Over the past few days, I’ve been updating the “Recommendations” page with movies and shows I’ve watched in the past few months. These are the new entries:
Twenty-seven-year-old Taeko Okajima dreams of the countryside. Despite being born and raised in Tokyo, she has always longed for a small hometown to return to like her classmates’ families. Now, she’s taking a trip to Yamagata to help with the safflower harvest and experience rural life for herself. While on the train, she begins to remember her childhood, and the memories continue flow as she settles into her temporary home.
For many years, Only Yesterday sat in licensing hell, held by a Disney that was mainly interested in the marketability of Hayao Miyazaki’s fantastical, family-friendly worlds while Isao Takahata’s more grounded stories remained in limbo. Now GKids possesses the license, and they have thankfully put in the effort to bring these movies the attention they deserve, including dubs and theatrical releases. Only Yesterday depicts a young woman who feels alienated and dissatisfied with city life, and as the movie examines her adolescence, it becomes clear that she has never truly felt at home. Taeko felt misunderstood by her sisters and stifled by her loving but overly stern father. The bumps and bruises of adolescence, both physical and psychological, are depicted with a sort of softness that doesn’t reduce them but makes them feel more relatable as Taeko reflects on the experiences that made her the woman she is today. Country life is quite romanticized when compared to the disconnect Taeko feels with her city origins, but viewed as a personal journey rather than an indictment of urban lifestyles, it makes for a beautiful, satisfying story.
The Vision of Escaflowne
Hitomi Kanzaki is an ordinary high school girl whose hobbies are running on the track team and reading the tarot, both of which she’s better at than most. When she gets news her crush is moving overseas, she asks him to give her her first kiss if she can beat 13 seconds for the hundred-meter dash. Her race, and her first kiss, are interrupted by a young man fighting a dragon. A beam of light appears and pulls Hitomi into another world, a planet called Gaea where people call Earth “the Mystic Moon,” human-animal hybrids walk among normal humans, and battles are fought using sword-wielding giant robots. The Zaibach Empire has thrown Gaea into turmoil, including Fanelia, the home of Van Fanel, the boy who fought the dragon.
The Vision of Escaflowne, made in 1996, is the ultimate in 90’s anime aesthetic – a teenage girl in a school uniform pulled into another world with giant robots, winged pretty boys, catgirls, and love polygons. Its production history was troubled, a multi-year process full of redesigns, rewrites, and cuts in length. Its cast and crew include then-newcomers Maaya Sakamoto, Yoko Kanno, and Kazuki Akane. In short, the show is as 90’s as they come, and yet remains a classic, an important work in anime history. In original drafts, Hitomi was ditzy, curvy, and useful only because she was necessary to pilot the Escaflowne; Akane’s rewrites made her intelligent and athletic, an active and essential force in the story. The gender-balanced cast is well-rounded and interesting, showcasing a variety of personalities in women and men alike. Even 20 years later, The Vision of Escaflowne is well worth your time.
Ashitaka, a prince of the Emishi clan in Muromachi Japan, must leave his home after being cursed by a giant boar turned into a demon. He travels to the boar’s homeland to find the source of the rage and anger it felt as it died in hopes that he may lift the curse. His search brings him to Irontown, a new city led by Lady Eboshi, who is cutting down the primeval forest to get to the iron in the soil. Ashitaka finds himself caught in the middle as the gods of the forest wage war against Irontown along with San, a young woman raised by wolves.
This is it. The movie that started it all. Princess Mononoke made a profound impact on twelve-year-old me and cemented my lifelong love of anime as a medium. Having grown up on Disney films and mostly being exposed to anime through Pokemon and Ranma ½, it wasn’t until I saw Princess Mononoke in the theater that I really realized what anime was capable of. The beauty of the art and animation and the nuanced plot and characters were like nothing I had ever seen animated before, and I was entranced. The movie is known for a lot of things – there are so many elements and it does them all well – but among feminists it’s particularly popular for its nuanced female cast. Lady Eboshi isn’t just villainous or power-hungry; she’s trying to build a home for people deemed unwanted by society, particularly lepers and prostitutes, and is willing to do whatever it takes to secure that. San and her wolf-mother, Moro, are equally justified in defending their home. Ashitaka, as the uninvolved third party, struggles to reconcile their similar yet opposing desires, but many of the strongest driving forces in the film are female.
