Penguin Highway

Penguin Highway is the kind of story that pulls you along like a strong and bending current- you have NO idea where it’s going but enjoy every turn and dip of the way nonetheless. This afternoon I settled down with a blanket and a bowl of ice cream to watch the anime adaptation of this Japanese science fiction novel by Tomihiko Morimi (which has also been made into a manga in the past).

The film, directed by Hiroyasu Ishida, centers around the life of a young boy, a 4th grader who will be the first to tell you that he is a bright, smart, scientifically minded kid who will surely have his pick of marriage partners when he grows up! He’s only got eyes for one woman though- a mysterious dental worker who seems to have something to do with the sudden and in-explainable appearance of penguins in the area.

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Sound confusing? Yup, like I said, you just need to let the story unfold and enjoy the ride. The strange story involves natural and unnatural phenomena, scientific experiments, adolescent longings, bullies, friends, and lots of penguins.

I especially enjoyed the friendship between the two kids who enjoy using the scientific method, documenting their findings, playing chess, and discussing the theory of relativity.

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Some parts were truly mind-bending. It’s not all charts and diagrams though- there are lots of funny and sweet moments throughout this fast-paced family film! The strange phenomena start small and build into a visually and emotionally powerful climax.

While the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff will no doubt leave many viewers scratching their heads, I found the conclusion to be satisfactory in how it tied things up. I enjoyed this film and highly recommend it.

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Modest Heroes: The Power of Short Film

I just finished watching Modest Heroes, a collection of three short films by Studio Ponoc. It’s an excellent anthology for any age with gorgeous animation, whimsical imagery, and universal themes— I wasn’t expecting any less, as Studio Ponoc was founded by former lead producer of Studio Ghibli, Yoshiaki Nishimura, and the strong team of dedicated animators had already won my heart with their first feature film Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower, 2017

Each of the the three stories making up Modest Heroes is crafted by a different director- Hiromasa Yonebayashi,  Yoshiyuki Momose, and Akihiko Yamashita. Each is very different in style, situation, and tone, but they are unified by the larger theme of life- it’s precariousness, hardships, and beautiful moments.

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Modest Heroes, 2018

I won’t spoil the charming stories of Modest Heroes— to do so would be a grave misstep for me— but I’ll give a taste of each to entice potential viewers of this family-friendly collection.

First, we have:

Kanini and Kanino

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Mixing hand drawn animation with dazzling CGI, this story is a feast for the eyes, with lifelike realism in a lush natural world blended with stylized wide-eyed characters. The minimalist “crab language” spoken throughout, largely improvised ad-lib by the voice actors, is no hindrance to communication, as the expressive animation carries the story along.

Life Ain’t Gonna Lose

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In Life Ain’t Gonna Lose, young Sota Shinohara makes his voice acting debut as Shuu, a boy who has a very severe allergy to eggs. This short film is based on a true story, and indeed feels very real. The everyday routines of people in Tokyo are painstakingly rendered in bright and detailed scenes, and the complexity of human instincts and emotions are lovingly portrayed.

Invisible

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The last film in this trio has a somewhat darker and grittier feel, but is still full of surprise and whimsy. It confronts what it means to be invisible, both literally and figuratively.

We should not live without recognizing or caring about others. There are many people who are sad, happy, suffering, or angry around us. If the world today doesn’t have anything to offer them, then we should deal with those invisible people in our film.

-Yoshiaki Nishimura


 

The bonus materials on the DVD are definitely worth a watch, and include features such as interviews, a press conference video, art galleries, and trailers. I found these extras to have a lot of depth compared to the fluff-filled bonus features that are often included with films. The creators of Modest Heroes, from the animators to the voice actors, music producers, and so on, share thoughtful, funny, and interesting insights from the making of the project. For example, Studio Ponoc’s founder Yoshiaki Nishimura expressed his strong belief in the validity of short film as a format with its own intrinsic value and no less capable than feature length films. He also explained the focus of Studio Ponoc being firstly and foremost to create quality films to entertain children with authenticity and depth, capturing their hearts and inevitably inspiring adults in the process.

It is happily evident that the true spirit of Studio Ghibli lives on with Studio Ponoc.

Saga: Quick Spoiler-free Review

It’s been a while since I read Saga Vol 1, but I’m discussing it in my comic course so I gave it a reread and remembered afresh why I love this series so much. The plentiful fantasy and sci-fi elements, plus a beautiful forbidden love story between two complex and flawed badass characters, sprinkled with startling imagery and unexpected humour, makes for a really compelling tale.

