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From Up on Poppy Hill


From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

I don’t envy those who have chosen to follow in the footsteps of successful parents in the same field. Apparently, neither does Gorō Miyazaki who was long said to be reluctant to follow his parents, and specifically his legendary director of a father, into the world of animation. So against the notion was Miyazaki that he went to school for agriculture and took up landscaping for many years. It wasn’t until he was 39 that he made his directorial debut with the Studio Ghibli film Tales From Earthsea. It is said he worked his way into the role of director, first starting off as a storyboard artist which impressed his bosses enough to promote him to director. This was said to have gone against the wishes of his father, Hayao Miyazaki, who felt the younger Miyazaki wasn’t ready. As a result, the two did not collaborate at all on the film, though the father gave the film a positive endorsement upon release.

The film community was less kind to Tales From Earthsea. Commercially it was a success, and there were some positive reviews for it initially, but since it has come to be viewed as probably the worst film released by Studio Ghibli. It’s the only one with a negative rating on aggregate review websites, and it would not have been surprising to see Gorō Miyazaki return to a lesser role. He did not though, and returned in 2011 with a new film; From Up on Poppy Hill. Unlike with his first film, From Up on Poppy Hill was a collaboration with father Hayao Miyazaki, whom together with Keiko Niwa, wrote the screenplay for the feature. As a result, it feels very much like a Hayao Miyazaki work as it features a hard-working female protagonist trying to make sense of adolescence on her path towards adulthood.


Umi and Shun’s first encounter leaves Umi feeling embarrassed and angry.

Umi Matsuzaki is a sixteen year old high school student who lives at, and more or less runs, her grandmother’s boarding house. She is the eldest of three girls and takes on a maternal role to her younger sisters while their mother is away in the United States studying abroad. Her father was the captain of a trade ship that was sunk during the Korean War. Every morning since she was a little girl, Umi has risen early to raise signal flags wishing safe passage for all sailors. It was a practice she undertook while her father was alive, and continues even past his death.

The film takes the viewer to a post-war Japan, where those wishing to usher the country into a new era are clashing with those who wish to preserve history. At the center of this is a clubhouse located at the high school. It’s an old, dilapidated, building that some would like to see bulldozed, but the students who use it view it as a haven for their various clubs that occupy it. One such club is the school newspaper, and within it a poem about Umi’s flags appears one morning. A chance encounter that day with the newspaper’s editor, Shun Kazama, initially sours Umi to the young man, but she soon finds herself wondering about the poem and if Shun was the author.


A tugboat proudly responds to Umi’s signal flags, leading to a poem appearing in the school newspaper.

The two end up striking up a fast friendship, due in part to Umi’s sister wanting to meet Shun following a daredevil stunt he performed at lunch the prior day. Umi was put-off by that same stunt, finding it reckless and foolish, but she comes to be drawn to Shun pretty easily. She agrees to help out with the paper, and things seem to be progressing the way a lot of young romances do, but soon something from Shun’s past pops up and things get complicated.

When the issue first surfaces, Shun becomes withdrawn from Umi and pays her only the bare minimum attention as she and her friends start helping out with the restoration of the clubhouse in an effort to change attitudes towards it. Umi is confused and hurt, not knowing what she did and interpreting Shun’s attitude towards her as being founded in anger. It’s a pretty relatable situation for anyone who went through high school and the awkward start to what seemed like a promising relationship. It’s a strength of so many Studio Ghibli pictures, the ability to authentically portray young adulthood, and they’re so well versed in doing it that it still translates across the ocean to a non Japanese audience.


The rundown old clubhouse is a character itself.

I don’t want to go into detail regarding Shun’s secret that he keeps from Umi as I don’t wish to spoil anything for those who have yet to see the film, though I’ll say it’s nothing nefarious or duplicitous. The silent treatment routine doesn’t last long, and the characters are forced to confront the new conflict, though just as quickly they’re ushered into a subplot about saving their old clubhouse. The clubhouse plot felt the most contrived of anything in the film, conjuring up memories of poorly executed teen dramas from the 80’s and 90’s where the characters seek to preserve a place of refuge for themselves. It’s not very compelling, but serves its purpose to force our two main characters into an awkward situation where they must work together and not let their personal lives disrupt their shared goal. The overarching conflict between the two is resolved in the end, and it was somewhat anti-climactic and not as rewarding as it probably could have been. It’s resolved in such a neat and tidy manner that I felt the issue wasn’t given its due. It could have been explored in greater detail, but perhaps those involved felt it couldn’t have been without straying into some weird, possibly taboo, places.

The resolution of the film may have been unsatisfying, but it didn’t ruin what came before it for me. The interactions between Umi and Shun are what drive the picture. We feel their quiet affection for each other as their relationship blossoms and we can cut the tension with a knife when things go wrong. They’re both strong, sympathetic, individuals and the film is able to say a lot with small, quiet, scenes. The supporting characters around them are only portrayed in the simplest of tones. We get some sense of the camaraderie that exists amongst the women staying at the boarding house, but we’re only given the bare minimum. Sometimes Ghibli movies are guilty of overstaying their welcome and upping the runtime needlessly, but this is the rare film in the studio’s catalog that probably could have benefitted from another twenty minutes or so (it’s listed runtime is 92 minutes).


Studio Ghibli’s scenic visuals have become routine, though no less breathtaking.

From Up on Poppy Hill is another Studio Ghibli production where the localization for english speaking audiences was not handled by Disney, but by GKIDS, who also handled other non-Hayao Miyazaki pictures like When Marnie Was There and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The GKIDS localizations tend to possess less star power than the Disney counterparts, but they’re of no less quality. I’m of the mind that voice acting and traditional acting in front of a camera are of limited relation; success with one does not guarantee success with the other. The cast assembled by GKIDS is talented and professional, and I very much enjoyed my viewing experience.

The soundtrack for the film is perhaps understated. Composed by Satoshi Takebe, it won’t be mistaken with the works of other Ghibli composers, but it’s not a fault of the picture. From Up on Poppy Hill is a grounded, quiet, story that does not need grandiose pieces of music to fill gaps between scenes. What’s here works, even if it’s not particularly memorable. The visuals in the film are of the same, superior, quality of other Ghibli works. The backgrounds are lush and vibrant and the characters expressive, even if a bit simple. My only complaint would be some awkward walking animations early in the picture, that were either absent from the rest of the film or just not picked up on by me as I became engrossed with what I was seeing.

I have some valid criticisms about From Up on Poppy Hill, but at the end of the day this is still a film I very much enjoyed. Studio Ghibli is simultaneously both masters of the fantastic and the mundane. This is one of the studio’s simpler pictures, and it’s a well done tale about two youths navigating the sea of young adulthood without resorting to corn or cliché. The conflict is legitimate, and not young adult camp, even if it’s resolved in perhaps a far too convenient manner. Perhaps it was a quiet, grounded, picture like this one needed to extract the talent present in Gorō Miyazaki, as opposed to the more fantastic Tales From Earthsea. The younger Miyazaki has not returned to the director’s chair since From Up on Poppy Hill for a Studio Ghibli feature, instead taking his talents to the small screen with Sanzoku no Musume Rōnya. Hopefully, he does get the opportunity to direct another feature as I very much look forward to what he does next.

My Neighbor Totoro


My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

I am the father of an all most two year old boy who loves watching The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on Disney Jr. I’m constantly trying to find new things for him to watch and get excited about just so I don’t have to watch more Mickey Mouse. And it’s not as if that show is particularly bad or anything, it’s just made for young kids and isn’t supposed to be stimulating for adult viewers. I’ve had some success getting him to watch Looney Tunes and even The Simpsons. He’ll rarely ask for either like he will with Mickey, but he’ll let me have them on the television with minimal fuss. The only show he really, actively, watches though is still Mickey, and that’s probably because of his enthusiasm for it and because the show is interactive with the characters constantly addressing the viewer. When he watches something like The Simpsons with me, it’s mostly in silence and he’ll occasionally point at an object in the show and tell me what it is.

