Old Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving CastleSophie Hatter is a young woman who works in a hat shop, while it is not the life she wants she is happy to take it after the death of her father. She lives a normal life but after getting harassed by some soldiers down an alleyway, she meets a mysterious and caring wizard who goes by the name of Howl. While people warn that Howl is an evil man who eats the hearts of beautiful women, he is nice and charming enough to rescue Sophie from the soldiers, along with some strange blob men, and safely fly her back to her home. The bizarreness of the day doesn’t end there, as an evil witch known as the Witch on the Waste finds out about her meeting with Howl and puts a curse on her to take the appearance of a 90 year-old woman, and is unable to tell anyone about it. Wanting to lift this curse, she goes on a journey across the wastelands, and with the help of a magical scarecrow, she finds none other than a walking and possibly living castle that Howl calls his home. After getting to know the other residents of the house, including a talking fire demon known as Calcifer, Sophie finds out that she’s not only the only person with a mysterious curse, and there is more to see from Howl and his Moving Castle.

Not long after Spirited Away was released (2001), Hayao Miyazaki wanted to retire as a director, stating that he would only be involved in Studio Ghibli as either a writer or producer for the animated shorts that feature at the Ghibli Museum. In the same year, it was decided that the next film would be an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Dianna Wynne Jones, and the role of director was not given to Miyazaki, Takahata, nor any other director or animator from Studio Ghibli. It was given to Mamoru Hosoda, a director from Toei Animation who at the time was most well known for directing both the “Digimon Adventure” film and “Digimon: Our War Game!”, which were both compiled along with a third film “Digimon: Hurricane Touchdown”, to become the theatrically released “Digimon: The Film”. Due to creative differences between him and the executives at Studio Ghibli, Hosoda left the production in around the summer of 2002, and the project was left in limbo. Interested in the idea, Miyazaki proposed to direct the film himself. After the project was rebooted, development of the film lasted two years, and Dianna Wynne Jones herself was one of the first people to see the film in 2004 at a private screening in England.

The animation is for Studio Ghibli standards, really good. There is a lot of detail and realism in even the movements of the more fantasy characters. At most times it is very smooth and once again, a lot of effort was clearly put in it. The overall design borrows inspiration from early 20th Century Britain, and it looks brilliant, the colours and the attention to detail really gives the idea of a classic old fashioned setting. It looks like you are really there in that time, even with the walking mechanical houses, tanks and flying warheads. Even the dark scenes of battles and magical elements are really colourful and atmospheric.

My only really issues are the designs of the Castle and Calcifer. To me, the Moving Castle looks weird and out-of-place. It looks all dark and rusty, with the appearance of several animals. Calcifers design is also strange, in the original novel he is literally meant to have the appearance of a demon of fire, looking kind of frightening but easy to look at. Since this is a Miyazaki film, Calcifer’s design is toned down to look like the slime from Dragon Quest games. This childlike design means you can’t take him seriously, but since he is portrayed as a comic relief character, the design does work. The Witch of the Waste’s character design is a bit off some of the time, looking like a large blob more than an overweight woman, but there’s not much wrong the character design beyond that.

The music is really good, and I think it is really underrated soundtrack of Hisaishi’s work. The melodies are really nice and slow, the use of instruments from accordions to pianos adds to the overall setting in the film. There are also great use of silent and action heavy scenes. The only time I remember the soundtrack going off its path is in this one scene where a witch uses her spell to unveil Howl’s “true form” by using fire spirits around him, not shown due to spoilers sadly, and there are childish chanting music which sounds great, but doesn’t fit with the rest of the music in the film.

The Japanese voice cast is ok, but not great or impressive. Most of the cast is bland but I give credit to Chieko Baishô for voicing both the Young and Old versions of Sophie, since she does put a good effort giving a contrast to the tone of voices to give a change in age. Calcifer’s voice is also funnier in the Japanese version, done by Tatsuya Gashûin. However, I think the English version is the superior dub. All of the cast do a really good job, from Josh Hutcherson’s young and innocent voice for the wizard apprentice Markl, Billy Crystal’s quirky and humorous portrayal as Calcifer and Lauren Bacall gives an up-class but evil witch like tone as the Witch of the Waste. The two best portrayals happen to be the main characters, Sophie and Howl. Sophie is portrayed by both Emily Mortimer and the late Jean Simmons; the character was one of the latter’s final roles and while both are different actresses, they do a really good job trying to sound similar, while Emily Mortimer I believe sounds weak in her performance as the young Sophie, the older Sophie is very sweet and lovable. Howl is portrayed by Christian Bale and my god does he sound awesome, Bale offers a very dark tone which adds to the mystery of the character, yet he shows emotions like both a child and an adult so he is a well rounded character to say the least.

