The Mad Women’s Ball is a Deeply Compelling and Arresting French Period Drama

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Centred around the infamous Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital during the reign of Jean-Martin Charcot in the late 19th century, The Mad Women’s Ball (or Le Bal des folles in its native french, 2021), written, directed, and starring the terrific Mélanie Laurent (who audiences will recognise as Shoshanna from Inglorious Basterds or as Two from 6 Underground), is a compelling and gripping period drama, adapted from the critically acclaimed 2019 novel from Victoria Mas of the same name.

The film focuses on Eugénie Cléry (played by a mesmerising Lou de Laâge), a wealthy and defiant woman who is desperate to experience the world around her through books and exploration, a world that to her feels as tight and restricting as a corset (more on that later). We quickly come to learn that Eugénie has the ability to communicate with spirits, in several gripping sequences that would not feel out of place in Hereditary (2018), which keep the audience on edge for the entire first act, unsure of where the story is headed.

The film turns as Eugénie’s family discovers her abilities and, out of fear, admits her to the famous hospital, in the care of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (Grégoire Bonnet) and head nurse Geneviève Gleizes (Mélanie Laurent). Based on previous expectation of films and novels set in psychiatric wards, we assume Geneviève will be the antagonising presence of the film, but is quickly apparent that the relationship and bond between Geneviève and Eugénie will be the driving force of the film moving forward.

It is in this two-hander that the film truly excels, with Laurent and Cléry playing off each other tremendously with a quiet electricity only the best can achieve. Laurent has experience capturing Cléry’s intoxicating screen presence in her 2014 coming-of-age film Breathe and that familiarity is immediately apparent with a creative relationship that will hopefully continue into the future.

What separates a protagonist like Eugénie from those in similar films is her undying faith in her abilities. Even while under extreme duress inflicted upon her in barbaric fashion by the doctors in Salpêtrière, Eugénie never once backs down from her belief, all but guaranteeing her imprisonment but endearing her to those around her. Her lack of doubt in what she sees is truly refreshing, not bogging the narrative down in the swamp of a protagonist questioning themselves, as their resolve is the survival mechanism they require to withstand the world around them.

 Lou de Laâge and Mélanie Laurent are extrordinary together in The Mad Women’s Ball

The Salpêtrière is shown to us and Eugénie immediately as a monstrous place, with the howls of women echoing throughout the walls as she is dragged from her carriage – her father François (Cédric Kahn) and brother Théo (Benjamin Voisin) barely able look at her out of shame – unable to face the nightmare they have condemned her to. This is a famed hospital, the largest in Paris and known for its discoveries in neuroscience, but this film sets out to show us that within these hallowed walls, there is great pain and trauma being inflicted on the women inside, imprisoned here and experimented on in truly barbaric ways.

These acts of barbarism would weigh down most films, but Laurent is able to dull the blade of the men’s savagery through the close and careful attention given to the women Eugénie meets in the dormitory, who develop a wonderful camaraderie over the course of the film. A quietly moving moment happens after Eugénie returns from a horrific stay in hydrotherapy where we see her truly open up to the other inmates around her, embracing those she originally turned away from.

Whilst The Mad Women’s Ball is very much an actor’s showcase, there are some truly wonderful flourishes from Laurent and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis. There is a beautiful use of natural lighting which was displaying throughout, highlighted in images echoing still life paintings of tea cups and hairbrushes that places the film firmly in the set period of the 19th century. It is common for actor-turned-director’s to focus on their actor to a fault, but Laurent is shown to have a clear vision for the story that is consistent and thoughtful throughout the film.

In a film full of thematic motifs and imagery, the corset stands out, climaxing in a gripping intercut sequence between Eugénie and Geneviève, removing the symbolic restrictions placed upon the two women by a patriarchal world that looks to dominate them. The scene is a climax of earned melodrama, which a lot of films fall short of achieving, but when it is captured it can be quite transcendent. The motif of the corset is established not just through the literal clothing item, but in the constant hounding from Eugénie’s father François, telling her to fix her posture in almost every scene they share, attempting to drill his ideas of appearance and respectability through societal pressures into his daughter.

This is Laurent’s largest production to date and is setup for big things next year with an adaptation of the bestselling novel The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah on the horizon next year, starring Dakota and Elle Fanning, that is sure to further launch her into the next level of her terrific filmmaking career.