When ten-year-old Chihiro’s family gets lost searching for their new house, they end up in a crumbling abandoned theme park. When night falls, it turns out the theme park wasn’t so abandoned, and her parents get turned into pigs and kept at a bathhouse for the gods. In order to save them, Chihiro must take on a job as an attendant and survive in a world of gods and spirits that would like nothing more than to eat her.
Spirited Away is the film that made Miyazaki a household name in the US, collecting critical acclaim and Oscar buzz despite an initial limited release with little promotion from their licensors at Disney. And honestly, no wonder. The surreal imagery is distinctly Japanese but not to the point of of inaccessibility, and Chihiro’s emotional journey toward maturity is virtually universal. The film’s semi-episodic structure, with Chihiro having to deal with several interconnected but separate problems, beautifully displays how each moment is a learning experience and a chance for her to gain strength and wisdom and win allies. The central love story is predicated on her learning to understand and rescue the boy, and although others may assist her, no one rescues Chihiro at any point, allowing her to take charge in her own coming of age story.
All My Darling Daughters
Yukiko is almost thirty, working full time, and still living with her mother Mari. Their relationship is contentious, but they are still the cornerstones of one another’s lives. However, after a cancer scare, Mari announces she’s gotten married – and the groom is a host-turned-actor in his 20’s. Yukiko struggles to cope with her family suddenly changing in the first of five interconnected short stories about Yukiko, Mari, and their loved ones.
I checked this one-shot by josei writer Fumi Yoshinaga out of the library on a whim one day, and it has been one of my absolute favorite manga since then. I love it so much, it’s honestly been a struggle to write about it just because I can’t seem to get my feelings about it in order for long enough to get anything coherent out! The book is intentionally and explicitly feminist, examining the state of women’s lives in the early 00’s, when it was written. Yukiko, Mari, and their friends all struggle with expectations they hold for the world and for themselves, and reconciling them with the realities of the time. Even with all the progress that has been made, there’s still so many things that aren’t quite fair – men not pulling their weight at home, even in dual-income homes; the cultural emphasis on marriage; the disproportionate importance put on women’s appearances; and many other things. The story is beautiful and raw, never quite angry but simmering with discontent nonetheless. The second story, unfortunately, is quite weak and involves a teacher and student being physically involved, and never feels like it quite fits in with the rest of the book.
Like her father Hokusai, O-Ei is an artist. This unconventional daughter of an unconventional father doesn’t cook or clean, or do any of the usual woman’s work. Instead, she paints, watches firefighters at work, and cares for her blind younger sister, O-Nao. The film Miss Hokusai follows several episodes in the life of the artist as a young woman.
Hopefully this summary makes it absolutely clear that the main character of Miss Hokusai is O-Ei, not Hokusai himself. Despite her being the title character and the focus of every scene, members of the audience sometimes viewed O-Ei as a sort of narrator of the life of her more-famous father. These people were invariably disappointed, which is a shame, because Miss Hokusai is a lovely film if you don’t go in with the wrong expectations. There is little-to-nothing in the way of story; rather, O-Ei’s personality is put on display through a series of vignettes. She is believably multi-faceted: blunt and brusque with her male colleagues, tender with O-Nao, and awkward in matters of sex and romance. Fans of Edo-period history and ukiyo-e arts will also enjoy the familiar names and artwork in the cast of characters.
Space Patrol Luluco
Luluco is doing her very best to live an ordinary middle school life. It’s not easy, since her hometown, Ogikubo, is a space colony populated with all sorts of aliens; her father is an officer of the Space Patrol; and her mother left them some months ago. She’s doing her best, and largely succeeding, until two things happen in one day: a beautiful boy named Alpha Omega Nova transfers to her school, and her father accidentally eats space contraband that freezes him completely, forcing her to become a member of the Space Patrol herself!
