Hayao Miyazaki is a serial retiree, having announced the end to his anime career numerous times before. But his press conference last September seems definitive, making The Wind Rises the final film from the most iconic animator since Walt Disney. In the United States he is synonymous with the anime form, thanks to Pixar’s distribution of his and Studio Ghibli’s features. What will post-Miyazaki anime look like, and will any of it gain the same kind of international reach? An unscientific poll conducted by Japanese cell-phone company NTT Docomo asked 8,585 anime fans who they thought would be the future of the medium. Despite having only directed two modestly received features, Hayao’s son Goro topped the list, demonstrating how many are still entranced by the Miyazaki name. Numbers two and three both have Miyazaki ties: Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno (who voiced the main character in The Wind Rises) and Studio Ghibli exile Mamoru Hosoda, who left the production of Howl’s Moving Castle before directing a string of his own hits, including the heartbreaking Wolf Children in 2012.
In an attempt to go off the Miyazaki grid of talent, I attended the two anime films screening at this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival, Patema Inverted and Giovanni’s Island. Patema Inverted is a romantic sci-fi feature whose prologue aired as a streaming Web series. As Yamaguchi Yasuo wrote on Nippon.com, while animated TV series have declined in popularity, theatrical adaptations of these shows have surged, from Pokemon to Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion. These are usually financed by “production committees,” made up of TV networks, music publishing companies, ad agencies, and other businesses. Yasuo notes that “in some cases the firms that make the actual movie become subcontractors to the production committee,” an arrangement in which the filmmakers give up creative control. (The immense success of Miyazaki’s original films has allowed Studio Ghibli to operate outside this structure.) The producers of Patema Inverted include a toy company (Good Smile) and a television channel (Kids Station).
But Patema Inverted is more than a brand extension for the companies. Writer/director Yasuhiro Yoshiura did not emerge from anime’s TV industrial complex, as his small Studio Rikka crafted shorts that gained cult followings; his popular ONA (original net anime) Time of Eve was turned into a feature in 2010. Patema Inverted is another Studio Rikka original, a dystopic romance with a clever visual metaphor for co-dependency.
Sometime in the future, a failed experiment to wrest energy from gravity has caused an apocalyptic event that sucked most of humanity into the sky. The forces of gravity are forever altered. A fascist state known as Aiga exists above ground, while below lies the democratic underground, its inhabitants known as Inverts, both living under opposite gravitational pulls. An Invert on Aiga would float away, and vice versa. When Patema, an Invert, sneaks up onto Aiga to investigate her past, she flies into the sky. Only the budding Aigan revolutionary Age, who ignores the state ban against looking upwards, can keep her from floating away.
For most of the film Patema and Age are shown gripping each other for dear life, the CG image spinning upside-down to depict their opposing points of view. Industrial Aiga, a controlled surveillance society of moving walkways and gleaming skyscrapers, is portrayed in a slickly hyperreal manner that profits from CG’s alienating uncanny-valley effects. The Invert underground is hand-drawn steampunk, a latticework of sawed-off steel girders and abandoned dormitories where the human imprint is still visible. While the narrative is a stock YA fantasy of teens fulfilling their lineal destiny, the visual invention keeps it aloft.
In Giovanni’s Island flight is an impossible fantasy, as the Japanese island of Shikotan is occupied by the Soviet army following World War II. Two children, Junpei and Kanta, dream of escape on the “Galactic Railroad,” the means of interstellar transport in their favorite book, Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa, from 1927. Director Mizuho Nishikubo is an industry veteran, best known for his long-time collaboration with Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell). He has served as Oshii’s animation director since 1993’s Patlabor 2: The Movie, under his real name Toshihiko Nishikubo; he uses the pseudonym to separate his movies from associations with Oshii’s cyberpunk style.
Giovanni is a naturalistic tearjerker that traces the gradual displacement and breakup of Junpei and Kanta’s family. The hand-drawn style is loose and textured, with backgrounds still displaying the stroke of the artist’s pen. Junpei is a sketch artist himself, and the animation seems to mimic his view of the world (the story is told in flashback from Junpei’s POV). It is a world of broad sketches and cross-hatching, which can explode into more colorful and intricate lines during the kids’ fantasies. These dreams arise as an escape from lives that are a succession of tragedies. The script by Shigemichi Sugita and Yoshiki Sakurai was adapted from accounts by survivors of the wartime occupation. Most of the story came from the life story of Hiroshi Tokuno, who grew up on Shikotan and experienced the Soviet takeover, which resulted in displacement as well as cross-cultural friendship, at least among the children.
Junpei and Kanta become entranced by a blonde Russian girl, Tanya, after her family is installed in their home, shunting them into the barn. The most moving passages in the film depict their fragile blooming friendship, while their respective parents war against each other. Their bond is secured one lonely evening when Junpei and Kenta are playing with a new battery-powered train set, its headlights projecting movie-sized shadows on the wall. Poking through the divider between the barn and the main house, Tanya lays another section of rail, and soon the train is riding through both of their rooms, connecting their two cultures through play.
These moments of light are brief, however, as Junpei and Kanta’s family is soon deported to a work camp. Soon they have nothing but each other and their fantasies, neither of which are enough to sustain or protect them. This is a tale of overwhelming sadness and loss, stitched together with precious moments of distraction. Junpei shares Night of the Galactic Railroad with his brother, but his sketchbook is his personal repository of beauty. In the most lyrical visual passage of the film, Tanya poses for a drawing, and Junpei’s spare, pencil rendering is animated into a twirling dance through his pages, a dream of an impression of a memory.
Patema Inverted and Giovanni’s Island will never receive the same worldwide distribution as the films of Hayao Miyazaki have, but their richness warrants a wider theatrical audience. As anime legends continue to retire (rumored to be next: Isao Takahata of Grave of the Fireflies), a spotlight needs to be shone on the anime form beyond the confines of a festival. From thirty-something experimenters like Yasuhiro Yoshiura to journeyman artisans like Mizuho Nishikubo, there is much yet to be shared and discovered.