Review: ‘Spy x Family Code: White,’ an anime adventure movie about missing microfilm and just desserts

April 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anya, Bond and Yor in “Spy x Family Code: White” (Image by Tatsuya Endo/Shueisha/Crunchyroll)

“Spy x Family Code: White”

Directed by Takashi Katagiri

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional countries of Westalis and Ostania, the animated film “Spy x Family Code: White” (based on the “Spy x Family” manga and anime series) features a cast of Japanese characters representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A male spy and a female assassin, who have an arranged marriage as part of their undercover identities, take their adopted daughter on a school trip, where she is targeted by villains who think the daughter has some valuable microfilm. 

Culture Audience: “Spy x Family Code: White” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the manga and anime series on which the film is based and will appeal to people who like family adventure animation with a simple but entertaining story.

Snidel in “Spy x Family Code: White” (Image by Tatsuya Endo/Shueisha/Crunchyroll)

Neither awful nor spectacular, “Spy x Family Code: White” is has enough unique whimsy to not be completely maudlin. Fans of the manga and anime series should enjoy this spinoff film, which has a predictable but entertaining story. The erratic comedy in “Spy x Family Code: White” will be received better by some viewers compared to others. The movie is a spinoff of the “Spy x Family” anime series (which began in 2022), which is based on the “Spy x Family” manga series.

Directed by Takashi Katagiri and written by Ichiro Ohkouchi, “Spy x Family Code: White” has a story that doesn’t require viewers to know anything about the characters before seeing the movie. The main characters and their relationship to each other are described fairly early on in the story. Most of the action is quite formulaic, but the characters’ snappy dialogue can be amusing and can hold most viewers’ interest. “Spy x Family Code: White” also has some eye-catching and stunning animation that unfortunately is not consistent throughout the movie.

In the “Spy x Family” series (which takes place in the fictional rival countries of Westalis and Ostania) a young male spy named Loid from Westalis has gone undercover in Ostania, to spy on Donovan Desmond, leader of the National Unity Party. Loid is an arranged marriage with a young female assassin named Yor. Loid, who is master of disguises, uses the alias/nickname Twilight. Yor, who has extraordinary combat abilities, uses the alias/nickname Thorn Princess. Loid is intelligent and thoughtful. Yor is impulsive and more likely to act on her emotions.

Loid and Yor (who have the last name Forger in their fake marriage) are posing as spouses as their undercover identities. Yor and Loid keep secrets from each other, including their real identities. As part of his phony identity, Loid is a psychiatrist at Berlint General Hospital. Loid and Yor have an adopted orphan daughter named Anya, who is about 4 or 5 years old (but is pretending to be 6 years old), has psychic abilities, and is an energetic child. The male family dog Bond (who is a Pyrenean Mountain Dog) has precognitive abilities.

Loid is part of a mission called Operation Strix, where he has enrolled Anya in Eden Academy same school where the children of Donovan Desmond are also students. The intention for Anya’s enrollment is for it to be a way for Loid to have some connection or gain access to Desmond through these children. Eden Academy has medals called Stella medals that are given to students for various achievements.

In the beginning of “Spy x Family Code: White,” Loid gets bad news from Sylvia Sherwood, also the Handler, who is his supervisor: Someone else is going to replace Loid in Operation Strix. Loid thinks this would-be replacement is too cautious and incompetent. In order to prove his worth, Loid decides that he can infiltrate a Stella medal ceremony, which an Eden Academy ceremony that Desmond is expected to attend.

One of the ways that Anya hopes to get a Stella is by winning a dessert-making contest. Anya finds out that Eden Academy principal (who is also the head judge of the contest) loves meremere, which is a merengue-styled cake. Anya tells Loid and Yor about this contest. The best place to get the ingredients for meremere is a place called Frigis.

And so, the Forger family (with Bond along for the ride) travels by ship to Frigis. While on the ship, Anya finds a storage room, where she opens a stranger’s trunk and sees a ball of chocolate that’s about the size of a golf ball. Anya eats the chocolate, but she will soon find out that valuable microfilm was hidden in that chocolate. Two armed henchmen of a villain named Snidel find out that Anya has eaten this chocolate.

Anya escapes from these military thugs but the hunt is on to find her. Snidel is a military colonel who is a typical scheming and sinister antagonist. The contents of this microfilm could possibly start a major war. The usual “we have the save the world” platitudes ensue.

Meanwhile, Yor is secretly in love with Loid and wishes that they had a real romantic relationship. Before the trip to Frigis, a friend told Yor that there are three big clues that a cheating partner is having an infidelity affair: The cheater (1) wants to take trips away from the betrayed partner; (2) changes style of dressing; and (3) gives gifts to the betrayed partner out of guilt. The most frivolous part of the movie is Yor fretting over whether or not Loid could be dating someone without her knowledge. All of these scenes of Yor worrying and whining about Loid make Yor look immature and ditsy, especially since Loid invited her on this trip. Therefore, the first “infidelity clue” never applied in this situation.

The voices of “Spy x Family Code: White” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of the movie. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Takuya Eguchi as Loid, Saori Hayami as Yor, Atsumi Tanezaki as Anya, Banjō Ginga as Snidel, Kenichirō Matsuda as Bond and as the movie’s narrator. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Alex Organ as Loid, Natalie Van Sistine as Yor, Megan Shipman as Anya, John Swasey as Snidel and Tyler Walker as Bond.

“Spy x Family Code: White” has some comedy involving bodily functions that people will either tolerate or dislike. The movie has a very simple “good versus evil” plot that gets occasionally messy and jumbled, with the expected scenes of chases and fights. The voice performances are competent.

There’s a lurching and manic quality to how many of the scenes go from one scene to the next. “Spy x Family Code: White” is not an incoherent film, but it zips around from scenario to scenario so quickly, people who are unfamiliar with these characters might lose interest. The “Spy x Family” series is probably a better format than this movie to get to know these characters. However, “Spy x Family Code: White” can be considered a fairly good sample of this engaging franchise.

Crunchyroll will release “Spy x Family Code: White” in U.S. cinemas on April 19, 2024. The movie was released in Japan on December 22, 2023.

Review: ‘The First Slam Dunk,’ a thrilling anime film about striving for basketball glory and coping with grief

February 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Hisashi Mitsui, Kaede Rukawa, Ryota “Ryo” Miyagi, Takenori Akagi and Hanamichi Sakuragi in “The First Slam Dunk” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The First Slam Dunk”

Directed by Takehiko Inoue

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the animated film “The First Slam Dunk” (based on the “Slam Dunk” manga series) features a cast of Japanese characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 17-year-old basketball fanatic, who is the point guard on his high school team, wants to win the inter-high basketball championships while he is coping with the death of his older brother, who was also a basketball star. 

Culture Audience: “The First Slam Dunk” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the manga series and anime films with memorable characters, great action scenes, and emotional resonance.

Takenori Akagi in “The First Slam Dunk” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The First Slam Dunk” is one of the best basketball movies you could ever see. It’s a suspenseful and emotionally gripping film that balances a story of achieving sports greatness and coping with grief. Simply put: “The First Slam Dunk” is an artful cinematic adaptation of the “Slam Dunk” manga series on which it is based. There have also been a “Slam Dunk” TV series (which was on the air from 1993 to 1996), video games and other movies based on the “Slam Dunk” manga series.