The Mad Women’s Ball is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Thrice Upon a Time is a Deserving Farewell for Evangelion

To conclude a ground-breaking saga is an unenviable task, not least because the resulting product needs to honour its forebears whilst leaving a legacy of its own. It’s a position in which this animated feature finds itself, and deftly succeeds in doing so, being as close to flawless as a send-off can possibly be.

Hidden beneath the city of Paris, the paramilitary organisation known as NERV has stored weaponry created as part of the Evangelion project, heavily guarded by an autonomous defence system. An assault on the city is launched by rival outfit WILLE, which seeks to liberate Paris from its captive state, and retrieve said weaponry for its own means – namely, defeating NERV and preventing it from curating another cataclysmic event.

Meanwhile, in the ruins of Japan, Shinji Ikari is listless after failing to thwart the actions of NERV and, by extension, his own father. He and Rei Ayanami – or an entity that purports to be her – follow his fellow EVA pilot Asuka Langley Shikinami to a rural village, there meeting with survivors of the Third Impact. As their days in the village pass, Shinji’s depression only worsens, with his friends fearing he’ll never engage with the outside world again.

Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time marks the definitive conclusion to the multifaceted Evangelion saga that began a quarter of a century ago with Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 26-episode television series that challenged the medium’s conventions and revived Japan’s dormant animation industry. The series’ creator, Hideaki Anno, seemingly concluded the narrative with a feature-length, theatrically-released picture called The End of Evangelion, only to begin afresh with a new set of films that shared the show’s title, plot and themes.

Shinji’s EVA Unit-01 brandishes a new Spear in Thrice Upon a Time

Belonging to this same set of films – collectively known as the Rebuild of Evangelion – is Thrice Upon a Time, accordingly sharing many a quality with the instalments that came before. One such trait is the impressive animation, which again combines traditional cel animation with computer-generated imagery, and is striking throughout. The environments are richly detailed, the designs slick, and the fight scenes bathed in a kaleidoscope of colours, all ensuring this is the best-looking entry in the entire Evangelion franchise.

Another strength carried over from Evangelion films past is the music, crafted once again by franchise stalwart and Anno’s favoured collaborator, Shiro Sagisu. Most of Sagisu’s compositions are drawn from his previous work on the television series, here being slowed down and re-arranged to better match with the imagery, providing a suspenseful, chilling or heroic atmosphere as the need arises. Bookending the excellent soundtrack is Hiraku Utada’s “One Last Kiss”, a hauntingly tender pop song that’s worthy of an Oscar nomination (or Grammy).

Being part of the Rebuild saga, Thrice Upon a Time consequently and unfortunately shares the drawbacks of its precursors, too. One is the infrequency of the action sequences, with most of the film’s time spent observing Shinji’s pensive state; another is the hyper-sexualisation of the young female protagonists, who are oftentimes dressed in fetish-gear or shown from a suggestive angle – both elements serve only to alienate the franchise’s newcomers, who will doubtless already be confused by proceedings.

Asuka looks into the distance in Thrice Upon a Time

Truthfully though, this isn’t a picture made to appease the uninitiated; rather, Thrice Upon a Time is for those already converted to the Church of Evangelion, whose devotion is constantly rewarded. The film contains plenty of throwbacks to the series and previous films, including surprise appearances from much-loved supporting characters, as well as fitting, poetic farewells for a select few. Furthermore, there’s an uplifting, life-affirming epilogue that perfectly concludes the years-long Evangelion narrative.

Finally, Thrice Upon a Time also deserves commendation for rectifying a sore point of the Rebuild films, that being Mari Illustrious Makinami. Upon her introduction in 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009), Mari was a character who appeared superfluous to the conflict, with no backstory nor function, a feeling that remained in 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (2012); but with the final chapter, Mari’s inclusion is finally justified, thanks to revelations about her past and her connection to Shinji – which deserve not to be spoilt.

Containing the franchise’s trademarks of spellbinding animation, splendid music and thoughtful storytelling, Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time is a compelling finale and a highpoint for the most prestigious of anime sagas. Ultimately, it’s best viewed as the celebration of a venerable series, embodying all the tropes for which it will forever be renowned.

Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.

Wolfwalkers Exemplifies The Might of Irish Cinema

Animated films have long regaled viewers with their retellings of folk and fantasy legends, a tradition that extends back to the medium’s dawn, and continues here in this feature-length production from Ireland. But this film is not here merely to capitalise on a time-honoured trend – in fact, it’s more likely to establish a new standard for the artform.

