Monday, 12 December 2011

Film Ramble: The Beginner's Guide to Anime (Part Two)

Time to get part 2 of that Beginner's Guide to Anime article I started last week out of the way - lest I get distracted and never finish it and years from now, some poor orphan child looking for a handy guide to ease him into the weird world of anime finds himself short changed and goes and watches a load of Jerry Bruckheimer movies instead.

Something that never fails to impress me is taking a genre that looks as if it was mined out years ago and making it feel completely fresh and new.  In about 45 minutes, Blood: The Last Vampire does more to make vampires cool and interesting than a thousand lesser movies put together.  Putting aside the fact that it's superbly executed in every aspect, what Bloods brings more than anything is ambiguity, along with hints of a rich history that we'll never quite know or understand.  For proof of how well they pulled it off, see the live action remake's attempts to fill in the blanks and cringe at how dull it all suddenly becomes.

Last time I featured Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke,  but no anime top ten of any kind could be complete with just one Miyazaki movie.  It's hard to think of a more consistently brilliant director, and equally hard to pick favourites from such a consistently stunning catalogue.  But Laputa - renamed by Disney as Castle in the Sky for its international release, for fairly hilarous reasons - was the first anime I ever saw, way back before I had the faintest clue what anime even was, and it blew my mind.  Then I rediscovered it years later, and it blew my mind all over again.

Satoshi Kon's death last year left a small but incredibly impressive body of work behind.  Again, it's hard (and pointless) to pick out one of his four completed features as his best, since they're all great, but Millenium Actress is my personal favourite.  When a documentary filmmaker and his cameraman attempt to interview an ageing actress, they find themselves carried along in her recollections, which jumble in turn with her decades-spanning movie career, and Kon smashes reality, fantasy, history, memory and imagination together into one dizzying whole.  Millenium Actress should be incredibly pretensious; in Kon's hands, it's the smartest romantic action comedy ever made.
The third film here from Studio Ghibli, and the first not to be directed by Miyazaki, Grave of the Fireflies is probably the ultimate weapon against the old "animation is just for kids" argument.  Set in World War 2-era Japan, Grave follows brother and sister Setsuko and Seita as they try to survive alone after their mother's death in an air raid.  If that sounds like tough watching then, well, it is, but there's an innocence and kindness to Takahata's film that always keeps it clear of miserabilism.  Which isn't to say it won't break your heart a few dozen times before the credits roll...

Because every anime top ten needs at least one movie where school kids pilot giant robots.  And because Evangelion: You Are [Not] Alone is so good, it doesn't matter that it's practically a check list of genre cliches.  Anyway, in fairness that has a lot to do with the fact that this is the first of four films remaking and reinventing one of Japanese animation's defining series.  But even if it wasn't, Evangelion would still be thrilling.  Like Blood, it takes a familiar concept - in this case, the uniquely Japanese notion that the best way to defend against alien (in this case, angelic) invasion is to force school children to fight them in giant robotic suits of armour - and tells it so earnestly, brilliantly and blisteringly oddly that it feels like the first time all over again.

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