Editorial: My Top 5 Favourite Anime directors (that aren’t Hayao Miyazaki)

In the history of anime the director who is certainly the most famous and revered in the Western hemisphere is Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke). He has made quite a few cracking films himself, and even film buffs have likely heard his name, at least in passing. There is already tons of coverage about the poster boy of Ghibli and many directors haven’t had quite the same exposure.

As someone who has been a fan of anime for a long time now, I have found it very fruitful to explore different directors and what they manage to bring to a project. There is always something beautiful and unique that many directors bring, whether it is their style of writing characters or telling stories, the techniques they employ, or the way they use animation’s limitless potential to present ideas and beliefs which live action simply can’t.

In this list, I will be covering my Top 5 Favourite Anime directors that aren’t Miyazaki-san, and are deserving of as much praise and recognition.

Osamu Dezaki

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Osamu Dezaki, born on November 18th, 1943, started out as a manga artist at Toshiba, yeah, that Toshiba, they have their own manga division. His long career in anime began by working as an animator and episode director on Mushi Production series such as the first breakthrough anime TV series, Astro Boy (1963-1966) and Dororo (1969).

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(Ashita no Joe 2, 1980-1981, TMS Entertainment)

He then became quite notable for his work on classic boxing drama Ashita no Joe (1970-1971), which lead to a second season that aired 9 years later. Dezaki was known as being the founder of the studio Madhouse (Death Note, Cardcaptor Sakura) and for being incredibly versatile in various genres, leading to an eclectic body of work. Such examples include pulpy film noir with Golgo 13 (1983), escapist space opera with Space Adventure Cobra (1982-1983), fantasy adventure with Gamba no Bouken (1975), medical thriller with the Black Jack OVA (1993-2011), and even did various films and specials for Lupin the Third and Hamtaro.

For many fans, Dezaki’s strongest work was with shoujo series such as Rose of Versailles (1979-1980), Aim for the Ace! (1973-1974), Dear Brother (1991-1992) and classic novel adaptations such as Treasure Island (1978- 1979) and Nobody’s Boy Remi (1977-1978). Many of his shows also contained character designs by Akio Sugino (Phoenix, La Seine no Hoshi), giving them a distinctive look.

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(Aim for the Ace! Movie, 1979, Madhouse)

Dezaki had a love of cinema and theatre which was clearly shown throughout his career, with strong usage of stark lighting similar to the work of Jean Pierre Melville, Hitchcockian Dutch angles, split screens akin to Brian De Palma, as well as triple takes and speed lines to enhance the impact of an exciting scene. Most famously, he invented an iconic technique known as “Harmony” or “Postcard Memories”. These were freeze-frames, interpolated as sketchy illustrations, designed as a cost cutting technique that were often saved for dramatic scenes or moments of great change in the characters. These techniques are still being used today, so you could say Dezaki helped the medium find its own identity and style.

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(Rose of Versailles, 1979-1980, TMS Entertainment)

The combination of his stylistic techniques and his flair for melodrama gave Dezaki’s work a grandiose and theatrical quality that is still unmatched by any other director in the medium. He passed away at the age of 67 on April 17th, 2011 due to lung cancer, leaving behind an incredibly versatile and strong oeuvre of work, and his influence can be seen in directors like Akiyuki Shinbo (Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Bakemonogatari) and Hiroyuki Imaishi (Gurren Lagann, Kill La Kill).

Mamoru Oshii

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Mamoru Oshii, born on August 8th, 1951 in Tokyo, is probably one of the most varied, versatile, fascinating and iconic directors in the history of anime. Starting off as an episode director on shows such as Belle and Sebastian (1981-1982), Ippatsu Kanta-kun (1977-1978) and Yatterman (1977-1979), he oversaw the first 106 episodes of the wacky sci-fi romantic comedy Urusei Yatsura (1981-1986), as well as the first two movies, Only You (1983) and Beautiful Dreamer (1984).

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(Angel’s Egg, 1985, Studio DEEN)

A year later, he made the existentialist art-house film, Angel’s Egg (1985), which alongside Beautiful Dreamer, cemented him as a director unafraid to take risks. This isn’t surprising, considering his cinematic influences include European directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni (Blowup), Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, Solaris), Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Alphaville), Andrzej Munk (Man on the Tracks), Chris Marker (La Jetée), Federico Fellini () and Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal).

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(Patlabor 2: The Movie, 1993, Production I.G)

He then founded the company HEADGEAR, and worked on Mobile Police Patlabor franchise, a mecha series mixed with police procedural elements that was also very heavily character driven. The franchise had various manga, novels, OVAs, TV shows and two theatrical films, both directed by Oshii. The success of the series led to Oshii working on the influential Ghost in the Shell (1995), which would eventually spawn a sequel released a decade later titled Innocence (2004). He has also created the Kerberos saga, which has lead to two live action films, manga, radio dramas and an anime film written by Oshii called Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999).

Some common themes in his work are the exploration of society, government corruption, terrorism, identity, urban warfare, faith, technology, humanity and religion. This is further cemented by his motifs, including animals such as birds and Basset Hounds, reflections of mirrors, windows and water. Oshii usually includes ma (interval) montages, and moody atmospheric visuals set to haunting music by his frequent collaborator, Kenji Kawai (Ranma ½, The Irresponsible Captain Tylor).

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(Ghost in the Shell, 1995, Production I.G)

Oshii’s well known for working within science fiction and often explores profound subject matter in his work, coupled with challenging use of symbolism. While he has been known to influence directors like The Wachowski’s (The Matrix) and James Cameron (The Terminator), Oshii’s style is very much his own. He is known as the Stray Dog of anime for a reason, to the point that in a Johnathon Ross interview, he said that he thinks he’s a reincarnated Basset Hound. Maybe we will never know, but I’d like to think that.

