it provided was far less conclusive.  But taken as a whole, it might be the bravest new anime series in a long while.

URAHARA was admittedly something of an oddity when it began.  Like KONOHANA KITAN, it favors pastel colors, but is drawn in a much less detailed style.  Outlines seem to bleed into each other almost as much as the colors do, even while it seems contradictory to see such a riot of such quiet, muted colors.  And the artwork makes it hard to take the story’s premise seriously: an alien race invades earth and steals its cultural heritage–basically, all of earth’s different cultural heritages.  These aliens, called Scoopers, lack the trait of imagination and so steal others’ creative efforts.  But they hardly look menacing, having the appearance of small UFOs made of cotton candy.  Even their leader, who is introduced incognito but is easily recognized by the overwhelming flags attached, is quite possibly the least-threatening-looking villain in recent memory.  Indeed, the three heroines fighting to protect the cultural identity of their beloved Harajuku are more apt to hug the leading villain than do anything else.  (And they do.  Repeatedly.)

All of which makes this series extremely timely.  This is a show the premise of which is actual cultural appropriation, the literal theft or transfer of culture from its native adherents through the usurped possession and/or control of cultural traditions, icons, artifacts, or other such touchstones.  Consider, for example, the violence that defined the Roman appropriation of Greek culture as Roman power surpassed that of a fading Greece.  Rome might have conquered a huge swath of their known world, but early-on they recreated their own emerging society largely in imitation of Greek ideas and ideals.  The famed Roman poet Virgil even went so far in his Aeneid as to suggest that Rome was founded by refugees from Troy, and that Roman conquest and dominance of Greece was thus part of a divinely sanctioned retribution.   This introduces an important item for consideration: that true cultural appropriation most often occurs through conquest, a situation that offers the even bleaker alternative of eradication.

How very different and severe the term’s proper usage when compared to its current flippant misuse in social media, wherein casual bigotry and prejudice are normalized and even celebrated through the criticism of individuals for fashion (or likewise harmlessly mundane) choices that see them drawing inspiration from outside their native culture; such examples, if anything beyond individual choice, reflect cultural assimilation.  For the first time in history, we have the capability to instantaneously communicate and share with each other worldwide, building bridges and dissolving differences, but instead of pursuing that noble goal you’d rather blast someone for wearing an outfit or hairstyle that s/he isn’t [insert random racial or ethnic identifier here] enough to wear?  Really?  So how very appropriate that a series exploring true cultural appropriation is set in Harajuku, where styles are displayed with the intention of their being appreciated and copied!

Maybe URAHARA had to look harmless.  Maybe it had to be in soft colors and without rigid outlines.  Maybe it had to lull viewers into a sense of the warm fuzzies before it could even hope to challenge them with such a strong but important message: Cultural appropriation is a real phenomenon with real consequences and real victims, so don’t debase the term with your petty personal prejudices!  The world is bigger than you and your opinion.  Or me and mine.  If you want to make it a little smaller, then celebrate our differences by sharing them.  That last bit just might be the moral of this innovative and enjoyable show, and I think that it’s a sentiment even Misa would understand and applaud.

Sadistically Yours, Blend-S

Welcome, all, again.  While my last two posts have covered newly released anime projects, today’s discussion will focus on the series Blend-S, a consistent favorite of mine this viewing season which I nonetheless delayed reviewing as I waited for all of its cast to come into play.  It is high school student Maika Sakuranomiya’s arrival as a new employee at the themed cafe Stile that really sets our story into motion, we having first watched her get scouted by Stile’s manager Dino specifically for the same disturbing scowl that has thus far kept her unemployed.  That scowl has real potential at a cafe that trades on the theme of personality types.

And so Maika finds herself assigned the role of sadist, tormenting her customers with biting remarks, scathing looks, and even the occasional slight that directly affects their orders.  Most of this comes difficult for Maika, who actually has an inherently cheerful and friendly personality.  Her saving grace while in character is a slight airheadedness that couples well with her frightening glare to create a [thoroughly unintended] sense of menace.  Mind you, she does have other complications relating to her new job, most especially her manager’s smothering crush on her–she just has to notice, first.  And she’s certainly the only one unaware of it; her coworkers constantly play off the fact, while her two older siblings, both brother and sister, mistake Dino for her boyfriend.

Maika’s coworkers are also assigned workplace personalities–at least the waitstaff (the kitchen staff’s limited customer contact exempts them).  Kaho is a fellow high school student who plays the tsundere role but who really enjoys playing video games and visiting arcades.  She frequently breaks character to converse with customers about games, but is nonetheless the cafe’s most popular waitress.  Meanwhile, Mafuyu is a petite college student who plays the little sister (imouto) role with customers and the protective big sister role with her growing coterie of fellow waitresses.  Maika’s arrival adds a third waitress, but Dino soon afterwards scouts and hires a customer named Miu to play the big sister role (with customers), creating quite the delicate balancing act as Miu is actually a dojinshi artist who uses her new position to people watch.  And last to the roster is Hideri, an idol character out of whose normal personality a new waitress role is created.  Of course, Hideri’s normal personality–and persona–are themselves manufactured in a desperate attempt to escape farm life by becoming an idol.  This lot sounds almost as convoluted as the staff of Wagnaria!!, don’t they?