In the mid-17th Century, a young girl named Robin Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) moves from England to Kilkenny, Ireland, where her father Bill (Sean Bean) has been tasked with capturing the wolves that prey on the townsfolk. Robin is adventurous by nature, and longs to accompany her father on his wolf-hunting duties; but unfortunately, she is forbidden from venturing beyond Kilkenny’s walls, due to her age and gender.

Robin eventually sneaks through the town’s gates and into the nearby forest, hoping to find and kill a wolf herself. Instead, she encounters Mebh (Eva Whittaker), an unkempt girl of smaller stature who calls herself a Wolfwalker – the name given to a mystical human who lives among the wolves. After an acrimonious greeting, a friendship between the two girls soon develops, and Robin’s perception of wolves with it.

It’s no coincidence that Wolfwalkers is based in Ireland, since the feature is one produced by Cartoon Saloon, a studio based where the film is set: Kilkenny. Just like the studio’s previous releases, The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Song of the Sea (2014), there’s a strong Celtic influence to this production, as evidenced by the voice-cast, soundtrack and screenplay – the latter of which draws its inspiration from an Irish folk tale.

Despite its mythological origins and Cromwellian setting, Wolfwalkers contains a fresh, contemporary story that grows more compelling with each minute that passes. The writing is masterful, with the film seamlessly, gracefully morphing from one conflict to another, the stakes heightening as it does so. If there is one complaint with the screenplay, it’s that the conflict between Robin and her father does come across as hackneyed at times, though never to the extent of annoyance.

Robin (left) and Mebh, the central protagonists of Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers

By far the most appealing element of Wolfwalkers is the distinctive art-style, ensuring it looks unlike any other animated feature – including those previously made by Cartoon Saloon. There’s a storybook-like simplicity to the hand-drawn illustrations, witnessed in both the characters and scenery, that charms profoundly, with the best images undoubtedly found in the forest scenes, their gorgeous watercolour backdrops contrasting heavily with the bleak, yet nonetheless striking, greyscale palette of Kilkenny.

Paired with the animation is an equally wonderful soundtrack, composed by Bruno Coulais with the assistance of Kíla, a traditional Irish folk band. The compositions of Coulais and Kíla make use of acoustic instruments such as fiddles, mandolas and tin whistles, sounding quite ethereal when listened to in isolation, yet suiting the tone and imagery of Wolfwalkers perfectly. There’s even the odd pop song to be heard, including a beautiful re-recording of Aurora’s “Running with the Wolves”.

Yet another aural delight is the cast of voice-actors, most of whom are of Irish nationality or descent. The most famous name, and recognisable voice, to the layperson will be Sean Bean, whose mellow, fatherly tone is perfectly suited to Bill Goodfellowe; Eva Whittaker and Honor Kneafsey are good also as the two girls, but to this author’s ear, the finest vocal performer is Simon McBurney, who provides an understated, menacing turn as Kilkenny’s Lord Protector.

Wolfwalkers is simply exquisite, with great voice-acting, stirring music, magnificent artwork and an elegant narrative combining to form a wondrous experience. Very few feature-length animations come close to this level of quality, making this not only a great film but also, quite possible, the best ever to emerge from Ireland.

Wolfwalkers will be screening online as part of the Irish Film Festival from September 3rd to 12th. For more information, head to the Festival’s official website.

The film is also available for streaming now on Apple TV+.

Australia’s Irish Film Festival Goes Virtual For 2021

The Republic of Ireland typically isn’t a country associated with cinema – aside from Alan Parker’s The Commitments or the works of John Carney, it’s difficult to think of a film that hails from the land of St. Patrick. Yet in recent years, the Republic’s output of productions has grown exponentially, priming themselves as a key player in the industry.

Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the line-up for the annual Irish Film Festival, set to begin this week. Years past have seen the event grace theatres in Sydney and Melbourne; but with both cities currently subject to lockdowns, the Festival will heading online in 2021, allowing cinephiles across Australia to see the very best movies that Ireland has to offer.

