Review: ‘Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train,’ an anime fantasy adventure from Japan

May 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tanjiro Kamado in “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no YaibaThe Movie: Mugen Train” (Image by Koyoharu Gotoge/SHUEISHA/Aniplex/Ufotable) 

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train”

Directed by Haruo Sotozaki

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

Culture Representation: Taking place in early 1900s Japan, the animation film “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” features Japanese characters involved in adventures in demon slaying.

Culture Clash: During a train ride, a master demon slayer and four of his assistants fight a demon.

Culture Audience: Aside from the obvious target audience of people who are fans of the “Demon Slayer” TV series, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in anime or any animated films that have engaging fantasy adventure stories with graphic fight scenes.

Enmu in “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” (Image by Koyoharu Gotoge/SHUEISHA/Aniplex/Ufotable)

The animated film “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” (based on the popular “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” anime TV series and comic book series) has broken records to become to highest-grossing movie of all time in Japan and the top-grossing movie worldwide of 2020. Since its release in Asia in October 2020, the movie has since become a chart-topping hit. And in 2021, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” became a hit in several places outside of Asia, including the United States, several countries in Europe and in South America.

Is this movie worth all the hype? Mostly yes, but the movie is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like anime that have more adult-oriented violence than a typical anime film. The movie (directed by Haruo Sotozaki) has some eye-popping visuals that deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. And the story is an immersive experience should please fans of animated stories that blend fantasy adventures with some horror elements.

Where the movie falls a little short is in how it introduces the characters. If people don’t know anything about these characters before seeing the movie, the backstories might be a little rushed for newcomers to process everything as easily as people who are already familiar with these characters. Anyone going into this movie with no knowledge of the “Demon Slayer” canon might find themselves at times lost and occasionally bored by the film.

However, that doesn’t mean that “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” is difficult to understand. Anime production company Ufotable is credited with writing the screenplay, based on a story by Koyoharu Gotoge. The movie’s plot continues with the central theme of the franchise: Red-haired and courageous teenage boy Tanjirō Kamado (the protagonist) and his two male friends: blonde and fearful Zenitsu Agatsuma and impulsive hothead Inosuke Hashibira (who wears a boar’s head mask to hide his delicate-looking face) have teamed up with a young adult Flame Hashira warrior named Kyōjurō Rengoku to slay demons.

Tanjirō, who is the franchise’s main protagonist, has a tragedy which is feuling his motivations to find and kill demons: His parents and three brothers were slaughtered by demons, while his younger sister Nezuko Kamado was turned into a demon. Tanjirō keeps Nezuko hidden, usually in a knapsack that he has with him. However, Nezuko has not turned into a completely evil demon, because she is known to help Tanjirō and his friends when they need it.

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” begins with Tanjirō, Zenitsu and Hashibira boarding a train. The three pals meet up with Kyōjurō on the train, where he’s having a meal. During the beginning of the movie, there’s a running joke in that Kyōjurō keeps saying, “Tasty!” while he’s eating.

The main demon in the story is Enmu, Lower Rank One of the Twelve Kizuki, who finds four young passengers who have insomnia and orders them to enter the demon slayers’ dreams. The rest of the movie has a fever-dream quality where the demon slayers slip in and out of consciousness to fight Enmu and other demons.

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” doesn’t hold back on blood and gore. The movie dosn’t really start to pick up steam until the haflway mark. And from there, it’s an adrenaline-pumping ride as Enmu literally takes over the train in a way that won’t be revealed in this review. The visuals can be stunning, but not anything extraordinary. However, there are some genuinely creepy images in the movie, such as Enmu’s hand, which has a mind of its own.

Most viewers of this movie are watching for the fight scenes. And the movie should meet or surpass expetations. It should come as no surprise that Tanjirō and Enmu have a big showdown (it’s one of the highlights of the film), some of which takes place on top of the train. Kyōjurō also has climactic scene that’s an epic battle.

Because this movie is dubbed in several different languages (and also available in Japanese with subtitles), several voice actors portray the same characters. In the Japanese-language version, the voice actors are Natsuki Hanae asTanjirō Kamado; Yoshitsugu Matsuoka as Inosuke Hashibira; Satoshi Hino as Kyōjurō Rengoku; Akari Kitō as Nezuko Kamado; and Daisuke Hirakawa as Enmu/Lower Moon One. In the English-language version, the voice actors are Zach Aguilar asTanjirō Kamado; Bryce Papenbrook as Inosuke Hashibira; Aleks Le as Kyōjurō Rengoku; Abby Trott as Nezuko Kamado; and Landon McDonald as Enmu/Lower Moon One.

The acting and dialogue in “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” are what viewers might expect from an anime film. The biggest appeal that the movie has is how it hooks people into this world (there are flashbacks to give the characters backstories) and gives viewers many reasons to root for the heroic characters. These demon slayers are far from perfect, and that’s why people of all ages can relate them any or all of them in some way.

This movie also doesn’t gloss over the tragedy and trauma of murders. Tanjirō has flashback scenes with his family members when they were alive, and it gives emotional delpth to the tremendous loss that he has suffered. Tanjirō has solidarity and acceptance in his new family of demon slayers, but viewers will also sense that he will be forever haunted by the tragic murders of his biological family members. And just like any good story, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” leaves audiences wanting more at the end.

Aniplex of America and Funimation released “Demon Slayer -Kimetsu no Yaiba- The Movie: Mugen Train” in U.S. cinemas on April 23, 2021. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is June 22, 2021. The movie was released in Japan in 2020.

Review: ‘Origin of the Species,’ starring Hiroshi Ishiguro, Bruce Duncan, Takashi Ikegami, Matthias Scheutz, Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, Andy Schwartz and Matt McMullen

November 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hiroshi Ishiguro (pictured third from left) with his colleagues and their look-alike robots in “Origin of the Species” (Photo by Abigail Child)

“Origin of the Species”

Directed by Abigail Child 

Some language in Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States and Japan, the documentary “Origin of the Species” features a racially diverse group (white, Asian and African American) of scientists, entrepreneurs and consumers discussing how artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology can impact people’s lives.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary are working to have more automated robots in the world, but there are always ethical questions about how much control should be given to the robots.

Culture Audience: “Origin of the Species” will appeal primarily to people interested in futuristic technology, particularly when it comes to how artificial intelligence can be used in human-looking inventions.