“Slam Dunk” manga creator Takehiko Inoue wrote and directed “The First Slam Dunk” (his very impressive feature-film debut), based on his 1990 to 1996 manga series of the same name. “The First Slam Dunk” is an example of how the creator of a manga series can be the best person to also a direct a movie based on the series. Fans of “The First Slam Dunk” manga series will be immensely pleased with this movie version, which should also win over new fans.

“The First Slam Dunk” (which takes place in Japan) is centered on the story of a basketball team’s quest to win a high-school championship and a star player on the team who is dealing wt the death of his beloved older brother. The movie’s main protagonist is Ryota “Ryo” Miyagi, the point guard (#7) of Shohoku High School’s basketball team. Ryota, who is 17 years old, is still grieving over the death of his older brother So-Chan “Soto” Miyagi, who died when Soto was 12 and Ryota was 9. Soto is the one who influenced Ryota to become a basketball player.

Ryota lives at home with his widowed mother Kaoru and his younger sister Anna. A flashback shows that after the death of the children’s father, when Soto was still alive, Soto told his mother Kaoru: “I’ll be the family captain, Ma. Soto tells Ryota that Ryota can be the assistant captain. Coincidentally, Soto and Ryota were born on the same month and date, just three years apart.

Ryota is haunted by the memories of Soto. Winning a championship means more to him than just getting a title. For Ryota, it means making his family proud and honoring Soto’s legacy. Much of “The First Slam Dunk” consists of games that Shohoku High School’s basketball teams on their quest for the championship. They want to unseat the reigning championship team from Sannoh Kogyo High School, which has a star player named Kazunari Fukatsu.

The other members of the Shohoku High School basketball team are team captain Takenori Akagi (#4), three-point shooter Hisashi Mitsui (#14), a former MVP of his junior high school; small forward Kaede Rukawa (#11); and power forward Hanamichi Sakuragi (#10), who is the team’s biggest rebel. In the “Slam Dunk” manga series, Hanamichi is the central character.

The road to the championship isn’t easy, of course. There are crushing defeats, injuries, self-doubt and conflicts among the team members. The basketball scenes are absolutely thrilling and will make viewers almost feel like they’re watching a live-action game. There’s also a little bit of romance, since Haruko Akagi (Takenori’s younger sister, who also plays basketball) is the love interest of Hanamichi.

The voices of “The First Slam Dunk” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of the movie. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Shugo Nakamura as Ryota Miyagi, Kenta Miyake as Takenori Akagi, Jun Kasama as Hisashi Mitsui, Shinichiro Kamio as Kaede Rukawa, Subaru Kimura as Hanamichi Sakuragi and Maaya Sakamoto as Haruko Akagi. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Paul Castro Jr. as Ryota Miyagi, Aaron Goodson as Takenori Akagi, Jonah Scott as Hisashi Mitsui, Aleks Le as Kaede Rukawa, Ben Balmaceda as Hanamichi Sakuragi and Abby Espiritu as Haruko Akagi.

You don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy “The First Slam Dunk” movie, which is well-written from beginning to end, with many captivating visuals. Hanamichi has the flashiest personality on the Shohoku High School basketball team, but sensitive and thoughtful Ryota is the most endearing team member and is the heart and soul of the movie. “The First Slam Dunk” is not just the name of this move but it could also describe the triumph that the movie is for Inoue as his feature-film directorial debut.

GKIDS released “The First Slam Dunk” in select U.S. cinemas on July 28, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on December 3, 2022. “The First Slam Dunk” will be released on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 28, 2024.

Review: ‘Perfect Days’ (2023), starring Kôji Yakusho

February 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kôji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano in “Perfect Days” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Perfect Days” (2023)

Directed by Wim Wenders

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tokyo, the dramatic film “Perfect Days” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly sanitation worker, who is a quiet loner, spends his days and nights trying to live a harmonious existence when he’s with other people, but he sometimes battles loneliness and being misunderstood. 

Culture Audience: “Perfect Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a “slice of life” movie that focuses on a specific individual.

Arisa Nakano and Kôji Yakusho in “Perfect Days” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Perfect Days” is a “slice of life” movie about an elderly sanitation worker who is a quiet loner. Viewer appreciation will rest entirely on whether or not this person is worth watching. For most people, the answer is “yes.” However, because “Perfect Days” is a slow-paced movie, it won’t have much appeal to viewers with short attention spans or those who have no interest in seeing this insularly focused movie about this type of person.

Directed by Wim Wenders (who co-wrote the “Perfect Days” screenplay with Takuma Takasaki), “Perfect Days” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where star Kôji Yakusho won the prize for Best Actor. The movie then made the rounds at numerous film festivals in 2023, including the Telluride Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. “Perfect Days” was nominated for Best International Feature Film for the 2024 Academy Awards.

Yakusho, who stars as “Perfect Days” protagonist Hirayama, gives the type of performance where he has to do a lot of acting with his facial expressions and body language, since Hirayama doesn’t talk at all for a great deal of the film. When he does talk, he does so sparingly, without saying his inner feelings out loud. It’s the type of performance that will make viewers want to know more about Hirayama—not in a way where the movie feels incomplete, but in a way that indicates there’s a lot more to Hirayama than he shows to the people he sees on a regular basis.

“Perfect Days” shows what amounts to about two weeks of Hirayama’s life. He works for a company called The Tokyo Toilet, and his job is to clean outdoor public toilets in Tokyo, where he lives. He is very responsible, prompt and thorough in his work. It doesn’t take long for viewers to see that Hirayama likes to keep his life uncomplicated and is happy with finding comfort in life’s simple pleasures.

Very little is known about Hirayama before this story takes place. What were his hopes and dreams when he was younger? Has he been married? Does he have children? What types of jobs did he have before his current job? Don’t expect answers to these questions, although because Hirayama lives alone and doesn’t mention having any children, it can be assumed that he’s a bachelor with no children.

A few things become apparent about Hirayama from his interactions with people. He’s kind, he’s generous, and he likes his daily routines. He has a pattern that he sticks to of going to his job, a local park for lunch, his favorite cafe and bar when he’s not working, and then going home. He likes listening to classic rock, reading, and taking outdoor photos. He keeps his photos neatly filed in boxes labeled according to the months that the photos were taken.

Hirayama shows his generosity by lending a co-worker in his 20s named Takashi (played by Tokio Emoto) some money so that Takashi can court a girlfriend named Aya (played by Aoi Yamada), whom Takashi wants desperately to impress. Takashi gets the money by whining to Hirayama that the Tokyo Toilet job doesn’t pay Takashi enough money to take Aya out on the dates that he thinks Aya deserves. At first, Takashi tried to persuade Hirayama to sell off a large part of Hirayama’s music collection (he has mostly cassettes and vinyl albums) to get the money, but Hirayama decides to just give Takashi the wanted cash instead. Takashi shows up late for work sometimes. When Hirayama has to pick up the slack for Takashi’s flakiness, Hirayama does so without complaining.

Music is a big part of “Perfect Days,” since Hirayama listens to classic rock from the 1960s and 1970s for enjoyment, and it becomes a way that he bonds with certain people in the movie. Patti Smith’s breakthrough 1975 album “Horses” is prominently featured in the story. Other music heard in the movie’s soundtrack (which is the soundtrack to Hirayama’s life) are songs such as Lou Reed’s plaintive 1972 ballad “Perfect Day,” Van Morrison’s classic 1967 love song “Brown Eyed Girl” and the Kinks’ 1966 jaunty hit “Sunny Afternoon.” There’s a scene in the movie where Aya asks Hirayama if she can find “Horses” on Spotify. He’s never heard of Spotify before and think it’s a physical retail store, because he doesn’t fully understand the concept of a digital streaming service.