While this is one of the few animes which I read the original source material for, it isn’t really necessary to compare a film to a book. Since Miyazaki uses the source material as a basis and not a storyline, it’s obvious both versions would be different, and Calcifer’s design is only one example of the things that are different. As a film, I think it’s a story that doesn’t know what genre it is, there is a romance between Sophie and Howl, and there are elements of both realism and fantasy, but it doesn’t feel like a fantasy or a romance film. One minor problem I find with the film is that there are things in the ending in particular which don’t really make sense on a first viewing or maybe even a second viewing for some people, and other things aren’t even explained that well. What the story does have is great characters, which really develop like relatable people. Even the Witch of the Waste, shows a nice and peaceful side to her.

Overall, while I don’t think its Miyazaki’s greatest film, it is definitely a great film with a brilliant set of characters and a great musical score. Even if it’s a weak adaption, and on its own not a great story, it has a great set of characters and environments so it is certainly worth viewing.

Howl’s Moving Castle is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. The original novel by Diana Wynne Jones, originally released in 1986, has been reprinted many times and is currently available from HarperCollins. Jones later wrote two sequels, “Castle in the Air” in 1990, and “House of Many Ways” in 2008, both of which are also currently available from HarperCollins.

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Old Review: Barefoot Gen

It is August 1945 in the quiet town of Hiroshima, Japan. World War 2 has put the town in anticipation from Air Raids from American forces. Our tale follows Gen, a 10-year old boy who lives a regular life during the war period with his little brother Shinji, elder sister Eiko, his hard-working father Daikichi and his mother Kimie, who is pregnant and expecting a baby soon. Food becomes difficult to come by and people don’t give as much respect to Daikichi because he has an unpatriotic attitude for the war. Despite these problems, on the morning of August 6th, it becomes apparent that for Hiroshima, the worse has suddenly arrived. A B29 Aircraft passes over Hiroshima, yet the Air Raid Alarm doesn’t go off, moments later the aircraft drops a nuclear bomb and the entire town is succumbed to the devastating blast. Both Gen and his Mother are fortunate to survive the blast, but the rest of the family is not. Now it is up to both Gen and Kimie to fight for survival along with their new born baby, and try to manage a new life, after the bombing of Hiroshima.

The man who created the story was acclaimed manga writer Keiji Nakazawa, an actual Hiroshima survivor who witnessed the devastation when he was only six years old, his mother and baby sister were the only other surviving family members who didn’t evacuate. This makes Barefoot Gen a personal story to him but it wasn’t the first time he used the infamous bombings in his stories. His mother passed away in 1966, and soon after he made the five volume manga series “Struck by Black Rain” and then in 1972 Monthly Shonen Jump published a one shot manga called “I Saw It”, which was his literal biographical account of the disaster, and his history into becoming a manga artist. Barefoot Gen was written immediately after finishing I Saw It, and while this time only loosely based on his real life events, and spanned 10 volumes and was shown in Weekly Shonen Jump from 1973 to 1985. Prior to the anime film, it was adapted into three films directed by Tengo Yamada. In 1983, Barefoot Gen was theatrically released in animated form, with animation done by MadHouse and was directed by Mori Masaki.

In terms of 1980s standards, the animation in quite good, character movements are simple and realistic, expressions and dialogue are clear and precise. The use of shadows and positions are standard for kids anime series which makes the earlier scenes very light hearted and innocent, then the scene of the Hiroshima bomb hits and wow does the animation improve, it’s smoother, more detailed and more graphic. It’s kind of surprising to see this kind of inconsistency in a theatrical release; it makes me think that Madhouse only improved the animation for a dramatic effect. The art style is pretty basic, character designs are slightly exaggerated and the backgrounds are nicely water-coloured but there isn’t much detail, given the time that this was released.

The music is pretty generic and unmemorable, the tracks vary from up-lifting melodies like in My Neighbour Totoro to dramatic orchestral scores in the scenes of fire and destruction, but they aren’t really ground breaking. There is one really good piece that uses what I believe is a pan-pipe to a very peaceful and lovely melody, but it isn’t impressive beyond that.

The voice acting in the Japanese dub is actually quite good, the child actors like Issei Miyazaki, really emphasise the love and care of the light hearted scenes and the fear and pain of the destructive and dramatic scenes. The adults also do a good job, most notably Yoshie Shimamura as Kimie, who is portrayed as a very emotional woman who cares a lot for her children and Takao Inoue who portrays Daikichi as a serious, hardworking and responsible father.

Believe it or not, up until I began writing this review, I had no idea there was an English dub, and there is one if you look hard enough. In seriousness, it’s not worth your time, most of the actors aren’t bad, but they aren’t as good as the Japanese cast in comparison. Some of the rarely emote properly, and most of the actors playing child roles are more whiney. On the other hand, the voice actor playing the Mother is really good, and really emulates Shimamura’s portrayal quite well. Sadly there isn’t a cast list but she might have been portrayed by either Barbara Goodson or Wendee Lee.