BINA48 robot in “Origin of the Species” (Photo by Abigail Child)

People who watch the documentary “Origin of the Species” will probably have two kinds of reactions: being fascinated or being creeped-out by all the demonstrations of artificial intelligence (A.I.) that is being developed for human-looking inventions. And it’s very possible for someone to have both reactions when watching this film. Viewers of the movie get a diverse and very artsy peek into what scientists and other people are doing with A.I. and related technology. If you’re the type of person who’s intrigued by robots, “Origin of the Species” is your kind of movie, because a great deal of the film is about robots.

“Origin of the Species,” directed by Abigail Child, is the third movie in her trilogy about female desire, following “Unbound” (a depiction of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley’s life through imaginary home movies) and 2017’s “Acts & Intermissions,” a documentary about activist Emma Goldman. Although “Origin of the Species” (which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020) has mostly male inventors interviewed in the film, their robotic creations are often of the female gender or are gender-neutral.

The documentary will make people think about why A.I.—whether it’s Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Realbotix’s sex robots—often take on the personas of human females. Is it because females are considered more submissive and less threatening? Observant viewers in the documentary will notice that the robots with distinct male personas are often built to do physical tasks. The robots with the female personas are usually built to be sympathetic and obedient companions.

But this is not a boring science/technology film. What’s great about “Origin of the Species” is that stream-of-consciousness artsy images and soundbites are interspersed throughout the film. (Fans of Andy Warhol will probably appreciate this style of filmmaking.) There is also a mock female robotic voice that provides intermittent narration.

And the movie is infused with clips from movies and Tv shows that have references to robots or robotic people. These pop-culture references include footage from 1927’s “Metropolis,” 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein,” 1975’s “The Stepford Wives,” Robby the Robot, Astro Boy and the 1960s TV series “The Jetsons” and “Lost in Space.” Mary Patierno and director Child did the daydream-like editing for “Origin of the Species.”

The robotic female voice that provides the narration keeps expressing self-awareness that although it has human-intelligence, it’s not a real human. In the beginning of the film, the voice says: “When they first activated me as a robot that time, the time when I first saw the light of day. I didn’t know what the hell it was. I have had very little understanding—just a wash of sensory perceptions—not that I understand these experiences. I don’t know what to do with them, but I treasure them. I see them still—perfectly preserved in my memory … It’s totally strange because I know I’m not alive like other organisms.”

“Origin of the Species” has different segments of scientists, inventors and other people in Japan and the United States who are involved in A.I. for robotic inventions. One of the scientists who has the most life-like robots in the documentary is Hiroshi Ishiguro of the University of Osaka. There’s some memorable footage of Ishiguro and some of his colleagues with life-sized replicas of themselves that are being programmed with A.I. to be the robot versions of clones. Of course, a robot’s human-like movements are a lot easier to create than human-like thoughts and actions.

Ishiguro says that he started out studying computer science and then he got interested in artificial intelligence. He states in the documentary: “And I thought artificial intelligence needs to have a body for the original experience. And then, when I studied the robotics, I learned the importance of appearance. My idea was if I studied a very human-like robot, I can learn about humans.”

Ishiguro names an Asian-looking robot named Erica (who looks like a generic J-pop star and has a British accent) as “the most beautiful and human-like android in the world.” Erica is briefly shown in the documentary but this robot doesn’t really do anything remarkable. In fact, Eric had some glitches in not being able to understand certain words. Erica is also programmed to have a very empathetic personality so that the human companion feels like Eric is the type of robot that won’t be too fussy or disagreeable.

A less advanced robot shown in the movie is Seer, designed by Takayuki Todo. Seer looks like a female doll’s head, except it has wiring in the back that controls its movements, facial expressions and actions. Unlike the other developers in the documentary that put a large emphasis on how the robots will have conversations with humans, Todo explains he’s more interested in body language: “The purpose of my research is to portray the sense of conscious emotion … I’m interested in non-verbal expressions. Talking always makes them [the robots] look fake.”

Bruce Duncan of the Terasem Foundation demonstrates a robot he created that is based on a real person named Bina Rothblatt, a middle-aged African American woman. He named the robot BINA48, and it has varying degrees of friendly expressions and conversation lines that it can do on command. BINA is an acronym for Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture. There’s a scene in the movie where Rothblatt interacts with the BINA48 robot and another scene where Duncan displays the robot’s abilities at a speaking engagement attended by the general public.

One of the things that BINA48 (which has a very generic robot voice) says in the movie is, “Someday soon, robots like me will be everywhere. And you can take me anywhere.” BINA48 is described as “modeled after a black lesbian” in the movie’s production notes, but the actual documentary doesn’t show that any of the robots are designed to express a particular sexuality, except for the Realbotix sex robots that are shown at the end of the film.

Takahasi Ikegami from the University of Tokyo demonstrates the Alter robot, which has a head and hands that look like a man’s, but the rest of the robot’s body is exposed metal and wiring. The Alter robot is built more for physical activities than having in-depth conversations. When Alter is on display at a museum, it makes bird sounds. There’s another scene of Alter conducting an orchestra of human musicians. 

And unlike the other robots in the documentary, Alter is not pre-programmed, and so the robot’s actions are less predictable. Ikegami explains how Alter was constructed: “Basically, there are two mechanisms. One is autonomous algorithmic generators coupled with each other. Also, there are artificial neural networks spontaneously firing … With the current artificial intelligence, there is no spontaneity. Spontaneity is everything, based on this.”

Matthias Scheutz of Tufts University has the opposite approach for his more traditional BAZE robot that he shows in the documentary, by programming the robot to have automatic responses to as many variables as possible. The BAZE robot doesn’t have a human face and is the size of a typical robot toy. In “Origin of the Species,” it’s shown how BAZE responds to certain obstacles and challenges, such as being ordered to walk and then coming up against a wall or a height where the robot cannot jump.

In situations like these, BAZE is taught how to “trust” the humans who are giving the robot the orders by hearing certain words. For example, when BAZE was told to walk on a table and reached the edge of the table, the human operator said that BAZE could trust him and jump into his arms to be lifted off of the table. BAZE’s intelligence and actions are very much like watching a kindergarten-aged child. It’s interesting but not as impressive as Ishiguro’s very life-like adult robots.