For the first time in his short life, my son actively watched a movie. Often to get him to watch something non-Mickey, I’ll get it started on the TV before getting him up from his nap, which is what I did this past weekend with My Neighbor Totoro. I have been somewhat excitedly waiting for a time to introduce my son to this movie because it’s one I have a lot of affection for. A stuffed Totoro was even the first toy I ever bought for him before he was born. I’ve always been pretty certain that he would like Totoro, to a point, but I honestly felt like we were still a few years away from that day. To my surprise, I got him up from his nap and put him in our big recliner with a cup of juice without him even mentioning Mickey. He hadn’t been feeling well so I wasn’t sure what version of my son I would get, but he didn’t object to what was on the television and I went into the kitchen to finish up some dishes I had started before his nap ended. As I was busying myself, I could hear him laughing. I stopped and watched and he was smiling at the television. He would giggle when he was supposed to, he’d point to things on the screen, and bob his head to the music. What seems like a small, insignificant, moment is amazing through the eyes of a parent who is observing their child do something for the first time. He was engaging with a film, and it was beautiful. I chalk it up to the magic of Studio Ghibli and it’s extremely talented director and co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki.


No wonder why my kid liked this one, who wouldn’t want friends like these?

My Neighbor Totoro is a charming tale about two young girls, Satsuki and Mei. They have just recently moved to an old home in the countryside with their father while their mother is recovering from an illness at a nearby hospital. The precocious youngsters are intensely curious about their surroundings and new home and take to the country with intense optimism. This is a film devoid of any kind of cynicism. Satsuki is the older sister and helps out her dad around the house and also by looking after Mei, who I would guess is around 3 or 4. When Satsuki is in school and her father at work, a local old woman affectionately called Grannie looks after Mei.


A little house in the country side.

Very early in the film the girls take-note of strange creatures in their new home. These soot spirits and their existence are not challenged by the adults in the story, and we see their father encourages his girls to think like children by doing so himself. The girls seem a little afraid at first, but their dad tells them laughter is the best cure for fear, and their laughter drives the little soot spirits away. When Satsuki is away at school though, Mei happens upon the dwellers of the forrest and the massive, cuddly, Totoro who resides there. When she tells her sister about the Totoro, Satsuki is skeptical, but once again their dad is encouraging and has the girls thank the forrest for allowing them to live with it. It’s hard not to imagine that Miyazaki, a noted environmentalist, didn’t see himself in the father character present here.


Mei in hot pursuit of two little forrest spirits.

The film follows the two girls closely and unfolds at a brisk pace. It’s an interesting tale in that there is very little conflict, danger, or suspense. There’s some implied with the film’s climax, but it’s never deceptive. My Neighbor Totoro takes your hand from the start to guide you through its story and we trust it implicitly. Perhaps more interesting, is that it all works so well. Someone who has never seen the picture would probably interpret my description of it as dull, but the film is so charming and positive that watching it is like a relaxing soak in a hot tub; it’s simple, obvious, but oh so good.

The art direction is wonderful, and the character designs for the forrest spirits are delightfully simple. Totoro and his little buddies are a bit rabbit-like in appearance, though cat-like in behavior. They’re cute, and it’s obvious why stuffed dolls of them exist in the first place. The Catbus, which appeared about halfway through the film, is pretty wild to take-in, but so much fun. It adds a little absurdity to the film that fits right in with the sometimes silly tone. That tone is mostly captured through Mei, who is perhaps the most authentic young person I’ve ever seen brought to life in an animated movie. Her movements, facial expressions, and behavior feel so spot-on and really add life to her character. I’m honestly a little sad whenever she’s absent from a scene, and it’s her character that lead to the biggest reactions from my own little guy as we watched.


Just two kids riding in a cat bus.

The forrest scenery is lush and dominated by shades of green. I love this countryside as presented here because there’s just so much nature. This is the kind of film that makes me think I’d be okay with a more relaxed lifestyle that isn’t so plugged-in. My copy of the film is on DVD, and Disney finally released a high definition version a couple of years ago, but I haven’t upgraded yet. The film is gorgeous, though I notice a little grain at times and I wonder if that would be present on the Blu Ray. Normally, I enjoy a little film grain and would prefer to watch a movie on actual film than digital, but this picture is so vibrant that I find myself longing for as clean and pristine an image as possible. The film’s score is done by Joe Hisaishi, and it’s effectively whimsical and beautifully composed. Hisaishi and Miyazaki have such an amazing ability to complement one another with music and picture and this rather simple score might be my favorite of the Ghibli movies. The closing title song is adorably sweet and poppy. It probably will appeal to children more than adults, but I find it undeniably charming.


Mei’s first encounter with Totoro.

This being a Walt Disney localized release, the english dub is of high quality and well done. Sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning play Satsuki and Mei. Tim Daly and Lea Solonga play the parents, and Hollywood’s go-to man for animal sounds, Frank Welker, plays Totoro. The cast is probably light on star power in comparison with other dubs of Ghibli films, but the actors are more than capable and make watching the english version of the film a real delight.

The film, at its heart, is also probably one that appeals more to children than adults, which makes it unique among Studio Ghibli films which don’t obviously focus on children the way Disney does. At least, my head tells me that My Neighbor Totoro is indeed a children’s movie, but I am so moved and delighted by it every time I view it that my heart has all but convinced me that this is a film anyone can enjoy and fall in love with. That doesn’t mean it’s a film for everybody, my own wife finds it criminally boring and weird, but it’s not a film confined by demographic. My Neighbor Totoro is a wonderfully charming story beautifully accented by gorgeous visuals and a moving score. It’s fantasy, but understated fantasy, and the movie effortlessly compels the viewer to buy into everything that’s on screen. It’s in some ways a perfect film, without obvious flaws, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Studio Ghibli is a cultural institution in its native Japan. It’s credited with the anime revival of the 1980’s and for popularizing the form in and outside of Japan. Many of its films have gone on to influence not just anime, but other works of animation as well with its characters even making cameos in Pixar films. Studio Ghibli was officially founded in 1985, but many consider its beginning to be with the film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Released in 1984, it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki and future Ghibli director Isao Takahata was named producer. The film’s success is essentially what founded Studio Ghibli with most of the crew joining the studio.

Nausicaä is a film that almost didn’t happen. Fresh off his well received directorial debut in Lupin III:  Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki was approached to direct another feature length anime picture by Animage. Miyazaki came up with the concept for Nausicaä then, but the studio wasn’t interested and the project was aborted. Miyazaki took Nausicaä to the manga form where he was able to build up a fanbase for the property leading to another opportunity to bring the story to the anime form.


Nausicaä atop her glider.

It’s easy to see why Nausicaä is considered the spiritual beginning for Studio Ghibli. It goes beyond the fact that it’s a feature-length anime production featuring names that would become synonymous with Ghibli. The film, thematically, is very much in line with a great many of Ghibli’s films, most obviously the one’s directed by Miyazaki. The film contains a female protagonist with a Buddhist-like point of view towards nature and the people around her. The film can simply be described as an environmental picture that also strongly endorses pacifism, subject matter that would be covered in other Miyazaki works with the most obvious being Princess Mononoke. The film’s themes are clear and easy for any viewer, even the very young, to pick up on. The film’s themes are so obvious and central to the plot that it’s one of weaknesses as well as Miyazaki would become better skilled at relaying his message in future films with more skill and subtlety. The film’s directness sometimes leads to stilted dialogue and some uninteresting villains.


In the path of an enraged Ohm is not someplace you want to be.

