Fantasia 2012 – Blood-C: The Last Dark Review (Matt Hodgson)

Fantasia Film Festival 2012

Blood-C: The Last Dark

Voice Cast – Nana Mizuki, Kenji Nojima, Ai Hashimoto

Directed by Naoyoshi Shiotani

Back in 2000 a company called Production I.G. was looking for an original concept and a chance to use completely digital animation. The result was a brisk 45-min feature called Blood: The Last Vampire. Production I.G. is now a household name amongst anime fans, having created such works as Ghost in the Shell, FLCL, Blood+, and The End of Evangelion. However, the Blood franchise seems to have a life of its own. Up until 2012 there have been feature films (animated and live action), an animated TV series called Blood+, another called Blood-C, video games, and probably other incarnations of the sword wielding schoolgirl named Saya that I’m forgetting about. With CLAMP, an all-female manga/anime company, in charge of the characters and story, Blood-C: The Last Dark was one of my most anticipated films of Fantasia 2012. Saya is back on the big screen, but this time for a whopping 106 minutes, surely enough time to flesh out an exciting story without skimping on the bloody action that the franchise is known for.

I have a little problem with Blood that I should disclose. For some reason it seems that many popular anime franchises constantly reboot or re-imagine the series, often keeping many of the elements and characters the same, but changing others in the process. I have personally seen Blood: The Last Vampire, and Blood+, the 50 episode TV series. I absolutely adored both of those versions of Blood, but I have not seen the Blood-C television Series. As a result, I have a very hard time keeping the stories and characters straight in my head. I’m sure it’s easy for hardcore Blood fans, but personally it just makes my brain do somersaults.

Riding home on the subway late at night, a young woman named Mana is abducted by the ultimate crazy subway passenger, a blood thirsty creature called an Elder Bairn. Forunately for Mana, a strange girl with a deadly sword named Saya follows the creature and Mana to the top of a skyscraper where Saya displays some serious skills with her blade, dispatching the Elder Bairn in effortless and bloody fashion. However, Mana and Saya don’t even have time for introductions as humans from an organization called Tower pursue them with far from friendly intentions. After a furious car chase, Saya and Mana find themselves at the home of a wealthy man who is the head of a secret organization combating Tower. We learn that Mana is already a part of this small group of young hackers, and that the members of the secret group share a common goal with Saya, the destruction of the man in charge of Tower. Saya is quickly enlisted as their ultimate weapon.

From the suspense, horror, and action of the opening abduction scene in the movie, I thought I was in for something very special. I think that the familiar subway scene may have played out in Blood+ or one of the Blood video games, so it may not have been totally original, but the fluidity of the animation was incredibly impressive. Also the edge of your seat action which starts inside the subway cars and ends high in the sky was exactly why anime is made for the big-screen. Other action scenes throughout the film are also exciting, but they are too few and far between and never again reach the near-perfection of the opening scene.

Like many anime projects these days, Blood-C appears to be a combination of hand-drawn and computer animation. The computer animation looks like a high quality cut-scene from a video game and is mainly used to render vehicles, from cars to a helicopter. I think I may be a purist in that I prefer my anime to be drawn by a hand, but the computer animation was tolerable more often than it was not. However, the last action sequence of the movie was largely computer animation and really cheapened the finale when it could have been so much more. Another issue that seems to be plaguing all kinds of genre films, not only Blood-C, was the uninspired creature design. I realize that not everyone can have the imagination of a Miyazaki or Katsuhito Ishii (Redline’s writer), but many creature designs these days seem so ho-hum that it is becoming embarrassing.

Despite some great animation and action scenes, Blood-C: The Last Dark really became a huge let down for me. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but I think so much more could have been done in those 106 minutes. I’ll always be a fan of Saya, this movie has not deterred me. Maybe fans of the Blood-C television series will have a more rewarding time with this one than I did.
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A Letter to Momo (Momo e no tegami) Review (TIFF 2011) – An enchanting journey to Shio Island

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Adhering to the belief that there is something special about hand drawn animation that cannot be duplicated by computer animation, director Hiroyuki Okiura and Production I.G. have spent the past seven years making a magical masterpiece. A Letter to Momo rivals Studio Ghibli classics for pure imagination and charm, and is one of the most endearing, absorbing and comical adventures that I have ever seen.