What I’m going to say might make some people mad, so please let me explain this. As a Japanese war film, I think Barefoot Gen is better than Grave of the Fireflies. Like in Grave of the Fireflies, the story really gives the experience of World War II Japan. It is really moving and sad, but when it gets dark it’s traumatic. When I bought this on DVD and watched this I had no expectations, but I did know what would happen in the film from looking at the back of the box. So when I watched the scenes of the destructions it actually horrified me, it looked almost traumatising, I literally almost got upset. The only problem I think is that after the bomb hit and the initial destruction, it’s is only half of the film and I think it’s difficult to actually keep to that level of writing. Sure the latter half of the story does have its ups and downs, including this one plotline of a badly injured survivor living with his wealthy brother’s family, who pretty much despise him, and when you know how badly people treat him and how he feels when Gen has to take care of him, it’s really moving.

Yes, Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful war film and it has its sad moments but for me, Barefoot Gen pulls it off better and ends up being more of a dark and serious film. The quality of the film isn’t as great as Grave of the Fireflies and it doesn’t have more of a following. But it is a great and effective film that takes a young child’s memory of a disaster and makes it into a well written piece that is certainly worth a watch.

Barefoot Gen was available from Streamline and soon after Geneon but it’s currently available from Manga Entertainment. The original Manga by Keiji Nakazawa was originally published by Educomics, became out of print, and was then saved by Last Gasp Publications. The one-shot manga “I Saw It” also by Nakazawa, was directly based on his biographical accounts of the incident and is considered a predecessor to Barefoot Gen was available from Educomics but it’s out of print so you’ll need to do a bit of searching. Before the animated film, Barefoot Gen was adapted into three live-action films, subtitled Part 1, Explosion of Tears and Battle of Hiroshima; however none of them have had an official released in Western countries. A sequel to the animated film, simply titled Barefoot Gen 2, was also available from Geneon is also currently available from Manga Entertainment but it’s not a great follow-up in my opinion, and I’ll save it for another review. Barefoot Gen was also made into a TV Drama by Fuji Television but has also not been released in Western areas.

Old Review: Paprika

PaprikaA new revolutionary device has been invented for psychotherapy and mental care, the DC Mini. The DC Mini allows scientists to explore and record a patients dream, exploring their unconscious thoughts to understand the cause of people’s fears, instabilities or traumas. The DC Mini was invented by scientist Dr Tokita and best friend Himuro, and despite not being passed by Government, is mainly used in testing, research and freelance psychotherapy by trustworthy friend of Tokita, Dr Atsuko Chiba, under a subconscious alter-ego persona known only as “Paprika”. The entire research facility are unfortunately in panic as a few prototypes of the DC Mini were stolen before fully programmed controls were put in, meaning that the thief can enter anyone into a dream state and no one can stop or control them. The search is on for the missing DC Minis to avoid what can be considered the largest dream terrorist attack known in history, and only the scientists and Paprika are the only people who can stop it.

Starting in 1991, Yatsutaka Tsutsui released a four part novel called “Paprika” to high acclaim from Japanese readers. It was then later adapted into a manga by Reiji Hagiwara in 1995 but for reasons which have never been explained fully, it wasn’t published until 2003, 10 years after the novel.  At around the same time, Director and Animator Satoshi Kon was working on an anime film adaptation, since having a great experience of using psychology and bizarre imagery from directing Paranoia Agent. The film was animated by MadHouse Studios; he brought on Susumu Hirasawa for music after composing for both Paranoia Agent and Millennium Actress. He even brought on Tsutsui to supervise the project and gave him a cameo voice role as one of the Bartenders. Paprika premiered at the September 2006 Venice Film Festival, and then later in Japanese theatres in November of the same year.

How can I describe the animation in words that would give it the credit it deserves? Well, even when compared to Studio Ghibli, this is definitely the best animation I’ve seen in any film of my life. The creativity from the opening scene of a circus in the dream of a Police Detective to the end is just beyond imagination, the colours, effects and transitions are so varied and spectacular that I can’t even imagine another film, 3D or 2D, with or without computers, ever getting higher, and since my favourite film of all time in Pom Poko, and I’ve enjoyed legendary pieces of works such as Spirited Away, Akira and Sky Crawlers, that is saying a lot. I think the only problem I find the lip-syncing to be lazy at points, but that could be due to the voice-overs but I’ll get to that later. Some scenes are also a bit repetitive with minor variations, but since they are important to the plot and it isn’t an exact copy and paste so it’s minor.

The art style goes for a very realistic feel, with…some psychedelic visuals in the dream sequences. There are some great use of atmosphere and lighting to really add to the setting, and some of the smallest characters are really scary thank to the atmosphere of the scene.