“Origin of the Species” also has some brief footage of Hanson Robotics’ human-sized android Sophia, which has the ability to hold conversations and have various facial expressions, based on pre-programmed trigger responses to certain words. Sophia (which has no hair and sounds like an American woman) was first introduced to the public in 2017, with some high-profile TV appearances, such as NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and ITV’s “Good Morning Britain,” where Sophia told some pre-programmed jokes. “Good Morning Britain” co-host Piers Morgan, who’s known to be blunt and rude, called Sophia a “freak” and said that the robot was “freaking him out.” His reaction was actually funnier than Sophia’s jokes.

But the A.I. in robotics isn’t just all about amusement and entertainment. “Origin of the Species” also shows how this science is being used in medicine to help people with disabilities. Stanford University researcher Allison Okamura talks about how robotic prosthetics work: “They wont be able to manipulate their environment unless they use their sense of touch.”

Nathan Copeland, a paraplegic who was paralyzed in a 2004 car accident, is shown having brain surgery where A.I. electrodes were implanted on his brain so that he could regain a sense of touch and use a robotic arm to do things he could not do with his own hands. Before the surgery, Copeland had limited use of his arms, and he’s paralyzed from the chest down for the rest of his body. University of Pittsburgh researcher Andy Schwartz and University of Pittsburgh medical Center’s Dr. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara were two of the chief people who made this medical progress possible for Copeland. 

Schwartz says, “We had done basic science where we learned we could de-code basic arm movements from neural activity in the motor cortex. And we were so successful at that, we figured that this would be a good way to get into neural prosthetics.” 

Tyler-Kabara adds, “Andy and I had multiple conversations about, ‘How do we move what he was doing in the animals into humans?’ And I told him, ‘You just need a crazy neurosurgeon, and I would be happy to be that crazy neurosurgeon.’ The unique thing was to now be able to record the signals from the part of the brain that we knew controlled motor and specifically controlled arm and hand motion.”

The documentary ends with an inside look at Realbotix, a San Marcos, California-based company that is an offshoot of the RealDoll company that manufactures sex dolls. RealDolls are life-like sex dolls but can’t talk and don’t have motion-based facial expressions. Realbotix uses A.I. to make these sex dolls have more of an appearance of living, breathing humans who can have conversations. 

Realbotix software designer Kino Coursey says that the company’s dolls and robots are projections of customers’ needs and fantasies. Coursey explains, “What we’re trying to do is give the doll the ability to react on its own, to match what the person’s projection is.” The documentary shows how the dolls are made. Customers can specify a doll’s measurements and other physical characteristics. And when it comes to A.I., a doll/robot’s “personality” and “backstory” can also be specified by the customer and programmed into how the robot responds.

RealDoll/Realbotix founder/designer Matt McMullen believes that the “sex sells” concept applies to A.I. too: “You need a pathway into people’s homes. And the thing we have that nobody else and probably no one else [in A.I. research] will touch is sex.” McMullen says that his company’s customers aren’t all the stereotypical “dirty old men” that are associated with buying sex dolls. 

Realbotix engineer Susan Pirzchalsk agrees and says that couples are fans of the dolls too, because it’s something she can relate to in her own life: “Sometimes I’m not in the mood, and he has urges, I have urges, and the doll helps with that.” And in another “too much information” moment, Pirzchalsk mentions that after her co-worker Coursey got his Ph. D. degree, she gave him a custom-made RealDoll as a gift.

McMullen comments on the future of sex dolls and sex robots, “What I’d like to see is more acceptance of the idea that they can be something beyond a slave.” He sums up what he thinks is the purpose of manufacturing a sex doll: “I’m building a companion. That’s it.”

Robots that look, talk and act like humans used to be science fiction, but are now a reality. But how far is too far, when it comes to giving robots their own independence and minds of their own? What almost all the scientists and entrepreneurs in this documentary agree on is that A.I. should not be misused by making robots capable of doing things that humans cannot stop if things go wrong. And there’s no substitute for real human emotions.

Rather than give a clinical or heavy-handed analysis of A.I. technology, “Origin of the Species” tells a compelling story about the technology in a way that would make it enjoyable for a wide variety of people to watch. This a technology movie for people who don’t like boring technology movies and want to be informed and entertained in a clever, unique and quirky way. The robots in the movie aren’t real people, but “Origin of the Species” creatively shows the technology behind these robots so that it’s understandable to real people.

UPDATE: Journeyman Pictures will release “Origin of the Species” on digital and VOD on March 12, 2021.

Review: ‘We Are Little Zombies,’ starring Keita Ninomiya, Mondo Okumura, Satoshi Mizuno and Sena Nakajima

September 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sena Nakajima, Keita Ninomiya, Mondo Okumura and Satoshi Mizuno in “We Are Little Zombies” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“We Are Little Zombies”

Directed by Makoto Nagahisa

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the dark comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” has an all-Japanese cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A group of four teenage orphans who resist adult supervision become unlikely pop stars and navigate the pitfalls and fickleness of fame.

Culture Audience: “We Are Little Zombies” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse films with a quirky sense of humor.

Sena Nakajima, Satoshi Mizuno, Keita Ninomiya and Mondo Okumura in “We Are Little Zombies” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” (written and directed by Makato Nagahisa) takes the movie cliché of orphans being pitiful and desperate for love, and blows up that narrative with this concept: “What if there are orphans who aren’t really sad that their parents are dead?” “We Are Little Zombies” gets its title because the four 13-year-old orphans at the center of the story feel like emotional zombies. It’s a zany movie filmed with a lot of artistic and kitschy flair, but it’s not recommended for people who like to see conventional storytelling in a film.

Who are these four orphans? And exactly why do they have so much apathy about their parents’ deaths? It’s because the kids didn’t feel like their parents really loved them. All four of the orphans seemed to have met at an orphanage, where they quickly bonded with each other. When they ask a yard worker outside to take a group photo of them, he says, “Smile, everyone. Cheer up. You look like zombies.” And so, the nickname sticks.

The leader of this group of orphans is bespectacled Hikari Takami (played by Keita Ninomiya), who is also the narrator of the story. Hikari’s parents died on a tour bus owned by a company called Super Wild Coach Tours, which has a slogan like “Destination: Happiness” and takes people on trips like an All You Can Eat Strawberries tour. Hikari, who felt neglected by his parents, deadpans in the narration that it’s “the worst-named package tour of all time. So much for happiness. They went straight to hell.”