The film follows a young girl named Momo and her mother, as they move from bustling Tokyo to the quaint island village of Shio. Early on it is made clear that the reason for their move is the death of Momo’s father in a research expedition at sea. Grasped in Momo’s hand is a blank piece of paper that she found in her Father’s desk. At least it is almost blank, save for two words, ‘Dear Momo’. Momo is having difficulty proceeding with life, without knowing what her father’s final communication would have been. However, a series of supernatural events on Shio island force Momo to engage life again and attempt to come to terms with the death of her father.

Hiroyuki Okiura wrote and directed A Letter to Momo, and in my opinion should write a book or teach a class on how to bring animated characters and worlds to life, if he hasn’t already. Okiura started his career working on Akira, and has been involved with major projects ever since (for example, Ghost in the shell, Innocence: Ghost in the shell and Paprika). His directorial debut was Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. A constant theme in Okiura’s work has been violence and mature themes, however, he felt it was time to create something that would be enjoyable to children and adults alike. A Letter to Momo is the perfect compromise between these two different audiences, as the comedy and fantasy elements appeal to both ages, while the central characters have layers of complexity and emotions, to a degree that most live action characters/actors fail to achieve.

The animation is top of the line. The fluidity and imagination of several action sequences would suggest that they must have taken months or years to perfect, while the panoramic views of forested Shio island are absolutely breathtaking. One of the most amazing aspects of the animation are the facial expressions of Momo, as they are almost unbelievably real. I can’t remember the last time that non-verbal language has been communicated so clearly in an animated film. Finally, the wonderfully varied score is a pleasure to listen to and greatly complements the images onscreen.

While watching A Letter to Momo I felt like I personally knew the characters and cared deeply about their fate. The magical and touching story of A Letter to Momo is something that no film fan should miss. Unfortunately, it may be a while before North American audiences get another chance to see it.

I have no doubt that it will be worth the wait.

From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka kara) Review (TIFF 2011)

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Today at TIFF I checked out the new Japanese anime film, From up on Poppy Hill. This film is part of the TIFF kids program, so I was very worried about a few things. Would the movie be dubbed? Gross. Would there be kids running around? Also a little gross. Would an anime nerd, elbow deep in Cheetos, sit beside me. Very gross. As you can see, going to this film was quite a risky move for me, but I survived The Raid, so I thought I would be fine. It turned out that the film was subtitled (yay!), and the audience consisted of respectable anime fans, as the Studio Ghibli logo received a round of applause. Film festival crowds make me want to cry tears of joy.

There is quite a bit going on behind the scenes of a film like this. The director, Goro Miyazaki, is the son of anime legend, Hayao Miyazaki, known for such classics as Lupin the Third: Castle of Cagliostro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, all under the renowned Studio Ghibli. This is Goro’s second film, his first being Tales of Earthsea, which possessed many of the individual elements of a great Ghibli film, but it failed to come together as a whole. I’m happy to report that his second effort is a success. From up on Poppy Hill is a touching emotional story about the pains and joys of growing up, and importance of fighting for what you believe in.

The film is set during the 1960’s in a small town outside of Tokyo. The Olympics are coming to Tokyo and in order to prepare, many buildings are being built, while old ones are being torn down. One of the buildings set to be demolished is the clubhouse of the students at the local school. Upon hearing the news regarding the demolition of their clubhouse, the students band together in an attempt to save it. Caught in the middle of the action are two students, Umi and Shu, who harbour feelings for each other, but an emotionally devastating series of events may prevent them from ever being together.

The beginning of Poppy Hill starts off quite slowly, and for a time I was worried that Miyazaki may have missed the high benchmark of most Ghibli films, but I was quickly relieved after viewing a wonderful scene in which the students place banners on the clubhouse to protest the demolition, and the reckless Shu jumps off the roof of the clubhouse into a pool of water to express his disdain. Viewers will not find the usual Ghibli staples of the fantastic, supernatural or magical, but Miyazaki more than makes up for it, with charming characters and heart felt moments.

The characters are interesting and distinct, which makes them seem more like real people rather than animated characters. The animation style and music remind me of older Ghibli films, rather than more recent epics like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, but they suit the story’s setting and subject matter very well.

In the end, From up on Poppy Hill is a fine film and a worthy addition to the Studio Ghibli Filmography. There are plenty of smiles, laughs and touching moments to be experienced. I think that this is a great choice for a date night or a family movie, although it may be too mature, although not inappropriate, of a film for children.

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