Beyond the film’s sometimes amateur story-telling, there aren’t a lot of negatives to be had. The film focuses on the princess Nausicaä, who lives in a small dessert village on the outskirts of the poisoned forest. Mankind is forced to live in a world dominated by insects with the most formidable being the massive, tank-like Ohm, following an apocalyptic event occurring a thousand years before the events of the film. These insects are hated and feared by most of humanity and the toxic forests they inhabit slowly kill the people who live close by. Warring factions of humanity eventually bring harm to Nausicaä’s home with her people becoming casualties of war when a prison ship crashes on the outskirts of the village. Nausicaä is able to rescue one of the passengers who instructs her to destroy the ship’s cargo: the remains of a Giant Warrior which brought about the apocalypse of a thousand years ago. The owners of the ship, the Tolmeki empire, come after the ship and its contents bring their war to Nausicaä’s doorstep. The princess is pressed into battle and even takes human life in the process, but it’s all for naught. The Tolmekians, lead by a princess of their own named Kushana, wish to revive the Giant Warrior to destroy the poisoned forest. The village priest deems this unwise as doing so would only incite the Ohm who’s massive stampedes have brought great destruction to humanity in the past.

The Tolmekians are also embroiled in conflict with the Pejite people. Kushana, taking Nausicaä as hostage to ensure the cooperation of her people, and her airships encounter the Pejite which allows Nausicaä to escape. Circumstance forces her into working with a Pejite pilot and the two discover an amazing secret beneath the toxic forest. Nausicaä’s journey becomes one of self-discovery for herself and her world. With few people even interested in understanding the Ohm and the forests they dwell in, she finds herself as the only one who can prevent a second cataclysmic event that would surely doom her people as well as others. The machinations of the film’s plot are easy to follow and easy to predict. Still, the end result is not particularly harmed by this as the film presents a satisfying climax and conclusion for the story.


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

As a protagonist, Nausicaä (voices by Alison Lohman in the english dub) is easy to like and understand. Her sense of adventure is contagious and represented most by her mastery of a unique jet-propelled glider she often zips through the sky on. She has a special empathy with nature which is shown early in the film. She’s fearless and possesses a strong conviction for what is right. She kills early in the film out of rage and self-defense and is affected by it. Through her actions we can see she would make an excellent killer if that was her aim, but chooses a different and noble path. Her closest ally is the sword master Lupa (Patrick Stewart), who also seems to embody a form of pacifism as we don’t see him kill in his parts of the film, though we see him demonstrate his incredible talent with a blade in each hand. Asbel (Shia LaBeouf), the Pejite pilot Nausicaä befriends, is our set-in-his-ways character who learns to see the world through a new lens during his trials. He’s the character most affected by Nausicaä and her outlook on life.

The film is set with many suspenseful moments like daring escapes from doomed aircraft and stunning rescues. Much of the film takes place in the air as the most prevalent piece of technology in the film are the massive airships piloted by the Tolmekians and Pejite. Anyone familiar with Miyazaki’s works know he’s a lover of aviation so it’s not surprising to find it here. When the film is not in the air the setting either shifts to vast desserts or the wondrous toxic forests. The forests are portrayed in cool shades of green and blue with mostly imaginative looking flora, some of which looks like it belongs under the sea. The look of the film is a bit dated, which should be expected of a thirty-year old picture. Still, it’s not unpleasant to look at and it still has some wonderful moments. The audio is also a bit dated, mostly in the sound effects department, but the score (Joe Hisaishi) is easily the part of the film that best stands the test of time. The english dub is also handled well by Disney and the Blu Ray release contains the Japanese audio for purists.

Anime fans owe a great deal to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Not only did its popularity and success in Japan help to pave the way for future anime releases, but its butchered original western release helped to convince Miyazaki and others to oversea the localization of future films. Studio Ghibli’s famed “no cuts” policy is born from Nausicaä and I think all fans of animation can agree that’s something we’re all happy is in place. It’s hard to separate a film, or any work of art, from its legacy, but in doing so Nausicaä still holds up us a nice picture worthy to rest in the library of Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli films. As a legacy piece, it’s a fascinating look at the beginnings of a great director and a fun piece of nostalgia for animation buffs around the world.

When Marnie Was There (film)

When Marnie Was There (2014)

When Marnie Was There (2014)

In my review of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya I detailed the state of Studio Ghibli and its decision to suspend all production on animated features. It was a sobering bit of news and remains so as the studio certainly seems to possess enough talent following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki to press on and a film like When Marnie Was There only reinforces that thought.

When Marnie Was There is based on a novel by Joan G. Robinson. I had never heard of it nor read it so my experience with the story is entirely via the Studio Ghibli film. The film is written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi in his second go-around as director for a Studio Ghibli film, the first being the very good The Secret World of Arrietty. Even though this is only his second turn as director, Yonebayashi has been with the company for over a decade working on several other animated films in various roles. Takatsuga Muramatsu handles the music for the film making the film feel like a promotion of the studio’s younger talent. The film is wonderfully animated and visually resembles very strongly another recent work by the studio, The Wind Rises. Like that tale, When Marnie Was There is a mostly grounded film from a visual sense and lacks some of the studio’s more wildly imaginative settings and characters.

The film follows Anna, a young girl of about thirteen who has a hard time fitting in. The film never explicitly states it, but she’s quite obviously depressed at the start of the film and is paralyzed by a social anxiety order that seems to manifest itself in the form of severe asthma. As the film progresses, we learn the root cause of most of her issues is her sense of abandonment as she lost her parents and grandmother at a young age and has been in foster care with the same family for most of her life. She is having a particularly hard time coping with a recent discovery about her foster parents that lessens her sense of self worth. She states that she hates herself, and following another asthma attack early in the film, her foster mother decides it may be good for her health to visit some relatives in the countryside.

The film is visually quite earthy, with many lush and well-detailed backgrounds.

The film is visually quite earthy, with many lush and well-detailed backgrounds.

It’s in the countryside where the film’s plot gets rolling along. Anna stays with the Oiwas, relatives of her foster parents, in a seaside town located somewhere near Kushiro and Nemuro. It’s a small, quiet town located on the coast. Her family tries to get her involved with the local girls her age but Anna struggles to make friends. She soon finds herself drawn to an old, rundown mansion on the coast that she enjoys drawing from the shore. It’s there she encounters Marnie, a lonely young girl about the same age as Anna. Marie tells Anna she dreamed of her and the two form a fast friendship. Marnie is the child of wealthy socialite parents who are rarely home leaving Marnie in the care of an abusive nanny and two maids. Anna and Marnie have an instant connection and the two are free to express their love for one another. It’s a sisterly kind of love, but when Marnie invites Anna to a party her parents are throwing and dances with a young man, Anna is seen as jealous and possessive of her new friend. It becomes obvious to the viewer that Anna has never had a real friend before, and it’s touching to see Marnie wordlessly pick up on this and tenderly sooth her friend.

What the film doesn’t obviously address for a long time is the nature of Marnie’s existence. During the day, the old mansion where she lives is run-down and abandoned, but at night, time seems to rewind around the old house and restore it to its former beauty. As the viewer, we’re left to wonder if Marnie and the people in the mansion are ghosts or if everything is a product of Anna’s imagination. Anna seems to think Marnie is an imaginary friend, as she’s confronted later in the film by a young girl who’s family has purchased Marnie’s mansion and is renovating it. The girl, Sayaka, notices Anna staring up at her room and mistakes her for Marnie. She knows that name because she found an old diary by a girl of that same name when her parents bought the mansion. Anna and Sayaka soon become determined to unravel the mystery of Marnie. I do not wish to spoil anything further, but I’ll say it’s a very satisfying tale and the film answers all of the questions it poses which helps give it a sense of closure. Repeated viewings are also satisfying because knowing the end adds added context to a lot of what happens during the film.

The mansion seems to call out to Anna beckoning her to investigate.

The mansion seems to call out to Anna beckoning her to investigate.

The film may contain a mystery as part of its central plot, but it’s really secondary to the story of friendship between Anna and Marnie. Both characters possess tragedy about them and both are instantly likable even though both also possess obvious flaws. Anna’s inability to communicate with others is a frustrating flaw for the viewer, but also a heartbreaking one. Meanwhile, Marnie is so clearly neglected that it’s sad to see just how happy she is when she’s able to sneak outside at night knowing what awaits her when she eventually returns home. The film’s reluctance to really address how Marnie is able to exist allows it to focus on the growing friendship, and all of the trials and tribulations a new friendship creates. Once Anna becomes so attached to Marnie an anxiety brews. When Marnie disappears for a few days Anna immediately assumes it’s because of something she did to anger her friend. The film makes it easy to think back on one’s own adolescence and recall similar feelings.

