Released: 2013 in the UK
Language: English (originally Japanese)
Where do all those missing socks and odds and ends go?
The film opens with an introductory tale giving background information to the plot – there once was a farmer who had been given a comb from his deceased grandmother but he’d lost it and really wanted it back so he made an offering to the local shrine which happened to be for a fox spirit and one night the comb was returned to him. That led to the locals to believe if they petitioned the local spirit they could perhaps be granted their wish to retrieve precious lost mementos. This intro is drawn in a completely different way to the rest of the film, it’s more like a simplistic cartoon with bright colours and thick outlines but it is still enchanting.
Skip ahead into the future: Meet Haruka, a teenage girl who lives with her father and whose mother has passed away. Haruka is frustrated, nostalgic and gets upset quickly with her dad being rude to him and seemingly selfish whilst he is resigned and doesn’t want to argue. It would be unfair to judge Haruka at this point though, they’ve gotten stuck in habits that aren’t healthy; he works too much so they don’t spend much time together and being at home reminds her of how empty it feels.
She knows about the local legend of the shrine and ends up in a whole other world on a journey to find a long lost hand mirror that was her mother’s and as unprepared as she was for that she certainly didn’t expect it to be so regimented/systemized.
An alien/magical dimension that has had the magic taken out of it.
As with anything in this world the individual doesn’t tend to appreciate just how much or the sheer scale that goes into making one product or service and the same goes for lost items. Though to be more precise lost and forgotten (unwanted/neglected) items – there are tonnes of them and so it takes a race of fox people to manage them via collection, transporting, sorting and earning currency. Not only do they make a living that way but all their architecture, clothing etc is made up from the scraps. It’s also a major crime to tell a human about it let alone bring a human there and unfortunately for one little fox Haruka is a stowaway on his/her cart!
The fox’s name is Teo who has to try to keep Haruka’s species a secret while helping her to find the mirror but finding a needle in a haystack is never easy especially when your only company are bullies and spies. Luckily or unluckily for the pair mirrors are a rare and expensive item there so that narrows their search but also puts a spotlight on them. Why are mirrors rare? That would be telling but I’ll just say that also with most societies that we know of there is an evil overlord aka The Baron who is collecting mirrors for a devious (though in this case not entirely unsympathetic) cause but of course his methods are dastardly and he will stop at nothing to have Haruka’s mirror in particular.
Imagination and Immersion
The depiction of the fox society is breathtaking from its patchwork design to stunning colours, the animators portrayed another world that looks hypnotic on the screen and would make an amazing landscape in our reality yet it’s still practical and familiar looking i.e. the residents use some of our neglected objects in inventive/unusual ways such as an upside down gramophone as a stool but others are true to their intended function.
Interestingly enough the foxes don’t look like foxes as we know them and if we hadn’t been told that is what they are then I wouldn’t have known, they look furless and come in all shapes, sizes and faces but this a different dimension and a topsy turvy film premise. Another main character introduced later in the story is Cotton, an old teddy of Haruka’s who somehow has sentient life in the fox world and becomes just as important to save as the mirror. Cotton is a real hero, holds his/her own as a character and has some very emotional scenes.
This is a fast moving film and by the end of it I wondered where the time had gone, it’s action packed including out of control rail road and flying sequences so there’s a quite a bit of lurching and falling. Then when you think it slows down (as it does consistently) the plot is still pulling at your heart strings so you may be getting a breather but it’s not really any easier on the pulse rate/adrenaline ;-). Tissues should be at hand for anyone who empathizes with loss of loved ones.
Something I don’t usually like but works well here is the use of soft lighting in emotional sequences but it’s paired with soft/more colourful lighting and mist at night and they compliment the story well.
There are times when I wondered if Haruka was holding on too tightly to finding the mirror as sometimes the message of such stories is that it can be good to have physical tokens with special significance and to treasure them but when push comes to shove are/should you be willing to sacrifice yourself or others for them? For example the home where you lived as a family is very important and should be protected/maintained and if need be fought for but at the same time if it’s on fire or destroyed you can’t and shouldn’t always try to save it or bring it back – sometimes you have to embed the memories and keep them inside instead of outside of you. Sometimes you have to finally let go. This is one of those stories where no matter what the characters keep trying and in hindsight it’s hard to decide whether it’s for better or worse but it propels the story regardless so charts their actions more than asking ‘what if?’.
The ending is a bit unbelievable where the whole comes together to work for a common goal where there was previously bullying, bribery and backstabbing but hey even though it’s been maturely made it’s still a kid’s film and the main trio in particular are very well fleshed out.
Eastern truly meets Western cinema?
There are many Japanese cartoons and animations for the box office or TV that are suitable for a Western audience according to Western standards and many were/are overseen by their studios (particularly with Disney TV shows) but there are only a handful that I would say look as if they could have been released directly over here. This is one of those films and a family friendly film no less so a wider scope.
The animation styles (artistic and obvious cgi) are lovely and soft with both realistic and vivid & fantastical colour schemes when necessary and the characters have individual detail. Typically of anime the ‘other world’ environment is creative and lush. This is one of the more fluid cgi renderings out there in comparison to the clearer almost photographic or older and higher colour contrast ones where characters move and talk with a slight time delay so that helps add to the already swift pace of the plot. The dubbing is excellent and even looks like it matches the mouths at times and voiced with clear and convincing enunciation from actors I didn’t recognize (that’s a bonus for me). The foreground voices aren’t inhibited by background music/sound effects but when the score is really noticeable (especially the flute & pipes) it never fails to impress matching the mood of the scene from poignant to thrilling. For example the opening theme is very short but manages to start off so sadly, then uplifting and then slowly elegant and flowing – just like the film.
The most important thing for East-West crossover here however is the plot, it is simple and straightforward with little psychological exploration and analysis but it is powerful, driven and heartfelt. There is a little moralizing but I think people young or old can relate to the feelings portrayed; the need to find and hold onto those that are important to us, the need for friendship and assistance, the need to heal and release and the need to remember and be more considerate. Being a mystical story there is some symbolism though it is seamlessly worked in and nothing unusual to the West or unique to the East other than the local temple shrine.
The only part I thought was remiss was the usual Japanese anime love of miniskirts as school uniform, the need to pay attention to their every movement and opportunity to show skin and sexual or sexualized posing but it doesn’t do so gratuitously here or too obviously; I’ve seen much shorter in kids/family anime (seriously). After a while I didn’t notice it other than when Haruka had to hold it down or smoothen it before sitting. Maybe I’ve gotten used to it but I did think it unnecessary to have to add that to the work of animating.
If nothing else this film is a roller coaster so perhaps best for adults to watch first and decide if it’s ok for their children. There are multiple times where it genuinely feels like characters are in life threatening situations and they emanate fear, panic and grief very well. I got teary in a number of places, I am sensitive to other’s (real or not) suffering and it doesn’t take much I admit but still.
If I had to sum this film up in two words they’d be: touchingly beautiful.
Spirited Away (2001) – A young girl and her parents move to a new town only for them to go through a portal into the spirit world where her parents are changed into pigs and the daughter has to get a job there, rescue said parents and meets an interesting friend. Landmark film of its time and still a classic/favourite.
Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW (2010) – a group of children help an alien that looks like a dog who then takes them on holiday to the moon but things go awry and they have to earn a livelihood and make their way back home via an eventful journey through space. Impressive and imaginative visuals.