Movie Review – Your Name

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that lives up to its buzz.

REVIEW: Makoto Shinkai is an animation film-maker that has been earmarked to become the next Hayao Miyazaki with his spectacular animation. But in my opinion, he’s not really there yet. Although he gets the visuals right, his storytelling is quite flawed due to the slow pace and he never gets to end his films in a satisfying manner.

The endings are either abrupt, lack impact or at one point, incredibly overwrought. But the biggest problem with his films is the use of musical montages. Whenever a film of his reaches an emotional peak, he tends to play a song over it with the intention of eliciting poignancy. But unfortunately it ends up being lazy, cheap and ruins the cinematic panache of the film, making it look like a television episode at times.

So when I heard that Shinkai’s latest film was breaking Japanese box office records AND was chosen to be in the running for Best Animated Film at the Oscars, I knew I had to watch it to see if the film lived up to its hype. So does the film live up to its sterling reputation or will it end up being underwhelming?

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Edited and expanded synopsis from Madman: Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are two total strangers living completely different lives. But when Mitsuha makes an impulsive wish to leave her mountain town for the bustling city of Tokyo, they become connected in a bizarre way. She dreams she is a boy living in Tokyo while Taki dreams he is a girl from a rural town he’s never been to.

The two realize the situation that they are in and decide to make the most of it until they develop an intimate relationship. But they suddenly lose contact with each other and Taki decides to personally meet up with Mitsuha over at her hometown. Little does he know, he ventures into something that will send both into an emotional journey that few could dream of. Will their relationship survive through the tumultuous turn of events?

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Let us get the obvious out of the way. From the looks of the screenshots alone, Your Name looks visually spectacular. Everything just has a pinkish/orange hue that gives the film such a warm, optimistic feel that made me smile. The music by RADWIMPS (a change from Shinkai’s usual composer, TENMON) gets the emotional pull of the film quite well, despite some major flaws.

As for the storytelling, Shinkai thankfully has improved in some ways. First of all, the editing (by Shinkai himself) has tightened up considerably, leading to a pace that is manageable for the story as well as keeping the emotional momentum going. Secondly, he actually sticks the landing and provides a satisfying, albeit predictable ending. Without spoilers, the ending does not feel abrupt, nor does it feel overwrought and it actually feels earned and rightfully so.

Thirdly, the fun sci-fi premise never interferes with the storytelling. There is very little spoon-feeding and exposition that slows the film down and it benefits greatly from it. And finally, Shinkai finally develops a nice sense of humour that provides the perfect offset from the potentially darker turns of the story.

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As for the voice acting, all the actors give great performances. Ryunosuke Kamiki, who is a veteran in voice acting as far as his projects for Studio Ghibli go, is great as Taki, as he provides the perfect balance between brimming anger and kindness. While Mone Kamishiraishi (who was fantastic in the leading role of Lady Maiko) is no beginner in voice acting due to her performance in Wolf Chidren, is great as Mitsuha, as she makes her character likable and compelling, with a great portrayal of both naivety and hubris. The supporting cast all add life to their roles from Masami Nagasawa providing a certain sultry appeal as Miki, Taki’s senior and romantic crush; to Kana Hanazawa as Ms. Yukino, Mitsuha’s teacher and is a reprisal of a character in one of Shinkai’s previous films.

But as much as improvements go, there is always room for it and Shinkai still has ample space of it. The lightest flaw is typical of films with this premise, which leads to some plot holes and lapses in the film’s logic, but I can’t really say further, since it would spoil part of the film. The other flaw, and this is a major one, is one I stated in the beginning of this review: the musical montages. Yes, they are still present and there are more present than usual, which really harms the emotional pull of the film, as well as unintentionally making the film cheap, looking like part of a TV episode.

But overall, Your Name is Shinkai’s most satisfying and complete film to date. With its amazingly beautiful animation, a fun yet familiar sci-fi premise, a great melding of genres (sci-fi, romance and disaster movie?) and great vocal talent, Your Name is a film that is worth seeing and remembering.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular animation

Fantastic voice work from the cast

Little spoon-feeding and exposition about the fantasy premise

Great storytelling and editing, ensuring a good pace

A satisfying ending

CONS

The use of musical montages

Problematic subtitles

Some plot holes and lapses in logic

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Masami Nagasawa, Ryo Narita, Aoi Yuki, Obunaga Shimazaki, Kaito Ishikawa, Kanon Tani, Masaki Terasoma  
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Screenwriters: Makoto Shinkai

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Movie Review – Kubo and the Two Strings

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EXPECTATIONS: A beautifully realized fantasy adventure from Laika.