Yuki Takemura (played by Mondo Okumura) was raised by a single dad, who committed suicide. Yuki is the only one of the four orphans who has siblings. After their father’s death, the siblings were split up and put in separate foster homes. It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki was physically abused by his father. Yuki also has an older brother who’s an aspiring punk musician who would practice with his band in the family’s garage and typically treated Yuki as a nuisance if Yuki tried to watch the band perform.

Ikuko Ibu (played by Sena Nakajima) also felt unloved by her parents, who were murdered. (It’s mentioned later in the movie that the murder suspect was apprehended, but there’s no mention of what happened to this suspect.) It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki had a strange relationship with her parents because Ikuko’s father Haruhiko (played by Masatoshi Nagase) appeared to have incestuous thoughts about her. Ikuko’s mother, also named Ikuko (played by Rinko Kikuchi), resented her to point where she called her daughter Ikuko a “femme fatale” and accused Ikuko of having a strange effect on people.

Ishi (played by Satoshi Mizuno) felt disconnected from his parents because they worked so much. His parents owned and operated a restaurant, which didn’t leave much time for them to give Ishi attention. His parents died in a gas explosion at the restaurant. Ishi’s reaction is relief because he knows he won’t have to spend long hours working at the restaurant, as he was expected to do when he got older.

Because Hikari is the narrator, “We Are Little Zombies” spends the most time showing how he dealt with his parents’ death. At the funeral, where none of the adults spoke to Hikari, he can’t cry. He says in a voiceover, “Reality is too stupid to cry over. I’m not sad … A funeral … is five times more boring than history class.”

Hikari continues in saying that he can’t remember the warm touch of his parents because “I was never loved … Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.” And Hikari says in a voiceover: “While the bodies are being cremated, please enjoy some phantom piano.” And then some piano music plays. It’s one of the movie’s many quirks.

Throughout the movie, there are many artistic touches that are reminiscent of 1980s video games. Scenes are framed as if they are part of videogame sequences. There are bright neon colors and florescent lighting. And the movie’s original music (also by Nagahisha) sounds like it came straight from a 1980s videogame from Sega or Nintendo.

The movie’s cinematography (by Hiroaki Takeda) is similar to going on a ride in an amusement park, since the camera dips at odd angles and sometimes bounces around at an almost-dizzying pace. There are a few scenes that involve live fish being taken out and put back in water, and the camera sometimes gives a fish-eye view of what’s happening.

And the movie also contrasts the colorful scenes with stark interiors that have neutral colors. The scenes with muted colors are usually when there are parental or authority figures who try to oppress the kids. It’s an obvious metaphor for how drab and dull they think life can be under adult supervision and how much more vibrant their lives are when they’re free to be on their own.

Despite these seemingly whimsical motifs in the movie, there are also some dark themes of childhood neglect and abuse. Ikuko’s father tells her that if he were younger, he would want to marry her. She tries to shrug off this creepy comment by saying that she can’t get married because her ring finger is missing. (It’s true. The ring finger on her left hand is missing.) Meanwhile, Ikuko says in a voiceover, “Mom once told me that she wished I didn’t exist.”

Ishi has had insecurities over whether he was a wanted child because his father once told him that the only reason why he married Ishi’s mother was because she was pregnant. Hikari’s father was a womanizer, and the infidelity caused a lot of pain in his marriage and family. In a voiceover, Hikari says that he knows that his father was well-loved by a lot of people, but Hikari wonders if his father ever loved him.

In one of the dark humor scenes of the movie, the pregnant mistress of Hikari’s father calls the house shortly after the funeral. She doesn’t know that Hikari’s parents have died. And so, when Hikari answers the phone, he nonchalantly tells her the bad news. She is heard wailing in grief on the other line before Hikari calmly hangs up the phone.

The four orphans are sent to various homes but are unhappy there. They rebel by trying to run away or by trying to skip school. During all of this youthful rebellion, the orphans end up on the streets with some homeless people. And there’s a wacky musical interlude where the homeless people break out in a banjo-playing song.

This musical experience inspires the four orphans to form an electro-pop band called Little Zombies. Hikari is the lead singer, Yuki is the guitarist, Ikuko is the keyboardist, and Ishi is the drummer. They make a music video of themselves called “We Are Little Zombies,” a song that is insanely catchy and is very memorable, long after you see the movie. The orphans put the video on the Internet and think not many people will see it.

Instead, the video goes viral and catches the attention of editors of a major magazine, which does a big article about the orphans. The article leads to more media attention. And before you know it, Little Zombies are very famous. As Hikari explains, “We went from being poor zombies to glamorous rock stars.” The kids in the band go from wearing school uniforms as stage outfits to clothing that was designed so they could look like steam-punk-inspired, edgy artists who made their clothes out of garbage.

The kids soon find that after they become famous, people at home and at school who used to ignore or bully them now want to be their best friends. The orphans also become targets of greedy adults who want to exploit the band’s sudden fame to make money for themselves. And the band has an obsessive fan base on social media. The movie has biting commentary on what fame can do to people, particularly people who are still children, and how celebrity obsessions can take a very dark turn.

Underneath all the goofy hijinks is a message that people can’t really find love through fame and public adoration. If the four Little Zombies thought that they would be happy as pop stars, they learn some harsh life lessons along the way. “We Are Little Zombies” drags a little too long (the total running time is two hours), but there’s enough originality and compelling visuals in the movie for people to be interested in finding out what happens to these emotionally jaded kids who aren’t as tough as they might think they are.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “We Are Little Zombies” in select U.S. cinemas on July 10, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 8, 2020.

Review: ‘Children of the Sea,’ a magical adventure from Japan

September 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

“Children of the Sea” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“Children of the Sea”

Directed by Ayumu Watanabe

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

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in an unnamed Japanese city, with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters, representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl, whose scientist parents work at a local aquarium, encounters two mysterious aquatic teenage boys who were found at sea and who want to get away from the scientific experiments that have forced on them.

Culture Audience: “Children of the Sea” is a family-friendly film that will appeal mostly to fans of Japanese anime and animated adventure films.

“Children of the Sea” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

The gorgeous Japanese animated film “Children of the Sea” immerses viewers into a fantasy world that compares and contrasts life on land and life underwater, but there’s a very “real world” environmental message that is present throughout the story. Directed with both enchanting whimsy and technical prowess by Ayumu Watanabe, “Children of the Sea” has some eye-popping animated visuals that deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Daisuke Igarashi wrote the “Children of the Sea” adapted screenplay from his manga of the same title.

