Monday, October 16, 2017

Anime On the Big Screen: “Ancien and the Magic Tablet (Napping Princess)”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Sunday 15 October 2017
Distributor: Warner Brothers Japan (presented by the Japan Foundation as part of the Japanese Film Festival)
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 110 minutes
Production Date: 2017
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

Less than a week after “Fireworks”, the 2017 Japanese Film Festival has arrived in town. From what I understand it’s the 20th year of the festival and unlike the previous couple years the line-up was pretty good. There’s even a couple of decent anime films playing. Unfortunately both are playing on the same day, one after the other! First up was “Napping Princess”, which for some reason was being screening under the clunkier English title of “Ancien and the Magic Tablet”. Everywhere else in the western word it has screened under the former title which is a far more literal translation of the Japanese title, so why they are doing this is beyond me.

I had got my cheap early bird tickets for both films online almost a month ago, so I just headed straight into the cinema. I was given an evaluation form for the film to fill in on my way in by a volunteer. Around 50 people showed up for the screening, with a wide variety of age groups, mostly of European extraction (i.e. most likely white Australians), but a sizable number of Japanese people were in attendance. They guy next to me was a chatty bloke in his 40’s with high function autism or Asperger’s syndrome. Of note were a number of adverts before the film from the festivals’ main sponsors; Tokyo DisneySea, Japan National Tourism Organization (using footage from a MasterChef’s episode filmed in Japan), Japan Airlines and a local Japanese restaurant in civic. With that out of the way, time to talk about the film;

It is the year 2020. Kokone Morikawa, who is in her final year of high school, lives with her father, Momotaro Morikawa, a slightly eccentric car mechanic, in the town of Kurashiki on the edge of the Seto inland sea. She constantly naps and has dreams in which a princess named Ancien lives in a country called Heartland. This country revolves around automobiles and most of the population works in a car factory. However the citizens have to deal with almost non-stop traffic jams and the factory workers are "encouraged" to buy the new cars the factory makes, or have their pay docked. Ancien owns a tablet computer which she can use to make magical things happen. She turns a gift of a stuffed bear into a living, breathing creature called Joy. She also turns some of the factory’s machines into sentient robots and a motorbike and sidecar into a transforming robot which she names Heart. However the king is disturbed by her powers. He takes Ancien’s tablet and locks it away in a vault. He also isolates her in a tower connected to the castle.

In spite of this, seemingly Ancien’s powers attract molten metal creatures called Colossus who regularly attack the country. In response the kingdom has created giant robots named Engineheads which are mostly effective in dealing with the creatures. Despite being advised to banish Ancien in order to save the city from the attacks, the king cannot find it in his heart to do so. Later as another Colossus attacks the city, Ancien steals the tablet from the vault along with Heart and escapes with Joy. Outside she comes across disgruntled factory worker Peach (a dead ringer for Momotaro), whom she mistakenly assumes is a pirate due to his dress sense. Together they hatch a plan to fight the Colossus by using the tablet’s magic on the Engineheads. However the king’s chief adviser, Bewan, does his utmost to thwart their plans.

Meanwhile in reality, Kokone receives a text message from her father that he is going to her mother’s grave that evening and to meet up with him there. Kokone’s mother had died several years earlier in an accident. Later that day at school Kokone is told by her teacher that her father has been arrested and transferred to Tokyo for the apparent thief of a company’s secrets. Obviously shocked and confused by this, she makes her way home but stops by her mother’s grave. There she finds her teddy bear (which looks exactly the same as Joy) with her father’s tablet inside (also like the one in Kokone’s dreams). Her father uses it to diagnose problems in cars and to also help make autonomous vehicles for his customers. At home she receives a knock at the door from a man who looks a lot like Bewan and two other men dressed in suits and dark glasses. However she pretends not to be home and hides. The men enter the house and she discovers from their conversations they are after the tablet and her. She soon receives a text message from her father with a picture of the man who looks like Bewan attached whom he tells her not to trust.