Hideaki Anno

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Hideaki Anno, born on May 22nd, 1960, grew up spending a lot of his free time exploring the arts, and during his time in Junior High School he attended the art club. In 1980, he attended the Osaka University of Arts, made friends with Hiroyuki Yamaga (Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi) and Takami Akai (Banner of the Stars), and made short films with them. On August 20th, 1983, a little after Anno dropped out of University, he  made history by being the animation director on the infamous Daicon IV Opening Animation. This influential short film, considered a holy grail within anime fandom, gave Anno the opportunity to work as an animator on all-time classics like Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984) and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984).

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(Aim for the Top! Gunbuster, 1988-1989, GAINAX)

Anno, along with Yamaga and Akai, founded the legendary studio GAINAX in 1985. This lead him to become prolific in his field, working as an animator on works like Megazone 23 Part I (1985), The Wings of Honnêamise (1987), and Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1992-1998). In 1988, he made his directorial debut with the OVA series Aim for the Top! Gunbuster (1988-1989). This 6 episode mecha series became infamous for it’s heavy and emotionally charged ending.

After his experience on Nadia the Secret of Blue Water (1990-1991) Anno became very depressed as a result of interference from NHK. This lead to the creation of the iconic TV series, Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996). The series is renowned for deconstructing the clichés of mecha anime allowing it to explore themes such as depression, religion, loneliness, identity and philosophy, often with deep psychoanalysis of the characters. The show’s success lead to a follow-up film titled The End of Evangelion (1997), which was both incredibly nihilistic and surreal.

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(Neon Genesis Evangelion, 1995-1996, GAINAX)

Anno was one of the first directors in anime who proclaimed to be an otaku (obsessed fan), meaning his work is not only influenced by but also directly references other anime, manga and pop culture. This includes creators such as Yoshiyuki Tomino (Space Runaway Ideon, Mobile Suit Gundam), Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey), Go Nagai (Devilman, Mazinger Z), Gerry Anderson (UFO, Thunderbirds) and Kihachi Okamoto (Battle of Okinawa), in addition to tokusatsu and kaiju icons Ultraman and Godzilla.

Anno’s signature traits are deconstruction of genre tropes, and giving deep insight into the human condition. Gunbuster and Evangelion, when taken at face value, are seemingly just mecha series, but in reality, they are about characters who are forced to question their place in life and society, their vulnerability and having to face overwhelming pressure of having to be humanity’s last bastion of survival. At times, Anno uses techniques, such as stroboscopic montages, static long cuts that create an uneasy tension and philosophical dialogue. He often uses this in conjuction with cost saving avant-gardt techniques, such as the use of incomplete storyboards, still shots and simple text frames to ask questions to the character and viewer alike.

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(The Wing of Honneamise, 1987, GAINAX)

Thanks to a prime focus on characterization, coupled with a willingness to take risks by playing with various techniques and styles of storytelling gives Anno’s work a personal touch that makes his work incredibly fascinating and memorable.

Masaaki Yuasa

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Masaaki Yuasa, born on March 16th, 1965, is one of the most extraordinarily unique and visionary auteurs in modern anime. Throughout his career, he has worked as an animator on works ranging from Esper Mami (1987-1989), Chibi Maruko-chan (1990-1993), episodes and many of the movies of Crayon Shin-Chan, Noiseman Sound Insect (1997), Agent Aika (1997-1999), My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999) and Samurai Champloo (2004-2005).

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(Mind Game, 2004, Studio 4°C)

Besides being an incredibly versatile animator, Yuasa also penned the screenplay of the incredibly trippy OVA Cat Soup (2001), and would eventually become a director starting off with his first feature length film Mind Game (2004). Based on a manga by Robin Nishi and produced by Studio 4°C (Tekkonkinkreet, Memories), the film was lauded for having a dynamic utilization of various animation styles and a story featuring inspiring themes about living life to the fullest coupled with quirky humour and characters. The film soon caught the attention of directors such as Satoshi Kon (Paprika, Millennium Actress), Mamoru Hosoda (Digimon Adventure: Our War Game, Wolf Children), Bill Plympton (The Tune, Cheatin’) and even psychedelic artist, Keiichi Tanaami (Oh! Yoko).

Over the past decade, working as a freelancer, Yuasa has directed the body horror series Kemonozume (2006), the Happy Machine segment of Genius Party (2007), thought provoking sci fi series Kaiba (2008), surreal dark comedy The Tatami Galaxy (2010), the Kickstarter backed short film Kick-Heart (2013), and the sports drama Ping Pong the Animation (2014).

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(Kick Heart, 2013, Production I.G)

After establishing the studio Science Saru with his affiliate EunYoung Choi (Black Lagoon, Casshern Sins) Yuasa directed the Space Dandy (2014) episode “Slow and Steady Wins the Race, Baby” and in his first international collaboration, the Adventure Time episode “Food Chain”. He is currently busy with two feature length films due out this year with Night is Short, Walk on Girl and Lu over the Wall, and will be directing the newest adaptation of Go Nagai’s iconic manga, Devilman: crybaby, which will be airing in 2018 on Netflix.

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(The Tatami Galaxy, 2010, Madhouse)

He has been inspired by animators such as Tex Avery (Red Hot Riding Hood, Blitz Wolf), Ladislas Starevich (Tale of the Fox), Rene Laloux (Fantastic Planet, La Maîtres du Temps) and Nick Park (The Wrong Trousers, Chicken Run), as well as the film Yellow Submarine (1968). One of Yuasa’s traits is that his animation plays with style, form and technique, giving his work an incredibly post-modern touch. One shot could be high in detail, the next could be rotoscoped, the next shot could be zany and loose. His work often includes existentialist themes and content, which in addition to the off-beat and unique playing with animation styles has a quirky approach and refreshing feel that allows Yuasa’s work to stand out, even within anime. Here’s hoping that Yuasa continues to create many wonderfully wacky and oddball shows and films for years to come.

Isao Takahata

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Isao Takahata, born on June 29th, 1935, has had a long career working in the medium, and has worked in a variety of genres and styles, leading to a unique body of work.