REVIEW: Laika Studios is an animation studio that I am not fully familiar with. Now put your pitchforks away, it’s not due to bad expectations. I honestly don’t know why I am not more into their work although without knowing, I have enjoyed their first studio film, Coraline, immensely. And reading about their other works like The Boxtrolls and Paranorman, I was interested of what they have cooked up for their latest film. An Asian-influenced fantasy film with the use of stop-motion that adapts the art of origami? And it also stars Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey as a monkey and a beetle samurai? This honestly sounds like a film I would have loved to have seen when I was a kid. Hell, it sounds incredibly appealing at my current age. So does the film live up to its studio’s sterling reputation or will it rank alongside mediocre animated films like The Angry Birds Movie and the latest Ice age sequel?

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In Ancient Japan, a young boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) cares for his sick mother in a village. A spirit from the past known as The Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) turns Kubo’s life upside down by re-igniting an age-old vendetta. This causes all sorts of havoc as gods and monsters chase Kubo. In order to survive, Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor once worn by his late father, Hanzo a legendary Samurai warrior. On his journey, he also gains some allies in a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and he realizes he also has more demons on his way, like his twin aunts, whom are also phantoms (both played by Rooney Mara).

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As you can see by the pictures (or the trailer), the animation is absolutely spectacular. The sheer commitment to the animation is just mind-blowing to the point that everything you question on-screen about whether it is CGI or practical effects, trust me, it is all practical. Even the water! And the character designs are all distinct while retaining the Asian influence. I especially loved the character design of the twin aunts, particularly when the first appear in the night. It was reminiscent of ghost stories in Japan i.e Kwaidan stories. And the stop-motion animation of the monsters are endearingly reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen films, which will please adults as much as children.

Speaking of pleasing adults, the story is surprisingly thematic and mature. Venturing towards themes such as death and autonomously determining your fate with minimal sugar-coating or being patronizing to children, it fits into the story in terms of its character development like a glove, which helps the audience relate to Kubo. Even if the themes go over the minds of children, the film still provides a rollicking fantasy adventure. The action scenes are thrilling to watch, particularly the martial arts scenes. Planning and executing them had to be a pain to do, but it pays off really well, particularly in a scene where Monkey fights one of the twins on the ship out in the ocean.

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And what would it be without the characters? With such a strange Hollywood cast chosen for these fantasy characters, it’s a wonder that they work as well as they should. Art Parkinson (known for his appearances in Game of Thrones) is endearing and convincingly conflicted as Kubo, as he not only has to deal with this quest involving family conflict, but he is also going through adolescence and owning up to his destiny, and Parkinson portrays that well. Matthew McConaughey is a hoot as Beetle, a former samurai who worked under Hanzo yet his memory isn’t quite what it used to be, leading to some very funny situations.

Ralph Feinnes can play the villainous role in his sleep and with his small role as the Moon King, he suffices. Rooney Mara seems to be relishing playing the twin villains, as she seems to be quite animated (not a pun) and delightfully acidic, when you compare it to her other live-action performances. But the big standout is Charlize Theron as Monkey. Authoritative, strong and paternal to an amusing degree, she steals every scene she is in and the chemistry between her and McConaughey is surprisingly sweet despite the two never working together in the same vicinity. And it was great to hear veteran actress Brenda Vaccaro again, who delights in her small role as Kameyo.

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As for its flaws, the story may be a little bit too simple for some and the motivation for some of the villains are not really clear, hindering the ending a little bit. Also, although the character of Beetle is very funny, his comic relief antics can intrude with the dramatic through-line at times.

But overall, Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the best films of the year and I highly recommend it. With its spectacular animation, thrilling action scenes, likable characters and a great message, Laika Studios has gotten me interested to watch their other work.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular animation

Likable characters

Resonant themes

Fantastic action scenes

CONS

Motivations of villains a bit unclear

Intrusive comic relief

Overly simplistic story

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey.
Director: Travis Knight
Screenwriter: Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, Shannon Tindle

Movie Review – Sausage Party

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EXPECTATIONS: A mildly amusing experience that gets the most out of its one-joke premise.

REVIEW: Seth Rogen has always been associated with stoner humour and raunchy comedy, but in the case of Sausage Party, he takes it to a whole new level. With animated films that have anthropomorphised objects like toys (i.e. the Toy Story films) and cars (i.e. Cars), Rogen had the idea to anthropomorphise consumer products while retaining his own sense of humour.