A turning point in the story comes with the unexpected visit of Hirayama’s teenage niece Niko (played by Arisa Nakano), who shows up at Hirayama’s home because she’s having problems with her mother, who is Hirayama’s younger sister. This visit is a catalyst for Hirayama to look at his life from Niko’s perspective, and it opens up some old emotional wounds and certain feelings in Hirayama. “Perfect Days” is not a perfect movie, but it’s a wonderful example of a contemplative movie about someone who usually isn’t the main character of a movie and is the type of person who is often overlooked or forgotten in real life.

Neon released “Perfect Days” in New York City on November 10, 2023, with a wider expansion to more U.S. cinemas on February 9, 2024. The movie was released in Japan and other countries in 2023.

Review: ‘Godzilla Minus One,’ starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Minami Hamabe, Yuki Yamada, Munetaka Aoki, Hidetaka Yoshioka, Sakura Ando and Kuranosuke Sasaki

December 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Godzilla in “Godzilla Minus One” (Photo courtesy of Toho International)

“Godzilla Minus One”

“Godzilla Minus One Minus Color”*

Directed by Takashi Yamazaki

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1945 to 1947, the sci-fi/action film “Godzilla Minus One” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former World War II military fighter pilot joins forces with a motley crew to fight the ocean-dwelling monster Godzilla. 

Culture Audience: “Godzilla” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Godzilla” franchise and crowd-pleasing action flicks about giant monsters.

Ryunosuke Kamiki in “Godzilla Minus One” (Photo courtesy of Toho International)

“Godzilla Minus One” is a welcome return to retro Godzilla filmmaking that puts more emphasis on character development, instead of the overblown visual effects and annoying characters than can be found in Hollywood versions of Godzilla movies. And the movie achieved this excellence with only a reported $15 million production budget, which is a small fraction of the budget of a typical Hollywood “Godzilla” movie.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, “Godzilla Minus One” takes place in Japan, from 1945 to 1947. The movie has subtle and not-to-subtle symbolism of the effects that the atomic bomb had on Japan. The monster Godzilla, in its original iteration, was meant to be a symbol of fear of the type of massive destruction that can come from an atomic bomb or other type of nuclear bomb.

“Godzilla Minus One” doesn’t tease viewers or play coy in showing the monster, since Godzilla appears and kills people in the very first scene of the movie, within five minutes of the movie starting. “Godzilla Minus One” begins in 1945 (toward the end of World War II), at the Odo Island Airfield. Before Godzilla appears, a young fighter pilot named Kōichi Shikishima (played by Ryunosuke Kamiki) first notices that something is very wrong, because there’s a lot of dead fish in the ocean.

Everyone at the airfield dies because of Godzilla’s attack, except Kōichi and a Navy Air Service technician named Sōsaku Tachibana (played by Munetaka Aoki), who blames Kōichi for the massacre because Kōichi froze and didn’t shoot at Godzilla from his plane when he had the chance. Sōsaku thinks that Kōichi could have used his pilot skills to fight Godzilla, but it’s somewhat unfair blame because Kōichi had been knocked unconscious during the attack. Still, Kōichi feel guilty for all of the deaths and has post-traumatic stress disorder.

After returning home to Tokyo, Kōichi (who has no siblings) finds out that his parents died in an air raid bombing that killed thousands of people. A neighbor named Sumiko Ōta (played by Sakura Ando) tells him the tragic news. In her grief, Sumiko verbally lashes out at Kōichi (who was a kamikaze pilot), by scolding him for being a disgrace to Japan. Sumiko says that if he had done his kamikaze pilot job properly, he would have died for his country.

Kōichi has a secret that he tells to only a few people: When he was a kamikaze fighter pilot, and he knew that Japan was coming close to being defeated in World War II, he pretended that there was a malfunction in his plane, in order to temporarily get out of fighting in the war. He was at Odo Island Airfield to get his “malfunctioning” plane “fixed” when Godzilla attacked. The war ended shortly after this attack.

There is chaos in the streets of Tokyo, where one day Kōichi sees a woman, who’s about the same age as he is (mid-to-late 20s), frantically running away from some men who are calling her a thief. She’s carrying a baby, whom she quickly hands to Kōichi before running away. A shocked Kōichi spends quite some time looking for the woman, who comes out of hiding in a nearby alley when she sees that he is alone.

The woman says her name is Noriko Ōishi (played by Minami Hamabe), and the baby is a girl named Akiko. Noriko explains that Akiko is not her biological child. The baby was given to Akiko during an air raid attack by a dying female stranger, whom Noriko assumes is Akiko’s mother.

Noriko doesn’t know the woman’s name and has decided to take care of Akiko. Noriko also says that her own parents were killed in the air raid bombings and she has nowhere to live. Kōichi is a kind person and invites Noriko and Akiko to live with him. Noriko has an outspoken and independent streak.

By March 1946, the relationship between Kōichi and Noriko has blossomed into romantic love, but they are reluctant to express their true feelings to each other. They have settled into a happy domestic life as an unmarried platonic couple and are raising Akiko (played by Sae Nagatani) together. Their living arrangement is unusual, but not unexpected in an area devastated by war and where many people have formed familial bonds with people who aren’t biologically related to them, after their own biological family members died in the war.

Kōichi works as a minesweeper, while Noriko has an office job. Noriko is worried about the dangerous nature of Kōichi’s job, but he assures her that he probably won’t get killed from being a minesweeper. Their neighbor Sumiko, who is no longer angry at Kōichi, sometimes helps take care of Akiko. Kōichi is kind to Akiko, but when she becomes old enough to speak, he doesn’t want her to call him “daddy” or “father.” He repeatedly tells Akiko that he’s not her father, and she looks sad every time he says that, because Kōichi is the only father she has ever known.

In his minesweeper job, Kōichi works with three other men on a ramshackle wooden boat called Shinsei Maru. The three other men are a former Navy engineer named Kenji Noda (played by Hidetaka Yoshioka), who is logical and even-tempered; boat captain Yōji Akitsu (played by Kuranosuke Sasaki), who is commanding and has a somewhat stubborn personality; and junior crew member Shirō Mizushima (played by Yuki Yamada), who has an eager-to-learn personality and wants the respect of his more experienced colleagues.

Since this is a Godzilla movie, it’s only a matter of time before Godzilla makes another appearance to attack. Without going into too many details, it’s enough to say that by 1947, Kōichi finds himself in the Pacific Ocean fighting Godzilla with his colleagues, as already shown in the movie’s trailer. Kenji has come up with a plan to destroy Godzilla. But will this plan work?

A former Navy air service technician named Sōsaku Tachibana (played by Munetaka Aoki) has a pivotal role in the fighter planes that are used in the intense battles against Godzilla. It should come as no surprise that Kōichi would eventually use his fighter pilot skills instead of being stuck on a boat firing cannons. The action in the movie is easy to predict but still thrilling to watch.

“Godzilla Minus One” also makes the most of its relatively small budget with convincing visual effects and sound design. In addition to writing and directing “Godzilla Minus One,” Yamazaki co-led the movie’s visual effects department with Kiyoko Shibuya. This is a Godzilla movie where viewers can feel as terrified as the characters in the movie. The pacing and editing of the movie in the battle scenes also add to the suspense.