After seeing the original cut of the French animated masterpiece, The King and the Mockingbird (1952 & 1980), Takahata became entranced with the possibilities of what animation could achieve. His beginnings at Toei Animation (Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon) were certainly humble, working as an assistant director on The Littlest Warrior (1961) and The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1962), and was an episode director on Ken the Wolf Boy (1963-1965). His feature length directorial debut was the fantasy adventure film Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968), where he would become lifelong friends with anime legends Hayao Miyazaki and Yasuo Otsuka (Panda and the Magic Serpent, Animal Treasure Island).

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(The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, 2013, Studio Ghibli)

After doing work on Himitsu no Akko-chan (1969-1970) and Mōretsu Atarō (1969-1970), he co-directed alongside Miyazaki episodes 13-23 of Lupin the Third (1971-1972). He would then oversee both Panda! Go, Panda! short films (1972-1973), as well as directing classic World Masterpiece Theater TV shows like Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976) and Anne of Green Gables (1979).

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(Grave of the Fireflies, 1988, Studio Ghibli)

In the early 80s, he directed the slice of life comedy Chie the Brat (1981) and music themed fantasy film Goshu the Cellist (1982), all before becoming the co-founder of Studio Ghibli in 1985. After producing Nausicaa (1984) and Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), he would go on to direct the poignant semibiographical drama, Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the nostalgic and lyrical Only Yesterday (1991), the environmentalist fantasy comedy Pom Poko (1994) and the creative and heartwarming comedy My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999). 14 years later, after he struggled for a long time trying to get it made, Takahata released the beautifully emotional Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013), an adaptation of the classic Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.

Paku-san, as Miyazaki calls Takahata, has been influenced by Italian neorealism, French New Wave, Frederic Back (The Man Who Planted Trees), Yuri Norstein (Hedgehog in the Fog), Kenji Miyazawa (Night on the Galactic Railroad), Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera) and Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, Late Spring). Takahata’s work often deals with small, character driven stories that deal with melancholy, childhood, loneliness, emotion and tends to focus on relatable, mundane situations that are reflective, contemplative and riveting to witness.

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(Only Yesterday, 1991, Studio Ghibli)

Through the power of animation, Takahata conveys metaphor and plays with different visual lenses to symbolically represent the state of the character’s mind and feelings. In Only Yesterday, the present day is presented as crisp, clean and polished, while the flashbacks to Taeko’s childhood is shown as hazy, dreamlike. These qualities give Takahata’s work a weight, realism and impressionistic feeling that is rarely found in animation, making him quite an unsung hero. Though he is retired due to Ghibli’s indefinite hiatus, he has left his mark on the medium, and should be looked at in the same level of respect as Miyazaki.

Honourable Mentions

I hope you have enjoyed my list. It has been an incredibly difficult task trying to choose just 5 directors given the large amount of brilliant creators that have worked in anime.In case you want to explore further, here’s a few who didn’t quite make the list but are all worth exploring:

Who would you say are your choices for favourite directors in anime? Are there any others who you think deserve more recognition? Leave a comment, I would be really interested to find out! 🙂

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Editorial: My most anticipated animated films of 2017

We have just entered the seventh year of the 2010s, and so thus far, it has been a pretty flourishing and fruitful era for animated cinema. 2016 was a pretty solid year for animation, with films such as Zootropolis, Anomalisa, Your Name, Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings and The Red Turtle paving the way for a hopefully equally strong 2017.

While most lists will be covering the usual Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks fare, I thought it would be good to compile a list of my 5 most anticipated animated films that are a bit off the beaten track. I hope you find out about some titles you weren’t previously aware of.

Lupin the Third: Chikemuri no Ishikawa Goemon (Goemon Ishikawa’s Spray of Blood)

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Lupin the Third is one of the most iconic and influential franchises in the history of Japanese pop culture, debuting as a manga series in 1967 by Kazuhiko Katou, best known under his pseudonym, Monkey Punch. As the series has grown in popularity, it has had various anime adaptations, including 5 TV shows, 9 theatrical films, over 20 TV specials, some OVAs and even a few live action films for good measure.

The series is oft-considered an amalgamation of James Bond, Robin Hood, Ocean’s Eleven and Loony Tunes all rolled into one, focusing on a group of thieves, including dashing thief Lupin the Third, the sharpshooter Daisuke Jigen, the femme fatale Fujiko Mine, and the samurai Goemon Ishikawa XIII.

A stellar line up of directors have put their stamp on the franchise, showing different sides to the storylines and characters. These directors include Osamu Dezaki (Black Jack, Rose of Versailles) Masaaki Osumi (Moomin, La Seine no Hoshi), Gisaburo Sugii (Dororo, Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie), Shinichi Watanabe (Excel Saga, Nerima Daikon Brothers), Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter, Branded to Kill), and those two Ghibli legends, Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, The Wind Rises) and Isao Takahata (Tale of Princess Kaguya, Grave of the Fireflies). The most recent director who has put his stamp on the series is Takeshi Koike (Redline, World Record), who directed the TV show, Lupin the Third: The Woman called Fujiko Mine (2012) and the movie, Jigen’s Gravestone (2014).

I have been a fan of Lupin the Third ever since I discovered it through The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), a wonderfully made adventure film that featured excellent animation, likeable characters, great action scenes and a brilliant soundtrack by Yuji Ohno (Captain Future, Space Adventure Cobra). In this film, he’s portrayed as a gentleman, whereas in most other depictions, such as The Mystery of Mamo (1978), he’s shown to be a bit of a cheeky playboy who has a funny haphazard quirkiness to him.

Takeshi Koike’s third project, produced by TMS Entertainment (Akira, Golgo 13) and subtitled Goemon Ishikawa’s Spray of Blood, and focuses on our titular samurai as he is branded as a traitor when he fails to prevent the assassination of the leader of a criminal syndicate for whom he was serving as a bodyguard, and is seeking revenge.

The goon targeting Goemon and the gang is “The Spectre of Bermuda”, known for a high body count. Judging from what I’ve read, it sounds like it will have a Chambara feel to it, with stylish sword play and over the top violence. The portrayal of Lupin and the gang this time seems a lot darker, being reminiscent of the Osumi episodes of the 1971 show, with more of a focus on the underground and violent nature of crime.