I had absolutely no expectations about the music when I first saw the film. When I heard the music my god was a hooked to it, it is amazing, very original and extremely memorable, I love the parade theme music so much I can’t get it out of my head to this day. Susumu Hirasawa decided to compose the music using the musical synthesis tool Vocaloid, which really well known on the internet in the Nico Nico Douga and Japanese Youtube community. What come out are really digital and creative orchestrated pieces, which really suit the bizarre imagery that appears in the film. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of it, there are a lot of silent scenes that help focus on character development and dialogue, but most of the best music is repeated over and over again, and even though the music is still enjoyable, it bothers me that Hirasawa didn’t do anymore tracks beyond the two.

The voice over in both English and Japanese are very good, but both versions have minor flaws because of one character. In the Japanese versions, the dolls are really annoying, and in the English version, Paprika’s voice is annoying. The English version also has the problem of lip syncing, where there are quite a few scenes where the dialogue doesn’t match up at all. If I was to advise what version to watch then I would say it’s what you would prefer in general, so if you don’t like reading subtitles then English it is, and Japanese if you prefer watching anime in its most original form.

The story is nice from start to end; it mixes comedy, psychological horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and surprisingly, both romance and detective genres as well. It’s interesting to see a film with both a main story and a side story intertwines really well. The side story is about a detective who has anxiety problems caused by a recurring nightmare he has, involving him chasing a culprit, with a friend betraying him and several references to popular films such as “Tarzan” and “From Russia with Love”. His good friend Professor Shima recommends him to Paprika for help, and he eventually progresses to realise the cause of his problems, and his story and character really blends into the main story. One interesting thing to point is that there are a lot of American film references in the film so it is really fun to find them. The only issue I have with the film is that there is also a relationship with both Atsuka and Chiba, and I don’t think it was really necessary to add that one plot point in. I would also say that if you aren’t fully comfortable with the weirdness anime is normally then watch it at your own risk, I’ve watched it with friends who are like that and while they say they liked it they didn’t adapt themselves too well for the imagery.

Overall, if Paprika isn’t one of the best anime films to ever be made, it is certainly one of the most imaginative and creative pieces ever to be released. It is very creative with brilliant animations and very memorable soundtracks. While I haven’t seen his other works, this film definitely has granted me the urge to see Satoshi Kon’s other works, and there is a clear reason why there is a huge loss after his death on August 24th 2010. May he rest in peace and enjoy what he has left behind for us to see.

Paprika is available from Manga Entertainment and Sony Pictures Entertainment. The original novel by Yatsutaka Tsutsui was translated and is available from Alma Books since April 2009. A manga which was adapted from the original novel and was written by Reiji Hagiwara has not been released to western audiences.

Old Review: Alpha and Omega

Alpha & OmegaHumphrey is an Omega, a low socially ranked wolf who likes to play games with his friends and is skilled at breaking up fights and working with other members of his pack. He has a crush on an Alpha wolf named Kate, who, like her parents, takes her duty and responsibility as a high ranked pack member seriously. The problem is that he cannot be with her because of his rank and vice-versa. Because of a dispute problem with an opposing pack fighting over food and territory, leaders of both packs Winston and Tony agree to unite the packs under the marriage of Kate, Winston’s daughter, and Tony’s son, Garth. Although she understands the reasons and wants the best for the pack, she finds that Garth isn’t the wolf that feels right for her. Suddenly a pair of rangers shoot tranquiliser darts at both Kate and Humphrey and taken them from Jasper National Park in Canada to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho. Because she doesn’t want a large fight over territories, Kate wants to head back to Canada, so with the help of Humphrey and two birds Marcel and Paddy, they all go on a journey back to Jasper, where they will face many obstacles and test both of their relationships along the way.

As far as I know at the moment, there isn’t much information about the development of the film. After a shaky history of animated features, Crest Animation Productions (formally known as RichCrest) made a deal with Lions Gate to make three animated feature films that would be shown in 3D, Alpha and Omega is the first film. Animation was done at the India based animation studio, with pre-production, post-production and voice work done in America on a $20 million budget, and was able to break profit which now results in a second film for the company in the works. The other notable fact about this film is that it features the last official role of long time actor and director Dennis Hopper, which the film has a dedication too.

The animation is alright, not really special but on a CGI standard it does a good job. The lip syncing is almost perfect and character movements are smooth and detailed and some of the action scenes are well presented but there are occasional minor flaws that are noticeable and some of it feels wasted from some of the scenes that are pointless, so at least I credit them for showing effort in there. Other than that the visuals aren’t impressive or interesting to watch, there aren’t really any memorable scenes, with the exception of the few good jokes but the film is quite dull overall.