Visual effects and action scenes are empty without engaging characters. No one is going to win any major awards for acting in “Godzilla Minus One,” but the movie does a very good job at showing the emotional stakes that the principal characters have in the story. Like many of the characters in the movie, Kōichi and Noriko lost their families to a massacre. Kōichi and Noriko have created a unique family of their own that viewers will be rooting for to survive and stay together. Godzilla is the namesake and star attraction for this franchise, but the best Godzilla movies are the one that have human characters whom viewers care about the most.

*January 26, 2024 Update: Review of “Godzilla Minus One Minus Color”

“Godzilla Minus One Minus Color” is the same movie as “Godzilla Minus One,” but in black and white instead of color. On the plus side, the black-and-white imagery makes the movie look more like the 1940s time period in which the story takes place. However, iconic hue images, such as Godzilla’s glowing blue spine, aren’t there. The heart of the story remains, which is why it’s still an impressive monster movie. But the color version is a more immersive experience that makes Godzilla slightly more terrifying.

Seeing the movie in black and white makes it look like a time capsule, almost like a documentary. The psychological effect on viewers is that Godzilla looks like a monster stuck in a past century. Seeing the movie in color makes it look more convincing that Godzilla is a monster that could live for centuries and could be part of the present day. And that’s why the ending is more effective when seeing the movie is color.

Toho International released “Godzilla Minus One” in U.S. cinemas on December 1, 2023, with a sneak preview on November 29, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on October 18, 2023. A black-and-white version of “Godzilla Minus One,” titled “Godzilla Minus One Minus Color,” will be released in Japan on January 12, 2024, and in the U.S. on January 26, 2024.

Review: ‘The Boy and the Heron,’ a fantastical adventure anime movie from filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki

November 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Mahito Maki and the Grey Heron in “The Boy and the Heron” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The Boy and the Heron”

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, mostly in 1944, the animated film “The Boy and the Heron” features a cast of Japanese human and animal characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: A lonely adolescent boy, who’s grieving over the accidental death of his mother, befriends a half-heron/half-man, who leads the boy to fantastical world inside a mysterious tower, where he encounters past versions of various people and a power-hungry group of parakeets. 

Culture Audience: “The Boy and the Heron” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and time-traveling anime movies that can be enjoyed by various generations.

Himi in “The Boy and the Heron” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The Boy and the Heron” artfully blends heavy issues of grief with the escapism of a thrilling adventure. It’s a beautifully told and moving story that is as much about being a legacy to departed loved ones as it is about establishing one’s own identity. “The Boy and the Heron” had its North American premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “The Boy and the Heron” is inspired by but not connected to Genzaburō Yoshin’s 1937 novel “How Do You Live?,” which is the Japanese title of the movie. “The Boy and the Heron” has elements of Miyazaki’s childhood in the movie, which has an original screenplay. Miyazaki (who won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for 2001’s “Spirited Away”) has been synonymous with among the best of what Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli has to offer. “The Boy and the Heron” ends a 10-year gap between Miyazaki’s movies. His previous movie was 2013’s Oscar-nominated “The Wind Rises.”

“The Boy and the Heron” begins with a tragedy. In 1943, in Tokyo during the Pacific War, 12-year-old Mahito Maki is woken up from his sleep to the sound of chaos. His businessman father Shoichi Maki tells him that the hospital where Mahito’s mother Himi works is on fire. The hospital and the fire can be seen from the Maki family home. Mahito (who is an only child at this point) wants to go with his father to the hospital to help save Maki, but Shoichi insists that Mahito stay at home. Unfortunately, Maki does not survive the fire. It’s implied that the fire was caused by a bomb during this war.

The following year, 13-year-old Mahito and Shoichi move to Grey Heron Mansion, in an unnamed city in the countryside. Shoichi, who owns an ammunition factory near the estate, is now married to Himi’s younger sister Natsuko, who is described as a look-alike to Himi. The first time that Mahito meets Natsuko, he finds out that she is pregnant with his younger sibling. It’s a lot to take in for introverted Mahito, who is deep in grief over his mother’s death.

The mansion has seven elderly maids, who dote on Mahito and often work together in a pack. The maids’ names are Kiriko, Aiko, Izumi, Eriko, Utako, Oyuki, and Kazuko. Kiriko is the unofficial leader of the maids. She is often stoic and less talkative than the other maids in the group. Natsuko and all of the maids treat Mahito with kindness. Shoichi is a caring father, but he is very preoccupied with his work.

One day, Mahito notices that a grey heron has flown up to him, as if to try to get his attention. Mahito is told that his grey heron has lived on the property for quite some time. The grey heron will visit Mahito more times over the next several days.

Shortly after moving to this new home, Mahito goes exploring in the estate’s wooded area. He finds a tower that is somewhat sealed off, but Mahito finds a way to peek inside. He’s later told by Natsuko that the tower was built by her granduncle, who had a mental breakdown and disappeared. However, this granduncle left behind a book of his writings. Natsuko also tells Mahito that when Himi was a child, Himi disappeared for a year, but reappeared a year later with no memory of having been gone.

Quiet and shy Mahito has a hard time making friends with other students at his school. The students mostly ignore him or give him hostile stares. Out of frustration and to get out of going to school, Mahito hits himself on the head with a rock. It causes him to bleed profusely. Mahito tells people that he fell down, but his father Shoichi doesn’t believe Mahito. Shoichi thinks that Mahito was assaulted by a bully and is determined to find out who it is.

While Mahito is recovering from his injuries, he gets an unusual visit from the grey heron, who flies to Mahito’s window and squawks, “Mahito, save me!” The heron tells Mahito that Mahito’s mother is still alive and living in the tower. Around the same time, Natsuko goes missing. Through a series of events, Mahito, the heron and Kiriko find themselves trapped in the tower, which is actually a magical place inside that has past versions of some of the people whom Mahito knows.

The grey heron also reveals himself to be half-pelican, half-man, who can wear the pelican part of his body like a costume. It’s best not to go into further details in this review, but it’s enough to say that the story in “The Boy and the Heron” also features pelicans, a parakeet kingdom, and beings called warawara that look like white-colored stars and have a purpose that’s connected to life forces. Some of the scenes in this movie are visually stunning and very immersive.

The voices of “The Boy and the Heron” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of the movie. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Soma Santoki as Mahito, Masaki Suda as the Grey Heron, Takuya Kimura as Soichi, Yoshino Kimura as Natsuko, Kô Shibasaki as Kiriko, Aimyon as Himi, Jun Kunimura as the Parakeet King and Kaoru Kobayashi as a wise old pelican. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Luca Padovan as Mahito, Robert Pattinson as the Grey Heron, Christian Bale as Soichi, Gemma Chan as Natsuko, Florence Pugh as Kiriko, Karen Fukuhara as Himi, Dave Bautista as the Parakeet King and Willem Dafoe as a wise old pelican.

“The Boy and the Heron” explores themes of life, death, and what it might mean to change one’s destiny by going back in time and possibly doing things differently. There are also some sociopolitical observations about how much control people should give leaders over who lives and who dies, as well as some obvious (but not preachy) commentary about the dangers of damaging the environment. There’s a point in the story where Mahito has to decide how much he is going to make his grief control a big decision that he has to make.

The movie has some well-animated and suspenseful action scenes and gives each of the main characters a distinct personality. The voice actors also give very good but not outstanding performances. With so many animated movies stuck in a formulaic rut, “The Boy and the Heron” can be a viable option for people looking for a well-made and entertaining animated film that also has meaningful messages about humanity’s connections to other creatures, the environment, and the life cycles that are unique to all.

