Whenever a new anime feature film makes waves with a sense of whimsy, fantasy and bold storytelling the inevitable appraisals as ‘The New Hayao Miyazaki’ or questions as to whether a new ‘Studio Ghibli’ has emerged often accompanies the film’s immediate success. When in fact what we are seeing is the emergence of filmmakers having grown up on the works of previous masters such as Miyazaki, Otomo, Oshii and Takahata. Young bold filmmakers with unique visions and their own stories to tell.
Filmmakers such as Mamoru Hosoda of Summer Wars fame, Makoto Shinkai whose Your Name remains Japan’s top earning anime, and with the debut of Penguin Highway, independent filmmaker and animator Hiroyasu Ishida is likely to join the ranks of anime’s new avant-garde, having already drawn the above-mentioned comparisons.
Produced under Ishida’s own Studio Colorido banner, and based on the award winning novel by Tomihiko Morimi, Penguin Highway is an impressively paced boys-own-adventure story that begins as a light hearted character study of a precocious fourth grader which unexpectedly escalates into a wild end-of-the-world escapade, complete with metaphysical mysteries, strange jabberwocky monstrosities and, as the title suggests, plenty, and we do mean plenty, of penguins.
During its opening monologue, the film introduces us to Aoyama, an overtly confident, if somewhat socially awkward student who views the world as one large scientific experiment. Urged on by his father, Aoyama documents everything around him, from weather patterns to the behaviour of bullies. But when a rookery of penguin suddenly appears in a field, his curiosity is put to task in figuring out the how and why.
Turning to his friend and chess instructor, a young woman who works at the local dentist clinic, Aoyama soon discovers a number of peculiar incidents around his home town that seem to share an elusive common thread, the least of which include the fact that the dental nurse can manifest penguins from random objects, and that one of his fellow classmates has discovered a giant orb of water floating in a field hidden deep within the woods.
Without question Aoyama is the heart of Penguin Highway, and director Ishida handles the character beautifully as a guide to help his audience navigate the turbulent, and at times perplexing narrative. Coupled with the film’s gorgeous art design and a nostalgic undercurrent, reminiscent of films such as The Goonies or Monster Club, Penguin Highway undoubtedly warrants the inevitable comparisons it will receive, but remains far more deserving of praise as a unique, beautifully entertaining and wholly original film.
Fun fact: The average human pancreas weighs approx. 80 grams, has a creamy, rich mouth feel with a taste comparable to aged sashimi scallops… best not ask how we came about these facts.
But knowing this information has exactly as much relevance to the storyline of I Want To Eat Your Pancreas as the film’s actual title, and that’s to say, practically nothing. It’s not that there isn’t a passing mention of pancreas consumption, or that hardcore Japanese pop-culture fans will respond to some brand recognition, it’s just that compared to the other 99.8% of the film’s 108 minute run time, it’s a little puzzling that this is the reference Studio VLON used to label this beautifully rendered feature length anime for its Western release. Especially considering that the movie resonates as an emotional teenage coming-of-age fable that will likely have any wayward eighties-horror aficionados wondering into the cinema dabbing tears from their eyes as opposed to saliva from the corner of their mouths.
Spawned from the serialised novel by Yoru Sumino, and having already been adapted as a live-action film under the similarly ambiguous title of Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, director Shin’ichiro Ushijima wastes no time in establishing the bittersweet tone of his film, opening on a funeral scene weighed down by a somber narration delivered by the film’s central protagonist, Shiga.
From this point on, I Want To Eat Your Pancreas essentially takes place as a flashback, introducing Shiga as deeply introverted high schooler, more comfortable looking at the pages of a book than engaging with the world around him; a pastime that finds him in possession of a book he finds abandoned in a hospital waiting room. Flicking through its pages and realising it’s a personal dairy of a terminally ill patient, Shiga is suddenly confronted by one of his fellow classmates, the vivacious Sakura, who claims the dairy as hers.
Sakura explains that she suffers from a pancreatic disease, but as it doesn’t impact her day-to-day health nobody besides her immediate family know of her illness, and begs Shiga to keep her secret.
More distressed by having a conversation with a fellow classmate than learning of her condition, Shiga basically indicates he couldn’t care less and walks off. An action that immediately fascinates and attracts Sakura, bonding her to him regardless of his discomfort.
To call what follows, a simple teen love story, would do an injustice to what is essentially a beautifully crafted relationship between two damaged souls, deftly jumping between light-hearted playfulness and emotionally jarring moments that resonate with genuine angst.
Best known for his work on the series One Punch Man, director Ushijima has crafted a captivating and emotional work with his debut feature. And while the film does suffer from some pacing issues during its second act; never quite reaching the sense of heartbreak it strives for, it’s a film that nonetheless gets beneath the skin and eats away at you long after the credits roll… right down to your pancreas.
In 2008, The Valkyria Chronicles was released to much acclaim and some confusion. A bizarre mix of military turn-based tactics, strategy and anime-style storytelling all wrapped up in a sketchy watercoloured aesthetic, there truly was nothing like this out there. Even people who wouldn’t play a strategy game on a dare couldn’t help but be charmed by this curious offering. Sequels were released, mainly on the PSP and mobile platforms, and a console spin-off Valkyria Revolution, hit market but none of these games could touch the singular charm of the original. Ten years later and it looks like they’re going to have another bash with The Valkyria Chronicles 4, but can lightning be caught in a bottle a second time? Kinda yeah.
The events of Valkyria Chronicles 4 occur in the same timeline as the original, however the story is told from the perspective of new characters. This is a wise move as trying to follow the byzantine competing narrative threads would be an exercise in confusion. Set on Europa, where the second Europan war is being fought, you take control of a squad of youngsters with silly hair and funny voices. The character designs are, like the predecessors, total anime nonsense. That’s part of the charm, really, but if you have a low tolerance for that sort of thing you should know that going in. If you can get past the rather goofy aesthetic, however, there is a surprising amount of story depth with solid journeys for all of the characters and even a couple of genuine emotion moments.
Gameplay-wise things are pretty much unchanged from the original. You move your troops into position, fight the enemy, move forwards and do it all again, experiencing cutscenes and story beats along the way. The mixture of exploration and real time strategy remains an intriguing one, although the mechanics aren’t quite as fresh a decade later. Graphics and animation are also fine, but not exactly spectacular. Still, that’s not really the purpose of Valkyria Chronicles 4. This almost feels like a more modern reboot of the original and for those of you who are fans of that oddball title – this is a pleasing and engaging tank ride down memory lane.