It was recently released in Japanese theatres on February 4th, 2017, with no word on an English release yet. I expect Discotek Media to release it, given the amount of support that has been shown through loads of DVD re-releases and sets for the franchise.

I’d recommend giving the series a try if you’re a fan of Cowboy Bebop or even James Bond. If you want to dip your toes in the series, a good starter point would be Castle of Cagliostro or the 1971 TV show, thanks to contribution by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.

Mary and the Witches Flower

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On August 3rd, 2014, after making 21 films, Studio Ghibli, perhaps the most internationally famous Japanese animation company of all time, announced that they were taking an indefinite hiatus from making feature films. This was after Hayao Miyazaki retired and their latest films receiving acclaim, but fairing very poorly at the box office. This move upset many fans, who now doubted if the spirit of Ghibli would live on.

In 2016, Ghibli worked on The Red Turtle, being the company’s first international collaboration, which ended up winning a few awards and receiving glowing praise, some of which came from Miyazaki-san. If you didn’t catch my review of this film, here’s the link to it.

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On December 15th, 2016, fans were surprised and excited at the announcement of a new film Mary and the Witch’s Flower, from former Ghibli film director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Arrietty, When Marnie was There). Being produced by former Ghibli film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura (Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo), and based on British children’s book The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, it is being made at a brand new company made up of ex-Ghibli animators, Studio Ponoc, which is the Croatian word for midnight. Any fan of Ghbili’s catalogue of films should keep a close eye on this studio. Given that many companies are focusing on CG animation for ease of access, seeing Ponoc continue to keep hand-drawn animation alive is quite reassuring.

It follows a girl named Mary, who after being sent to her great aunt’s house, gains magical powers, but only for one night. This film looks like a mix of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, and it will be released in Japanese cinemas this summer.

Altitude Film Sales (Moonlight, Green Room) have secured the international distribution rights to Mary and the Witch’s Flower, and are intending to release it in cinemas this year.

Godzilla (2017)

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Godzilla is one of the most recognized and celebrated monsters in cinematic history, with the big G turning 63 years old this year. There have been 29 Japanese movies since 1954, with 2 American adaptations, cartoon shows and video games that have starred the atomic breathing beast.

With the success of the latest Japanese entry, Shin Godzilla, directed by Hideaki Anno (Gunbuster, Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan live action films), Toho have hired Polygon Pictures (Tron: Uprising, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter) to produce the first ever anime film instalment in the franchise. It only took the better part of 6 decades for this to eventually happen, given The King of the Monsters has had tons of homages and references in various shows, but the prospect is certainly exciting. It is worth mentioning however that Godzilla did previous have an anime excursion in the form of the educational OVA series, Godzilland (1994-1996).

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(I have a feeling he won’t look this cute in the new version.)

Godzilla (2017) will be directed by Kobun Shizuno (Knights of Sidonia, Soul Buster) and Hiroyuki Seshita (Ajin, BLAME! The Movie), with the screenplay being overseen by acclaimed writer Gen Urobuchi (Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Thunderbolt Fantasy). Not much about the film has been shown, outside of some concept art, but it certainly seems promising, with futuristic spaceships, primordial forests and space exploration to hopefully be present in the plot. Only thing I’m hoping is that the human characters are hand-drawn, as CG in anime always tends to be low frame rate and look a bit uncanny and off-kiltler for my liking.

Godzilla (2017) hasn’t been licensed for a Western release yet, though given the crew behind it, I’m sure it’ll get licensed.

The Breadwinner

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Cartoon Saloon is a relatively new studio, formed in 1999 and are based in Kilkenny, Ireland. They have released films such as The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), both of which are based on Irish folklore, and have received acclaim for stunning animation, touching storylines and having an imaginative flair that is quite refreshing. They are certainly positioning themselves to be a studio to look out for in the future.

Their newest outing, The Breadwinner is based on a 2001 children’s book by Deborah Ellis, and is directed by Cartoon Saloon’s own Nora Twomey, co-produced by Tomm Moore and would you believe it, Angelina Jolie. The story is based on Ellis’ own conversations with Afghan children in refugee camps, and tells the tale of Parvana, a young Afghan girl who must protend to be a boy in order to help her family survive.

It promises to be both enlightening and touching, and if Cartoon Saloon’s previous efforts are anything to go by, the visuals will be subtle and stunningly presented. It will be released sometime later this year and distribution will be handled by GKIDS in America, and StudioCanal in Europe.

Night is Short, Walk on Girl & Lu over the Wall

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OK, so I’m cheating a bit here, but I really wanted to talk about both of these new films from one of my most respected anime directors, Masaaki Yuasa (Mind Game, Ping Pong: The Animation). I do hope you understand.

First of all, I’ll talk about Yuasa’s new collaboration with Tomihiko Morimi, Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Yuasa previously adapted Morimi’s novel, The Tatami Galaxy, a psychological dark comedy that was acclaimed for sharp humour, thought provoking dialogue and quirky characters. Night is Short, Walk on Girl takes place in Kyoto, and follows a misguided romance between a black-haired girl and her admirer, and promises to be a surreal, psychedelic and unique story, including side characters like the Underpants Leader, the God of the Old Books Market, and someone who proclaims to be the mythical creature, Tengu.

The character designs are beautifully handled by Yuusuke Nakamura (Tatami Galaxy), with a soundtrack by Michiru Oshima (Full Metal Alchemist, Ico) and will be animated by Yuasa’s own studio, Science SARU (Space Dandy, Garo the Animation).

Night is Short, Walk on Girl will be released in Japanese cinemas on April 7th, with no English release date as of yet. Here’s hoping it gets picked up for an international release.

The second film, Lu over the Wall, also produced by Science SARU, is an original script penned by Yuasa, and as such, is his first original feature length film, with character designs by manga artist Yoko Nemu (Pandora, Gozen 3-ji), music by Takatsugu Muramatsu (When Marnie was There, Hime Chen!) and art direction handled by Kouji Oono (Wolf Children, Usagi Drop).

