At long last, AWN’s resident Miscreant returns to writing about animation – in particular, two recent features, From China and Japan, that couldn’t be more different.
Now that my book Furry Nation has acquired a bit of momentum, I can at long last return to writing about animation -- in particular, two anime films I screened earlier last week.
Well actually, only one is anime, the other an indy animated feature that happens to have been made in China. Never mind their separate countries of origin; these two films couldn’t be more different.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower director Hiromasa Yonebayashi spent 20 years at Studio Ghibli, working with the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, ultimately directing The Secret World of Arrietty and winning an Oscar nom for Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There.
When Ghibli closed its doors, Yonebayashi created Ponoc, a new studio where he could continue the Ghibli tradition. Like many of Mizyazaki’s films (in fact, one could be excused for thinking Mary actually is a Miyazaki film), Mary’s protagonist is an adolescent girl suddenly caught up in a surreal fantasy world that calls on her to display courage and ingenuity she was unaware she possessed.
The movie is based on The Little Broomstick, a 1971 novel by prolific English author Mary Stewart. (Amazingly - especially with a movie based on it about to be released - the book appears to be out of print; vintage copies of it go for anywhere from $60 to $300 online!)
The film begins with a young girl making an escape from an ominous fiery building via broomstick, carrying a strange glowing plant. Chased by flying silvery (and weirdly smirking) creatures, she lands in a forest where the plant’s seeds scatter and trigger a tangled growth of trees that hide the broomstick from sight.
Prologue done with, we meet Mary, the film’s protagonist; with her red hair, she could be the fugitive girl we first saw, but she isn’t. (That girl makes a surprise return later in the film.) Instead, she’s kind of a klutz with a knack for causing damage when trying to help folks. (“I haven’t finished complaining about my life,” she tells Peter, a young fellow who figures prominently in the story as he pedals away.) A cat leads her into misty, overgrown woods where she discovers the broomstick that immediately launches her into the sky. Displaying a mind of its own, the broom takes her into a dark foreboding cloud where (instead of Miyazaki’s Laputa) she discovers Endor College, a fanciful school of magic. It’s not quite Harry Potter’s grim and dark Hogwarts, but a colorful, phantasmagorical place existing on a tiny island above a sea of clouds. Sentient plants (if that’s what they are) pop in and out of view in the campus gardens and students travel within the cavernous buildings via floating bubbles. Headmistress Madam Mumblechook first appears as a gigantic face in a waterspout, before revealing herself as a matronly, apparently friendly and somewhat fussy woman. Her tiny associate Doctor Dee is attempting to combine science and magic in order to create…too much of a spoiler; I will say Mary and Peter are right at the heart of what happens next.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower boasts wall-to-wall visual inventiveness, eye candy to the max. Humorous details abound, like the school cafeteria’s steer and pig chefs serving up beef and pork meat. Doctor Dee’s all-purpose locomotion chair seems to take on a different form every time he uses it. (At one point he stands on a turtle carrying him to the chair; his burden gone, the turtle withdraws into its shell and emerges, its head and tail swapped to depart without turning around.) The film even boasts its own furry critter of indeterminate species: the Scottish-accented, handlebar moustache’d Flanagan, keeper of the school’s broom “stable.”
Oscar winners Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent voice Mumblechook and Dee, while Spielberg’s BFG star Ruby Barnhill voices Mary.
To quote a catchphrase, and now for something completely different: to quote a different catchphrase, Have a Nice Day is the title of an independent Chinese animated feature, most definitely different from Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
Nice Day is set not in sophisticated contemporary Shanghai or Beijing, but in a grimy and decaying isolated industrial town in the hinterlands. The film gets right down to work in its first moments as not-very-bright driver Xiao Zhang steals a bagful of yuan to pay for corrective plastic surgery to fix for his girlfriend’s botched face job. (It must be pretty horrible as we never see her in the film.) It’s an exceptionally stupid move that triggers a wave of violence as everyone tries to get their hands on the loot.
The film is the work of Liu Jian, whom the film’s press notes describe as “a pioneering force in independent Chinese animation.” In addition to writing and directing the film, Jian’s name shows up repeatedly in the credits as its key animator and character designer; as he says in the film’s press notes, “I did most of the work myself.” Jian’s art style can safely be described as thin-line minimalist, with only the most essential features of his character delineated; visually, the film could easily be turned into a graphic novel via transferring its key frames onto paper.
Nice Day shows the omnipresence of western pop culture in contemporary China, with glimpses of Rocky, Brue Lee and various pop music posters on the walls. (A guy wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt pops up in one scene; later on someone is wearing a Hollister T.) Characters reference The Godfather, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs; one of them, at the mercy of a hitman tells his would-be assassin he wants to be a hitman too. Along the way a snatch of what sounds like Donald Trump’s inaugural address is heard in the background.
Several conversations on obscure unrelated subjects feel like they were dropped in from a different film altogether -- a Quentin Tarantino movie to be specific: one character describes the “three levels of freedom: farmers’ market freedom, supermarket freedom and online shopping freedom;” there’s also a discussion on whether it’s better to pray to God or Buddha. (Incidentally, no one ever says the film’s title in the film.)
The film boasts several other “wtf” moments. One features a pair of characters who want to use the money to start a new life in “Shangri-La;” it’s an excuse for the movie to turn into a colorful music video depicting their fantasy that could pass for an MTV version of a Mao-era propaganda film. An apparently dead body is seen lying alongside a modern highway without a single car passing by for hours. (He’s awakened by a dog urinating on his face.) At another point the camera settles on the surface of a flowing river for what feels like several minutes, seemingly for no particular reason.
There are innumerable shots of Mandarin-language building and store signs. None of them are translated except for the one subtitled “Railway Business Hotel,” where a goodly part of the film’s bloodier moments take place, in the most generic-looking hotel room imaginable.
The bag of loot changes owner several times over the course of the movie, ultimately winding up in the possession of…no, I don’t think I’ll tell you, that’s just too big a spoiler. If you’re interested, check out Have a Nice Day, and…have a nice day.