GKIDS released “The Boy and the Heron” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on July 14, 2023.

Review: ‘That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond,’ an adventure anime film that continues the story after Season 2 of the anime TV series

April 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Rimaru Tempest in “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond” (Image courtesy of Crunchyroll)

“That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond”

Directed by Yasuhito Kikuchi

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional kingdoms and villages, the animated film “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond” (based on the manga series and TV series) features an all-Japanese cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: Heroes race against time to find a tiara that absorbs a toxin that can save the decimated kingdom of Raja. 

Culture Audience: “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the manga series and TV series on which the movie is based, but everyone else might be bored or confused.

Lacua in “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond” (Image courtesy of Crunchyroll)

Whenever a movie is made out of a popular book series or a TV series, the question that must be asked is: “Will most viewers who are new to this franchise understand and enjoy the movie, without having seen any of the source material?” Unfortunately, the answer is “no” for Japanese animated film “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond.” The movie’s visuals can be engaging, but the story is too jumbled and told in a trite manner. Most of the characters are also forgettable, unless a viewer is already a fan of the anime TV series and manga series.

Directed by Yasuhito Kikuchi and written by Kazuyuki Hudeyasu (with screenplay contributions from Junichiro Okumura and Otoe Yashika), “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond” is based on Fuse’s 2013 to 2016 novel series “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime,” which was turned into a manga series and an anime TV series. The anime TV series’ first season debuted in 2018, while the second season aired in 2021. “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond” is a movie that takes places after the second season of the anime series.

In all of these stores, Mikami Satoru is a 37-year-old man who dies and is reincarnated as blue slime that is blind and deaf. But he combines two abilities called Predator and Great Sage to become a blue-haired superhero named Rimuru Tempest, who goes on various adventures. Under the Predator power, he can shapeshift into anything to disguise himself. With the Great Sage power includes several skills involving superintelligence and some psychic abilities.

In “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond,” a mercenary is wounded in a battle in the beginning of the story. He wakes up in the bedroom of the palace of the Queen Towa, the ruler of small kingdom called Raja that mines gold. However, Raja is currently devastated and is a shadow of its former self, because miners depleted one of Raja’s biggest gold dens.

Queen Towa doesn’t know the name of this mercenary, who has partial amnesia and is very concerned about going back to his village to save it. She thinks he’s a hero, so she gives him the name Hiiro. After recovering from his injuries, the newly named Hiiro (who is a survivor of the Ogre race) goes back to his village and finds it empty and looking desolate. He then returns to Raja.

Meawhile, Rimuru Tempest has been told that Geld, an orc who is an ally fighter, is under attack in a forest. Around the same time, Hiiro finds his long-lost best friend from childhood in the forest. His best friend was a like a brother to Hiiro, and he now has a new name: Benimoru, who introduces Hiiro to Geld. Hiiro and Benimoru not only treat each other like brothers, but these red-haired men also have a physical resemblance to each other.

Benimoru and Geld have become friends, even though Geld was part of the invasion that destroyed the village where Hiiro and Benimoru grew up. Geld is remorseful for his involvement, and Benimoru has forgiven him. Other people are not as forgiving.

Hiiro and Benimoru reunite with some of the people from their hometown village, including Benimoru’s pink-haired younger sister Shuna and her purple-haired friend Shion. Hiiro, Benimoru, Geld, Shuna and Shion eventually cross paths with Rimuru Tempest.

Meanwhile, Queen Towa has collapsed and finds out from a minister leader that her collapse came from toxins released from the gold mines of Raja. It’s a curse that will take over her entire body, just like what happened to other previous queens of Raja. The only way that the curse can be lifted is to wear a tiar that can neutralize the toxin. But there’s a catch: The wearer of the tiara will absorb the curse’s poison and is at risk of dying.

Rimuru, Hiiro, Benimoru, Geld, Shuna and Shion team up to help Queen Towa in finding the tiara. They travel to different lands, including the Great Forest of Jeru, which is guarded by a Storm Dragon called Veldora. There’s also a chief villain named Lacua, who does what chief villains usually do in stories like this. Also appearing in the movie is a chief prosecutor named Violet.

The voices of the “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of the movie. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Miho Okasaki as Rimuru, Yuma Uchida as Hiiro, Riko Fukumoto as Towa, Makoto Furukawa as Benimaru, Subaru Kimura as Lacua, Tomoaki Maeno as Veldora, Miyu Tomita as Violet, Sayaka Sembongi as Shuna, M・A・O as Shion and Taro Yamaguchi as Geld. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Brittney Karbowski as Rimuru, Jonah Scott as Hiiro, Cherami Leigh as Towa, Ricco Fajardo as Benimaru, Tony Oliver as Lacua, Chris Rager as Veldora, Cristina Valenzuela as Violet, Tia Ballard as Shuna, Michelle Rojas as Shion and Cris George as Geld.

“That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond” is not a completely terrible movie. It’s just a movie that wastes a lot of time for a story that is very basic. There is nothing clever or inventive in this predictable tale. And the characters’ dialogue is awfully generic. Most of the characters have bland and forgettable personalities. It’s not a movie that will inspire a lot of newcomer viewers to seek out the source material or anticipate any other movie in the series.

Crunchyroll released “That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime the Movie: Scarlet Bond” in select U.S. cinemas on January 20, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on November 25, 2022.

Review: ‘The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie,’ an anime comedy film about five sisters competing for the same man

April 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from top left; Ichika Nakano, Itsuki Nakano, Yotsuba Nakano, Miku Nakano and Nino Nakano in “The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie” (Image by Negi Hanuba/Kodansha/Crunchyroll)

“The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie”

Directed by Masato Jinbo

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the animated film “The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie” (based on the manga series and TV series) features an all-Japanese cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Quintuplet sisters, who are in their third year of high school, have crushes on their young male tutor and compete to be the one to date him. 

Culture Audience: “The Quintessential Quintuplets” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the manga series and TV series on which the movie is based and anime films that are centered on teenage characters.

Tutaro Uesugi (center) surrounded by, from left to right in front row: Miku Nakano and Nino Nakano and Yotsuba Nakano, and from left to right in back row: Itsuki Nakano and Ichika Nakano in “The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie” (Image by Negi Hanuba/Kodansha/Crunchyroll)

“The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie” is meant for people who enjoy or can at least tolerate anime that is very “kawaii” (the Japanese word for “cute”) in how the story’s enviroment and the main characters look as the movie version of “The Quintessential Quintuplets” manga series. Fans of the manga series should like the charming visuals and voice performances of this movie. What doesn’t translate as well cinematically is the somewhat creepy story of teen quintuplets being love rivals for their tutor. The movie is also too long: The total running time is 159 minutes.

Directed by Masato Jinbo and written by Keiichirō Ōchi, “The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie” is based on the manga series “The Quintessential Quintuplets,” which was adapted into a 2019 to 2021 animated TV series. The movie is faithful to the main storyline of the manga series: Five identical Japanese quintuplet sisters, who are about 16 or 17 years old and in their third year of high school, have developed romantic feelings for their young adult male tutor, whose name is Tutaro Uesugi.

The movie (like the manga series) is told as a series of flashbacks remembered by Tutaro on his wedding day to one of the sisters. He is getting married to her five years after this story takes place. It’s revealed at the end which of the sisters he is marrying. Even if viewers don’t know Tutaro’s decision before seeing this movie, it becomes fairly obvious at a certain point which sister he will choose.