The film moves at a comfortable pace and the english dub is well done, even if the film was not picked up by Disney for release outside of Japan. Universal handled it, which also handled the release for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and the english cast features some notable names such as Geena Davis, Catherine O’Hare, and John C. Reilly. Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka voice Anna and Marnie, respectively, and both do an admiral job giving a voice to these characters. It is especially important that the english dub be of a high quality because it would be a true shame to mar the visual presentation of such a film with subtitles. The look is so vibrant and colorful that I often found myself delighted by even the most simple of shots. This is one of the studio’s finest productions and it’s a joy to see it was not wasted on an inferior story.

There's a lot to distract the viewer from what is at the heart of the movie: two lonely souls desperate to find a kindred spirit.

There’s a lot to distract the viewer from what is at the heart of the movie: two lonely souls desperate to find a kindred spirit.

When Marnie Was There is the kind of film that you either connect with or you don’t. I suppose for those where the film’s characters and plot do not resonate they’ll see it as a perfectly fine little film about friendship. For those able to connect with it on a more personal level will find something truly captivating and beautiful. I do not know why the film made such an impact on me, it’s not as if I could truly relate to any of the characters because of a personal experience, but I think it’s because the film was able to tastefully portray Anna’s struggles without being heavy-handed that it made everything to follow so believable. The score is impressive and there isn’t a scene in the film where the music isn’t perfectly suited. Even the closing track, “Fine on the Outside,” is utilized at just the right moment and feels wonderfully suited to close out the picture. When Marnie Was There possesses the heart and magic that has made Studio Ghibli one of the premiere production houses in the world when it comes to animation. It is my sincere hope that it is not the final feature from the studio, but if it turns out to be, it’s a wonderful way to cap an unprecedented run.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Hayao Miyazaki is the most celebrated director of Studio Ghibli, and one of the most celebrated directors of animation in the entire world. Lurking just behind him, however, is the immensely talented Isao Takahata. Takahata is the director of the delightful and underrated Pom Poko, as well as the heartbreaking and immensely affecting Grave of the Fireflies, one of the very best animated films of all time. When Miyazaki announced his retirement before the release of his final film, The Wind Rises, it reasoned to assume that Studio Ghibli would turn to Takahata to lead the company from the director’s chair. Apparently that is not to be, as the studio would end up announcing it was suspending development on all projects to revaluate its business strategy. Before that though, the company announced Takahata would be directing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, giving the world at least one last Studio Ghibli film directed by the immensely talented director.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is an adaptation of an old Japanese folktale known as “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” The general premise of the tale is that an old bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl inside a bamboo shoot who grows into a princess. In the film, the bamboo cutter is voiced by James Caan for the english adaptation, who finds the tiny woman in the bamboo shoot. Upon removing her she immediately becomes a baby and grows in size. He takes her home to his wife (voiced by Mary Steenburgen, making this the second time Caan and Steenburgen have portrayed a married couple, with Elf being the first) and they simply refer to the baby as Princess (Chloe-Grace Moretz). She soon starts growing rapidly and reaches her teenage years much faster than she had any right to. Her father decides she must be an actual princess, and upon returning to the forest where he found her to discover gold in the bamboo shoots, has the funds to make it happen. Princess, often referred to as Little Bamboo by her friends in the forest, would much rather live a peasant’s life among the trees but is reluctant to disobey her father. They move to the city where the princess is dubbed Kaguya and counseled in the ways of nobility. The meekness she is expected to take on does not suit her and she is best described as a fish out of water amongst the other noble folk. Her father is blind to this and pushes her to choose a suitor and marry a prince, but as the film progresses it becomes clear to the viewer that this is the path that will bring about the most unhappiness for the main character.

An ordinary bamboo cutter makes an unbelievable discovery in the forest.

An ordinary bamboo cutter makes an unbelievable discovery in the forest.

The film does a good job of portraying the father as a well-meaning individual. It would be easy for the audience to turn on him completely given how miserable his actions make his daughter feel, but we can tell he truly believes he’s doing the right thing by forcing the noble lifestyle upon her. He views his daughter, as many fathers do, in a perfect light and wants only the best for her. He’s not acting out of any sense of selfishness. He’s not a gold-digging individual or in search of fame for his own name. Unfortunately, he is just completely blind to how he’s making his daughter feel and doesn’t realize he’s deprived her of the only thing she really wants. In this, the film is sort of an anti-princess movie in comparison to the old fairy tales popularized by Disney. For many of those, the lady in waiting yearns to be a princess and is forced to wait around for her prince to come save her and remove her from a life of poverty. Today’s movie-going audience values strength of character, especially from its female leads after years of weak ones, and in this Kaguya succeeds at crafting a modern princess tale.

The running scene, my pick for best visual sequence in the film.

The running scene, my pick for best visual sequence in the film.

Unfortunately, it isn’t successful in telling a truly compelling story. The character of the princess is the best thing going for it. She is easy to root for and also easy to empathize with. Aside from her, there are few other memorable characters. Her plight is so obvious and easy to grasp onto that the many scenes of the film that illustrate just how depressed she’s become are almost unneeded. The film is dreadfully slow and plodding (a bloated 137 minutes), so much so that I would be surprised if children would generally find it immersive. Often the time-consuming nature of animation production forces shorter runtimes upon directors. This can be frustrating for the truly captivating animated films out there, but at the same time, these limitations can also have a positive impact by forcing the director to focus on the story and the most important aspects of it. Such constraints apparently were not place on Takahata, but a persuasive voice in his ear would have benefitted this film tremendously.

Perhaps the reason for the film’s extended run time is the minimalist approach to animation it takes. The film adopts a sketchbook look thats low on color and detail. Sometimes backgrounds are dominated by emptiness with maybe a few shrubs or tall grass for the woodland scenes or simple textures in the village scenes. Whether you like it or not is a matter of taste, but I personally did not find it enjoyable to view. The only time I found the sketchbook visuals gave it a compelling look was during a scene where the princess is running through the countryside. There the undefined nature of the pencils imparts a sense of speed to the scene. Mostly though, the film looks messy or even bland. With the plot dragging and not every scene feeling important, the film has a hard time relying on the visuals to set the mood or carry a particular segment of the film.

The princess, in one of her few moments of happiness in the film.

The princess, in one of her few moments of happiness in the film.

All of these short-comings lead me to the conclusion that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya would have made a better short film than a feature. The visuals, if only on screen for a short time, would not be allowed to overstay their welcome and the plot could be resolved in a more expedient fashion. I’m the type of person who often enjoys a long composition, be it book, film, or song, but I just felt this film was hard to sit through. It was not a joyful experience for me, and though I found the ultimate resolution of the film to be interesting and appropriate, by the time I happened upon it the characters had lost all of their goodwill with me. I just wasn’t entertained, which was really frustrating to me because of the track record of Takahata and Studio Ghibli. Thankfully, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is just the penultimate film (for now) for Studio Ghibli, because it would be really unfortunate for it to go out on such a low note.

Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso (1992)

Porco Rosso (1992)

It almost seems pointless at this point to sing the praises of Studio Ghibli and its famous director, the great Hayao Miyazaki. The internet is dotted with support for his brilliance and his films are readily available on US soil thanks to an agreement between Studio Ghibli and The Walt Disney Company. Even so, it’s still worthwhile repeating that Miyazaki is a supremely gifted director with an apparent synergy with the animation medium. Many of his works are animated films because that’s just what Miyazaki does. They could have easily been shot in live-action and more obviously marketed towards adults. Some possess such fantastic imagery that it’s clear to see why they are animated, while a film such as The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s most recent and possibly his last, is essentially a drama well-grounded in reality that just happens to be animated.