Headlining the virtual festival is the Academy Award-nominated Wolfwalkers, a feature-length animation from Cartoon Saloon – the studio behind critically-acclaimed films such as The Secret of Kells (2009) and The Breadwinner (2017). Having already been screened overseas, the picture currently has a near-perfect 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, placing it among the highest-rated movies on the site. It’s an exciting prospect, not least because Wolfwalkers has been an exclusive title on Apple TV+ for some months now, making this is a rare opportunity to view the feature outside of its usual confines.

A still from Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, featuring protagonist Robin and her wolf spirit

Wolfwalkers is something of an outlier at the festival, since most of the films being shown are low-budget features making their Australian debut. The most intriguing of these debuts is Cathy Brady’s Wildfire, which sees a missing woman return to Northern Ireland and reunite with her sister, hinting at a Dragon Tattoo-esque storyline. Similar themes permeate the crime thriller Broken Law, a narrative about two brothers – one a cop, the other an ex-crim – trying to escape their past.

Those looking for a more humorous proposition may enjoy The Bright Side, focusing on a stand-up comedienne who tackles her cancer diagnosis with plenty of dry wit; or the Festival’s other dark comedy offering, Deadly Cuts, telling of a group of hair-stylists who dare to challenge the gangs of Dublin. The two other comedies playing at the Festival are Boys From County Hell, an Irish take on Shaun of the Dead, and A Bump Along the Way, following a middle-aged woman who falls pregnant after a one-night-stand.

For the musically inclined, there’s three music documentaries to whet the palette, including one filmed here in Australia: Áine Tyrrell – Irish Troubadour, charting the subject’s journey from domestic violence victim to renowned folk singer. Phil Lynott: Songs For While I’m Away documents the largely-unknown life of Thin Lizzy’s front-man and Ireland’s greatest rock star, while Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan looks at the pioneer of Celtic punk.

Phil Lynott, the lead singer of Irish rock band Thin Lizzy and subject of Phil Lynott: Songs For When I’m Away

The musical theme continues with the Gabriel Byrne-led Death of a Ladies’ Man, a dramedy inspired by, and paired to, the songs of Leonard Cohen. And for lovers of all things sports, there’s a documentary examining the psyche of Jack Charlton, an enigmatic soccer player from England who became coach of Ireland’s national team, aptly titled Finding Jack Charlton.

Although the selection of twelve films is meagre when compared to its contemporaries, this year’s Irish Film Festival is definitely not short on quality – if this is just a taste of what Ireland has to offer, there’s every chance of the nation becoming a cinematic powerhouse in just a few short years. And while nothing beats the theatrical experience, being able to watch each of these films from your couch, at your own convenience, comes a pretty close second. In short, this Festival is definitely worth checking out.

The Irish Film Festival begins this Friday, September 3rd. For more information, head to the Festival’s official website.

MIFF ’21: Notturno Forces us to Face the Realities of War that we Often Ignore

Rating: 3 out of 5.

With colonisation comes a struggle for independence and identity; oftentimes war ensues, and people are either left with less than they had before, or nothing at all. Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary, Notturno (2020), paints a perplexing picture of what life after war looks like. The Oscar-nominated documentarian lets his camera do the talking as he traverses the war ravaged Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon over the course of three years. The result is a film that captures the aftermath of war ravaged lands, and the people left to endure the mess made by others.

Rosi is no stranger to focusing on people facing hardship as a result of injustice and corrupt systems. His Golden Bear winning film, Fire at Sea (2016), explores the European migrant crisis and some of the people at the centre of the migrant landings at Sicilian island, Lampedusa. While Notturno isn’t as specific in its focus as Fire at Sea, it serves to remind audiences of the realities that people on the other side are living.

In Notturno, Rosi captures the sprawling and almost barren wasteland’s of some of the aforementioned Middle-Eastern countries, and his cinematography is comprised of an array of wide shots that give the land itself an added layer of complexity. There is almost no life in Rosi’s shots, with the environment seeming akin to that of Frank Herbert’s fictional Arrakis (or Dune) — there is a desert-like openness, structures are left behind from ISIS raids, and minimal life exists save for birds that are hunted. The purpose here is to reinforce what many of the people in the film already voice — these people’s homeland has been taken from them and losing their identity is at risk as well. Subsequently, the camera serves as this invisible observer in motion.

Unfortunately, Rosi isn’t as interested in providing more context on the people in the film, with many of them going about their lives without us ever gaining a sense of who they are. There is an instance where some children draw and describe horrific pictures from experiences they’ve had with ISIS, but that’s about as close as we come to an emotional investment beyond the shots themselves.