The story focuses on a middle school student named Kai, who lives in a countryside harbour whose life changes when he meets a mermaid named Lu, slowly forming a bond which allows him to grow and slowly open up about his feelings. The story sounds like a cross between The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Your Name and Ponyo with Yuasa’s fantastical and quirky animation style for good measure.

Lu over the Wall will be released in Japanese cinemas on May 19th, a month after Night is Short, Walk on Girl. No one as of yet as licensed this film for a Western release, but hopefully it’ll be released in the West sooner than later.

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV review (Takeshi Nozue, 2016)

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The Final Fantasy series is one of the most successful franchises in the history of video games. Because of their early titles reviewing poorly and selling even worse, the original game released back on December 18th, 1987 for the NES was intended to be Square’s last game. It was a surprise success that lead to dozens of follow-ups, spin-offs, remakes, re-releases, radio dramas, manga, cover albums and more fan-fiction, fan art and cosplay then one could ask for. Because of the series being lauded for complex rewarding gameplay and exploration, memorable characters, epic worlds, great stories, fantastic soundtracks, thrilling plot twists, stunning production values and an absolute cornucopia of pretty boys, it only seemed natural that the world of Final Fantasy would adapt perfectly to cinema… one would hope.

Like many other video game franchises that have been adapted onto the silver screen, Final Fantasy hasn’t had the greatest track record, with the first being a 4-episode Original Video Animation, Legend of the Crystals (1994), a distant sequel to FFV that featured underdeveloped characters and dumb attempts at comedy.

Whilst this was a relatively obscure release, seven years later, Square Pictures unleashed series creator Hiranobu Sakaguchi’s cinematic debut, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). Featuring an all star cast including Steve Bucemi (The Big Lebowski), Alec Baldwin (Beetlejuice), James Woods (Videodrome) and Donald Sutherland (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) , it was the first feature length CG animated film to attempt realistic looking character models, though the story was more Ray Bradbury through the guise of Robert A. Heinlein then one would expect from the franchise. As a result, the film lost over $100 million, making it a total box office bomb and lost SquareSoft more money then any previous undertaking, forcing them to merge with Dragon Quest developer, Enix, to stay afloat.

The next attempt at a movie took the safe route by making a feature length sequel to the highest selling game in the series with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (2005), directed by character designer Tetsuya Nomura (Final Fantasy VII, Kingdom Hearts). Being part of a series of Final Fantasy VII related spin offs, Advent Children was very popular and sold incredibly well on DVD, to the point that it was re-released with extra scenes in 2009. It has been met with a largely mixed reception, with the soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu and visual presentation being met with high praise. However, it has faced criticism for being an unnecessary sequel containing sloppy writing with many plot holes, in addition to poorly written dialogue and inconsistent characterization that often undermined a lot of the development from the original game.

This brings us to 2016, with Final Fantasy XV suffering many delays, changing directors and being in development for a decade, Square Enix decided to release supplementary material to familiarize fans with the world and the backstory. This included Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV, a 6-episode online distributed anime series, and the third feature length film in the franchise, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, directed by Takeshi Nozue, who had previously worked on cut scenes for Final Fantasy IX, X and XIII, and produced by XV’s director, Hajime Tabata.

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For generations in the world of Eos, the kingdom of Lucis has been protected by a crystal in a never ending war against the militaristic empire known as Niflheim, who are slowly taking over the world’s nations, thanks to their unsurmountable technological advances and power. Lucis responded by forming a magical barrier created by the power of the crystal, causing Insomnia to remain untouched by the Niflheim’s forces. Meanwhile, Noctis Lucis Caelum was sent to Tenebrae to recover from an injury with the help of his father, King Regis, whom were greeted by Lunafreya Nox Flueret and her family. The Niflheim forces appear in Tenebrae in a coup de tat against the Lucian bloodline, Regis and Noctis escape the attack, resulting in Luna and her family being taken hostage by the empire.

Cut to 12 years later, Niflheim and the forces of Tenebrae fight against Lucis, due to Tenebrae’s apparent betrayal by their ally, as high ranking military officer Ravus blames the king for his mother’s death. Regis forms a group of knights dubbed the Kingsglaive, made up of refugees from the overthrown nations, who fight using magic against enemy forces.

In the middle of a big battle, Nyx Ulric is told to retreat by his superiors due to Niflheim’s firepower, the Diamond Weapon. However, against his orders, Nyx saves Libertus Ostium from being killed by Cerberus. Nyx continues his duties as part of the unit by being a security guard within Insomnia.

Throughout the film, the story is presented through an omnipotent perspective, presenting the conflicts within the Kingsglaive, the Lucian Royalty and the Niflheim Empire, concurrent with the beginning of the game. The film firmly fits within the genre trappings of Science fiction, fantasy and action cinema.

The best aspects of the story are that the political intrigue within the Lucian dynasty is quite fascinating, and some of the world building does make the viewer want to explore Eos when the play the game… and that’s all I have to say regarding the positives.

With a screenplay penned by Takashi Hasegawa (Round About Midnight), one of Kingsglaive’s biggest problems is that the characters are either their just to be cannon fodder without much exploration or complete idiots that have motivations that make no bloody sense.

For example, Ravus witnesses the death of his Mother at the hands of General Glauca, and despite being clearly shown that the empire killed his Mother and thus forcing the Lucian royals to flee, when he’s an adult, he blames Regis for his Mother’s death and wants revenge. This attempt at creating a morally ambiguous character completely backfires due to a motivation that makes no sense, and feeling more like a plot device then an actual character.

Another example of a poorly handled character is Crowe Altius, a mage who is sent on a mission to rescue Luna from Niflheim and bring back her to Lucis. Before she leaves, they make sure to remind the audience that she is like a little sister to Nyx and Libertus, though they seem just as unsure as the audience as to why Crowe is given this task. In the midst of her mission, before she is able to accomplish anything, she’s found dead in the trash. Not only is her death poorly handled, as the film expects its audience to care and feel sad for a character they literally know nothing about and cements that she exists solely to give Nyx and Libertus a motivation. So the surrounding war, the destruction of their homeland and tensions between higher ups isn’t enough to motivate them, but the death of a vapid doll who they feel is their own property is the catalyst that gives the two men a reason to fight… uh… hmm… progressive much?