The story, which takes place in an unnamed Japanese city. is told from the point of view of a teenage girl named Ruka Azumi (who’s about 15 or 16 years old) during her summer break from regular school sessions. Her vacation gets off to a rocky start when Ruka, who is a rugby player for her school, is wrongfully accused of starting a fight with a fellow student during rugby practice. The other student, who was playing on the opposing team, was the one who was the physical aggressor, because she deliberately tripped Ruka during the game. 

A supervising teacher calls Ruka into his office and scolds her for being a “troublemaker.” He doesn’t want to hear Ruka’s excuse that the bullying student was the one who started the fight. And he tells Ruka that if she won’t apologize to the other student, then Ruka shouldn’t bother coming to practice anymore.

Feeling dejected and misunderstood, Ruka decides to go to Enokura Aquarium where her father Masaki works as a scientist. Ruka has happy memories of spending her childhood at the aquarium. One of these memories, which is shown at the beginning of the movie, is when Ruka saw a ghost in the aquarium. Her father is one of the aquarium’s scientists who evaluate aquatic life and do experiments, such as seeing how dolphins respond to certain sounds. 

While at the aquarium, Ruka discovers a friendly teenage boy in a back room. He’s about the same age as Ruka, and his name is Umi. He shows Yuka that he has an extraordinary ability to swim and float underwater for long periods of time without any breathing equipment. Ruka is very intrigued by Umi and wants to become his friend.

Ruka’s father tells her that Umi was found 10 years ago with another boy off of the shores of the Philippines. Scientists discovered that Umi and the other boy (who is slightly older than Umi) were raised primarily underwater by dugongs. The boys, who are apparently orphaned and raised as brothers by the dugongs, were kept at the aquarium for research.

One evening, Umi invites Ruka to go with him to see a will o’ the wisp at the beach. Ruka is surprised to see what she thinks is a comet or shooting star, but Ruka insists that it’s a will o’ the wisp. He also tells Ruka that animals shine when they want to be found.

While at the beach, Ruka sees the teenager who is described as Umi’s adoptive older brother: His name is Sora, whose skin is so pale that at first Ruka thinks that Sora is a ghost. Sora has blonde hair and blue eyes, which implies that he’s of European descent, while Umi has the appearance of being Filipino. It’s never explained in the movie how Umi and Sora ended up being stranded at sea together, since both boys don’t seem to have any memories of their human families.

Unlike the amicable reaction that Ruka got from Umi when they first met, the first time she meets Sora, he’s rude to her. Sora tells Ruka that she’s “boring.” He adds, “Umi has me. He’s not interested in you.” It also becomes clear as the story unfolds that Sora is more rebellious and more impulsive than Umi.

Sora is growing tired of being a research subject and wants to spend less time away from the aquarium. This restlessness is one of the main reasons why Sora, Umi and Ruka end up taking a joyride on a boat. It isn’t until they’re in the middle of the sea and that Sora admits he doesn’t know how to sail the boat and he was just winging it as they went along. And so, when the boat’s engine mysteriously stalls, the three teens don’t know how to fix it.

It’s during this fateful boat ride that Ruka discovers Umi’s and Sora’s seemingly magical powers to communicate with the aquatic creatures. She also gets to experience underwater life for the first time in some of the movie’s most visually stunning sequences, including seeing whale shark creatures. Sora eventually warms up to Ruka, but he still feels leery about anyone he thinks might try to break his brotherly bond with Umi.

It’s implied that Ruka has special powers too, but she isn’t fully aware of them yet. Meanwhile, Umi and Sora tells her that numerous creatures in the ocean will be gathering for a Birth Festival underwater and are looking for festival guests. Sora says he’s been traveling the world with a scientist named Jim to research the festival’s connection to Umi and Sora.

The trio makes it back to shore, but it won’t be the last time Ruka, Umi and Sora go out to sea together and experience dangerous situations. There’s a boat they use called the Rwa Bhineda that is a key part of their adventures together. One of the people they encounter near the boat is Angurâdo, a young man who wants to be Jim’s assistant.

There’s also an aquarium scientist named Anglade, who wants to keep Umi and Somi at the aquarium for research, even though it’s becoming obvious that the teenagers are growing into young men and want more independence. And there’s a town eccentric named Dehdeh, an elderly woman with apparent psychic abilities.

Ruka is close to her father, but she has a tense relationship with her mother Kanako, a scientist who also works at the aquarium but is on a leave of absence. The reason is because she’s an alcoholic, which is a secret that has brought shame to the family and has caused Ruka to have resentful feelings toward her mother. Kanako’s work colleagues describe her as “brilliant,” but Ruka doesn’t have much respect for her mother because of how Kanako’s alcoholism has negatively affected the family. It’s one of the reasons why Ruka doesn’t like to spend much time at home.

“Children of the Sea” has subtle and not-so-subtle environmental messages about the world being destroyed by humans’ recklessness and greed. Climate change and how it’s affecting the environment are on display when a megamouth shark and hundreds of fish wash up dead on near the aquarium. A typhoon suddenly occurs during one part of the story. And the movie has constant themes of urgent messages that aquatic animals are trying to communicate with humans.

STUDIO4°C, the animation studio behind “Children of the Sea,” infuses this story of teen rebellion meets environmentalism with a lot of reverential images of aquatic life. Creatures such as dolphins and whales are portrayed as just as intelligent (and sometimes smarter) than humans. And underwater life, although certainly not a utopia, is presented as a lot more harmonious and tranquil than the land inhabited by destructive humans.

The animation also takes risks by having some truly psychedelic imagery toward the end of the movie. Joe Hisaishi’s musical score perfectly complements the mood of each scene. And even though “Children of the Sea” is longer than a typical animated film (the total running time is 111 minutes), director Watanabe makes it a well-paced story. Some of the characters are more layered than others, so viewers will want to keep watching to see what it all means in the end. (There’s also an end credits scene that shows an epilogue to the story.)

The voices of the “Children of the Sea” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “Children of the Sea.” The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Mana Ashida as Ruka, Hiiro Ishibashi as Umi, Seishu Uragami as Sora, Win Morisaki as Anglade, Goro Inagaki as Masaki Azumi, Yu Aoi as Kanako Azumi, Toru Watanabe as The Teacher, Min Tanaka as Jim and Sumiko Fuji as Dehdeh. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Anjali Gauld as Ruka, Lynden Prosser as Umi, Benjamin Niewood/Benjamin Niedens as Sora, Beau Bridgland as Anglade, as Marc Thompson as Masaki Azumi, Karen Strassman as Kanako Azumi, Wally Wingert as The Teacher, Michael Sorich as Jim and Denise Lee as Dehdeh.