A mother grieving for her son in Notturno

The film seems more concerned with allowing the setting to nurture our understanding of the people who occupy it rather than through the people themselves. These people enter the frame and the nothingness around them in order to reinforce just how little this land is actually theirs — it isn’t welcoming or even supportive of its occupants. In this sense, the land and Rosi’s shots of it is being used to demonstrate the governments (or lack thereof) failure to provide for its people.

One of the subjects in the film is a boy, Ali, who supports his mother and his many siblings by hunting for birds with various unknowns. When observed outside of the long and mid shots of his home where there is a sense of control and identity, he is often framed as a spec in the wider vastness of Rosi’s wide-shots. It’s a clever approach on Rosi’s part, but it provides the bare minimum in terms of understanding Ali’s situation and how he and his family make sense of the world around them.

The most profound aspect of the film, however, is Rosi’s ability to let the land speak for itself. There is little to no dialogue which creates an eerie sensation given that the countries in question are known for the violence and chaos that eschews the normalcy that otherwise exists. The only real sounds that continually penetrate the film are those natural ambient noises (birds chirping, water rushing, wind breezing etc.). When something other than natures sounds begins to present itself, it tends to be in the form of guns clocking and war trucks rolling. For what it’s worth, Rosi juxtaposes that aspect really well and leaves an uneasiness in one’s stomach.

Perhaps now more than ever, Notturno reminds audiences that colonisation and external interference in a once functioning nation, only does more harm than good — with the current situation in Afghanistan exacerbating that claim. Sure Rosi could have done with a greater engagement with his subjects, but it’s easy to see that his camera and the setting it captures are there to do the talking. While not as moving as Fire at Sea is during its best moments, Notturno is an essential viewing if not for its contemplative look on the countries at the centre of it, then for its relevance at this very point in time.

Notturno is currently streaming on MIFF Play until the 22nd of August.

MIFF ’21: Japan’s Volleyballers Get Their Due in The Witches of the Orient

History is littered with sporting dynasties – in basketball, Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls are often touted as one of the all-time greats; in rugby, it’s New Zealand’s fearsome All Blacks who reign supreme. Of equal significance to both is a group of female volleyballers from the East, whose exploits have sadly been underreported in recent years.

In the early 1960s, the world of women’s volleyball was dominated by the Nichibo Kaizuka team, consisting largely of textile workers from the outskirts of Osaka. Under the rigorous training regime of coach Hirofumi “The Demon” Diamatsu, this band of young women annihilated their domestic opponents, eventually being selected to represent Japan internationally against other, higher-ranked teams.

Diamatsu’s team would go on to be dubbed the “Oriental Witches” by the foreign press, owing to their athletic prowess and unparalleled succession of victories – 258, to be exact. This extraordinary feat saw the Japanese players become celebrities at home and abroad, inspiring cartoons, comics, and documentaries such as this one, albeit without the same levels of artistry and reflection.

The Witches of the Orient comes from French documentarian Julien Faraut, who three years ago examined the psyche of tennis player John McEnroe in another MIFF entry, In the Realm of Perfection. Much of Faraut’s narrative is composited of existing footage – including the aforementioned cartoons, plus material of the team competing in Eastern Europe – which is then paired with electronic music, an eclectic combination that leaves the viewer in a trance.

Perhaps the most mesmerising sequence of Witches is the archival film of the women training in Kaizuka. In this footage, coach Diamatsu can be seen relentlessly spiking balls at his players to ostensibly improve their return serve, forcing them to sprint and roll across the court until they are all but exhausted of energy. While Diamatsu’s arduous techniques are somewhat mortifying to witness, they do provide an indication as to why the Witches were so competitive.

Archival footage, such as the Gold Medal match at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, makes up a significant portion of The Witches of the Orient

Faraut’s story also draws upon interviews with Nichibo Kaizuka’s surviving members, who provide rare, exclusive access to their lives. The women never speak directly to the camera, instead providing voice-overs that are matched to their daily routines – the earliest example being Katsumi Chiba and her morning workout at a local gym – as well as a discussion between them over dinner.

There are some real gems offered in the ladies’ narration and B-roll of their activities. Yoshido Kanda speaks most candidly of all the former players, reflecting upon her status as a substitute player and why the women were so drawn to Diamatsu despite his gruelling nature; meanwhile, Yoko Tamura’s footage has a lifestyle to be envied, shown playing a game of memory with her grandchildren and watching volleyball anime with her family.