Porco Rosso is one of Miyazaki’s older works. Debuting in Japanese cinemas in 1992, it tells the tale of a former Italian flying ace turned bounty hunter cursed to live out the rest of his life with the face of a pig. Like The Wind Rises, it romanticizes the role of the pilot and easily could have been a live-action piece (though the pig-faced Porco may not have played as well as an actual person). And like many of Studio Ghibli’s films, it’s now available via Disney Blu Ray which is how I had the pleasure of experiencing it.

The film opens with Porco battling sky pirates: pirates that choose to attack luxury cruise ships via seaplane. The setting is post World War I and Porco has apparently been hired by the ship owners to keep the pirates away. We immediately get a sense of the film’s tone as the pirates are pretty bad at what they do and Porco is quite nonchalant in his attitude towards them. He combats them via a seaplane of his own, a beat-up old red thing that has trouble getting off the water, and has little trouble foiling their plans and freeing their hostages. There’s an obvious lack of danger throughout the sequence despite the bullets flying through the air but it doesn’t harm the enjoyment of the scene. Following this confrontation, we’re shown a little more of the setting. The pirates, looking to rid themselves of Porco once and for all, have turned to an American named Curtis. Curtis sees this as an opportunity for fame and fortune as he yearns for a career in Hollywood. He also would like to woo Porco’s longtime friend and proprietor of a local establishment frequented by pirates and pilots alike, Gina.

Preparing for take-off.

Preparing for take-off.

Curtis is an interesting character from a westerner’s point of view. Some may call his portrayal unflattering, or even offensive, as he does not possess any obvious virtues. I found it interesting to see how an American is stereotyped outside of the country and found the character pretty amusing. He is a skilled pilot and represents some sense of danger in an otherwise light-hearted film, and is a natural foil for the care-free Porco.

After a confrontation with Curtis that leaves Porco’s plane in need of repairs, Porco is forced to head back to his homeland of Italy where he is wanted for desertion. Porco’s mechanic Piccolo is introduced, along with his family and a large contingent of locals, and proves to be a very entertaining addition to the cast. What could have been a slow and boring part of the film turns into a strength. Some credit should go to the english translators who are able to come up with snappy dialogue to suit the original tone of the scenes as well as fit the mouth-flaps of the animated characters. The film builds towards a confrontation between Porco and Curtis, one Porco seems disinterested in, and plays upon the notion of pilot’s honor. There’s also a bit of a romantic angle thrown in that feels tacked on but isn’t focused on enough to be a distraction.

Porco and Fio are a natural movie pairing. I'd dog the two for being too typical an odd couple if they didn't work so well together onscreen.

Porco and Fio are a natural movie pairing. I’d dog the two for being too typical an odd couple if they didn’t work so well together onscreen.

The star of the film is clearly the Porco character, not just because of his prominence in the title but in his personality as well. He’s a flawed human but an inherently interesting one. He’s funny, boorish, yet charming. The english version features Michael Keaton as the voice of Porco. At first, I wasn’t sure his voice suited the character but I warmed to it quickly. Keaton is almost deadpan in his delivery at times, but he’s able to lend his charisma to the character through the excellent script and his superb delivery. The rest of the cast features some names familiar to those who have watched a lot of anime. Gina is played by Susan Egan, who has done a lot of work in the field of animation and is a consummate pro. Brad Garrett, who also seems to be amassing a lot of voice credits, plays the leader of the seaplane pirates and Kimberly Williams-Paisley portrays Piccolo’s granddaughter Fio with charming exuberance. Joe Hisaishi is once again the composer who utilizes a lot of period pieces to help enhance the film’s setting. The main Porco theme is one of my favorite works he’s composed as its perky nature suits the tone of the film perfectly.

Even the "bad guys" in this film are likable.

Even the “bad guys” in this film are likable.

The animation, as always, is breath-taking. The colors are rich and are only more so on the Blu Ray medium. I particularly love the shade of red used for Porco’s seaplane and the understated blues of the ocean water. Milan is drawn wonderfully and a sequence featuring Porco racing through the city’s canals is probably the most technically impressive of the whole film. The level of detail shown in the plane components was something I found myself appreciating and it’s quite clear that Miyazaki has a love for airplanes.

The film moves at a comfortable pace, wrapping up in just over 90 minutes. It’s tone never wavers as it’s quite high-spirited and inherently fun. I don’t know if I was just turned off by Porco’s look going in, but I wasn’t really excited to watch this film at first but it quickly won me over. It compares quite favorably to My Neighbor Totoro in that it isn’t a deeply serious film with a lot on the line. It’s really just a good old-fashioned adventure full of likable characters, captivating action, and gorgeous visuals.

The Wind Rises

Kaze_Tachinu_poster“The wind is rising!  We must try to live!” – Paul Valéry

The above quote opens the latest release from Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki; The Wind Rises.  It’s a quote that is suitable for the film as it implies that change is coming, but we must carry on.  The Wind Rises is to be the last directorial effort from Miyazaki, Japan’s most celebrated director of animated films, and it is an appropriate piece for him to go out on.  The Wind Rises tells the tale of Jiro Horikoshi and his dream to design what he calls beautiful airplanes.  Jiro is based on the airplane designer of the same name who is famous for creating Japan’s Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero and the basis for the film was derived from a quote he once gave:  “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful.”  The film has two sides to it with one being a mostly faithful account of Horikoshi’s challenge in developing his first successful airplane and the entirely fictional account of his personal life.  The end result is a tale of hope, triumph, love and life and is perhaps Miyazaki’s finest piece since My Neighbor Totoro.

The film opens with a young Jiro dreaming of flying a plane.  The opening sequence is perhaps the most fun for the animators as Jiro’s dreams are filled with nightmare creatures seemingly stemming from his despondence over his imperfect vision.  The character admits early on to himself that he will never fly because of his eyes, but in a dream meets with Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caprone, who will be a recurring visitor amongst Jiro’s dreams throughout the film offering him guidance on how to be a great engineer.  It’s these dreams that inspire Jiro to be an airplane engineer and the film advances time to show us his journey to become an engineer.

Jiro leading one of his designs to the testing grounds.

Jiro leading one of his designs to the testing grounds.

Jiro is portrayed as a sweet and good-natured man.  He is willing to help those in need, and a chance encounter with a young woman and her maid on a train plays a pivotal role in the film later on.  During the train ride the great earthquake of 1923 strikes and Jiro carries the maid to safety after she breaks a leg.  He seeks nothing in return and doesn’t even share his name with the women before departing.

Jiro lands a job out of school and his employment takes him to Germany where he is introduced to pre World War 2 Germany’s policies.  Being Japanese, he is not trusted by the soldiers as he seeks to learn about Germany’s engineering when it comes to aeronautical design.  Despite this, he is able to learn some techniques and apply them to a new aircraft, which unfortunately crashes during the test run.  To clear his head, his company sends him on a retreat for some rest and relaxation which is where he encounters the young woman he met years earlier on the train, Naoko.  The two fall in love, and though it seems predictable, their scenes are handled with such tenderness and care that the audience is left to root for them, even if it seems as if they’re destined to fall for each other.  Jiro learns there is a dark side to his budding romance as Naoko is afflicted with tuberculosis.  This forces them to move quickly with their life together.  Naoko insists on getting better before discussing marriage, but in time relents once Jiro has to leave for work.

Jiro must deal with failure throughout the film.

Jiro must deal with failure throughout the film.

The last act of the movie involves Jiro and his attempt to finally build a worthy aircraft that his company can sell to the Japanese military, while Naoko wages a silent battle at their home with her illness.  I don’t want to get into too much detail about the film’s plot, but suffice to say it’s a bittersweet tale that includes ups and downs with the story refusing to linger on anything for too long.  In that, it mirrors life which is a constant push and pull.  There are many themes the film likes to go back to.  Early on a supporting character mentions the importance of having a family to go home to, crediting it with helping a man work harder at the office, which is shown later in the film once Jiro is married.  In his dreams, Caproni asks Jiro if he prefers to live in a world with pyramids, or with no pyramids, using this as an explanation for why he would design airplanes that will eventually be used for war.  And all throughout the film, the wind acts as a character itself playing a pivotal role in one of the film’s final scenes.