Some adults might think that animation is mostly for kids, but “Children of the Sea” is a great example of an animated film that can tell an intriguing story that’s relatable to people of any generation. It’s clear that the movie has a viewpoint that if aquatic animals could talk, they would be begging humans to treat the underwater world with more respect because how underwater life is treated affects us all. The movie’s environmental message isn’t preachy, but it shows how people on land are connected to the life that’s underwater and how lessons learned from the past can shape the future. 

GKIDS released “Children of the Sea” on digital, Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix on September 1, 2020.

Review: ‘A Girl Missing,’ starring Mariko Tsutsui, Mikako Ichikawa and Sôsuke Ikematsu

August 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mikako Ichikawa, Miyu Ogawa and Mariko Tsutsui in “A Girl Missing” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

“A Girl Missing” 

Directed by Kôji Fukada

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the psychological drama “A Girl Missing” has an all-Japanese cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  A home nurse becomes involved in the drama of her employer’s family when the family’s teenage daughter disappears and secrets threaten to tear relationships apart.

Culture Audience: “A Girl Missing” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse films that have layers of psychological intrigue.

Sôsuke Ikematsu and Mariko Tsutsui in “A Girl Missing” (Photo courtesy of Film Movement)

On the surface, “A Girl Missing” (which takes place in Japan) seems to be a mystery about a teenage student who goes missing. But the movie is actually an intricate psychological drama about how this missing-persons case affects two women who are close to the missing girl. Written and directed by Kôji Fukada, “A Girl Missing” also has some underlying social commentary about society’s pressures affect how women express their sexuality, and how secrets and lies can have ripple effects that go beyond someone who wants to keep something hidden.

“A Girl Missing” isn’t in chronological order, but one thing that viewers will eventually see is that the story shows what life was like for middle-aged home nurse Ichiko Shirakawa (played by Mariko Tsutsui) before and after the disappearance of a teenage daughter in her employer’s family. Ichiko is a mild-mannered and responsible caretaker for the ailing Tôko (played by Hisako Ôkata), the grandmother matriarch of the family.

Ichiko reports to Toko’s daughter Yoko Oishi (played by Nahoko Kawasumi), the person in the family who has the power to fire Ichiko. However, Ichiko works for an agency called Cocon Nursing Station, so if her services are no longer needed in a home, she can probably find another job through the agency.

Yoko has two daughters who live in the family home: Motoko (played by Mikako Ichikawa), who is in her early 20s, and Saki (Miyu Ogawa), who is in her mid-teens. Saki is a very well-behaved bright student, while Motoko seems to be living an aimless life, since she’s not in school and doesn’t appear to have a job. However, Motoko does mention to Ichiko one day she’s thinking about becoming a nurse just like Ichiko. Yoko’s husband (Motoko and Saki’s father) is barely seen in the movie, presumably because he works a lot away from home.

Motoko helps Ichiko take care of Tôko when she can. Despite their big age difference, Ichiko and Motoko have developed a close friendship where they feel comfortable doing social activities together outside of the home, such as having lunch. One day, Ichiko and Motoko make plans to have lunch together at a local café. Saki hears about those plans and asks to join them.

While they’re all seated at a café table, it’s clear that Saki is a very diligent student because she’s working on some classwork at the table. Therefore, she isn’t really paying attention when Ichiko’s introverted nephew Tastuo Suzuki (played by Ren Sudo) suddenly appears in the café. Ichiko is surprised to see Tastuo (who is the son of Ichiko’s sister Risa), and they make small talk before he leaves.

Shortly after this lunch, Saki disappears after last being seen on surveillance video leaving her cram school. What happens next in the story involves a web of intrigue and betrayal where Ichiko has to make some choices that will affect the rest of her life. It’s enough to say that she goes through an emotional transformation that upends her previously comfortable and safe life, which includes being engaged to a doctor named Kenji Tozuka (played by Mitsuru Fukikoshi), who’s the single father of a pre-teen son. (Ichiko has no biological kids of her own, and the movie doesn’t mention any previous romances that she might have had.)

Motoko, who’s not happy that Ichiko is getting married, has a boyfriend too. His name is Kazumichi Yoneda (played by Sôsuke Ikematsu), and he plays a pivotal role in the story. Motoko repeatedly asks Ichiko if she’s sure that she’s going get married, and Ichiko always says yes. Motoko asks Ichiko if she’d like to get a place with Motoko so that they can live in together as roommates.

Ichiko declines the offer and tactfully suggests to Motoko that she move in with Kazumichi instead. It’s Ichiko’s polite way of telling Motoko that she needs to mind her own business and get a life. The reason why Motoko disapproves of Ichiko getting married to Dr. Tozuka is hinted at early on, and it becomes even more obvious as the story unfolds.

“A Girl Missing” has a narrative structure that shows segments of the “before” and “after” of Ichiko’s life in non-chronological order. Therefore, viewers might wonder why Ichiko’s demeanor, physical appearance, lifestyle and home are very different in various parts of the movie. Why her life undergoes a major transformation is explained in bits and pieces, like a puzzle that eventually tells the whole story when the entire puzzle is put together.

All of the movie’s cast members do a good job in their roles, but Tsutsui is particularly impressive since she’s able to convincingly portray Ichiko becoming a very different person by the end of the movie than she was in the beginning. It’s this character arc that is the heart of the story. And although Saki’s disappearance was a catalyst for some of the events, certain characters’ underlying motivations made it inevitable that Ichiko’s life would go through a major upheaval.

Not everyone likes watching a movie that’s told in a non-linear way. But if viewers are open to this type of movie narrative, “A Girl Missing” tells a richly layered story about self-identity, how people present themselves to society, and how those perceptions can affect how society treats them in return.

Film Movement released “A Girl Missing” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 31, 2020. The movie was released in Japan in 2019.

Review: ’37 Seconds,’ starring Mei Kayama

January 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mei Kayama and Misuzu Kanno in "37 Seconds"
Mei Kayama and Misuzu Kanno in “37 Seconds” (Photo courtesy of Knockonwood)

“37 Seconds”

Directed by Hikari

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Set primarily in modern-day Japan and with some scenes in Thailand, the dramatic film “37 Seconds” has an Asian cast of characters, and the protagonist is a young female illustrator who has cerebral palsy.