And while the trailer was amusing in its own right, it implied that the movie was just a one-joke premise, which is seeing food swearing. But with daring animated films like South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Team America: World Police, both of those films effectively mixed vulgar humour with timely themes. So does Sausage Party make a big enough impression to join alongside those two fantastic films?

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Co-writer/star Seth Rogen voices Frank, a sausage who is part of the grocery store called “Shopwell’s”. All the groceries of the many aisles all dream of one thing: to be chosen by a customer (seen as Gods) and be taken to the Great Beyond. But according to a supposedly crazed chosen one who had returned (voiced by Danny McBride), he says that the story is all bullshit. After knowing the horrifying truth of what the humans do with the consumer products, the groceries will have to set aside all of their differences of faith and product origin to unite as one and fight back against the humans before the day of celebration.

Unless you’ve read articles about the film, I’m going to be murky about the story details. If you thought this film was just a typical Seth Rogen joint that just so happens to be in animation, then prepared to be surprised. Not only does Sausage Party succeed as a hilariously unhinged and unadulterated comedy, it also succeeds almost as well as providing food for thought. Much like the South Park film dealt with censorship and how Team America dealt with the global implications of United States politics, Sausage Party deals with the conflict between science and religion and existentialism.

Like how everyone is conditioned to believe without any substantial proof or how small differences with each other can drive each other apart so easily to even innate fears that we do not even question that prevent us of our desires, all of this conveyed with wit and raunchiness that offers gut-busting laughs. A scene involving non-perishable groceries (voiced by Bill Hader, Craig Robinson and Scott Underwood) revealing the truth about the Great Beyond satirizes the creation of the Bible so furiously, that had me tearing up with laughter.

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What is also surprising is the world-building, which is just as good as Pixar. The grocery store is filled with distinct characters and the many different aisles are so well-realized, that they can be characters of their own. Sure, there are many racial stereotypes, but with the themes they are dealing with and the comedic force they have, you’re bound to break a lot of boundaries.

And speaking of boundaries, Sausage Party not only destroys them, but it defecates and urinates all over them, stomps on them into oblivion and sets them on fire. And that is definitely true in the final act, where every single depraved action known to man is committed in all of its glory. Movie references to Terminator 2 and Saving Private Ryan hit the mark with ease while also adding punch to the offensive feel. Every single race and orientation will find something in the film that has the potential to offend, but the film’s gleeful attitude towards excess is so undeniable that you can’t help but be swept up by the hilarity of it all.

Most of the credit is to the cast. Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig play their roles with such sincerity (well, as much as the premise allows), that their relationship actually becomes substantial enough to invest in. Michael Cera is great as Barry, the sausage in the unfortunate position of being a coward, and his subplot is a very enjoyable side-quest that is actually an amusing twist of a scene in Toy Story.

While the other supporting cast are great, the best includes Nick Kroll, who plays a villainous douche (literally, of course) with such enthusiasm, that he becomes a villain you love to hate instead of dreading him every time he shows up. And there’s Edward Norton, who plays a bagel with such a killer Woody Allen impression that I would love to see Allen’s impression if he ever gets to see Norton’s performance.

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Besides the supposed flaw that the film will possibly offend everyone, the film can be incredibly brash and insistent in its message and themes, which can irk some. Also, I was a bit disappointed that there was only one song in the film. With a great talent like Alan Menken, who has given so much to films with his musical genius, I was expecting more.

But overall, Sausage Party is a hilariously fun time at the movies, but with its thought-provoking plot and its gloriously excessive attitude towards political incorrectness, it is elevated to cult status alongside the South Park film and Team America: World Police. The film ends with a lead-in to a sequel, and the idea for it is so profoundly silly, that I would love to see where it goes.

Quickie Review

PROS

Surprisingly thought-provoking plot

The go-for-broke approach to politically incorrect humour

Fantastic voice cast

The extremely satisfying final act

CONS

Will offend almost everyone

Lack of musical numbers

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Craig Robinson, Bill Hader
Director: Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon
Screenwriter: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Jonah Hill

Movie Review – Finding Dory

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EXPECTATIONS: A Pixar sequel not as underwhelming as Cars 2, but along the lines of Monsters University.

REVIEW: Pixar Studios has been long regarded as one of the best animation studios in the world today, alongside Studio Ghibli, which my denial says that it still exists. But ever since the release of Cars 2, an incredibly disappointing sequel (to a film that wasn’t that good to begin with) that seems more like a product than an actual film, the seemingly infallible quality of Pixar has fallen. With other films like Brave, Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur, it seems to go towards that theory, but a creative upward surge happened with the release of Inside Out, a wonderfully exuberant and creative film. And now we have Finding Dory, the long-awaited sequel to the 2003 hit, Finding Nemo. Will the film be worth the 13 year wait, or will it end up being disappointing like Cars 2?