Also, the 3D effects are almost none existent and this film is an example of what is stupid about using 3D, if you advertise it as having 3D, then where is it? It’s not a good sign when the only good 3D effects are from the film’s credits.

The character designs and artwork aren’t that bad, but is also dull overall. Most of the textures are blurry and the backgrounds feel plain. The design of the characters all go into the field “Looks like what they are meant to be but…”. All the animals look like real animals but my only nit-pick is the designs of the female wolves, because they have hair, and it’s weird. I know that it’s a way to try and distinguish males and females but it isn’t subtle and I don’t see how necessary that was on a design aspect.

The music is professional in quality and style but bland and forgetful. They set the scenes and are edited very well, and I did like how the score is a nice blend of acoustics and orchestra but chances are you won’t remember the scores at all.

Then there are the vocal scores…oh god the vocal scores. To be honest there are only three, and only one sounds good with the rest being listenable at the very least. One thing that is actually unique for these kinds of films and actually works in this one is that none of the vocal scores have any lyrics. Since this is a film about wolves and they refer them as howls then it’s pretty obvious why they work well. The first one is the worst one mainly for how awkward it enters into the vocals and sounds through the duration, the second one is the good one however mainly because the vocals are actually good and it focuses on the main protagonists.

The voice acting is actually surprisingly good; each role is done really well and fits each character. Justin Long goes slightly over the top and clumsy as Humphrey, Christina Ricci has a soft shy voice for Lilly, Dennis Hopper and Danny Glover both do great jobs as the Alpha-Males Tony and Winston, both giving a mature and vicious voices, Larry Miller and Eric Price are both hilarious as the French-Canadian Goose and British Duck Paddy, make them the best comic relief of the films despite being underplayed and Vicki Lewis as Kate and Lilly’s mother Eve, who sounds sweet and charming, which makes her violent and gruesome lines a lot more scarier, which in turn makes her one of the funniest characters in the film. I did have a problem with Hayden Panettiere’s voice as Kate which sounded like a stereotypical blond despite being a smart alpha with a strong understanding of her position, but she did improve as the film went forward.

On the positive side for the story is that for a romantic comedy, I was surprised that it didn’t just pull off one good relationship, but two. Humphrey and Kate’s relationship does progress really well and it bothers me to spoil it, but Garth and Lilly also have a good relationship and both are very believable and touching. Some of the jokes and gags in the film are well timed and are pretty funny, and a few did make me laugh. The film is thankfully more innocent than other CG animated films, since I dislike it when these films try to add mature jokes so the adults in the film would pay attention.

On the other hand, the storyline is really predictable and clichéd, and even when watching the trailer you can have a good idea to how the story will play out and the actual film will be almost similar. Most of the gags are also predictable and aren’t really as funny, and some of the gags are just pointless and either have nothing to do with the story, or are never explained again.

Overall, Alpha and Omega isn’t a bad film, but isn’t really a great film either. I think kids would like this film for the characters and the jokes but for more mature viewers, it’s a predictable and dull experience that does have a good jokes and characters, but doesn’t really go as far as it should visually.

Alpha and Omega is available from Lions Gate, as of posting this review it is still viewing in cinemas in the UK, and will eventually be released on DVD in December.

Old Review: The Cat Returns

Haru Yoshioka is a mature high school girl with a lot of bad luck, she wakes up late for school, has a crush on a guy who is already dating someone and is prone to a few accidents here and there. Her day suddenly turns from unlucky to bizarre when she rescues a strange looking cat crossing the road from a truck, as it stands on two legs and thanks her for saving his life, all to her amazement and disbelief. The following day, she finds out from other talking cats that arrive at her door that the cat she rescued is Lune, the Prince of the Cat Kingdom. To show his thanks and gratitude, the Cat King arranges Haru to be taken to the Cat Kingdom so she can take Lune’s hand in marriage. Haru doesn’t like the idea of marrying a cat, but unfortunately she is unable to refuse the arrangement. A soft voice calls to her and tells Haru to find the Cat Office Bureau where she can meet the Baron, a statue that comes to life at sundown. After meeting with the Baron and his friends, Haru is taken away to the Cat Kingdom, and it is up to the Baron, his overweight assistant Muta, the crow statue Toto and Haru herself to get out of this unwanted marriage and leave the Cat Kingdom to head back home.