Hiding in the linen cupboard she is almost discovered by the suited men. But her friend and son of a local police officer, Morio, arrives to relay information about her father, which forces the men to flee. The suited trio have managed to steal the teddy bear with the tablet inside and have fled to the local airport. Kokone ropes Morio into helping her and the pair take off in the family’s sidecar (which looks exactly like Heart), manage to steal back the bear and tablet and the in the process Bewan’s suitcase. The paperwork in the suitcase reveals that Bewan is actually called Ichiro Watanabe who is a fairly high ranking executive at Shijima Motors. Kokone’s mother was the Shijima Motors chairman’s daughter. Kokone is confused as to why the company would want this tablet. Not knowing what to do and having no other communication devices (as Watanabe also took her phone), they decide to use the tablet to post messages on the message board Kokone’s father frequents in the hope he’ll see them. The two fall asleep and Morio finds himself dreaming in Kokone’s world, riding with Ancien and Joy on Heart as they fly though the sky. When they wake up, they discover they are in Dotonbori, Osaka, some 200km away from where they were last night. Morio puts this down to the fact the sidecar is an autonomous motorbike and probably took them there based on a pre-programmed course. However seemingly other miraculous things happen as they make their way to Tokyo to meet the chairman of Shijima Motors in order to talk to him and free Kokone’s father. Is it really magic or just a bunch of strange coincidences?

When I was in Japan in late March and early April this year, I went to Production I.G’s store in the Marui department store in Shibuya. Even though this film had just finished its cinema run there, they were still promoting the hell out of it. However this film isn’t a Production I.G movie per se. The studio behind it is Signal.MD, a subsidiary of Production I.G which has a focus on family films. They’ve mostly done a series of “Pokémon” OVAs and also produced the “Atom The Beginning” TV series. This is the studio’s first feature as far as I’m aware. This creator and director of this film is Kenji Kamiyama, and it’s his first feature after his dreadful cel shaded CG movie “009 Re:Cyborg” back in 2012. Kamiyama is better known as the director of “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex”, “Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit”, “Eden of the East” and “Minipato (Patlabor shorts from 2002)”. He has had a pretty amazing run as a director, but I think that run of top notch anime from him has finished.

For most of its length I admit it’s a pretty good film. Both Kokone’s world and her dream world inhabited by Ancien are fairly well thought out and interesting. I also thought the main plot involving Kokone’s parents and their abandoned development of autonomous vehicles by them was intriguing. So was the exploration of how families can break down due to tragedies and how this behaviour is really not at all beneficial to anyone, especially children. There’s also a lot of humour in the film as well which is perfectly timed and well written. The audience I saw the film with roared with laughter at many of the comedic moments in the film and really seemed to enjoy it. Towards the end, the film comments on Japanese corporate culture, in particular how myopic and outdated it is, which is something you really don’t see in a film like this. For the vast majority of the movie, despite some heavy undertones, it’s rather light and fun, and I enjoyed that atmosphere it created.

But the major problem with this film is the merging of reality and the dream world of Heartland. Both are fully realised worlds, but it really felt like there was constant tug of war by Kamiyama who spends way too much time in the dream world without explaining why we are there or how this relates to rest of the story. Towards the middle of the film, the two worlds do literally collide. This intensifies for the finale where it is pretty much impossible for the audience to decipher what is real and what isn’t, which members of the cast are experiencing what Kokone is experiencing and most importantly how and why this is happening. The final section of the film really makes little sense. I found it reminiscent of Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika”, however in that film the surreal chaos is caused by a device called a DC Mini which can allow people to enter people’s dreams. Here no such device exists and no explanation is given as to why the dream world and reality combine. I found it virtually impossible to make the leap of logic that Kamiyama is asking the audience to make.

Like “Your Name” and last week’s “Fireworks”, this film also falls into a similar pattern with the core elements of school kids in a rural town mixed with paranormal happenings. The film also adds a number of recent Japanese media buzz terms and topics into the mix such as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which plays a big part in the climax of the film). As a result it does feel quite derivative and not something worthy of a director such as Kamiyama. Putting aside the major problem I have with the merging of the two worlds of the film, there are few other parts of the plot which frustrated me. First was Shijima Motors roping in the police to arrest Kokone’s father on what is some pretty flimsy evidence. Second is the reasoning behind why Shijima Motors need the tablet as it is revealed early on that the company already has a copy of the software inside it.

For the most part I can overlook some of the flaws of this film. I lot of it is escapist fantasy which I really liked. Heartland was a particularly well realised world. I even enjoyed the melodrama and didn’t find it schmaltzy at all, which is highly unusual for me. But the lack of explanation as to why reality and Heartland merge (and if that merge is something everyone experiences or only some) in the climax is the big downfall for this film. The other problem is for all the time spent in Heartland, little of it propelled Kokone’s story along. However for the most part, the story and characters really did charm me. The animation was pretty good too. I really should give this film .5 less, but I’m going to be nice and give it 6.5 out of 10.

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