Every month I eagerly look forward to seeing what films the Screen Anime Online Festival will add to their website. Each month, Screen Anime offers up a lovingly curated mini-festival of anime films for subscribers to watch at home, with the categories Hot New Film, Festival Favourite, Festival Classic and Curious Curation ensuring a diverse and satisfying range of films. This month’s selection proved to be the usual intriguing mixture but I made the decision not to review the Festival Favourite Fate/Stay Night Heaven’s Feel 1: presage flower. This is down to the fact that every source I consulted suggested I would have an impossible task following the plot if I wasn’t already familiar with the existing series that preceded it and, with a confusing and failed attempt to prove this assumption wrong, I don’t feel equipped to give it a fair hearing. Fortunately, there were three other films on offer which did not require such knowledge so I happily dived into those instead.

Hot New Film – Birthday Wonderland

Director: Keiichi Hara
Screenplay: Miho Mauro
Based on the story by: Sachiko Kashiwaba
Producers: Nobuo Kawakami
Starring: Mayu Matsuoka, Anne Watanabe, Kumiko Aso
Year: 2019
Country: Japan
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 115 mins

While the dense, complex fantasy mythology of films like Fate/Stay Night Heaven’s Feel 1: presage flower might not be my cup of tea, the light, colourful and whimsical style of fantasy which forms the basis of Birthday Wonderland is very much up my street so I was looking forward to this film. The story of Akane, an awkward young girl whose everyday problems are put into perspective when she is dubbed a goddess and saviour of a fantasy world by a mysterious alchemist named Hippocrates, Birthday Wonderland promises much with its magical premise and the sumptuous artwork that floods the film with serotonin-stimulating beauty. The problem is Birthday Wonderland can’t quite stop itself reaching for more and more wonder and it lets go of the reins in relation to the more grounded elements that provide our entry point. The result is a confused and confusing film which forfeits its magic by making us forget what reality is.

Despite its inability to serve up a coherent, satisfying plotline, Birthday Wonderland is still a pleasant film to spend time with thanks to Keiichi Hara’s good-humoured approach and those aforementioned striking visuals. Predictably, the film was compared to the work of Hayao Miyazaki by critics who can’t help but reach for that reference point for every anime release, just as Disney gets arbitrarily namechecked for every western animated release. I have no idea if Miyazaki was an acknowledged influence on Hara but it seems unfair to judge every fantasy anime by how it compares to the work of the Ghibli master. Birthday Wonderland ultimately fails in what it is trying to do but it does so on its own charming terms. I look upon it as a sweet fantasy adventure that just can’t quite figure out exactly what it wants to be.

Festival Classic – 5 Centimetres Per Second

Director: Makoto Shinkai
Screenplay: Makoto Shinkai
Producers: Makoto Shinkai
Starring: Kenji Mizukashi, Yoshimi Kondo, Satomi Hanamura
Year: 2007
Country: Japan
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 65 mins

Makoto Shinkai is another director who has been hastily and erroneously called ‘the new Miyazaki’ by several sources, a claim which to his credit he deems an overestimation. Shinkai’s films are unlike Miyazaki’s in both style and content and I find Shinkai’s work, while often visually beautiful, can suffers from that odd rigidity that occasionally dogs Japanese animation. 5 Centimetres per Second is a concise, touching romance in which the emotional content justifies the grandeur of Shinkai’s superbly detailed background art but there is something curiously lifeless about the characters which prevents it evoking the emotional reaction in me that it does in so many others.

The story of Takaki Tono’s relationship with his school friend Akari as it develops and changes across the years, 5 Centimetres per Second is presented as three separate vignettes which examine this relationship from several different angles. ‘Act 1: Cherry Blossom’ is the finest of these vignettes, as Takaki struggles to make the journey to see his friend in severe weather conditions. Shinkai beautifully depicts the frustration and despair experienced by Takaki as each delay makes it less and less likely that Akari will be waiting for him. I think I would have preferred it if ‘Cherry Blossom’ had been a standalone short as it is quite strikingly beautiful and it ends on a perfect note which the rest of the film cannot quite live up to. I do appreciate the way ‘Act 2: Cosmonaut’ examines Takaki through the eyes of another character who is superfluous to the central romance but this unusual approach also pushes the viewer further from the story so that when we draw nearer to it once more in ‘Act 3: 5 Centimetres per Second’ we feel slightly alienated from what the first act did such a good job of making us feel close to. Not to sound like an old curmudgeon, but 5 Centimetres per Second does occasionally have a tendency to drift towards pseudo-spiritual nonsense and perhaps its distinctly teenage sensibilities are something I have drifted too far from, even as I’ve maintained my romanticism and sentimentality. Ultimately though, the film emerges as a multi-layered and satisfyingly unconventional narrative and at barely an hour in length it is worth a look even for the least romantic animation fan. See it at the right time in life and it will likely hit you like a ton of bricks. For me, it floated by like a beautiful but slightly unknowable cherry blossom… well, what do you know, I’ve located my lost teenage sensibilities after all!

Curious Curation – Genius Party

Director: Atsuko Fukushima, Shōji Kawamori, Shinji Kimura, Yōji Fukuyama, Hideki Nimura, Masaaki Yuasa, Shinichirō Watanabe
Screenplay: Atsuko Fukushima, Shōji Kawamori, Mitsuyoshi Takasu, Yōji Fukuyama, Hideki Nimura, Masaaki Yuasa, Shinichirō Watanabe
Producers: Yukie Saeki
Starring: Tomoko Kaneda, Rinko Kikuchi, Lu Ningjuan
Year: 2007
Country: Japan
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 105 mins

Of this month’s festival selections, Genius Party was the one that I was most looking forward. I’ve always been a fan of anthology films and previous anime anthologies such as Memories and Robot Carnival are among my favourite anime films. A collection of seven short films designed to showcase the innovative nature of animation studio Studio 4°C Co., Ltd., Genius Party shares the invention and diversity of those previous films and refuses to shackle its seven directors with anything as restrictive as a theme. The resultant shorts are not linked to one another in any way, which actually gives Genius Party a pleasing sense of creative freedom, something epitomised by Studio 4°C Co., Ltd.’s other productions.