The five sisters who are part of this convoluted and sometimes messy love competition are listed as follows, in the order that they were born:

  • Ichika Nakano is an actress who appears in TV commercials and wants to become a movie star. As the eldest of her sisters, she wants to be perceived as the wisest and most responsible sister, but she’s often flaky, and she drops out of school to pursue an acting career.
  • Nino Nakano is an aspiring chef and is the bossiest of the five sisters. Nino, who is very status-conscious, is also the sister who’s most likely to lose her temper and hold grudges. She’s also in a five-member female singing group.
  • Miku Nakano is the shy and meek sister, who feels insecure because she hasn’t decided yet what she wants to do with her life. She is not academically gifted, and she hasn’t discovered any specific talent that she could turn into a career.
  • Yotsuba Nakano excels at sports, but she gets the worst academic grades out of all of her sisters. Yotsuba is very generous and empathetic. She has a tendency to put other people’s needs above her own.
  • Itsuki Nakano wants to become a teacher. She has two sides to her personality: She can be sweet to people she trusts and hostile to people she doesn’t trust.

The Nakano sisters come from a wealthy family and are currently living on their own in a high-rise apartment. Their mother Rena (who was a teacher) died six months ago. And the sisters will soon have to find a new home because their apartment building will be demolished for construction of another building.

Rena’s widower is the sisters’ stepfather Dr. Maruo Nakano, who has become a distant father figure since Rena’s death. Dr. Nakano was the one who hired Tutaro to be the sisters’ tutor. The sisters’ biological father is not in their lives. They have been told that he abandoned the family when the sisters were too young to remember him.

“The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie” has a lot of typical concerns that are in stories about teenagers. A major subplot is about the school’s big annual festival, which is considered a major social activity of the students. And a charismatic teacher named Mudo Jinnosuke-sensei causes quite a stir when he visits the area for a special lecture. In his flyers, he is advertised as being able to teach “unrivaled scholastic prowess.”

But the movie’s story always comes back to the sibling rivalry over Tutaro. There are several scenes of envy and scheming, as the sisters compete for Tutaro’s attention and possibly affections. Predictably, all five sisters get jealous when they see Tutaro on a date with a young woman named Takabiashi, who is former schoolmate of Tutaro’s.

One of the flaws of “The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie” is that it has minimal discussion of how inappropriate it is for Tutaro (who is in his late teens or early 20s) to date one of his students. He tries to keep his professional boundaries. However, it’s already announced at the beginning of the movie that he’s marrying one of the sisters, and this movie is supposed to show how Tutaro and this sister fell in love. The quintuplets have no adult supervision at home, which makes it easier for this type of relationship to happen.

At the time ths movie was made, Japan’s minimum age of sexual consent was 13 years old. However, in 2023, the Japanese government took steps to raise the minimum age of sexual consent in Japan to 16 years old. That legislation was pending at the time this movie review was written. In other words, “The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie,” in its cultural and legal context of Japan, shows an adult dating a 16-year-old or 17-year-old as socially acceptable and legal. However, many viewers will still think it’s still inappropriate for an adult tutor to date a student who’s 16 or 17 years old.

The voices of the “The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of “The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie.” The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Yoshitsugu Matsuoka as Futaro, Kana Hanazawa as Ichika, Ayana Taketatsu as Nino, Miku Itō as Miku, Ayane Sakura as Yotsuba, and Inori Minase as Itsuki. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Josh Grelle as Futaro, Lindsay Seidel as Ichika, Jill Harris as Nino, Felecia Angelle as Miku, Bryn Apprill as Yotsuba, and Tia Ballard as Itsuki.

Even with some of the serious subject matter that is in “The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie” maintains a light-hearted tone that puts an emphasis on how this unusual group of sisters will have to come to terms with their family bond, even when the quintuplets have their many conflicts. Viewers will have to suspend a lot of disbelief that five sisters could be “in love” with the same guy at the same time and don’t seem to be attracted to anyone else. There are plenty of love rivalries in real life that are a lot more bizarre than what’s in this movie. Despite being very lengthy, “The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie” has an exuberance that anime fans will find hard to resist.

Crunchyroll released “The Quintessential Quintuplets Movie” in select U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022. The movie was released in Japan on May 20, 2022.

Review: ‘John Wick: Chapter 4,’ starring Keanu Reeves

March 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Keanu Reeves in “John Wick: Chapter 4” (Photo by Murray Close/Lionsgate)

“John Wick: Chapter 4”

Directed by Chad Stahelski

Some language in French, Japanese, German and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, France, Japan and Germany, the action film “John Wick: Chapter 4” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Notorious mercenary John Wick fights several opponents in various countries, in order to be released from his servitude punishment from the High Table, a council of 12 crime lords who oversee the underworld’s most powerful criminal groups. 

Culture Audience: “John Wick: Chapter 4” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “John Wick” franchise, star Keanu Reeves, and action-packed movies that can get very violent.

Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård and Marko Zaror in “John Wick: Chapter 4” (Photo by Murray Close/Lionsgate)

“John Wick: Chapter 4” is the most stunning and stylish-looking of the “John Wick” movies. Elaborate fight scenes are the movie’s biggest assets, but there’s also plenty of suspense, well-placed comedy and a meaningful story of humanity at the heart of this ultra-violent movie. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is an ending chapter of this franchise, but an end-credits scene in the movie hints that the saga will continue in another storyline.

Directed by Chad Stahelski, “John Wick: Chapter 4” was written by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. It’s an epic movie (with a total running time of 169 minutes) that is filled with adrenalin-pumping action that is never boring but can be overwhelming or offensive for people who have a low tolerance for violence in movies. At this point, most people who want to see a “John Wick” movie already that “John Wick” movies have a lot murders and mayhem. Everyone else should be prepared for ths onslaught.

It’s not necessary to see the previous “John Wick” movies, but it helps give better context to some of the relationships in the movie. The plot of “John Wick: Chapter 4” is fairly simple: Notorious mercenary John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) fights several opponents in various countries, in order to be released from his servitude punishment from the High Table, a council of 12 crime lords who oversee the underworld’s most powerful criminal groups. The current leader of the table is a ruthless sadist named Marquis (played by Bill Skarsgård), who is based in Paris. Even among these criminals, there are rules and codes of conduct that must be followed.

John’s quest leads him from his native United States to various other countries, including Japan, France and Germany. Some of his allies can turn into enemies, while some of his enemies can turn into allies. The characters he encounters include Winston (played Ian McShane), owner of the Continental Hotel in New York City; Continental Hotel concierge Charon (played by Lance Reddick, who died on March 17, 2023, one week before the release date of “John Wick: Chapter 4”); and Bowery King (played by Laurence Fishburne), leader of the Soup Kitchen, a New York City-based underworld intelligence network that is disguised as a homeless shelter.

In “John Wick: Chapter 4,” John has two hit men who have been hired to kill him: blind assassin Caine (played by Donnie Yen) and bounty hunter Tracker (played by Shamier Anderson), who is accompanied by his loyal German Shepherd. While in Japan, John interacts with Shimazu (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), the manager of the Continental Hotel in Osaka, as well as Shimazu’s daughter Akira (played by Rina Sawayama), who is a high-ranking manager at the hotel. Also in the movie are a Russian mafia princess named Katia (played by Natalia Tena); Chidi (played by Marko Zaror), who is Marquis’ second-in-command henchman; and Harbinger (played by Clancy Brown), who is a high-ranking member of the High Table.