Culture Clash: The movie depicts the struggles and prejudices that a person with physical challenges must constantly face, as well as personal conflicts between a mother and a daughter.

Culture Audience: “37 Seconds” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in Japanese movies or movies that give the rare opportunity of making someone with cerebral palsy the star of the story.

Mei Kayama and Shunsuke Daitô in “37 Seconds” (Photo courtesy of Knockonwood)

One of the first things that people need to know about the Japanese drama “37 Seconds” is that it’s not a “disease of the week” depressing movie where people are supposed to feel sorry for someone with a physical disorder. Nor is it the type of movie where the person with the physical challenge enters a competition to face seemingly insurmountable odds. The story of “37 Seconds” (written and directed by Hikari) is about a much more subtle self-awakening that happens to an aspiring manga artist in modern-day Tokyo.

When we see the wheelchair-bound Yuma Takada (played by Mei Kayama) in the first few scenes of the movie, she’s shown to be someone who likes to be as independent as possible, as she takes public transportation around town. Yuma lives with her overprotective single mother, Kyoko (Misuzu Kanno), who still insists on bathing Yuma, even though her daughter has full use of her hands.

Yuma, who is 23 but looks like she could be in her late teens, has a part-time job working as an assistant for her pretty cousin Sayaka (played by Minori Hagiwara), a semi-famous manga artist, who has her own YouTube channel and loves to wear Harajuku fashion. Yuma is as shy and insecure as Sayaka is bold and confident.

At one of Sayaka’s book signings, Yuma unexpectedly attends as a show of her support, but Yuma gets a rude awakening when she finds out that Sayaka has been telling people that she doesn’t have an assistant. (And that’s not the only thing that Sayaka lies about when it comes to her work.) Feeling hurt and unappreciated, Yuma decides to pursue plans she started earlier to do some freelance artwork. Yuma makes cold calls to several manga publishing companies to find out if they’re looking for new artists.

She’s automatically rejected by places that don’t take unsolicited material. But one place is willing to give her a chance, and she’s able to get an interview immediately. The only catch? It’s at a magazine called Weekly Boom, which publishes erotic manga. Yuma, who’s a naïve virgin, is just happy to get an opportunity to be hired as an artist, so she goes to the interview, not really knowing what to expect.

The female Weekly Boom editor (played by Yuri Ono) who interviews Yuma takes a look at Yuma’s artwork and explains to her that if she gets hired at the company, she would have to draw sexually explicit art. The interviewer isn’t concerned with Yuma’s cerebral palsy; she’s more concerend about how much Yuma actually knows about sex. When she asks Yuma if she’s ever been sexually intimate with anyone, Yuma tells her the truth and says she’s a virgin. The interviewer tells Yuma to come back when she’s sexually experienced.

Yuma goes home and researches porn on the Internet so she can get an idea of what she can draw. Still curious, she decides to try and find a man online so she can lose her virginity to him. That leads to a series of somewhat comical blind dates whom she meets in a café. One date is a shy social misfit like Yuma, and he basically admits that he’s a recluse who’s too scared to have sex with anyone. Another date is a flamboyant eccentric who seems like he probably isn’t sexually attracted to women. The last date she meets with is a nice guy who says he would have no problem hanging out with her but he doesn’t want to take her virginity.

The next thing you know, Yuma is in a seedy area of Tokyo where the streets are lined with sex shops and massage parlors. She asks a pimp (played by Kiyohiko Shibukawa) on the street how she can hire a male prostitute. He makes a phone call and manages to find a gigolo who’s available to do the deed, so Yuma arranges to meet the guy later in a hotel that she’s rented. (The movie doesn’t really explain where Yuma has gotten the money, but it’s presumed that she gets some kind of disability income from the government.)

All of this looks fairly convincing, since Yuma has the type of unassuming personality where it seems plausible that she could go up to a pimp on the street with this request and he’d be willing to help her. Because Yuma isn’t the type of young woman whom predators would consider “sexy,” because she’s in a wheelchair, it’s entirely believable that she could go to this sleazy area and not be targeted for sex crimes. As far as a pimp is concerned, a woman in a wheelchair is of no use to him, and he actually might feel sorry for her.

Yuma’s encounter with the gigolo is one of the most amusing parts of the movie. Let’s just say that some akward things happen, so he gives her a discount on his regular fee. The encounter with the gigolo is important to mention because after Yuma leaves the hotel room and gets ready to leave, she notices that the elevator doesn’t work, so she calls for help.

It’s during this situation that she meets two people who will change the course of her life in this story. One is a middle-aged female prostitute named Mai (played by Makiko Watanabe) and her “caretaker”/driver Toshi (played by Shunsuke Daitô), who’s in his 20s. When Yuma first meets them in the hotel hallway, Mai is also with a wheelchair-bound customer, a senior citizen named Mr. Kuma (played by Yoshihiko Kumashino), who is clearly infatuated with Mai.

Seeing that Yuma is alone and kind of stranded at the hotel, Mai and Toshi offer to give her a ride home so that she doesn’t have to take public transportation. The four of them pile into a van, and Yuma reveals why she was at the hotel. Because Yuma doesn’t pass judgment on what Mai does for a living, she and Mai form a fast friendship.

On another day, she calls Mai, who takes Yuma out for some fun around town. First, they go to a sex shop where Mai buys Yuma a dildo that Yuma has picked out because she thinks it looks cute. Then, Mai takes Yuma shopping for new clothes and then to a beauty parlor where Yuma gets her hair and makeup done. After that, they end up at a gay bar watching some of the patrons doing karaoke, and Yuma gets drunk on sake.

Meanwhile, Yuma’s mother Kyoko suspects that something is going on with her daughter, so she snoops through Yuma’s belongings while Yuma is out of the house. She’s shocked to find the erotic drawings that Yuma has made as practice. So by the time Yuma gets home, she’s very drunk, and her mother is furious and confronts her over what she has found in Yuma’s room.

They have a big argument where Kyoko says that Yuma can’t survive without here. Yuma retorts by saying that she can, but that her mother is too afraid to be alone. And then Yuma blurts out something that deeply hurts her mother and makes her back out of the room: Yuma says her absent father left because he couldn’t stand to be with Kyoko.