As this is a work from Studio Ghibli, it hardly needs stating but deserves to be anyways, that this film is gorgeous.  The animation is predominantly hand-drawn, but some computer generated imagery is used for some of the film’s effects.  The film has a bright palette though Jiro is often garbed in white, gray, or a very light lavender, which serves to isolate him from his surroundings.  This suits the character as he is often oblivious to his surroundings, so consumed in his work and willing to overlook the fact that his designs are made for war.  The country-side settings are sure to evoke memories of Totoro, and the film’s whimsical feel and care-free pace further serves to draw comparisons to Miyazaki’s old masterpiece.

The wind is a character of its own, its actions often directly influencing the lives of the human characters in the film.

The wind is a character of its own, its actions often directly influencing the lives of the human characters in the film.

The sound design is excellent, with great use of natural sounding effects and an excellent score from Joe Hisaishi.  The english dub was handled by Disney and the film distributed in North America on their Touschstone label.  The dub is the usual high quality that viewers have come to expect from Disney as the company has handled the majority of Studio Ghibli’s dubs.  Serving as Jiro is Joseph Gordon-Levitt with supporting roles from the likes of Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, and Martin Short, the latter serving as the scene-stealing character Kurokawa, Jiro’s boss throughout the film.

The Wind Rises may be an animated movie, but it’s not for children.  The film’s pace is too slow and plot is too mature to entertain most children.  The film is best described as a drama and should appeal to older fans of Miyazaki’s works.  That said, it’s a wonderful piece of film with fantastic visuals, a compelling plot, and terrific performances.  Hayao Miyazaki may never get the recognition he deserves from international audiences, but anyone involved with film appreciates and respects the work he does.  It’s both wonderful and sad that this movie exists, knowing it is to be the last written and directed by Miyazaki, but in that sense it mirrors the film superbly.  What a truly awesome way to cap off a career!

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

NiNoKuniI normally only write about old games, but sometimes a game comes along that evokes the spirit of the games of yesterday and I feel compelled to write about it.  It doesn’t hurt that said game is a collaborative effort between developer Level-5 and the great animation super power Studio Ghibli.  I am, of course, speaking of Ni no Kuni:  Wrath of the White Witch, a role-playing game for the Playstation 3 that came out nearly a year ago in the US.  Translated literally as Second Country, Ni no Kuni is a Japanese RPG that borrows heavily from the games of old such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, with a touch of Pokémon for good measure.  The game tasks the player with guiding the main character Oliver into a parallel world on a quest to not only save that world from an evil wizard, but also save his mother.  There’s swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons, and all of the familiar tropes of the genre.  It’s a fun trip down memory lane for those of us old enough to remember when seemingly every RPG followed the same path, but there is enough infusion of modern elements to give the game a fresh feeling.  Top it off with the unparalleled presentation afforded by Ghibli, and Ni no Kuni is easily one of the top games of 2013.

Ni no Kuni, at its core, is a story about a boy and his love for his mother.  Aww!

Ni no Kuni, at its core, is a story about a boy and his love for his mother. Aww!

The plot for Ni no Kuni is, like its gameplay, a mixture of traditional and non-traditional.  The main character, a kid named Oliver, is the typical unlikely hero destined to save the world from evil.  The non-traditional part is how the story begins with Oliver being rescued from an innocent mishap with a go-kart by his mother, who tragically loses her life in the process.  It’s a seemingly ordinary piece of tragedy and it plunges the main character into depression, something not many video games are willing to deal with.  Much of the story centers around depression, or similar emotions, and Oliver is beckoned to help heal their broken hearts while healing his own in the process.  Not long after Oliver becomes withdrawn, his stuffed animal Mr. Drippy soon comes to life as Drippy, High Lord of the Fairies, and he takes Oliver to a parallel world to not only save his mother, but save Drippy’s world from the evil dark djinn Shadar.  Oliver’s world, a 1950’s looking America, and Drippy’s share an unseen bond in that people in one world are linked to people in the other by their spirit.  Oliver’s mom in this other world was a powerful sage, and by defeating Shadar, Oliver hopes to uncover what happened to his mother’s spirit-sister and hopefully save his mom in the process.  The story unfolds over roughly 50 hours of gameplay with Oliver becoming a wizard himself and visiting every corner of this other world making friends and toppling enemies while uncovering the mysteries of the past.  It’s very rewarding, and I was quite happy with how the major parts of the story resolved itself, though a lot of the plot is resolved before the game’s final act which made the last parts of the game less impactful.  It’s a minor complaint, but the story could have been tied together a little better.

The environments are some of the most breath-taking every displayed in a video game.

The environments are some of the most breath-taking every displayed in a video game.

The thing that will stand out strongest to individuals playing Ni no Kuni for the first time are unquestionably the visuals.  This game looks just like a Studio Ghibli film brought to a video game console.  When I first heard about the game I was more than a little intrigued as I am a big fan of Ghibli’s films.  This game exceeded my lofty expectations and really pushes the artistic merit of gaming.  It also pushes the power of the PS3 and it shows.  Some textures are slow to populate and there’s definitely numerous instances of pop-in especially on the over world, but this is all easily forgiven considering just how superb the game looks.  The color palette is varied though slightly muted which actually adds a great deal of charm and gives the game an old feel.  Ghibli opted for near pastel shades over more striking primary colors in many places, but where they go bright it really shows.  The vegetation in several spots really pops and gives the environment a lush quality.  The water effects are some of the most natural I’ve ever seen, and the special effects are suitable and effective without being over-the-top.  The character designs are mostly kept simple, and in the case of the many creatures, perhaps too simple.  The main cast looks great though, and I really liked the look of the White Witch herself and her astral cloak that has a life all its own.  Further adding to the presentation is some excellent voice acting by a mostly British cast and a truly wonderful score from the master Joe Hisaishi.  Ni no Kuni is easily on my short list of favorite video game scores and it’s absolutely feature film quality.

Battles can feel chaotic at first, but eventually most gamers will find a rhythm.

Battles can feel chaotic at first, but eventually most gamers will find a rhythm.

All of the bells and whistles though would be for naught if the gameplay didn’t stack up, and thankfully it does.  Ni no Kuni, as I said earlier, is a mix of old and new concepts for the JRPG genre.  Oliver and his companions still have hit points and magic points and get stronger through participating in battles and gaining experience points.  As they level up they learn new skills and gain better base stats like strength, dexterity, and so on.  The battles take place in “dungeons” and on a world map where enemies are visible and some will attack and some will run away.  Where Ni no Kuni tries to incorporate some of the elements of modern JRPGs is with the battle system.  It’s not a turn-based battle, making it similar to Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade.  The party is limited to three members during the game, with the player controlling only one at a time.  When controlling Oliver or one of his companions, the player is free to move around the battle field and position the character to attack up close or from far away and can switch at any time to one of the other characters.  Where Level-5 looks to separate Ni no Kuni from a game like Xenoblade is with the familiar system.  Taking a page out of Pokémon, Oliver is able to capture the monsters he encounters and use them as familiars.  These familiars basically do the fighting for Oliver, and each character can enter battle with up to three familiars.  These familiars share hit points and mana with their human overlords, but level-up independently and are able to evolve at certain points.  Each familiar can evolve twice, with the second evolution presenting a choice for the player to make which usually takes on the form of picking a water type vs a fire type evolution or something similar.  The familiars interject some variety to the mix and helps to keep the playing experience unique for each individual who picks up the game.  Level-5 also did a good job of making several viable familiars lessening the occurrence of over-powered creatures likely to dominate every gamer’s party.

Complementing the impressive game engine are some wonderful pieces of traditional animation from Studio Ghibli.

