Japanese flair on the big screen

  • 2011-04-21
  • By Laurence Boyce

COMIC RELIEF: This year’s animated film festival includes a program of short films that shows the diversity in the genre today.

TALLINN - When asked about Japanese animation, many people would automatically think of rather bad cartoon shows from the ’80s and multi-tentacle demons doing unspeakable things to scantily clad girls. OK, some of the genre does firmly fit into this category and – thanks to its notoriety during the ’80s - remains some people’s only impression of the art form. Yet as visitors to the 5th Japanese Animation Film Festival – which concludes this week in Tallinn and Tartu – will find, there is a lot more to Japanese animation than people might think. Underwater kingdoms, Hitchcockian thrillers and brave new worlds await those who have the courage to delve deeper than they ever have before. And there’ll still be the occasional demon.

The theme of this year’s festival is the ocean with aquatic offerings including the sublime “Ponyo On The Cliff.” A product of Studio Ghibli (the place responsible for some of very best Japanese animated features of all time including “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Princess Mononoke” and for influencing other animation studios such as Pixar) and directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, the film centers upon a goldfish who befriends a human child. Full of invention, wit and emotion its status as one of the finest examples of the genre is well deserved and the fact that it was a huge international hit speaks volumes about the universal nature of its story. A delightful treat for all the family. There’s more adventure on the high-seas in “The Adventures of Sinbad,” a unique take on the classic tales of watery and dramatic derring-do that brings some Japanese flair to ancient myths. Another take on a traditonal tale is “The Borrower Arrietty,” the festival’s closing film. Based on the children’s novel by Mary Norton, the film follows a tiny family of people who live under floorboards and ‘borrow’ from humans to survive. When one borrower befriends a human, an adventure begins that neither will ever forget. Another product of Studio Ghibli with a script by Miyazaki, this provides an excellent way in which to conclude the festival.

This year’s festival also pays tribute to the late Satoshi Kon, who recently died at the age of 46 due to pancreatic cancer. His films showed that Japanese animation could add much more to the traditional trappings of sci-fi and horror. A case in point is “Perfect Blue,” a film which brought a Hitchcock-like sensibility to the genre with its tale of dual identity, obsession and murder. Kon’s eye for detail and ability to create tension breathed new life into a genre that was in danger in becoming repetitive and stale. With other equally brilliant films such as “Paprika” and “Millennium Actress” proving popular internationally, Kon was instrumental in proving to Western audiences that animation didn’t just have to be for children.

Other highlights of the festival include a program of Japanese short films that shows just how diverse animation styles coming out of Japan can be. Included is “Hand Soap,” an experimental and intriguing affair that won the Grand Prix at last year’s Animated Dreams festival in Tallinn. Also showing is “Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva​,” a continuation of the franchise which began with the popular series of games. The film sees the eponymous professor and master of puzzles become embroiled in an adventure that involves re-incarnation and magic.

After the recent devastation in Japan, the festival has a tinge of the bittersweet. But this is a celebration of the talent and creativity that is coming out of a country that has managed to remain defiant in the face of tragedy. Animation is a vivid and vital part of Japan’s culture and the 5th Japanese Animation Film Festival is an excellent way to discover some of the very best.

The 5th Japanese Animation Film Festival is talking place in Tallinn and Tartu and concludes on 24th April.
For more information on the program and tickets visit www.kino.ee