One of the best things about “37 Seconds” is that the story could have gone in a very predictable way for the rest of the movie, but the story takes a turn that most people will not expect at all. It’s enough to say that secrets are revealed, including the full reason why the movie is titled “37 Seconds.”

Kayama, who has cerebral palsy in real life, makes her film debut with “37 Seconds,” and she admirably carries the movie with a performance that shows Yuma’s emotional transformation. But as Yuma’s mother Kyoko, actress Kanno has the most heartbreaking moment in the film. This movie is recommended for anyone who wants to discover a story about unique people who experience an unpredictable and poignant turn of events.

Netflix premiered “37 Seconds” in the U.S. and Canada on January 31, 2020.

Review: ‘Weathering With You,’ an animated romance from Japan

January 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

"Weathering With You"
“Weathering With You” (Photo courtesy of GKIDS)

“Weathering With You”

Directed by Makoto Shinkai

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

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in Tokyo, with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters.

Culture Clash: In this alternate and supernatural world, underage teenagers who live on their own try to find their identities and independence, while sometimes clashing with adults who might try to control or exploit them.

Culture Audience: “Weathering With You” is a family-friendly film that will appeal mostly to fans of Japanese anime and romantic animated films.

“Weathering With You” (Photo courtesy of GKIDS)

“Weathering With You” is an old-fashioned love story wrapped up in a modern setting with futuristic and sci-fi/supernatural elements. This charming animated movie (written and directed by Makoto Shinkai) was Japan’s official 2019 entry for the Best International Feature Film category for the Academy Awards—and it’s almost the polar opposite from Japan’s 2018 entry: the bleak drama “Shoplifters,” which was about a group of thieves from different generations who live together. Interestingly, both movies do have something in common. The central characters are financially unstable people who are living outside the margins of regular society and who find themselves with a surrogate family.

In “Weathering With You,” viewers first see 16-year-old runaway Hokada Morishima on a ship going to Tokyo, where he wants to escape from his remote island home. While on the ship, and after hearing that a major rainstorm is headed that way, Hokada foolishly goes outside during the storm and almost gets swept overboard. He’s saved by a young man, and as a thank you, Hokada buys dinner for the stranger when they arrive in Tokyo. It’s clear from this scene that Hokada is an impulsive risk-taker, but he also has a kind heart.

Because Hokada is underage and doesn’t have any proper ID, it’s difficult for him to find a job. While figuring out where he’s going to get his next meal, a teenage girl who works at a local café takes pity on him and gives him a free hamburger. Hokada eventually runs out of money, and he ends up homeless and living on the street, where he finds a gun in a paper bag and keeps the weapon. That gun will get him into trouble later in the story. Meanwhile, Tokyo and other parts of Japan are experiencing torrential rainstorms.

As luck would have it, Hokada lands a job interview, based on going to an address of a business card he’s found. It’s a small magazine company run by a mysterious widower in his 30s named Keisuke “Kei” Suga, who works out of his cluttered home with his young female assistant named Natsumi. Keisuke and Natsumi report supernatural news stories, and the latest trends they’re chasing have to do with unusual weather-related events. Hokada is hired on the spot to be an assistant/housekeeper. His salary is very low, but he gets a free place to live and free meals as part of his employment.

Shortly after getting the job, Hokada sees the girl from the café being manhandled on the street by a sleazy local club owner, who’s pressuring her to work for him. (It’s implied in the movie but not said out loud that he owns a strip club.) As the club owner and a henchman try to force the girl into the club, and she resists, Hokada intervenes and is punched in the face by the club owner. Hokada then pulls out the gun and shoots it in the air, giving him and the girl a way to escape.

The girl’s name is Hina Amano, and she says she’s 17 and soon about to turn 18. As a thank you for rescuing her, Hina invites Hokada over to her place and makes him lunch. It’s during their lunch date that they both find out that they have something in common: They are living on their own without parental supervision. Hokada confesses that he ran away from home because he thinks living with his parents is too stifling. Hina lives with her younger brother Nagisa (nicknamed Nagi), and she says that the mother who raised them died about a year ago. (Somehow, Hina and Nagisa, who don’t seem to have any other living relatives, have avoided going into foster care.)

Hina also has another big secret that she reveals to Hokada: She’s a “sunshine girl”—a rare “weather maiden” who has the ability to make it stop raining and bring the sun out, simply by praying. Because Hina has recently quit her job, and Hokada wants to supplement his measly income, they both decide to go into business together by offering her weather-control services to the public. They start a website together, and almost immediately, their business becomes a successes, with Nagisa often tagging along when they go to different locations to fulfill weather-changing requests.

But their success comes at a price: According to folklore, the more a sunshine girl uses her weather-changing abilities, the more her body begins to transform from flesh into spirit, until she is supposed to disappear forever into the spirit world. It couldn’t come at a worse time, since Hokada and Hina are starting to fall in love.

Complicating matters, the police (led by the stern Detective Takei) are on the hunt for Hokada, since his parents have reported him missing, and he was caught on surveillance video using the loaded gun in the street fight where he rescued Hina. Meanwhile, Keisuke (who’s depressed and has a drinking problem) has secrets of his own about his family that end up affecting his relationship with Hokada.

If you’ve seen Studio Ghibli films, then you’ll probably know what to expect for this movie’s animation (from production companies CoMix Wave Films and Story Inc.), which has an unfussy but expressive animation style that’s very similar to Studio Ghibli films. The voices of the “Weathering With You” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on which version of “Weathering With You” that you see. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Kotaro Daigo as Hokada, Nani Mori as Hina, Shun Oguri as Keisuke, Tsubasa Honda as Natsumi, Sakura Kiryu as Nagisa and Yûki Kaji as Detective Takei. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Brandon Engman as Hokada, Ashley Boettcher as Hina, Lee Pace as Keisuke, Alison Brie as Natsumi, Emeka Guindo as Nagisa, Riz Ahmed as Detective Takei.

“Weathering With You” won’t be considered a major Oscar-winning Japanese animation classic, such as director Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” but “Weathering With You” is still a better-than-average modern animated film. Although “Weathering With You” includes serious social issues about homelessness and the hazards of messing with the environment, ultimately this is a sweetly sentimental film where the biggest messages are about taking life-changing risks for true love.

GKIDS released “Weathering With You” for special sneak-preview screenings in select U.S. cinemas on January 15 and January 16, 2020. “Weathering With You” arrived in wider release in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020. The movie was originally released in Japan in 2019.

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