Although the narrative is transfixing, Witches would benefit from some tighter editing – the montages are too long at times, and there’s a sequence about the players’ nicknames that adds nothing to the story. There are some questionable stylistic choices too, with Faraut keeping a tight 4:3 frame throughout – even in contemporary settings – only to inexplicably transfer to a widescreen ratio in the third act.

Watching The Witches of the Orient, it’s difficult to fathom why their achievements have been so muted in contemporary media. The Nichibo Kaizuka story may not possess the drama or excitement of other sporting dynasties, but their winning streak is yet to be matched by any other volleyball team, as is the level of fame and fervour they generated overseas. Surely those facts alone are worth a place in sporting folklore.

Crafted with an element of idiosyncrasy, Julien Faraut’s The Witches of the Orient is a beguiling story about a group of women whose triumphs ought to be celebrated more. The openness and humility of the subjects is what charms most, though the mesmeric visuals play their part too.

The Witches of the Orient is currently streaming as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on MIFF Play until August 22nd.

Revisiting Your Name, Makoto Shinkai’s Blessing for a Disaffected World

Every so often, there comes a film that transcends boundaries to find mainstream success. Such an example is this feature-length animation from 2016, a narrative that spans multiple genres and subverts expectations to be one of the artform’s most beautiful, original and compelling offerings, leagues above anything else from that same period.

Teenagers Mitsuha and Taki lead very different lives – the former is an introverted girl who resides in the Japanese countryside with her grandmother and younger sister; the latter has no siblings and shares an apartment with his father in Tokyo. Over the course of several months, these two strangers will awake in each other’s bodies, altering and manipulating their usual routines to the point where they become different people entirely.

As its manga-style designs make obvious, Your Name (or Kimi no Na Wa) is a feature-length anime, being one of several released in its home country of Japan every year; yet despite their ubiquity, very few of these pictures make their way into the Western hemisphere, and fewer still attain any semblance of popularity – arguably, only the releases of Studio Ghibli have managed to do so. This fact alone is enough to make the prominence of Your Name noteworthy, but what makes it all the more extraordinary is knowing who directed the feature-length production.

Responsible for helming Your Name is Makoto Shinkai, who had developed a modest following with his oeuvre in the years prior. Many of the themes in Shinkai’s previous films are rekindled in his 2016 effort, including adolescence, time and companionship, as are the fantasy elements that he so often incorporates. Think of it less as somebody lazily applying the same old tropes, and more an auteur utilising his motifs, like Hayao Miyazaki and his recurring morals of environmentalism and pacifism.

One of the greatest strengths of Your Name is how fluidly it morphs between genres, dabbling in fantasy, science-fiction, romance and drama without tying itself to any one in particular. Just when the picture looks to have settled on a tone – just when the viewer thinks they’ve worked out where the screenplay is heading – along comes an unexpected turn that sees it transform, almost into an entirely different narrative. Impressively, these transitions are never jarring or bewildering, but rather a smooth, natural progression of the story.

Mitsuha scribbles on her face in Your Name

Just as investing is the development of the protagonists, who become more likeable as the movie progresses. From the outset, audiences will find themselves relating to the struggles of Mitsuha and Taki, but their naivety and timidness are evident; as the plot continues, both characters mature and gain confidence through their body-swapping experiences, changing from archetypal youths to well-rounded adults. As a result, the viewer grows so attached to Mitsuha and Taki that the film’s emotional moments are made absolutely heart-wrenching.

Another reason to love Your Name is the animation, which is of a quality seldom witnessed in a Japanese production. All of the illustrations, be they the character designs, landscapes, vehicles or otherwise, are superbly detailed and splashed with colour, with the highlight being an ethereal, dreamlike sequence that sees Taki transported through time. This is Ghibli-levels of artistry on display here, with images so gorgeous that they deserve to be placed on the walls of a museum.

Although there’s plenty to distinguish this picture from its anime brethren, Your Name still ties itself firmly to the medium. Frequent references are made to Japanese culture and tradition, tropes of the artform appear every so often, and there’s an upbeat J-pop soundtrack provided by Radwimps that’s surprisingly pleasant to the ear. That’s the beauty of Your Name – clichés that would detract from the experience in another feature prove nothing but endearing here.