Complementing the impressive game engine are some wonderful pieces of traditional animation from Studio Ghibli.

The battle system has its own quirks that everyone has to get used to, and the choice to go with a live battle system means the A.I. is going to be controlling two of the party’s characters at all times.  Naturally, this is less than ideal and Ni no Kuni’s artificial intelligence is pretty limited.  Each character can be set to behave a certain way, but there’s still no way to tell the A.I. to forego using mana on weak enemies or to focus on fire spells because the enemy is vulnerable to it over some other elemental property.  Often times I found myself using the setting that commands my partners to not use any special abilities, or else they’d blow through all of their mana after just a handful of enemy encounters.  There’s also no way to select the tactics when out of battle, which is an oversight that should be corrected in a sequel.  Another annoyance for me were the more theatrical attacks.  Certain spells and such trigger special animations during battle and these are fine when initiated by the player, but when initiated by the A.I. it becomes annoying because it cancels any commands I had issued which can be deadly if it was a healing item or spell I had pulled up.  There’s also the whole taming of new familiars, which definitely could use some tweaking.  It’s one thing to make it hard to catch the elite creatures in the game, but just about every familiar is overly difficult to tame and that’s because it’s all predicated on chance.  Sometimes when beating an enemy, instead of dying, they’ll get little hearts over their heads prompting the player to initiate a series of commands that will make the creature a new familiar for the party.  The chance of most any creature going into this state is usually less than 10%.  There are quests in the game that require Oliver to tame certain creatures and these were my most hated tasks due to how random the whole system is.  Outside of battle, navigating the world is pretty seamless but there are unpolished aspects.  The game doesn’t let you get ahead of it at any time.  If you know you have to cast a certain spell on a certain individual or object you can’t just walk up and do it, you have to engage it first so that Drippy can tell Oliver he needs to cast Give Heart or some other spell.  The game has a tendency to think everyone playing it is pretty slow, or just stupid, and overly explains how to do certain things.  The thing I found most annoying though are these special treasure chests spread all over the world that can only be opened by having one of the characters shoot them.  That doesn’t bother me, but the fact that the party has to be standing on a specific spot to do it drove me nuts.  The chest could be perfectly visible from where I had Oliver positioned, but because it wasn’t the exact spot the game wanted to be at, I couldn’t interact with the chest.  Each one of these chests was a piece of trial and error as I slowly moved Oliver around until an exclamation point popped up over his head.

The game's many familiars and deploying them properly are often the difference between success and failure for Oliver.

The game’s many familiars and deploying them properly are often the difference between success and failure for Oliver.

The battle system is not perfect but it’s far from broken and it contains enough depth to remain interesting.  It does take getting used to though, which makes Ni no Kuni the rare game where the beginning is more difficult than the end.  Especially because early on the player will only have Oliver and one or two familiars at his or her disposal.  With such limited options, it basically means most battles will require proper defense to make it through.  During battle, a well-timed attack can stop an enemy dead in its tracks.  It also can cause a special gold “glim” to appear, which when obtained, triggers an ultimate attack or special move.  What the game doesn’t convey properly early on is that well-timed defense is actually a better strategy for getting these glims to appear, and for the first couple of boss fights, these gold glims are tide-turners.  Later on in the game Oliver and his familiars will have access to a wide range of spells and abilities capable of striking from a distance making these super moves less important, but early it can be a challenge to topple a boss character.  After that though, the game is basically as hard or as easy as the player wants to make it.  As is typical of the genre, the world map opens up gradually as the game progresses by giving the player new modes of transportation to utilize, starting with sea and then ultimately air travel.  Once the seas open up though, the player can find some tucked-away areas where certain enemies frequent that grant boatloads of experience points.  If at any point a player finds the game too hard, they can simply go off and level-grind their way through it.  Spend enough time leveling-up, and the game becomes a breeze.  Even without doing so, the game is far from difficult.  Once the main campaign is bested, some more difficult challenges await but a Ruby Weapon you will not find.

Oliver and his friends are sure to leave an impression on anyone who plays Ni no Kuni and sees the story through to its conclusion.

Oliver and his friends are sure to leave an impression on anyone who plays Ni no Kuni and sees the story through to its conclusion.

Ultimately, what separates Ni no Kuni from its peers is the story and presentation.  The tale of a heart-broken young boy just trying to save his mother against all odds is touching and sobering.  In a world of fantastic creatures and unbelievable happenings, it’s a grounded premise that anyone can relate to.  The general presentation for the rest of the game is truly unparalleled.  Other games possess greater raw processing power and more detailed texture maps, but as far as artistic presentation goes I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed or been more impressed by any other game’s visuals than Ni no Kuni’s.  It’s beautiful, and I often found myself getting lost in the scenery more than once.  The battle system took time to grow on me, and there’s no doubt I would have preferred a more traditional turn-based approach, but it does possess its own charms and once I felt comfortable with it the game opened up for me.  The game is designed to entertain gamers of all ages, meaning it does have to cater to younger gamers at times.  It probably holds your hand too tight, with the same explanation for what the Veil spell does popping up every time it’s cast, but such annoyances are minor quibbles of an otherwise excellent game.  The game is a true JRPG, a genre that may finally be making a comeback, which means it has all of the charms and all of the annoyances inherent in the genre.  There are tons of fetch-quests to go on, the story unfolds in a strictly linear fashion, and there’s probably way more text in this game than anyone cares to read, but it’s also a grand tale that unfolds in a satisfying manner with lots to see and explore.  If this is a genre you’ve always loved, then Ni no Kuni is a game that should not be missed.  And if you’re new to it, Ni no Kuni is a great place to start.

What to Make of E3 2012?

If you’re even remotely into video games then you know that every June the Electronic Entertainment Expo (better known as E3) takes place in LA and all of the major players in the video game world unveil to the public what they have in store for the masses.  Often times E3 is the first chance for gamers to get a look at the next big “thing” from the major developers, be that thing a new console or the return of a beloved franchise.  This year’s E3 promised to reveal more about Nintendo’s next machine, the Wii U, and the public figured to get its first look at the latest in long-running franchises like Halo and Super Mario Bros.  As for surprises, well it was entirely possible, though not likely, we’d get some info on the successors to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 and maybe a new 3DS.  Now that E3 2012 is in the books, what did I think of it?  I’m glad you asked!


I’m lumping these two together for reasons that will be obvious once I’m done.  Both console publishers weren’t expected to unveil new hardware at E3 and instead would aim to boost their current market share.  Microsoft, predictably, threw a bunch of Kinect stuff at the attendees since that’s presently making them a boatload of money even if the “hardcore” gaming community couldn’t care less about it.  There was Halo 4 though, which was the game most Xbox fans were interested in.  As the first Halo not developed by Bungie, there is some uncertainty surrounding it but it seems like most were satisfied.  Beyond that it was mostly third party games that were spotlighted and some kind of fancy touch-screen junk.  Ho-hum.

Sony was expected to tout the Vita to PS3 connectivity in hopes of boosting the Vita’s severely lacking sales.  Sony’s presentation ended up looking like a business meeting at times and was a total snooze-fest.  They did talk up the connectivity of the Vita and PS3, but really didn’t get behind the Vita like I thought they would.  Like Microsoft, the emphasis was on third-party releases but Sony did flash some new exclusives such as The Last of Us and the latest from Heavy Rain developer, Quantic Dream; a new title similar to Heavy Rain called Beyond:  Two Souls.  I was surprised at how shitty 2012 looks for the Vita as the best titles coming to the handheld are PS3 ports like Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time and Guacamelee, making me feel less secure in my purchase.

Studio Ghibli is being used to help develop a game? You bet I want in on that!