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Vaughan’s dialogue throughout feels so raw and real, especially with Alana who pulls no punches beginning with the memorable first page. The world, too, feels very attached to our own despite the whimsical fantasy of it. The story takes itself seriously at its core, depicting the brutal cruelties of life and war, as well as more tender moments. There are some very messed up things happening in Saga’s universe, but these atrocities are closer to the realities of our Earth than we’d like to think.

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It wasn’t until after reading a few volumes of Saga that I learned the amazing and award-winning artist Fiona Staples was Canadian. Today that I learned she was born in Calgary- so cool! Staples’ art impresses me a lot- I really appreciate it when artists show you the nitty-gritty and go all in instead of making something watered down for wider consumption.

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Saga doesn’t cater to the widest possible audience, but instead presents itself authentically, unabashedly, and in-your-face, no holds barred. It’s got action, emotion, diverse characters, strange creatures, and an epic feel. It’s totally earned a spot in my top favorite comic series.

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Nope, not lying!

A Silent Voice Spoke to Me

Last night I watched A Silent Voice, the anime adaptation of the manga by the same name. I’d previously read the first volume of the manga, so I had an idea what the movie was about and expected it to be an emotional film, but it surprised me with its masterful and deliberate techniques. It brought a few tears even to my eyes, and I very rarely am able to cry.

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A Silent Voice focuses on the relationship between Shōya, a young man who was once a habitual bully, and Shōko, the deaf girl who used to be his favorite person to tease and bother. The movie weaves naturally between the memories of the past and the raw emotions of the present day, wherein Shōya is trying to make amends for the callousness of his past actions.

Many moments of the movie hinge upon the subtleties of communication and mixed messages— through spoken word, written word, and sign language. It also touches upon the delicate ties maintained between former friends and acquaintances, and how efforts to rekindle or mend former friendships can open oneself to vulnerability and shame.

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At the same time, A Silent Voice highlights the maturity and bravery of making choices that open up this vulnerability, and the struggles and rewards that are born of it. The deeply personal messages of the film, as well as the several gutdropping and heartstopping moments throughout, punctuated by moments of silence and crescendo, make for a truly thoughtful and moving film.

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Rilakkuma and Kaoru on Netflix!

It’s out! And I just binge-watched the whole thing!

I was waiting and waiting for this from the moment I saw the trailer: Rilakkuma and Kaoru, an adorable Netflix original made using stop-motion animation!

Rilakkuma is by far my absolute favorite cute character to emerge from Japan. Rilakkuma (the brown bear) is a character from SanX. He made his debut in 2003, and is a lazy bear with the most endearing face I’ve ever seen. Just seeing Rilakkuma, or his friends Korilakkuma and Kiroitoiri, gives me a really warm, happy feeling that is instantaneous and all consuming.

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I don’t know quite what it is that makes Rilakkuma so squee-inducing. Perhaps it’s his black eyes— perfectly round and peering into my soul— or the placement of his ears, or the way he creases when he moves. Everything about him is proportioned and outfitted to positively scream “CUTE”. Japan has cute down to a science. I have my own Rilakkuma and friends at home, I just couldn’t resist them.

I enjoyed Rilakkuma and Kaoru very much— at first glance it might look like a simple children’s show, but it’s got a lot more depth than one might expect. Kaoru is an office worker in Tokyo who comes home one day dreaming about getting a pet cat, only to find Rilakkuma has randomly appeared in her apartment, with Korilakkuma (the white bear) following shortly after. Kaoru, and her pet bird Kiroitori, quickly become accustomed to having these two strange bears around, and they build a friendship.

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Kaoru struggles with questions that any young woman might- why am I so indecisive? What is my worth in this life? What am I meant to do? Am I being held back? Will I decide what I want in life? Rilakkuma and friends are there as a comforting presence and help Kaoru learn lessons throughout the show. They are also very funny, ridiculously cute, and genuinely heartwarming.

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This is the kind of show that I will probably watch again someday, and put on an episode now and then to have as a comforting background while I go about my day— the stop-motion animation is lovely in its details, and the overall feel of the show is very calming, relaxing, uplifting and cosy.

That said, it often went places I totally wasn’t expecting, and certainly wasn’t boring. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that not even aliens or ghosts are immune to the charms of Rilakkuma!