In 1999, a Japanese theme park gave a proposal to Studio Ghibli for a 20 minute short animated film that involved cats for one of their rides, Hayao Miyazaki was interested and started writing a story for it. The idea of cats reminded him of Whisper of the Heart, a 1995 film which he produced. This gave him the intention to add three key elements to the Cat Project: The Baron, Muta and an antique shop. He commissioned the original author of Whisper of the Heart, Aoi Hiigari to create a manga version, which Miyazaki would base the short on. Soon after this, the theme park decided to cancel the proposal, but Miyazaki wanted to continue with the project, so he wanted to extend the short to test future directors. After showing creative work and ideas from My Neighbour the Yamadas, producer Toshio Suzuki decided to place Hiroyuki Morita as the director. He wrote a 525 page storyboard for the film, which impressed both Miyazaki and Suzuki that they decide to make this a feature length film. It was released on July 19th 2002, and is technically the only Studio Ghibli that is a follow up from a past film.

The animation is once again well done for Studio Ghibli, there is a lot of minor detail in animation and it appears very realistic. The cats are done really well in detail, and it looks really accurate when they appear, walking on two legs instead of four. Lip movements are also good for anime standards, being accurate for Japanese dialogue. There are some really striking scenes; two noticeable is a cat march which is almost haunting but mesmerizing at the same time, with the lights and a large group of cats moving slowly through the streets. Another noticeable scene is a ballroom scene, which has such close detail that all the spectators of the dance turn their heads so their eyes are focused on the dancing couple Haru and Baron. The use of colours on the background is very calm and light, with a good variety.  The character designs are accurate as expected, but for some odd reason the film doesn’t really have consistency for skin colour for, with the common skin colour is a very light pale colour, with the occasional light brown and rose pink tones, which isn’t really a big problem but I was always wondering if most of the humans in the film were just sick or stay out of the sun a lot.

The music is very nice and definitely set the scenes. There a good amount of silent scenes to focus of the characters, but music plays at the right time when needed and some of it is really dramatic, and the two really striking and memorable scenes both have scores which add to the drama and tension of the scenes. Another good track is the ending theme performed by Ayano Tsuji, which is really lovely to listen to and end off the film, with a ukulele as the main instrument and sweet charming lyrics to go with it.

The Japanese voice cast is really good, with some great vocal works from Tetsu Watanabe as Muta, giving a low pitch fit for like a bodyguard, Mari Hamada as the overly excited secretary Natoru and Tetsurō Tanba as the old and grouchy King of Cats, just to name a few. Yoshihiko Hakamada does a nice job as the Baron, acting gentlemanly and very suave, although I do miss the voice of the Baron from Whisper of the Heart, Chizuru Ikewaki does a good job as Haru, but I don’t think she really elevates her voice enough, so when she screams it sounds quite weak.

The English cast is pretty hit-and-miss overall, with some roles sounding awkwardly bad or practically have flaws with them. One example if Andy Richter as Natoru, mainly because they decided to give a male voice to the character instead of a female in the Japanese version, but since he does a really good effort, with a cute voice like a really flamboyant secretary then it isn’t a big problem. Tim Curry I think was a really weird choice for the King of Cats, mainly because he makes him sound like an overweight Jazz musician and for the most part was really off putting. I don’t think the cast is bad overall, since there are some good performances done by actors such as Anne Hathaway as Haru and Judy Greer as the pretty white-furred Royal servant Yuki, and Cary Elwes actually reprises his role as The Baron, which I think is extra credit for an English Studio Ghibli voice casting.

What makes the film worth the watch is the characters, every character has something likeable whether they are funny, intimidating, or in the case of Haru, very relatable, or in the case of the Baron, how awesome he is. In almost every scene he’s in he is either very polite or such a bad ass.  The Cat King as a villain isn’t really taken very far, but he is very comical and dedicated to say the least. While it isn’t as long as other Studio Ghibli films but the story itself is well written and progresses at an even pace so I doubt that the film would have been any better at a larger length without purposely dragging the story. I think the only problem with this film, and other people have mentioned this also, is that the overall moral of the story is over used and out of place. While I find it more of a problem in the English version and how it was written in, even in the Japanese version you can’t watch 20 minutes at least without either Haru, Muta or the Baron saying that it’s important to be yourself, speak your mind and do what you think is right and while it is somewhat relevant to the plot, I don’t think it was necessary to place it directly into the dialogue and use it more than once.

Overall, The Cat Returns is a very charming film that is very lovely from beginning to end; there are a great variety of likeable characters with some really memorable scenes and an ageless storyline.

The Cat Returns is available from Walt Disney and Optimum. The manga of which the film was based on titled “Baron: The Cat Returns” written by the author of Whisper of the Heart, Aoi Hiigari, upon the request of Hayao Miyazaki, is available from Viz Media.

Old Review: Spirited Away

Chihiro is a young girl who is moving with her family to a new home, which she dislikes because she has to leave all her old friends behind and make new ones. Before her family can get to their new home, her father took the wrong turn and end up being blocked by a strange statue and a long tunnel. They all decide to explore, despite Chihiro’s doubts, and find what they think is an abandoned theme park. Went Chihiro later explores on her own, she later finds that this isn’t at all a normal abandoned theme park, but a Land of Spirits. As the day turns to night, spirits start appearing and her parents turn into pigs. To avoid any more danger, a new friend of hers named Haku leads her the way to work in the main attraction of the town, the Bath House, ran by an evil witch called Yubaba, who makes spirits and people slaves forever by taking their name. Chihiro now needs to use all her strength and skills to free herself from Yubaba, save her parents and leave this strange world behind.