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Approximately one year after the events of the first film, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) is now living with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son, Nemo (Hayden Rolence, replacing Alexander Gould). Having memories gradually coming back involving her family, Dory sets out to find her family, much to the worry of Marlin. Remembering something about “the jewel of Morro Bay, California”, the three end up at the Monterey Marine Life Institute. The three unfortunately get split up and they have to find each other as well as Dory’s parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy) with a bunch of new friends like Bailey (Ty Burrell), a white beluga whale; Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a whale shark; and Hank (Ed O’Neill), an octopus, who becomes her guide.

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Was this film worth the 13 year wait? Yes and no. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not truly criticizing the film in any major way, but sequels with long time gaps are usually made to cash in on the nostalgia value rather than being made for valid creative reasons. But seeing this film, the reason for this film to exist makes perfect sense and fits the Disney/Pixar formula to a T. What also bothered me was the decision to make Dory the main character of the film. Considering what happened with Cars 2, which made the disastrous decision to make Mater the main character (much to the annoyance of many, including myself), I was fearful that Finding Dory would also end up being an annoyance. Thankfully, that never happened and it is all thanks to Ellen DeGeneres‘ performance.

Having perfect comic timing and seamlessly going into drama, DeGeneres is still fantastic as the lovable Dory, who is more than just comic relief. The characters of Marlin and Nemo are merely passengers for The Dory Show Finding Dory, but Albert Brooks and Hayden Rolence still play off well as father and son. Marlin’s bird call still makes me laugh even when I’m writing this review. The supporting cast are great with their roles, with standouts like Ty Burrell as Bailey, a neurotic beluga whale who can’t seem to perform the act of echolocation (amusingly referred as the world’s best pair of glasses); Kaitlin Olson as Destiny, a near-sighted whale shark and childhood friend of Dory’s; and Ed O’Neill as Hank, a grumpy octopus who yearns to be confined in an aquarium and is jokingly referred as a “septopus” due to his lost tentacle.

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The Pixar formula is still running with Finding Dory, as it tries to balance laughs and emotion, but it has gotten a little bit rusty, making this film a bit inferior to Finding Nemo. The attempts of tugging the heartstrings of the audience has gotten a bit more manipulative, especially with more reliance on music cues. Plus, it does not really help that the plot of Finding Dory is still a retread of the first film. Fortunately, for what it lacks in emotional investment, it makes up for with laughs and charm. The many visual gags evoke plenty of guffaws like Hank’s camouflage and the character of Becky, a strange looking bird. But the final act of the film has one of the funniest climaxes that Pixar has ever done. Involving echolocation, car traffic, land animals and a well-placed song, it had me gleefully choking at my popcorn at one point. Plus the cuteness levels are off the charts when you see the young version of Dory and the plentiful otters. And do not get me started on the surprise celebrity voice cameo played by a fantastic actress, whom actually figures into the plot, that made me laugh so much whenever she was being referred to.

Does this film stand up to the original? Sort of. It does not make a mockery to the Pixar name like Cars 2 did, and it is better than unnecessary films like Monsters University, but it falls short of the fantastic quality Pixar films like Inside Out, the Toy Story films and Up, or even this year’s Disney animated film, Zootopia. But it is still great fun for the whole family, has a simple but important message and it shows that Pixar is far from being over.

P.S – Stay after the end credits for a delightful surprise.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Ellen DeGeneres is fantastic as Dory

The Pixar formula still charms and delights

Supporting characters are great

Hilarious gags, whether visual or vocal (the celebrity guest cameo had me grinning and laughing out loud)

CONS

Emotionally manipulative at times

Plot is a retread of the original film

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Andrew Stanton
Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse, original story by Andrew Stanton

Movie Review – The (Murder) Case of Hana and Alice (Japanese Film Festival 2015)

EXPECTATIONS: A film as charming and beautiful as its live-action predecessor.

REVIEW: In my previous review of April Story, I’ve mentioned that the first live-action Japanese film that I saw was Hana and Alice, so you can probably assume that I had high expectations for this animated prequel. And to hear that all of the original cast had returned for the film had me excited (although one actor plays a different role). Even more so is the type of film-making for the prequel (rotoscope animation, like in A Scanner Darkly), which is an ingenious way of sidestepping the age of the actors as well as still filming in real environments and sets. But I was afraid that Shunji Iwai would not be able to capture the magic of the original as well as not conveying his visual film-making to his bet to the media of animation. Well guys, I am happy to report that this film is not only a fantastic story about lost love and what it can do to a person but it is also a charming, beautiful and oddly weird story about the beginning of a delightful friendship.