Space Patrol Luluco is a short series consisting of twelve ten-minute episodes. It’s also a product of Studio Trigger and directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, the man best known for the hypermasculine Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and controversial, breast-laden Kill La Kill. It was also made to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the studio, featuring unsubtle references to their previous works. With its origins, it’s not a show that I would have expected to put on the list, but here we are. Space Patrol Luluco’s energy is pure-strain Imaishi: rapid-fire and bizarre, with logic that really only allows for suspension of disbelief due to its internal consistency. It is also surprisingly sweet, as Luluco struggles to navigate the treacherous and unfamiliar territory of first love in addition to accomplishing her mission and getting her father back. The show confronts the idea that teenage girls’ feelings are silly and overblown, demanding that they be treated as valid and just as worthy of respect as any other person’s.
Please Tell Me! Galko-chan
Galko is a sharp-tongued yet kind high school girl. At school, she enjoys hanging out with her friends Otako and Ojou and talking about anything and everything.
Short summary, right? That’s because Please Tell Me! Galko-chan has little in way of plot or development of any sort. I only ended up watching it because of positive word-of-mouth, since Galko’s exaggeratedly curvy body type and the series description evoked visions of fan service and pandering, reference-heavy conversations. I could not have been more wrong.
There’s a lot of anime about some aspect of adolescence – adolescent love, the pressures of exams and other aspects of high school life, of enjoying one’s youth. Few of them touch on just how gross adolescence can be, with changing bodies that bleed and swell and sprout hair, and how hard it can be to understand what exactly is even happening down there. Please Tell Me! Galko-chan is about exactly that, as the characters talk about their bodies with casual, matter-of-fact humor. It’s remarkably body-positive, showcasing a variety of body types in a nonjudgmental manner. It was a ten-minute spot of sunshine every week during its run, and I can only hope for a sequel series, poop jokes and all.
Chitose Karasuma is an up-and-coming voice actress. Well, up-and-coming may be a bit of a stretch – she’s been in the field for a year and has only really played minor characters. One day, her talent is finally recognized (a director cast her because he liked her at a wrap party), and Chitose’s has to keep up as her world expands to include hard work, veteran colleagues, and the court of public opinion.
Girlish Number kind of snuck under the radar as it aired, which is a shame. Chitose is something of an unusual heroine, in that she is a total mess of a human being and not in a cute way. She’s lazy, vain, and selfish and all too happy to skate by on the hard work of others. Girlish Number takes a look at what happens when a person like that grabs a lucky break and must cope with a sudden flood of new responsibilities and higher expectations. It could easily have been an overblown and cliched story about the unexpected price of success, but rather it’s a surprisingly relatable story of Chitose realizing that she’s in over her head and trying to figure out how to keep from drowning. She is lucky to be buoyed by her relationships with those around her, including her older brother/manager, a failed voice actor himself, and the other voice actresses in the cast. Girlish Number deserves commendation for being unafraid of having an unlikable heroine who, although she grows throughout the series, never really becomes a kind or good person. It also gets bonus points for skewering light novel anime.
Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid
Kobayashi, a coder living by herself, gets a surprise one day when she opens her door and finds a dragon standing there. The dragon, who transforms into a busty young woman and calls herself Tohru, says that Kobayashi invited her to be her live-in maid. Oh, and also that she is romantically and sexually attracted to her. Kobayashi, though reluctant at first, allows Tohru to stay with her. Tohru must learn to live and behave in the human world, and Kobayashi must learn to be okay with Tohru’s strange friends and their comings and goings. Neither of their lives will ever be the same.
Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid was yet another anime I had low expectations for, but was pleasantly surprised to find one of the best shows of the season. Instead of a fanservice-oriented, LGBT-tinged sex comedy (although there is still plenty of both those things), it turned out to largely be a sweet slice-of-life show about found families and outsiders finding their own space, with Kyoto Animation’s signature expressive animation. Kobayashi is strongly lesbian-coded, and her relationship with Tohru feels more authentic than in most vaguely homoerotic stories. Kobayashi’s loneliness collides with Tohru’s baggage from her previous life as a dragon locked in deadly war with humans, creating a healing relationship for both of them. There is some uncomfortable comedy – there’s an eight-year-old with a crush that many viewers felt went too far, and a female dragon who doesn’t understand why bathing in human form with a terrified eight-year-old boy is inappropriate.