Visually, “John Wick: Chapter 4” is the most vibrant of the “John Wick” movies. Dan Laustsen’s exquisite cinematography has gorgeously rich hues and eye-popping camera angles. Some critics might argue that this movie makes violence took glamorous, but there’s no denying that “John Wick: Chapter 4” is an achievement in visual arts for action films. And let’s be clear: The movie has no ambiguity in rooting for who the “good” characters are.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” takes on many qualities of a comic book come to life, such as the way that word fonts look on screen, how the action scenes are choreographed, and the manner in which some of the villains are portrayed. (And to its detriment, “John Wick: Chapter 4” has very simplistic dialogue, similar to a comic book.) Scott Adkins plays a German crime boss named Killa (the leader of the High Table’s German operations), who is a character that looks like he was inspired by the Kingpin villain in Marvel Comics. Killa is a massive thug who wears a business suit and has gold-plated front teeth. You can imagine how those gold teeth will be used as comic relief in one of the fight scenes.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” certainly has some very cartoonish violence. However, the violence gets much more realistic in the last third of the movie. There’s an unusual and somewhat comedic action sequence involving a long flight of stairs that is sure to be one of the most memorable aspects of “John Wick: Chapter 4.” And the last 15 minutes of the movie just might make some viewers cry. “John Wick: Chapter 4” goes beyond what typical action movies do by not just offering unique fight scenes but also stirring up complex emotions for the main characters in ways that can be unexpected.

Lionsgate will release “John Wick: Chapter 4” in U.S. cinemas on March 24, 2023.

Review: ‘Whisper of the Heart’ (2022), starring Nana Seino, Tôri Matsuzaka, Runa Yasuhara and Tsubasa Nakagawa

February 8, 2023

Nana Seino and Tôri Matsuzaka in “Whisper of the Heart” (Photo courtesy of Capelight Pictures)

“Whisper of the Heart” (2022)

Directed by Yūichirō Hirakawa

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan and in Italy, the dramatic film “Whisper of the Heart” features a predominantly Japanese cast of characters (with some white people and a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: When they are 14 years old, Japanese students Shizuku Tsukishima (who dreams of becoming a writer) and Seiji Amasawa (who dreams of becoming a professional cellist) meet and fall in love, but their romance is tested over a 10-year period, during which he moves to Italy and starts a new life as a successful cellist in a neo-classical musical group.

Culture Audience: “Whisper of the Heart” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the manga series and the 1995 animated movie and on which is movie remake is based, will appeal to viewers who don’t mind watching romantic dramas that sometimes get sappy about long-distance love affairs.

Tsubasa Nakagawa and Runa Yasuhara in “Whisper of the Heart” (Photo courtesy of Capelight Pictures)

“Whisper of the Heart” is a sometimes whimsical, sometimes sentimental drama about the longtime, bittersweet romance between the two main characters. The movie sometimes gets repetitive and tedious, but the overall story is told in an appealing way. “Whisper of the Heart” explores some aspects of the story’s long-distance romance with great emotional tenderness, while other aspects seem very rushed or vague in the movie.

Written and directed by Yūichirō Hirakawa, “Whisper of the Heart” is both a remake and a sequel for the 1995 animated film of the same name. Both movies are based on the 1989 manga series “Whisper of the Heart.” It’s not necessary to read the manga or see the 1995 animated film before seeing the live-action film, but it helps to have this background information if viewers want a point of comparison to see how all three formats tell the story of the main characters.

The animated film “Whisper of the Heart” focuses on the two main characters when they were 14 years old. In the live-action “Whisper of the Heart,” the story goes back and forth between showing the Japanese main characters when they were 14 and when they are 24. The adult version of these characters have the storyline that is much more dramatic but also more frustrating because there was potential for the story to be better developed.

The couple at the center of the story are Shizuku Tsukishima and Seiji Amasawa, who are both artistic in different ways. Shizuku (who is quiet and bashful) wants to be a novelist. Seiji (who is outspoken and confident) wants to be a cellist. (In the animated film, wants to be a violin maker.) In the live-action “Whisper of the Heart,” Nana Seino has the role of 24-year-old Shizuku, and Runa Yasuhara has the role of 14-year-old Shizuku. Tôri Matsuzaka has the role of 24-year-old Seiji, and Tsubasa Nakagawa has the role of 14-year-old Seiji.

At 14 years old, Shizuku and Seiji, who attend the same school in Tokyo, met by chance because she found out that he checked out the same books at a local library. At first, Shizuku had a bad impression of Seiji because he would tease her at school over petty things. Shizuku is a shy student who loves books, and she’s hurt by this type of negative attention by Seiji.

One day, Shizuku sees an orange and white cat on the street and follows it into a trinket shop called Earth Store. Inside the shop, Shizuku is immediately drawn to a cat figurine doll that shows the cat standing up like a human and dressed in a tuxedo. The figure is about 10 to 12 inches tall. The shop owner is a friendly elderly man named Shirō Nishi (played by Masaomi Kondô) introduces himself to Shizuku and tells her that the cat’s name is Baron.

Later (this is not spoiler information), Shizuku finds out that Shirō is Seiji’s grandfather. By chance, Shizuku and Seiji happen to be in the shop on the same day. They start talking and eventually come to like each other when they find out that they have a lot of the same interests. Their friendship gradually turns into love, and they promise to be loyal to each other.

Shirō eventually tells Shizuku the story of Baron and how this cat figurine is a symbol of love that Shirō found and lost during World War II. The orange and white cat that lives in the shop is named Moon. These two cats inspire Shizuku to write her first story, with encouragement from Seiji, who wants to be the first person to read the story, which is called “Baron’s Tale.” Likewise, Seiji has written a song called “Wings to Fly” that he eventually shares with Shizuku.

What the live-action “Whisper of the Heart” movie shows in the adult lives of Shizuku and Seiji is how they are dealing with a long-distance romance. There is a 10-year leap between the connected storylines with hardly any information on what happened in between those 10 years. All viewers know is that at 24 years old, Shizuku still lives in Tokyo, while Seiji is now a working as a professional cellist who has moved to Italy, where he has been living in Rome for at least three years. Seiji is the leader of a neo-classical music group.

Shizuku’s career plans aren’t going as smoothly. She has given up on being a novelist and has become a book editor. A conversation shown early in the movie reveals that Shizuku left a large publishing company (where her former boss wants to hire her back) and is now working at a small publishing company whose specialty is children’s books. And the job is mostly miserable for Shizuku.

For starters, she has a demanding boss (played by Takuma Otoo), who doesn’t hesitate to yell at Shizuku and belittle her, often in front of her co-workers. His biggest gripe is that Shizuku hands in manuscripts that he thinks are lackluster, but Shizuku can never seem to do anything that will please him. Meanwhile, Shizuku is also dealing with a difficult author named Mr. Sonomuro (played by Kei Tanaka), who is one of the company’s most famous writers. Mr. Sonomuro’s complaint about Shizuku is she’s not authentic enough when communicating with him and making editing suggestions.

These criticisms might be valid, but Shizuku’s boss in particular seems to take pleasure n humiliating her. Shizuku is constantly in fear that she is about to be fired, so she is nervous and on edge when she’s at her job. And this insecurity makes her even more likely to mess up and get shouted at by her boss all over again.