In 1998, Studio Ghibli had hit a really hard curve, as long time art director and long time friend of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Yoshifumi Kondo, died of an aneurysm at the age of 47, with the most likely cause was exhaustion from excess work. In the same year, Hayao Miyazaki said in an interview that because of his age and the amount of work he did from Princess Mononoke, he stated that Mononoke “will be the last (feature-length) film that I make in this way”, since he checked every key frame of animation, and redrew them himself. Many people thought he was going to retire completely, and he even built up a new studio, formally leaving Studio Ghibli. Fortunately in the end he moved back to Studio Ghibli, willing to help with productions for writing and producing.

The inspiration for the film came from meeting a group of long time friends on a regular summer vacation at a log cabin, where he wanted to make a film about a 10 year old girl that other girls could look up to. After three project proposals, the film was finally in production in 2000. A lot of scenes were hand drawn, but digitally coloured and processed, and to keep with the deadlines, Studio Ghibli doubled their staff, and were successfully able to release the film on time on July 27th 2001.

The animation is overall very good; a large portion of it is very smooth and realistic, and the very small 3D effects blend very well with the 2D effects. There is a lot of action that still keeps the flow and detail of the more calm scenes, so you can tell how much effort was put into this production.

The art style is more natural, even when a lot of the film takes place in spiritual settings. The design of the backgrounds and environments are possibly the best since Pom Poko.

The music is brilliantly composed but not memorable, I do give credit to Joe Hisaishi for the amount of effort he put into the orchestra scores, since they definitely add atmosphere and tension to some of the early scenes, and the traditional Japanese style pieces really work well with the spirits. My only problem is with the music that plays in the credits and the main theme song of the film, it definitely fits the overall theme of the film lyrics wise and it’s possibly the most memorable track in the film, but its style is a large contrast to Joe Hisaishi’s work.

The voice acting in both Japanese and English are very good, but I’m not entirely sure which one is better overall. On one hand, I find Daveigh Chase does a better job at portraying Chihiro than Rumi Hiiragi, performance wise, and both versions have a decent cast. On the other hand, Yubaba’s portrayal in the English version done by Suzanne Pleshette is slightly weaker when compared to Mari Natsuki, and for some reason Disney thought that more people needed to talk or have extra lines, and while it does at a little bit more atmosphere to the idea of a populated bathhouse but it sounds strange that all the spirits speak English in thick accents and was it really necessary? I guess if you prefer watching animes in Japanese, then you are better off watching it in Japanese, but in the end you’ll get the same exact experience if you watch it with English, minus the subtitles and with a little extra dialogue.

Like many people, this was the film that got me into Studio Ghibli and anime films in general, and the main reason if for the story. It is very well done, and the main character Chihiro is very likable and recognisable, and how she progresses from nervous to strong and confident really makes people want to encourage her to go on with her adventure. Other protagonists such as Haku, Yubaba’s henchman who knows Chihiro from sometime in the past, Lin, one of the bathtub cleaners who helps Chihiro with her time and Kamaji, a spiderlike wizard who works in the boiler room are all very well written and likable too. Even the villains are really well presented, there’s even a side-antagonist only known as a “No-Face” whose presence always gives a bizarre yet exciting impression whenever it appears…up until the end when it goes fat and greedy and ends up becoming just bizarre.

From beginning to end this film is wonderful in one way or another, and to me, this film never gets old. It is easy to see why this is Hayao Miyazaki’s best work and one of the best anime films in history, so if you haven’t seen it then you must have been living under a rock for way too long.

Spirited Away is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. A film comic adaptation is available from Viz Communications, but unless you like screenshots from the film arranged like a manga, it is a waste of money. A novel called Spirited Away (The Mysterious Town Behind The Fog) written by Sachiko Kashiwaba, which Miyazaki used as an influence early on in the film’s development, was translated into Italian but is officially unavailable in English.

Old Review: Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva

Professor Layton and the Eternal DivaArchaeologist and Private Investigator Professor Layton and his young apprentice Luke Triton are invited to an Opera performance by a famous singer and former student Janice Quatlane. When the Opera about an ancient society known as Ambrosia ends, there appears to be more to the event at the theatre than just an Opera. A voice tells the entire audience that they are all about to play a game, where the one winner receives the prize of eternal life, and everyone else dies. Professor Layton, Luke, Janice and several people are all stuck in this game, almost all with a reason for such a prize, but it is apparent that this game is more than just a game, but a huge puzzle for the answer to eternal life.