Princess Luna, the main female protagonist in the Final Fantasy XV world, came across a passive prop existing as the clichéd damsel in distress, and apparently has the intellect of a goldfish. While it is hinted that she is an oracle of some kind, the film never takes time to show any of her abilities. In one scene where Nyx and Luna are flying around in a ship whilst Lucius is under attack, with Luna wanting to go straight to Regis, Nyx tells her not to go, and Luna replies with “Not all miracles are made by magic.”, a phrase she constantly says throughout the story. She then takes a leap of faith and jumps out of the ship, determined that she will make the landing. Then Nyx just comes out and saves Luna before she possibly dies, not only making both characters look like complete idiots, but also undermining the belief Luna preaches throughout the film.

In a franchise renowned for well written and realized female characters, that include Tifa, Celes, Rydia, Rosa, Faris, Terra, Aerith, Garnet, Rinoa, Yuna, Ashe,  and Freya, Crowe and Luna feel like a massive step backwards in terms of female characters. There have been summoners, commanders, soldiers, farmers, mages and freedom fighters… and Kingsglaive just has female characters that are there to be dragged along as props, or as plot devices to be killed off, giving male characters a reason to take action.

For a film that’s just shy of 2 hours, it honestly feels like it should have been another hour longer, to allow more depth to the characters and for certain revelations to feel properly built up instead of rushed. This mainly comes down to overuse of exposition, where characters tell each other things about themselves rather then actually presenting them, similarly to the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. Because a lot of the characters are movie-exclusive, and thus won’t appear in the game, it’s hard to get invested in the cast when most of them have a lack of screen time, minimal development, or are so poorly written that seeing them killed off can only be a good thing.

Another issue the film has is having too much exposition, leaving the viewers often baffled and confused, which isn’t helped by dull poorly written dialogue. This issue is presented within the opening, where the film apparently expects you to have read at least 50 Wikipedia articles or have watched and read every bit of promotional material for the game to understand what’s going on. It was clearly trying to evoke the introductory sequence to Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, but without giving the audience a reason to care about the world or the ongoing conflict.

Overall, Kingsglaive clearly feels like content that was cut from the game, as it probably would have worked effectively as a 4 to 5-hour long prologue to allow players to explore the world and be able to feel more immersed into the story.

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The visuals in Kingsglaive are certainly worthy of praise, with them being handled by Square Enix’s internal animation studio, Visual Works (Final Fantasy VII, Kingdom Hearts) and have been overseen by animation director, Hirotaka Sawada (Onimusha 2: Samurai’s Destiny, Final Fantasy XII). Visual Works’ previous outings in creating cut scenes for video games make them a perfect fit for making animated features, given their crazy attention to detail and always pushing the limits of what CGI can achieve. The kingdom of Lucis, the forests of Tenebrae, the battlefields, the cafes, outskirts and the inside of castles all are exceptionally crafted thanks to the work of Shigenori Suzuki (Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, Dissidia: Final Fantasy).

Because the world of Final Fantasy XV is a mixture of the real world and a traditional fantasy one, there’s a contrast with characters wearing fashion designer suits in a world full of fantastical castles and realistic architecture. This immaculate attention to realism can break immersion when there is product placement with characters looking at Samsung Galaxy smartphones, logos for American Express, All Japan Airlines, Uniqlo and probably the most shameless example, a scene where two characters are talking to each other in a car that honestly felt like an excuse to give Audi a corporate blowjob.

The motion capture, with the character models handled by Yusuke Suzuki (Final Fantasy X, Kingdom Hearts), is pretty damn good for the most part and shows how far CGI has come in depicting realistic designs, though they still suffer from the uncanny valley effect plaguing all realistic looking CG characters. They don’t look very stylized, will likely date quickly, and the effect of trying to make clearly animated characters look real just feels off. At least in Advent Children, while the character designs were fairly realistic in terms of build, they still had a stylised look to the faces, avoiding the problem of the animation dating quickly.

This is not helped by poor lip-syncing, with mouth movements not matching the audio, as the 3D scan actors are not the same as the voice actors, creating a feeling of awkwardness. Seriously, if your going to a motion capture animation, allow the voice actor to be involved in the 3D scan process, to end up with better lip-syncing and to have more natural mouth movements.

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children used the advantages of animation to create action sequences that were dazzling, well framed, over the top and had a kinetic quality one would find in wuxia films, except with pretty boys wielding spiky hair and giant swords. By far the worst part of the cinematography in Kingsglaive is unfortunately the action sequences, as they go for the style of action one find in films such as Taken 3, with hectic shaky cam, poor framing and incomprehensible editing, which is very disappointing.

For example, there is a 10 second shot of Libertus fighting a monster on the battlefield, and there’s 16 cuts, making it hard to understand what’s going on. In the same scene, where Nyx is fighting Cerberus, there is around 28 cuts that have poor framing and is so incomprehensible the viewers are likely to be baffled. In the medium of animation, using shaky cam for action sequences is quite frankly a stupid idea, since there are limitless possibilities to creating great action set pieces, as shown in films such as Sword of the Stranger, End of Evangelion, Redline and Akira.

Another issue with Kingsglaive is the editing, handled by Keiichi Kojima (Final Fantasy XIII, Front Mission Evolved) with scenes constantly cutting to black, 46 times in total, making it feel more like a modern movie trailer and gives Kingsglaive the feeling of a poorly strung collection of cut scenes that so happens to have been released in cinemas.

Its almost as if the editors just recently discovered how to cut and fade to black in Adobe Premiere, meaning the editing lacks flow, structure and overall feels amateurish.