If you can’t tell, I was pretty unimpressed with the offerings Sony and Microsoft made.  The game that excited me most on their machines was probably Ni No Kuni, the Level 5 and Studio Ghibli collaboration for the PS3 that’s already out in Japan.  I already knew enough about that title though, so it wasn’t like E3 was some big unveiling for it.  Plus it’s a JRPG which doesn’t attract much attention these days.  There was really nothing from Square-Enix, which surprised me, other than their produced revival of Tomb Raider which got a lot of people talking (IGN gave it the title of best game of E3), but I just can’t get excited about a Tomb Raider game.  Microsoft and Sony essentially punted on E3, and with next year’s E3 expected to showcase their new machines, I suppose it’s understandable.


Nintendo had the most to gain with E3 2012 so I expected the Big N to pull out the big guns.  After all, E3 marked the best opportunity for the company to sell the public on its latest console the Wii U, while also pumping up the money-printer known as the 3DS.

Before I get to the Wii U, let’s look at the 3DS.  Interestingly, around this time last year the handheld was floundering and Nintendo was already contemplating a price cut which it would eventually implement.  That price reduction, along with some better software, propelled the 3DS to the top of the sales charts.  Nintendo may be losing money on each unit sold right now, but it’s better than having them sit on the store shelves.  It was thought that Nintendo would show off a 3DS Lite, or as media reports before the show appeared to leak, a 3DS XL which would basically combine the existing hardware with the Circle Pad Pro attachment.  These reports proved erroneous, for now anyways, as Nintendo did not have a new 3DS to show off.  This probably has a lot to do with the current model both selling well and at a loss.  Why sink more R&D into it now?  Nintendo will likely wait for sales to slow down before unveiling a new SKU.

Ghost-busting, Luigi style.

As for the games, well the 3DS didn’t show off much new, and instead finally gave the public a glimpse into games it had already announced but had yet to really show off.  These games included both a new entry in the Paper Mario franchise and a sequel to the decade-old Luigi’s Mansion.  Both were on display at E3 this year and both pretty much delivered what I think most gamers were expecting.  Neither one appears to break the mold much, and Paper Mario:  Sticker Star has some weird sticker gimmick that I’m not sure I like, but gameplay-wise both titles appear solid.  Luigi’s Mansion:  Dark Moon is perhaps slightly more interesting just because it’s a franchise Nintendo has yet to exploit.  The first game, released as a Gamecube launch title, was a solid enough title but one that felt like it needed a sequel to fully realize its potential.  It’s surprising a sequel has taken this long and hopefully it’s a more complete game this time out.

I hope you like coins…

The big, new, title for the 3DS announced just before E3 is New Super Mario Bros. 2.  New Super Mario Bros. is one of the DS’s all-time best sellers, while New Super Mario Bros. Wii is one of the all-time best sellers period, so it’s no surprise the game is returning in 2012.  NSMB2 looks to be more of the same.  Nintendo is bringing back the leaf power-up, much as it did with Super Mario 3D Land, though this time it’s function is identical to it’s original powers in Super Mario Bros. 3, complete with P Meter and all.  It’s also incorporating the Wii version’s simultaneous play, as two players can play as Mario and Luigi at the same time, which sounds like more fun than it looks.  This edition also places emphasis on coin collecting (one of the new power-ups, a gold fire flower, lets Mario turn pretty much everything into coins) with the goal being to collect a million over the course of the game.  It’s unclear if that’s some sort of requirement or just a challenge, but it’s not something that has me excited at all.  Coin collecting, and collecting things in general in platformers, is mundane.  I don’t mind a few hidden items, like the star coins, which are usually some-what challenging to get, but just grabbing coins is often an after-thought.  The games are so easy that the player doesn’t really have to go out of their way to get coins and yet will still end up with over 100 lives.  I’ve recently been playing a lot of the Super Nintendo classic Super Mario World and I wish Nintendo would look to that title for inspiration.  The challenge in that game was finding numerous secret exits and extra levels which was far more gratifying than coin collecting.  NSMB2 does at least return the Koopalings, something I wish had been included in Super Mario 3D Land, so that’s a plus.

It also wasn’t enough to have just one new entry in the New Super Mario Bros. franchise as Nintendo also showed off New Super Mario Bros. U, the lead title for the new Wii U console.  It’s basically what you would expect, though Nintendo hopes to high-light the Wii U’s new controller.  By doing so, the Wii U game uses the Wii remotes for general play, but one person can use the new controller to add items to the levels, kind of like a Dungeon Master or something.  The game will have co-op play and will have a different set of levels than the 3DS game plus Yoshi and a new suit; the flying squirrel.

Mario’s new suit: The Flying Squirrel. At least it makes more sense than the raccoon tail.

That little segue brings me to the Wii U and why I really couldn’t care less at this point.  If you weren’t aware, the Wii U’s main selling point is this new controller.  It’s basically like a DS only with one screen and two analog sticks.  The touchscreen on it will be used differently for each game.  In ZombiU, it’s used to display little puzzles like key-code readers for doors and it’s designed to get the player to look away from the screen while hoards of zombies are descending upon the player to enhance the excitement.  In Batman: Arkham City, it just displays Batman’s gadgets and instead of selecting them with a touch of a button you use the touchscreen.  It’s also used to steer his remote bat-a-rang and control his de-encoder device.  A new title called Nintendo Land figures to show off other uses for the controller (the game is basically the Wii U’s version of Wii Sports, though marketed better by using Nintendo characters) but Nintendo hasn’t committed to it as a pack-in title, which would be a huge mistake, in my opinion.

If the uses for the controller do not wet your appetite, then I’m afraid there isn’t much going for the Wii U.  For me, it just doesn’t sound all that interesting.  It’s basically taking the DS experience to the home console.  And it’s being reported a single charge will only get you about 2 and a half hours of gameplay out of the controller which will make owning two a necessity for anyone looking to game for that length of time.  Also hurting it is the fact that some titles, like Arkham City and Mass Effect 3, will have been available for quite some time on other consoles by the time they’re released.  Do the additions to Arkham City make you want to buy it again?  I think for most the answer will be “no.”  And it’s also being reported that the Wii U may not even be as powerful as the 360 and PS3.  All of this tells me that Nintendo needs to get its big franchises onto this thing fast if it expects to move a bunch of units, because I don’t see any system sellers for it right now.

Wreck-It Ralph

I love this concept, hopefully it’s utilized well.

Have you heard about this one?  E3 isn’t known for movie reveals, but there’s also never been a movie like Wreck-It Ralph.  Best described as video game’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Wreck-It Ralph is an animated feature from Disney that’s like a love letter to gaming.  The main character (voiced by John C. Reilly), is the antagonist in a Donkey Kong-like game who is sick of being the bad guy.  The trailer features a visually amusing gag of Ralph sitting in a therapy session with some of gaming’s biggest villains including Bowser and M. Bison.  The CG-animated film is directed by Rich Moore who was the lead director on the first several seasons of Futurama which certainly bodes well for the film.  I love the concept, but honestly found the trailer underwhelming.  The jokes just weren’t very funny, but I’ll refrain from passing judgement until I actually see it.  The film is currently set for a November release.

All in all, I think E3 2012 was one of the least interesting E3’s in recent memory.  Perhaps if Nintendo had yet to unveil the Wii U it would have been more exciting, but we already saw this thing in action a year ago and this year it was all about the launch-window software, which really didn’t impress.  Nintendo also didn’t unveil any pricing, which has me concerned, as I’m sure the company doesn’t want to sell this thing at a loss like it currently is doing for the 3DS.  I’m expecting a bare-bones release, as in one controller and no pack-in games, for around $300.  Any higher and Nintendo is crazy.

And if Nintendo failed to seize the moment, Microsoft and Sony weren’t willing to steal the spotlight.  Neither company really unveiled anything new and preferred to rest on its laurels.  Sure this year’s E3 was the public’s first look at Halo 4 and The Last of Us, but I think we all have a reasonable expectation of what they’ll play like.  There were no new games shown that have me excited, and the most interesting for me was Beyond:  Two Souls but that one is still a long way off.  2012 started off with a bang, but the fall looks to be easier on the wallet, I’ll leave you to decide if that’s a good thing or not.

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