Unfortunately, there is one drawback to Your Name, and that’s the epilogue. While touching and by no means bad, these last few minutes feel like an eternity, needlessly delaying the inevitable outcome to the point where the film overstays its welcome. In fairness though, this is only a minor criticism that in no way frustrates, nor does it sour the rest of Your Name, which is as close to faultless as any feature-length anime has come in the past decade.

Taki (centre) with friends Miki and Tsukasa in Your Name

That consensus is one that’s widely shared by critics and cinemagoers – Your Name earned rave reviews in Japan upon its theatrical release and shattered records at the domestic box-office, being the highest-earning film of 2016 by a considerable margin and becoming the second highest-grossing anime film of all-time, behind Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. (It’s now in third position, with Demon Slayer: Mugen Train having usurped the top spot.) Those accomplishments were later mirrored in the West, where the movie generated far more interest than usual for a Japanese release.

Your Name’s unexpected success in the Anglosphere can be attributed to two factors. One is the releases it performed against: a myriad of ordinary blockbusters that did squat to innovate the medium, and just as little to appease cinephiles. The second factor is the downbeat period in which the picture was released – remember, 2016 was a particularly miserable time for many people, owing to Trump, Brexit, and a swathe of beloved celebrities passing away, among other things. What this movie provided wasn’t just an alternative to its lacklustre contemporaries, but an escape from the glum realities of life.

Three years after Your Name, Shinkai would attempt to capitalise on his global triumph with the release of Weathering With You, a film that shares many of the same attributes. In addition to utilising the plot mechanics from his prior works, Shinkai’s follow-up boasts beautiful illustrations, charming protagonists and an accompanying Radwimps-penned soundtrack; yet it also suffers from the identical problem of a prolonged third act. One thing Weathering fails to capture though is the magic of its predecessor, lacking that sense of wonder – but then again, there a few other films that do possess such wonder.

Placing in the top tier of animation and eclipsing most live-action productions, Your Name is a disarming, spellbinding feature with beautiful illustrations, loveable characters and a fresh screenplay that is unpredictable in the best possible way. It’s essential viewing for anybody who calls themselves an anime fan, and an ideal entry-point for those wanting to immerse themselves in the artform.

Your Name is currently streaming on Netflix.

A Beginner’s Guide to Evangelion, The Monolithic Anime Franchise

This week heralds a momentous event: the worldwide debut of Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time, the definitive conclusion to Hideaki Anno’s anime franchise, on Prime Video. Why is it momentous? Well, because the Evangelion series is widely celebrated for reinvigorating and redefining the Japanese animation industry, with its production values, narratives, religious allegories, and musings on humanity all being of exceptional quality. These attributes have resulted in Evangelion amassing a legion of fans across the globe, and hence, a great deal of anticipation for the feature-length finale.

For those who are unfamiliar with Evangelion, and wanting to see the new film without being mystified, Rating Frames has provided this handy recap of the entire series, from its televisual origins right up until the third instalment of the cinematic reboot. This article will contain spoilers, so those wanting their viewing experience of the other Evangelion media to be unsullied are best advised to look away now.

The TV Series

In the beginning, there was Neon Genesis Evangelion, a 26-episode series that debuted on October 4th, 1995 in its native Japan. Its story takes place in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world that is under attack from large, omnipotent monsters referred to as “Angels” throughout the series. Defending against these threats is a well-financed, transnational militant outfit known as NERV, which has developed giant mechanical weapons capable of defeating the Angels. There’s a catch though – the machines can only be operated by a teenage pilot who is linked to the interface.

The programme largely centres around Shinji Ikari, the pilot of EVA Unit-01, whose father Gendo is the director of NERV’s operations. Shinji fights the Angels alongside the “First Pilot”, Rei Ayanami, and the two are later joined by the feisty Asuka Langley Soryu, who pilots EVA Unit-02. When not defending the world against an Angel attack, Shinji lives in Tokyo-3 under the guardianship of Misato Katsuragi – who is also his superior at NERV – and attends school, there struggling to connect with his fellow students.

Neon Genesis Evangelion was created and overseen by Hideaki Anno, who drew inspiration from the mecha anime of his youth, as well as his own experiences with depression. The latter is what better informs the narrative, being an examination of loneliness, mortality, purpose, and the burden of expectation. Though fleeting in comparison to these philosophical discussions, the giant robot fights are quite exhilarating too, being among the best that the industry has ever produced.