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The score was composed by John R. Graham (The Forger, Bitch Slap), with additional tracks by Yoko Shinomura (Super Mario RPG, Xenoblade Chronicles). While a few tracks such as “Prologue”, “Luna” and “Somnus (Instrumental version)” do stand out and have effective composition, a lot of the score sounds like temp music one would hear from a Hollywood superhero blockbuster. Perfectly fine and suits the film, but is not very memorable and feels a bit safe. Compare this to the soundtrack of Advent Children, which featured the work of famed series composer Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy I-X, The Last Story), featuring strong use of piano, strings, violin and chorus that results in nice melodies and haunting cues that stand out, such as “The Promised Land”, “Divinity II” and “Cloud Smiles”. It probably helps that the Advent Children soundtrack featured remixes from the original game. There is one scene that does feature the Final Fantasy Opening Theme that feels weirdly placed in the background during a crowd scene.

The voice acting in Kingsglaive is a bit of a mixed bag, with famed actors such as Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad, Eye in the Sky), Lena Headey (Game of Thrones, 300) and Sean Bean (GoldenEye, Les Miserables) acting as the lead characters, whereas many of the minor characters are voiced by people known for working on anime English dubs, such as Wendee Lee (Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Fushigi Yugi), Dan Woren (Persona 3, Bleach), Jamieson K. Price (Planetes, Metropolis) and Michelle Ruff (Your Name, Sailor Moon). The acting all over the place, with some of the acting coming across as pretty decent and well acted, while others don’t fare so well.

For example, Sean Bean’s performance as King Regis is very commanding and fitting of the character, giving his character a sincerity and authoritative quality that makes him a convincing ruler. It’s a shame that he isn’t playing Regis in the game, acting is some of the best in the film. However, in the case with Libertus, voiced by Liam Mulvey, his performance felt very cringe worthy, often sounding like he has something in mouth, always out of breath, and whenever he tries to do a dramatic scene, comes across as forced and unnatural.

The sound design and SFX are done pretty well, with the sound of wind, the clashing of swords, gunfire, screaming soldiers, vehicle sounds and explosions doing a fine job of adding to the scene, yet never becoming distracting.

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Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is a baffling mess of a film. While the visuals and audio work is beautifully effective,  the movie does a very poor job at getting one interested in playing the game, given its meant to act as a prologue. It has badly written characters with poorly explained backstories and motivations, too much exposition, incomprehensible fight choreography, feels rushed with many plot holes and has incredibly questionable editing. As a prologue, it doesn’t work, making me question if the game will suffer from the same writing problems and inconsistencies that this film suffers from. It had a lot of potential, but it ultimately feels like a missed opportunity, feeling more like an extended trailer for the game that was created from poorly truncated cliff notes. While die-hard fans will appreciate some of the call-backs and references to the games, as a film, it is neither engaging or exciting, and combined with all of it’s writing, editing, pacing and characterization problems, makes the audience feel dumbfounded and frustrated.

2/5

If for some reason, after reading this review, you still feel inclined to see it, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is available on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as available for streaming on Amazon Prime, Xbox Live and Playstation Network. The film is also included for free with the Deluxe Edition of Final Fantasy XV.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kingsglaive-Final-Fantasy-Blu-ray-Region/dp/B01H1TZVII/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1488751972&sr=8-1&keywords=KINGSGLAIVE+FINAL+FANTASY

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kingsglaive-Final-Fantasy-Aaron-Paul/dp/B01L0GIDRY/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1488753273&sr=8-2&keywords=kingsglaive+final+fantasy

http://www.game.co.uk/en/final-fantasy-xv-deluxe-edition-only-at-game-1122796

Doukyusei -Classmates- Review (2016, Shouko Nakamura)

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Throughout the history of of artistic expression, many works covering LGBT themes have been made, reacting against the status quo of society. In the short time that cinema has existed, there have been much lauded gay film makers such as Kenneth Anger and John Waters, making experimental and often quirky films representing the LGBT community.  More recently, films such as A Single Man (2009), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Philadelphia (1993), Weekend (2011), Carol (2015), Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) and the recently Oscar nominated Moonlight (2016), have explored the lives of those who happen to be different, allowing the members of these communities to have their voices heard.

In the field of animation made within the Western hemisphere, recent television shows such as Steven Universe, Adventure Time, The Legend of Korra, Gravity Falls, and movies such as Paranorman and Zootropolis, have all included various depictions of the gay community.  This is sometimes done to either make it a major part of the storyline, or simply as a way to add diversity and realism to the cast.

Japan has always been curious about LGBT subject matter, dating back to the 1600s with ukiyo-e artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Nishikawa Sukenobu, Hishikawa Muronobu, Chokyosai Eiri, Hiroge and even Hokusai, who would sometimes produce art exploring gay and lesbian sexuality. Homosexuality was even encouraged amongst the samurai.

This fascination with homosexuality has continued into modern pop culture, with manga artists such as Riyoko Ikeda, Moto Hagio and CLAMP, all making series that contain various forms of homosexuality. As far as anime is concerned, shows such as Yuri on Ice, Revolutionary Girl Utena, From the New World, Wandering Son, Cardcaptor Sakura, Sweet Blue Flowers and even Sailor Moon usually have characters that are with in the LGBT sector, allowing audiences to delve into the character’s inner psyche and their relationships. Many of these shows have gone on to have big fan followings, with many fans praising these works for exploring subjects that have been otherwise considered sinful or taboo in Western culture. Within the medium, there are several sub-genres that specifically explore LGBT romance and relationships, like Shounen Ai, Shoujo Ai, Yuri and Yaoi.

On February 20th, 2016, the film Doukyusei (Classmates in English) debuted in Japanese cinemas. It was produced by A-1 Pictures (Anthem of the Heart, Anohana) and Aniplex (Fate/zero, Gurren Lagann), and it is based on a 1 volume manga by Asumiko Nakamura (Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist). It is the first feature length film directed by Shouko Nakamura, who previously directed episodes of Mawaru Penguindrum and Kill la Kill.