For those of you who haven’t heard of a Professor Layton, it is a popular portable game franchise by Level-5 that began in 2007 with Professor Layton and the Curious Village. It was a mystery puzzle game where the main element was looking for clues and solving puzzles and riddles to progress the story and solve the mysteries of a plot. Because of its simplistic yet brain inducing game play, with a clever plot and well-thought Japanese Animated art style, considering a great step up from other brain training titles on the system such as Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training; it was very successful internationally, especially in the UK where it reached 4th in the overall sales chart. Three games later came out with similar style of game play, with brand new stories and puzzles for gamers to get their heads into. The franchise was growing so fast in two years that it was obvious that a film was put into production, with developers Level-5 being involved in production and both the Japanese and English cast reprising their roles for the film. It was released in Japan December 2009 and later released in Singapore in March 2010 and England in October 2010.

Now I must warn you that I might be a bit more repetitive in this review, and that is mainly with the fact that this film literally is mostly like the actual game in film format. It is most likely that the same production team for the full motion video cut scenes was involved with the production of the film so if you are bothered with what I say than I am sorry.

The animation is almost exactly like the cut scenes from the games, the animation is mainly standard with the exceptions of the action heavy scenes, and unlike Blood: The Last Vampire they actually put effort in their crowd scenes, with the main example being the audience at the Opera, with each audience member, besides the film’s main characters, being unique and individually animated. There is also good use of 3D animation, although I’ve heard from some critics that the CG is over relied upon. In my opinion, it is very good in the fact that it blends very well with the 2D animations so you might almost never notice it.

The character designs might put people off in the games since the proportions are consistent but some of the characters do look exaggerated, yet somehow in the film the designs have more consistency. There are a few characters that look ridiculous on the most part they all look human and detailed, which is especially good for the amount of possible time that was put into this film.

The music is actually very good and very memorable, along with keeping fans happy with arrangements of music from the games themselves, which on their own are brilliantly done, there are some well composed original tracks and surprisingly beautiful vocals which are kept in the original language and performed by Nana Mizuki. I definitely would give the soundtrack a listen, both with and without the film.

Since playing the first game, I’ve grown a lot onto the English voice cast, and I still think it’s great. Both Chris Miller and Maria Darling do a great job as Layton and Luke respectively, both putting on great British accents, with Chris giving a polite and intelligent style voice and Maria giving young, cheeky and intuitive voice, both suiting their characters. Other voices in the English cast do a good job, and despite some of them lacking a good British accent to keep with the setting and their characters, they all put their hearts in and give a very watchable performance. Then there is the Japanese dub which I don’t think is worth listening to at all if you like the English Dub. I don’t think it is bad, since it is of a good quality and there are a few scenes which sound better in the Japanese dub, but overall, it is very generic. There isn’t really anything unique about the performances, so most of the characters come off sounding bland. It makes this one of the few anime films I recommend watching in English, because the English version sounds a lot more fitting.

I find that there are two main problems with video game films, and why most are bad. One problem is that they focus more on being a film than being a film based on an existing medium, so as a game based film they are bad, and a bad films overall means they are really bad. The other problem is that they either follow too loosely on the plot of the game, or try something completely different and fall flat on the pavement of bad and predictable writing. This film and a few before have been able to avoid these problems and are very good for this reason, they are good as both a film on its own and a film based on a game and they have good storylines that don’t entirely or at all follow the plot of the games they are based on and make it interesting for both viewers.

As a film on its own, the Eternal Diva does an alright job of summarising the games by literally talking about them at the start of the film, I’m not kidding. It is really the only problem I find since it literally is a fourth wall break before the opening credits but the rest of the film plays out really well. The genius element of the film is that it integrates puzzles in the style of the games surprisingly well, even to numbering the puzzle numbers with three digit numbers, it is actually really surprising to see how well it fits in to the story, but the film doesn’t give a lot of time for most of the puzzle for the audience to work it out. I could also say they don’t do enough puzzles but I think having more would drag out the film. The story is also very moving and like the stories in the games, so this film definitely fits like the games themselves.

Overall, this is most likely going to be one of the best games based films of the year, if not one of the best anime films based on a franchise. It is very faithful to the games and if you like the series or want to get into them then I certainly advise giving this film a look.

“Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva” is available from Manga Entertainment. The original video games on the Nintendo DS which include Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Pandora’s Box and Lost Future (All UK Titles) are available from Nintendo and Level-5 Games. Two more games in the series, Spectre’s Flute for the DS and Mask of Miracles for the 3DS are planned for a Japanese release in 2010 and 2011 with a later UK and USA release. While no sequel or future film is set for a release, Level-5 has stated that they plan to release new films every winter and there is a live action film in the works.