There are some inherent weaknesses with the series, including the concealed motivations of the characters, slow pacing, and the sexualisation of the female characters; yet the harshest judgements are often reserved for the final two episodes, which some viewers deemed too vague and allegorical for their tastes. Nevertheless, the programme remains a standard-bearer for the medium and, alongside Pokémon and Cowboy Bebop, is broadly regarded for popularising anime in the West.

Death, Rebirth & The End

After the mixed reception to the final episodes of Neon Genesis, Anno set to work on a feature-length production that would serve as a comparatively straightforward conclusion. The narrative would eventually be released in two parts, the first of which, Evangelion: Death & Rebirth premiered in March 1997. Much of the film was little more than a clip-show summarising the key moments of the TV series, with the exciting, all-new material saved for the last half-hour – which itself was essentially an extended teaser for the second movie.

Said movie was ultimately released three months later as The End of Evangelion, a retelling of Episodes 25 and 26 of the show. This picture serves as a grand culmination of everything hinted at in the TV series, directly and explicitly revealing what happens to the characters through the most haunting, harrowing and enduring imagery ever witnessed. What’s more, in a continuation of the series’ tone, the film also offers complex, existential discussions about what it means to live meaningfully.

Quite ironically, Evangelion fans who loathed the series finale found themselves even more displeased by End of Evangelion, taking aim at the depressing plot and ambiguous epilogue. Some circles have gone further in their criticisms to suggest that the movie is Anno’s way of trolling his audience, pointing to not only the screenplay, but also the credits rolling mid-film, and an extended live-action sequence that includes a crane shot of a bored crowd in a cinema.

Yet for every detractor, there is just as much fervent support for End of Evangelion – it’s often cited as one of the best anime films of all-time and one of the greatest animated films generally, thus cementing the franchise’s legacy. Its creator was lauded too as a visionary and innovator of the artform; but Anno, ever the perfectionist, was unsatisfied with his work and soon began development on another feature-length instalment.

You Can (Not) Rebuild

A decade after The End of Evangelion came the first in a series of films known as the Rebuild of Evangelion, ostensibly starting the franchise afresh and introducing it to a new generation. Titled Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, the picture is a virtual rehash of the TV series’ first six episodes, with only the slightest of changes to the music and plot. The visuals are the most noticeable difference, with large objects such as the EVA Units and Angels being computer-generated animations, while the hand-drawn characters, surroundings and backgrounds are all richer in colour.

Next came 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance, going in the opposite direction and deviating wildly from the source material by gifting fan-favourite Asuka with a new introduction, different surname and fresh character arc. The ending of the film is a wilder change still, retconning the series’ timeline by seeing Shinji inadvertently trigger a second apocalypse in a desperate attempt to save Rei’s life – a conclusion that is heart-wrenching on multiple levels. Less appealing is the character of Mari, a newly-introduced, hyper-sexualised EVA pilot whose sole function is Fan Service.

Following the highs of the second Rebuild film was the relatively sedate 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, taking place 14 years after the prior movie’s events. Shinji awakes – having been placed in a coma since the “Third Impact” – to find himself in the custody of WILLE, a ragtag command of defectors from NERV and other freedom-fighters. It’s a slow and rather obscure narrative, one that will surely test the patience of even the most ardent Evangelion devotee; in all other respects though, the picture is satisfying, containing the same exquisite illustrations and music as its predecessors.

And now comes the fourth and final instalment of the Rebuild saga after quite a lengthy delay, arriving five months after its Japanese premiere and eight years after the previous movie’s theatrical run. The response in Evangelion’s homeland has been largely positive, with Thrice Upon a Time breaking box-office records – despite the pandemic’s ongoing presence in the country – and critics lavishing praise upon the film, but whether that success will be repeated internationally remains to be seen.

In any case, all of this will hopefully provide some context as to why a film about giant fighting robots is one of the most hotly-anticipated releases of 2021.

Availability

A freshly-dubbed version of the original television series is available for streaming globally via Netflix, which also has the rights to The End of Evangelion and an abbreviated version of Death & Rebirth, titled Death(True)2.

All of the Rebuild films, including Thrice Upon a Time, will be available worldwide on Prime Video from this Friday, August 13th.