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On a hazy summer afternoon in Tokyo, Hikaru Kusakabe, a second year music student attending an all boys school, is doing vocal practice for an upcoming chorus festival. While singing, he notices that bespectacled honour student, Rihito Sajo, is not singing, giving Kusakabe the impression that he doesn’t like singing. After classes have finished for the day, Kusakabe is just about to head off to band practice, until he decides to head back to get his lunch bag. He notices Sajo nervously reading the score notes and singing alone, and decides to join in to help. With both getting along, they agree to hang out and practice in free time. As the days go by, Kusakabe and Sajo become friends, as they offer up casual conversation, practice singing and they walk home together. Their mutual feelings for each other elevate, and on a serene night at the park, peak when least expected.

The story of Doukyusei is told in a series of character-driven vignettes, similar to 5 Centimeters per Second (2007), where over the course of the senior year, Kusakabe and Sajo’s relationship gradually becomes more intimate. As this is within the Shounen-Ai (Boy’s Love) sub-genre, questions around the relationship are brought up and explored in a gentle, tender and sedate fashion. One can compare this approach to telling a story about a gay couple to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011).

While the romance story being told here isn’t anything original, through the initial attraction, tender and intimate moments, to the internal and personal conflicts, it is written very well and allows the viewer to become engaged within the relationship between the two lead characters, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. With Kusakabe being outgoing and direct, while Sajo is reserved and demure, the relationship is shown as loving, emotional, caring and touching, making their dynamic feel genuine, which is ultimately the core of the film.

Because of how much of the film focuses on the two main characters, smaller elements of the story are either not fully explored or feel rushed. Without being spoilerific, this makes one moment feel less important. There is also a minor character, Manabu Hara, the music teacher who seems very intriguing and fascinating, and is only given a small amount of screen time, a shame, since more moments of bonding would have been nice. These issues mainly stem from the 60 minute run time. While that allows the core relationship to be the focus, an extra 30 minutes to provide extra world building would have helped.

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With art direction handled by Chieko Nakamura (Revolutionary Girl Utena, Yurikuma Arashi) and colour design by Ritsuko Utagawa (Baccano, Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie), Doukyusei has an aesthetic that is washed out and easy on the eyes. Although the animation is quite simplistic compared to A-1 Picture’s other work, the style fits very well in presenting a calm, sedate and gentle vibe. Rather than the design having a very overstated and brash quality, it is often understated, with many scenes having a focus on primary colours. One such example includes having a classroom surrounded by desks, curtains, walls, lockers with light watercolours, whereas the outside is plain white light, making it feel naturalistic, calm and nostalgic.

The backgrounds of the high school, the park, neighbourhoods, bars and train stations do a solid job at conveying a down to earth, naturalistic vibe that one doesn’t usually find in Western animation. The trees and plants are incredibly well detailed, in a picturesque sense that makes the world feel relatable, with an added impressionistic touch. This approach to showing the life of the characters felt organic, akin to the flashback sequences in Only Yesterday.

The character animation and designs, overseen by Akemi Hayashi (Fruits Basket, Peacemaker Kurokane) is expressive and has a delicate nuance to the character’s movements that tell us about their personality. Kusakabe’s carefree personality is shown through the loose and floaty movement of his legs while running, while Sajo’s demure and observant behaviour is presented through the way he calmly walks. Meanwhile, Asumiko Nakamura’s original art style is reflected very well with the character designs. They have been well adapted to the anime medium, having a very pleasant looking, delicate, loose and gentle aesthetic that firmly puts them in the aesthetic of bishonen (pretty boy) design. The use of split screens, highlighting important moments in the character’s life is a nice call back to the oeuvre of Osamu Dezaki (Rose of Versailles, Golgo 13), while also paying respect to the original manga.

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The sound direction by Akiko Fujita (Tailenders, Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt) begins in a sedate way, starting off the film with the sound of wind and cicadas chirping in the summer heat. This ambience is at times quiet sounding, at times loud, depending on the shot and the focus they want the audience to have. In other words, prominent, yet not overbearing. Occasionally, it will disappear, which is quite noticeable, punctuating the action at specific moments, drawing the viewer’s attention to specific aspects of the story. The quality of the recordings is very clear, crisp and warm, with the arrangements being simple yet purposeful.

The voice acting is naturalistic, yet emotive, with monologues at times being half sung to show the mood of the character. The dialogue is mixed subtly, yet done in a realistic manner. It often uses close or distant mic-ing to focus attention on certain characters, rather than the shot. For example, the teacher can be in the background with students responding to his words in the foreground, yet the teacher sounds close and the students sound distant. There’s very few layers of sound used. For example, a reduced, minimalist ambience and the dialogue of the characters being the only sounds in a scene, making the scene feel like it exists in a bubble. At times this bubble can be interrupted by the soundtrack coming in and cutting out all the dialogue and ambience, creating an otherworldly vibe.

The score is composed and performed by acoustic guitarist, Kotaro Oshio, and it is the first film soundtrack of his career. The guitar playing is beautiful, relaxed and presented in a way that’s adds to the atmosphere of the film, and sounds so nice it almost feels like its playing itself. All in all, the use of sound creates a very dreamlike feel to the everyday life that the characters go through.

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Doukyusei is a very simple, yet considered film with all of the elements, with nice character designs, animation, story and sound all contributing to the overall feel, without ever being overbearing. While some more world building and exploration of side characters would have been appreciated and added some extra depth, the core characters felt fleshed and their romance was effectively portrayed. Within the sector of LGBT cinema, this films a very tender, heart-warming and simple story, where the protagonists simply happen to be gay, rather than being overly preachy. In a Western world, Doukyusei is a welcome change, from the live action centric catalogue of LGBT works, using animation to beautifully portray a very genuine relationship.

4/5

If you are curious in checking out Doukyusei, a region free Blu-ray has been released by Aniplex of America with English subtitles, complete with Trailers and commercials, illustration cards and a deluxe booklet.

http://doukyuseimovie.com/blu-ray/

While it is not available in the UK, heres hoping that it gets licensed by Anime Limited, as this film deserves a decent release over here.