Japan’s newest idol sensation, Hideri!

Blend-S has been a joy to watch, and I’m hoping hard for a second season.  The title basically says it all, as the different personalities of the staff blend and clash while they interact on the clock and off.  Physical comedy and snappy one-liners are braced by several running gags, not least of which is Maika’s complete obliviousness to Dino’s pursuit of her.  Meanwhile, the fan service provided (and who wouldn’t expect some, given the formula?) is usually tame but is also served in ample amount.  This show has turned out to be one of the most pleasant light comedies of the season, so make sure you don’t miss it!

Sorcery in the Big City

Welcome, all, again.  The holidays are bearing down upon us, and Christmas parades have begun rolling down city streets.  Is it any surprise, then, that the Christmas specials have already begun airing?  And now there’s a new one to watch(!)–Sorcery in the Big City from producers XFLAG and studio SANZIGEN, the same studio that brought us such amazing works as Black Rock Shooter and Arpeggio of Blue Steel: Ars Nova.   It began airing on 01 December, and can be seen on either YouTube [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=domEBOCs7hA&t=148s] or Crunchyroll [http://www.crunchyroll.com/sorcery-in-the-big-city], but the English subtitles are better on Crunchyroll.

So, what’ve we got, here?  Well, Akari Kido is an officer of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police who is coming to New York City as part of a police officer exchange program.  She is actually returning to the city where her father served as a police officer, but he was killed in the line of duty on Christmas Eve fifteen years ago.  Now Akari, like her father before her, is protecting its citizens.  But she herself is protected by Apple, the pink stuffed bear that her father gave her the night he died, which she brings with her from Tokyo.  And I do mean protected by, because on her first night back in NYC, things get weird.  A witch/magical girl figure named Liberty flies through the city giving life to toys and holiday decorations, which then wreak havoc.  Worse yet, Apple catches her eye and a wave of her wand, leaving Akari to awaken alone and distraught.

Still, Akari doesn’t have time to mourn this very personal loss, as she soon finds herself facing the mayhem caused by Liberty’s animated minions.  She transitions quickly from traffic control to emergency response, but just how does one subdue such beings?  Her answer swoops in, a super-powered girl in a pink bear outfit whom Akari recognizes as a very changed Apple, but even Apple is overwhelmed by the destructive power of a creature accidentally released by the battle between Akari and Liberty.  Can Apple protect Akari long enough for Akari to protect New York?  You’ll have your answer in just 40 short minutes, so grab some milk and cookies and enjoy watching the Big Apple’s most unorthodox Christmas parade!

The Game’s Afoot! Blossom Detective Holmes

Welcome, all, again.  While it is my purpose through this blog to review anime, it gives me especially great joy when I am also able to help introduce people to new or even emerging shows.  For those of you who have not yet heard, Steve Ahn has released the pilot to his new animated mini-series, Blossom Detective Holmes.  If Ahn’s name sounds familiar, it just might be because you enjoy watching cartoons.  What did he just say?!  Cartoons?!  That’s right, I said it–cartoons.  Working such varied positions as storyboard artist to director, Ahn has had his hand in: [The] Cleveland Show; Ben 10 (both Omniverse and Ultimate Alien Force); Voltron: Legendary Defender; and Avatar: Legend of Korra, amongst others.  And as with that last example Korra, Blossom Detective Holmes has a decidedly anime flavor.

Titular character Skylar Holmes and her friend and assistant Jamie are two young women particularly well-suited to investigating mysteries.  Skylar has an abnormally keen sense of smell that allows her to pluck clues from the air, their combinations gelling into a series of deductions very like those associated with another Holmes.  And also like that other Holmes, Skylar has a tendency to get quite focused on her deductive reasoning, even to the point of becoming occasionally inattentive to other matters.  So when those other matters might mean grave bodily harm or even death, it pays to have someone in your corner–especially somebody like Jamie, who is both brave and loyal, and who additionally possesses a miraculous camera that can teleport the two wherever Jamie imagines them.  Very convenient for our heroines, although the streets of Victorian Stockholm might never be the same.

Now, I honestly don’t know how much I can really take away from a 5-minute pilot.  But I’m already quite comfortable saying this: the characters are engaging and intriguing; the story is fluid and well-paced; and the artwork is a genuine work of art.  It seems that Ahn has recruited some of his colleagues from “the big leagues” to help out with this endeavor.  It paid off, and in spades!    (And I’m not the only one who thinks so–if yet unpersuaded, please follow this link to Den of Geek’s review: [http://www.denofgeek.com/us/tv/blossom-detective-holmes/269274/blossom-detective-holmes-pilot-review].)  So take five minutes of your time and watch Blossom Detective Holmes; Ahn has it available for free viewing until 31 December, 2017: [https://gumroad.com/l/blossomdetective].  Hope you enjoy the show!