30 December 2013

A Look Back at 2013 in Japanese Animation

2013 was a wonderful year for feature-length animation in Japan.  Studio Ghibli released new films from their great masters Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.  The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ, 2013) gave Miyazaki a chance to indulge in his love of aviation and Shōwa nostalgia, while Takahata has adapted the much-loved folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” in his first feature film in over a decade, The Tale of Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語, 2013). 

The usual franchise suspects did well at the Japanese box office this year with Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea (2013) becoming the Conan franchise’s highest grossing film ever.  Crayon Shin-chan starred in his 21st feature film: Crayon Shin-chan: Very Tasty! B-class Gourmet Survival (2013) and did well at the box office, as did Doraemon: Nobita's Secret Gadget Museum (2013).  Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods (2013) shot to number one at the box office showing at all 16 of Japan’s IMAX Digital Theaters.  Variety also reported that the film ranked number 5 overseas, making it the top-ranking non-Hollywood film on the chart.  Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Patema Inverted (サカサマのパテマ, 2013) and Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion: 3.33 You Can (Not) Redo (ヱヴァンゲリヲン新劇場版:Q) received the Excellence Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival 2013, while Ghost in the Shell Arise - Border 1: Ghost Pain (2013), Blue Exorcist (青の祓魔師2012), and Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (2013) all got special mentions.

As I do not live in Japan, J-films usually come to a screen near me via festivals the following year. This year, I was particularly lucky that Nippon Connection 2013  had a strong programme of animation.   I was delighted to finally see legendary animator Gisaburo Sugii’s Kenji Miyazawa-inspired The Life of Budori Gusuko (グスコーブドリの伝記, 2012) on the big screen featuring the same Hiroshi Masumura anthropomorphic cat characters that he used in his earlier classic Night on the Galactic Railroad (銀河鉄道の夜, 1985).  One of the most under-rated animated feature films of 2012, The Life of Budori Gusuko has a timely environmental message, likely inspired by Kenji Miyazawa’s love for the countryside of his native Iwate Prefecture.

Also at Nippon Connection, Mamoru Hosoda’s bittersweet tale Wolf Children (おおかみこどもの雨と雪, 2012).  After successful stints at Toei (Digimon Adventure, One Piece) and Madhouse (Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars), Hosoda has entered a new stage in his career by establishing his own studio: Studio Chizu.  Thematically, the film has much in common with Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ, 1994) except instead of a species under threat of human development, the central characters are a species who are extinct in Japan – the Honshū wolf – and have only managed to survive into the modern era by becoming half human. 

Nippon Connection also presented a collection of Toho animated shorts under the title Kami Usagi Ropé: The Last Day of Summer Vacation (映画「紙兎ロぺ」 つか、夏休みラスイチってマジっすか!?, 2012), a retrospective of Sci-Fi Anime (1966-2011) and Hiroyuki Okiura’s well-received 2011 film A Letter to Momo (ももへの手紙 / Momo e no tegami).  However, the most innovative films on the programme were Keiichi Sato’s disturbing tale of the feral child Asura (アシュラ, 2012), which you can read about here, and Uchija’s grotesque The Burning Buddha Man (燃える仏像人間, 2012) – which actually is not really an animation but an elaborate puppet film using highly detailed cut-outs.  There was also an excellent selection of shorts from Geidai university – a couple of which made my Best JapaneseIndie Animation Shorts of 2013.

I had been concerned from early on in his career that Makoto Shinkai might buckle under the unnecessary pressure of people calling him the “new Miyazaki” – unnecessary because I think his style of animation is very different from the man he admires.  The Garden of Words (言の葉の庭, 2013), which I picked up the day it was released on DVD/Blu-ray in Canada in August, is a lovely 45-minute film that explores a May-December romance between a young man from a broken home and an older woman he meets at the park.  The highlight of the film for me is the scenery which is based on photographs of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – natsukashii!

A heavy teaching schedule meant that I did not get into any anime series this year, but there are enough anime bloggers out there to cover this genre.  Check out the lists by haruhichan, kotaku, lostinanime, not to mention a terrific overview of the whole cultural year in Japan by Néojaponism.

The highlights of 2013 were, of course, the indie shorts that came my way.  Check out my top 15 in the following post:  Best Japanese Indie Animation Shorts 2013.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2013