 

 

New Fruits Basket- First Impressions!

Takaya Natsuki’s Fruits Basket was one of the first manga series I began collecting in my teen years, and I also loved the original anime.

When I moved out from my parents’ house, I left behind my Fruits Basket manga in their attic (there were too many for me to fit in my suitcase!) and eventually ended up donating them to a library a few years later (still couldn’t fit in my suitcase!)

I haven’t read Fruits Basket, or watched the original anime, since those years long ago, so I was excited to see that the manga was being remade and accompanied by an anime reboot! I have a Crunchyroll subscription, so I watched the first new episode today and found myself getting sucked back into the story.

This new Fruits Basket keeps the humour, optimism, and sentimentality of the original while presenting a fresh, detailed new art style that I really love. The shading is lovely and the highlights really pop!

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For me, the casting and animation of Tohru is most important for this story- she is the main protagonist of course, but more importantly she’s also someone who was really inspiring to me when I was younger, so for me to enjoy this new reboot Tohru has to feel right. Happily, I wasn’t disappointed! The voice acting by Iwami Manaka captures Tohru’s bright personality perfectly.

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When I worked my first job in high school, as a grocery store cashier, I was thrown onto the till with very little training, and customers would get mad at how slow I was ringing through their purchases and looking up their product codes for produce. The store I worked at was very busy, lines were long, and I struggled a lot at first. I would sometimes be driven to tears.

During this time I specifically remember looking up to Tohru as a role model- from the very beginning of the story we come to know that she has a hard life, but she works hard through every circumstance to try to make things better, not just for herself, but especially for others. Her work ethic made me want to be strong too- and I did get better at my job eventually!

The story of Fruits Basket involves the animals of the Chinese zodiac- each member of the Soma family is cursed with an animal form, so it’s fun to see each one revealed as the story progresses. In the first episode we see three such transformations happen in quick succession- I love the powdery & otherworldly mist that is unleashed in the new anime!

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Most die-hard fans of Fruits Basket (that I knew of, anyway) were either Team Kyo or Team Yuki- these two boys are the major contenders for Tohru’s heart, but I found it hard to pick sides, myself!

I always did have a little thing for Shigure, though…

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There are also lots of other interesting characters who will be revealed as the show goes on, each with very distinct personalities, so it will surely be increasingly entertaining!

Overall, I’m impressed with this first new episode, and I’m sure that this new Fruits Basket will capture the hearts of fans both new and old!

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Mini Review: Maquia- When the Promised Flower Blooms

If you fall in love, you will become truly alone.

This is the sentiment that forms the undercurrent of Maquia, a standalone high-fantasy story centered around the lorph- also known by humans as the “clan of the separated” because their near-immortality has caused them to live isolated lives and become the stuff of legends.

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Maquia is a woman of the lorph. When a power-hungry kingdom raids her village, she is torn away from her kind and finds herself rescuing a human infant despite her deep knowledge of the heartbreak that will inevitably ensue.

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Maquia is a rollicking story of adventure, with heaps of drama, spoonfuls of humour, and touches of romance. It’s also quite emotional- if you are a crier, be prepared to cry. By the end of it my husband looked at me and said “I feel like they’re trying their damnedest to make me cry”.

One aspect of the story that I really like is the Hibiol- the lorph are weavers and have a unique language of the cloth which they use to record history and share messages amongst themselves.

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The film carries along at a good pace. It is interesting to see Maquia’s adopted son Ariel and the other humans in the story growing up steadily around the ever-youthful lorph characters. The way the characters developed and the decisions they made surprised me in some instances.

Another engaging aspect is the existence of the Renato- huge dragon creatures capable of flight that the kingdom of Mezarte have enslaved to do their bidding, but which are slowly but surely dying off from a mysterious “Red Eye disease”.

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A word of caution- if, like me, you prefer sub over dub, stick with the Blu-Ray for this one. Sub and dub options are usually included on both the DVD release and Blu-Ray for most anime nowadays, but this is an exception- I borrowed the DVD from the library and then realized that it only had an English dub, so we had to watch it with English voice acting. The BluRay, I found out, does have both a sub or dub option.

Overall I really enjoyed this film and would totally watch it again someday. I think that, since it’s an engaging standalone film with a PG rating, it would be a good movie to introduce someone to anime, to share with your family, or to enjoy on a date. Or, just cosy up and enjoy it on your own!

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