Set in the year 2000 (as evident by the flip mobile phones), three years before the events of the live-action film, were are introducted to Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yu Aoi), a 14 year old girl who moves into a new town, Fujiko, with her recently divorced mother (Shoko Aida). The people there aren’t exactly the helpful kind, with many weird and eccentric characters that you think it might not get any weirder, until Alice is swept into a case that involves ghosts and a murder of a student, Yuda (a playful way of saying Judas). Through her investigations, she is led to meet with a shut-in, Hana Arai (Anne Suzuki), who not only is an integral part of the case but she is also a neighbour of Alice. The two work together in solving the case but what they might end up with in the end is more than a solved case.

Now you’re probably wondering (especially for people who have seen the live-action film) is why in the world would the prequel involve ghosts and murder? It turns out it is a lot of fun, similar to cases that Scooby-Doo or Nancy Drew would investigate, but this is a Shunji Iwai film. His films were always more about details than story so if people are reading this review and/or are planning to watch this film expecting a true mystery will be quite disappointed. Fortunately, Iwai succeeds in making the film a character study about two girls who forge a friendship that made the live-action film so compelling. The rotoscope animation does take a bit of time to adjust at first but the movements of the characters look surprisingly natural and the scenery and locations such as Hana’s flower garden to the playground gymboree where Alice plays look breathtaking. One of the things that make the film such a great thematic follow-up to the live-action original is how the film is so naturalistic, you forget that you’re watching an animated film but a fairy tale come to life, and the cinematography and music of both films really capture that feel.

Another thing that makes the film a resounding success is the cast. The only way the film would work is that the two leads can make you believe that they could be the best of friends and they clearly are up to the task. Yu Aoi is still the goofy, playful and strong Alice and has plenty of opportunities to show it, like investigating a lead who may or may not be the right person or hysterically pleading her mother to move out of their new house because it might be inhabited by ghosts. Anne Suzuki is still the timid, lovesick instigator, who may or may not have been responsible for the murder, that you can’t help but want to give her a hug. The actresses still have the lovely chemistry that again makes you question why the two weren’t friends in the first place. There’s a scene later in the film where they lay snugly under a car for warmth and the two bond that I really enjoyed, and it is one of the many scenes in the film that bring it to life. Even the scene when the two first meet played out exactly the way I wanted it to be, with amusingly bad first impressions. What makes their interactions even more joyful is the fact that the two are playing 14 year olds, yet the actresses are double their age, so whenever they act out the character’s youthfulness, it comes off as hilarious.

I also loved that Iwai got every actor from the original film and have them reprise their roles. Like a scene with Alice and her father (Sei Hiraizumi) who visits every month is very touching due to the restrained sadness of Hiraizumi’s performance. Or how Alice’s mother is beginning to flirt with men, trying to regain her lost youth is amusingly portrayed by Shoko Aida. There’s a scene when Alice joins her childhood friend to a ballet studio, with Tae Kimura reprising her role as the ballet teacher. Even Tomohiro Kaku comes back, but in a different role as a teacher, who has a passion for snails (a visual joke that appears in the live-action film). It is callbacks to the original film like these that the initiated will definitely appreciate. The callbacks don’t just come from the reprising cast, but from the costumes (Hana wears the same sweater from the earlier film, as well as Alice in another scene), duplicated shots and even the live-action film’s origins (the presence of Kit Kat, which was integral to having the short films of Hana and Alice that lead to the live-action film).

But the uninitiated do not need to be hesitant to watch this film since the final product is so endearing and wonderfully realized that it will make you nostalgic for the friendships and times at school. A truly beautiful story about a blossoming friendship by Shunji Iwai.

Quickie Review

PROS

The move from live-action to rotoscope animation has not dulled Shunji Iwai’s visual film-making

The chemistry from the two leads has not dulled over the past 11 years

Shunji Iwai’s weird and quirky humour is still apparent

Many small and amusing callbacks to the original live-action film

The original supporting cast reprise their roles with great effect

CONS

Some of the animation looks jerky at times

Those looking for an actual mystery will be disappointed

SCORE: 9/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2015! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Yu Aoi, Anne Suzuki, Ryo Katsuji, Haru Kuroki, Tae Kimura, Sei Hiraizumi, Shoko Aida, Ranran Suzuki, Tomohiro Kaku, Midoriko Kimura
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai