The Films of Isao Takahata
The Little Norse Prince
Chie the Brat
Gauche the Cellist
Grave of the Fireflies (November 30/13)
Set during the Second World War, Grave of the Fireflies follows a young boy (Tsutomu Tatsumi's Seita) and his little sister (Ayano Shiraishi's Setsuko) as they're forced to fend for themselves after their mother dies during an air raid. Filmmaker Isao Takahata has infused Grave of the Fireflies with a somber and relentlessly grim feel that's heightened by his unflinching treatment of the material, with the movie's animated atmosphere hardly providing the lighthearted respite one might've anticipated (ie it's not difficult to envision a shot-for-shot live-action telling of this story). And although the movie's bleak authenticity goes a long way towards initially capturing the viewer's interest, Grave of the Fireflies has been saddled with an almost excessively deliberate pace that does, to an increasingly prominent extent, diminish the impact of its positive attributes - with the uneventful midsection, which primarily revolves around the protagonists' day-to-day exploits, only compounding the film's progressively hands-off vibe. It's all quite watchable, certainly, and yet there's never a point at which one is able to wholeheartedly sympathize with the central characters' unrelenting plight, thus ensuring that the palpably downbeat final stretch is unable to pack the emotional punch that Takahata is clearly striving for - which, in the end, confirms Grave of the Fireflies' place as a well-made and heartfelt drama that's just not as engrossing as it should be.
Pom Poko (November 27/15)
A consistently and thoroughly interminable animated endeavor, Pom Poko follows a community of shape-shifting raccoons as they embark on a campaign to prevent the destruction of their forest home at the hands of urban developers. It's clear immediately that Pom Poko's biggest problem is its astonishingly overlong running time (119 minutes!), with the episodic narrative and total lack of compelling characters paving the way for a movie that is, for the most part, relentlessly dull and tedious. Filmmaker Isao Takahata decidedly laid-back approach to the material only exacerbates the arms-length atmosphere, and there's little doubt that the deliberate pace and gentle score ensure Pom Poko is destined to lull most viewers to sleep. (It's worth noting, too, that the film holds extremely little appeal for children, with the preponderance of raccoon testicles (!) merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of its less-than-child-friendly elements.) Takahata, at the very least, does punctuate the proceedings with a handful of innovative, somewhat compelling interludes, including the raccoons' attempt to frighten humans by disguising themselves as enormous goblins and a montage that unfolds in the context of an 8-bit video game. Such moments ultimately prove to be the exception rather than the rule, however, and there's little doubt that Pom Poko finally comes off as a disastrous misfire of almost epic proportions.
My Neighbors the Yamadas
It's not at all surprising to learn that My Neighbors the Yamadas is based on a popular Japanese comic strip, as the film perfectly replicates the experience of reading the funnies - right down to the truncated storylines and emphasis on snappy punchlines. As such, there's no actual plot here; the movie follows the Yamadas - mom, dad, two kids, and grandma - as they live out their daily lives and attempt to deal with a wide variety of problematic situations. And while there's certainly plenty here worth recommending, the film simply isn't able to hold the viewer's interest throughout its overlong running time. Director Isao Takahata's animation style - involving watercolors and a distinctly less-is-more sort of vibe - is initially intriguing but ultimately distracting, as one eventually begins to crave an image with some detail (the washed-out look only compounds this feeling). Despite the inclusion of a few genuinely compelling sequences, My Neighbors the Yamadas essentially comes off as a series of short films haphazardly jammed together, and it seems entirely probable that the movie would be best served by a viewing in separate installments.