Shizuku’s only emotional comforts in life come from her romance with Sheiji, as well as her close friendship with her two housemates: Yūko Harada (played by Rio Uchida) and Tatsuya Sugimura (played by Yuki Yamada), who are a couple. Shizuku, Yūko and Tatsuya have known each other since they all went to the same school together as teenagers. Back then (as shown in flashbacks), there was a love triangle going on that threatened to ruin the friendship between Shizuku and Yūko, but it all got sorted out, as Shizuku and Yūko ended up with the guys they wanted. Sara Sumitomo has the role of teenage Yūko, and Towa Araki has the role of teenage Tatsuya.

But lately, Shizuku’s relationship with Seiji isn’t making her as happy as it used to make her. She wonders if this relationship will last if it keeps going the way it’s been going, which is that the relationship hasn’t progressed to a commitment, such as a co-habitation, an engagement and/or marriage. Yūko and Tatsuya listen to Shizuku lament that she’s been in the relationship with Seiji for 10 years, “and I’ve got nothing to show for it.”

Seiji seems happy in Italy, and he has told Shizuku that he doesn’t want to move back to Japan because his career (which requires a lot of traveling) is going well. Meanwhile, Shizuku wants to stay in Japan. Will this couple take things to the next level, will they continue the way they that’ve been going, or will they break up? “Whisper of the Heart” shows this dilemma in a sort of wandering way, interrupted by more flashbacks.

The cast members’ performances in the movie are good, but not spectacular. The least interesting parts of the movie have to do with Shizuku at her job. In this job setting, viewers will soon grow tired of seeing repeats of similar scenarios, where Shizuku feels underappreciated and misunderstood. She has a sympathetic male co-worker (played by Keisuke Nakata), but Shizuku looks muted and emotionally disconnected in most of these workplace scenes. And it becomes boring to watch.

The flashbacks to the teenage Shizuku and teenage Seiji are cute but just give background information and offer a frame of reference when certain locations are revisited years later. The real heart of the story has to do with the adult Shizuku and the adult Seiji. Some of it is treated like a soap opera, but the movie is also has great messages about being true to oneself and not letting self-doubt get in the way of pursuing dreams.

“Whisper of the Heart” also realistically shows how true love and trust can exist in a relationship, but the timing of the relationship and what each person wants out of the relationship have to be compatible if the relationship is going to last. It’s a hard lesson to learn for the couple at the center of “Whisper of the Heart.” Each person in the relationship has to decide individual priorities and whether or not those priorities are a good match for the desired partner.

The couple in this version of the story has the benefit of more maturity than they would have had if the story remained in the couple’s teenage years. This maturity ultimately give viewers a better idea of what will happen to Shizuku and Seiji, since they are making decisions as adults, not as teenagers who are still living with their parents. However, “Whisper of the Heart” also shows in no uncertain terms that growing up doesn’t mean growing out of the need to be loved.

Capelight Pictures released “Whisper of the Heart” in select U.S. cinemas on February 3, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on October 14, 2022.

Review: ‘One Piece Film Red,’ a fantasy action adventure with pirates and a pop star

January 3, 2023

by Carla Hay

Uta and Luffy in “One Piece Film Red” (Image courtesy of Crunchyroll)

“One Piece Film Red”

Directed by Gorō Taniguchi

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: Taking place on the fictional island of Elegia, the Japanese animated film “One Piece Film Red” tells the story of pirates, a female pop star, and how her past connects to the present.

Culture Clash: The pirates get involved in a battle over the pop star, who wants to create a utopia for her legions of followers.

Culture Audience: “One Piece Film Red” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “One Piece” franchise and adventurous anime films that have some social commentary.

Red-Haired Shanks in “One Piece Film Red” (Image courtesy of Crunchyroll)

“One Piece Film Red” is an exuberant adventure story that will please new and previous fans of the “One Piece” franchise. Beyond the thrilling action scenes is clever social commentary about blindly following anyone in power who promises a utopian existence. People don’t have to know anything about the “One Piece” franchise before seeing the “One Piece Film Red,” but it helps in understanding some of the characters’ motivations, backstories and personalities. The franchise follows the adventures of a group of pirates (some with superpowers) as they battle other people in search of a famous treasure called One Piece.

Directed by Gorō Taniguchi and written by Tsutomu Kuroiwa, “One Piece Film Red” opens with the Straw Hat Pirates going to the fictional island of Elegia. The captain of the Straw Hat Pirates is a teenager named Luffy, who is also known as Straw Hat Luffy or Monkey D. Luffy. He has an upbeat personality and, for better or worse, is often impulsive. A running joke in the “One Piece” series is that Fluffy’s enormous appetite frequently affects his judgment when he is hungry for food.

The Straw Hat Pirates have gone to Elegia to see a young pop star Uta perform in concert. She’s abut the same age as Luffy, who is in his late teens. Luffy has a past connection with Uta because he met her through her biological father: a pirate named Red-Haired Shanks, who is Luffy’s idol. About 12 years earlier, Red-Haired Shanks and his pirate crew were stationed in Luffy’s native land of the Goa Kingdom. That is how Luffy met Uta, who was being raised by single father Red-Haired Shanks.

However, during Red-Haired Shanks’ travels, he left underage Uta in Elegia shortly after Luffy met her. She was adopted and raised by a man called Gordon, the former king of Elegia. Red-Haired Shanks told people that he gave up custody of Uta because she wanted to pursue a singing career, and he believed that Elegia was the best place for her to receive training.

Uta has now become a world-famous pop star with millions of devoted followers. Her performances seem to have a hypnotic effect on people because she has control of Sing-Sing Fruit, which casts a trance-like spell on people who hear Uta sing. She has messages of positivity, which makes her a beloved celebrity. Uthe has announced that she’s planning to bring her followers to a paradise called Sing-Sing World, where she says there is peace and unity.

In order to follow Uta to this world, people have to be willing to leave their regular lives behind. And that makes her a threat to the World Government. Uta comes under attack from various entitities, while Luffy and his crew have to decide which side they will take in this battle. In order to fully understand Uta, they have to uncover more of what happened to her in the past. The movie features original songs performed by Ado as Uta’s songs.

“One Piece Film Red” not only has an intriguing story, but the movie’s visuals are also captivating and enhance viewers’ enjoyment of the story. The movie also has touches of comedy that lighten the mood and make the characters more relatable. “One Piece Film Red” has a lot to say about families, identities, and how they play a role in people’s perceptions of themselves and of society. It’s not a preachy film, but it’s not just mindless fluff either.

The voices of the “One Piece Film Red” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “One Piece Film Red.” The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Mayumi Tanaka as Luffy, Shūichi Ikeda as Red-Haired Shanks, Kaori Nazuka as Uta (with Ado for Uta’s singing voice), and Kenjiro Tsuda as Gordon. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Colleen Clinkenbeard as Luffy, Brandon Potter as Red-Haired Shanks, Amanda Lee as Uta, and Jim Foronda as Gordon.

“One Piece Film Red” has moments that will be confusing to people who don’t know anything about the “One Piece” series, but these moments aren’t crucial to undertstanding the overall arc of the story. The movie admirably doesn’t have a predictable ending. “Once Piece Film Red” looks like it will end one way, but then the last few minutes offer a surprise that’s a little bit of a cliffhanger and teaser for what’s next in the “One Piece” saga.

Crunchyroll released “One Piece Film Red” in U.S. cinemas on November 4, 2022. The movie was released in Japan on August 6, 2022.

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