Genius Party opens with an eponymous introductory short by Atsuko Fukushima. This ravishing, surrealist piece is a useful barometer for whether the viewer will enjoy what’s to come, as it eschews a traditional narrative to instead capture an ambiguous moment in time in a manner that characterises several of the shorts on offer here. ‘Genius Party’ follows a strange, lumbering birdlike creature as it helps populate a barren desert with beings that seem to be part rock, part egg and which procreate as they slurp down floating hearts. It sounds utterly bewildering on paper but on screen it almost makes sense. The exact meaning of the images remains elusive but the viewer can discern some kind of symbiotic relationship is occurring and that it seems to be a positive thing. It’s a terrific way to start the film and it leads beautifully into the next sequence, Shōji Kawamori’s ‘Shanghai Dragon’.

The longest and perhaps most immediately crowdpleasing of the shorts in Genius Party, ‘Shanghai Dragon’ tells the story of a young boy who finds a strange device that makes his drawings come to life. This apparently simple premise gives birth to a short that incorporates time travel, giant robots, superheroes and high-speed chases in a deliberately cluttered but always endearing narrative. ‘Shanghai Dragon’s upbeat ending is fiendishly juxtaposed with the grim, blackly comic world of Shinji Kimura’s ‘Deathtic 4’, a strange tale of a world populated by zombies which is disrupted by the arrival of a living frog and one young zombie boy’s attempts to return it to its world. I got the feeling while watching ‘Deathtic 4’ that elements of this truly bizarre film were lost in translation as there were jarring moments that were hard to make sense of but basically the plot is coherent and the look of the piece is quite unlike anything I’ve seen in an anime film before. It has a textured, 3D aesthetic which is reminiscent of early online flash animations, notably Tim Burton’s The World of Stainboy.

Genius Party then makes another clever shift by moving into one of its most conventional looking shorts, Yoji Fukuyama’s ‘Doorbell’. I was surprised to find in researching the film that many people really dislike ‘Doorbell’ due to its more traditional look and a story they deem weak but I found it a satisfying little short. Its premise, in which a teenager begins to encounter other versions of himself who seem to render him invisible, is both eerie and amusing, Fukuyama keeping the tone light with his use of an upbeat score. ‘Doorbell’s themes of self-identity may seem underexplored to those looking for something more profound but it wisely prioritises story over message, and I found the boy’s desperate attempts to reclaim his life from the malevolent doppelgängers to be gripping enough alone, and the fleeting explanation at the end of the film to be vague enough that it doesn’t capsize the whole thing with half-hearted philosophising. The look of the film, meanwhile, is pleasingly straightforward allowing the premise to breathe and not be smothered in weirdness, and nicely differentiating ‘Doorbell’ from the wilder shorts that surround it.

I was much less surprised to see the universally negative reaction to the next short, Hideki Futamura’s punishing ‘Limit Cycle’. This short is the most abstract of the whole bunch and its 18 minute runtime makes it a hard pill to swallow. Though its hallucinatory visuals are compelling at first, the lengthy monologue about God and the world around us that accompanies these visuals is utterly monotonous and difficult to follow. The whole thing quickly becomes a headache and its stream of consciousness appeal would have been better suited to a five minute short. At nearly twenty minutes, ‘Limit Cycle’ is like the self-indulgent guitar solo that ruins a song you were previously enjoying.

Genius Party finds its feet again with perhaps its most famous short, Masaaki Yuasa’s ‘Happy Machine’. Yuasa is one of my favourite anime directors and his diverse, adventurous creativity and good-humoured flair for the strange are in full flow in this tale of a baby who suddenly discovers the world he knows is completely fake and is left to negotiate a strange and dangerous wilderness alone. Like most of the shorts in Genius Party, ‘Happy Machine’ opts for a loose narrative with plenty of room for interpretation but unlike the interminable ‘Limit Cycle’, it gives us plenty to grab onto with its appealingly cartoony style and a series of adventures that can be enjoyed as vignettes even if you fail to grasp their cumulative significance. Genius Party takes its final bow with Shinichirō Watanabe’s ‘Baby Blue’, a short which wisely closes the film with something more narratively concrete so as not to let the viewer simply float away into an uncertain wilderness like Yuasa’s baby. ‘Baby Blue’ has a classic anime look and tells the story of two high-school students who skip school to spend the day together, exploring their complex relationship as they venture forth on a small personal quest. There’s a pleasing finality to ‘Baby Blue’ which serves up a dollop of nostalgic sentimentality but garnishes it with a subtle sense of underlying danger. It’s an excellent way to round out this diverse and often wonderful anthology film.

This month’s festival picks are available now until late October at www.screenanime.com. This month’s Series Marathon is Bartender. All films are available in both subtitled and English dubbed versions (except Genius Party, which is subtitled only) and trailers for all the content are also included. It’s another incredibly generous package for £3.98 and I couldn’t recommend the excellent work Screen Anime is doing more highly.

Screen Anime: Birthday Wonderland, 5 Centimetres Per Second and Genius Party
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