Over the weekend I was privileged to see Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror (Hottorake no Shima: Haruka to Mahou no Kagami) from Production IG. While initially what drew me to it was Otsuichi's writing as he is a co-writer for the movie, the visuals and the performance took over as my favorite things about the film.
Unlike most anime we watch at Jtor, Oblivion Island is a 3D CG work that aims squarely at your average 8-year-olds. Unlike Ghibli's Ponyo, for example, all the character animation in Oblivion Island is rendered in 3D, and much of the background visuals as well. The result is a fairly rare thing to see, coming out of Japan, rather than an American animation studio, because it looks closer to a Pixar film than anything. Read on for details about the film and why you might want to check it out...
In a nutshell, the story of Oblivion Island is a fairy tale coming true, in a certifiable Chihiro-In-Wonderland situation where the high-school protagonist, Haruka, saves the world by rescuing her late mother's memento from the clutches of fox goblins (well, a society of Oinari, or Japanese fox spirits). It also happens that the malevolent, Oinari leader wants to use that same memento to power his world domination plans. At the end, not only Haruka saves the day, but she takes home a cherished memory of her past and grows a little more mature.
Like most A-list animated films, the voice cast for Oblivion Island is star-studded. Somewhat unexpected though, the co-lead character Teo is none other than Miyuki Sawashiro, who is known mostly for her myriad late-night anime roles (CANAAN, Galaxy Angel, Letter Bee, Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei, Utawarerumono, Library Wars, just to name a few). It makes an rare match with TV and film star, Haruka Ayase (ICHI, My Girlfriend Is a Cyborg, Oppai Volleyball, plus others), who plays the title character Haruka. While Ayase's performance is exemplary, Sawashiro's performance is all-out dynamic, and she exhibits a range that is rarely seen in the myriad of other roles she played before. Color me surprised!
Nonetheless, the centerpiece of Oblivion Island is the visuals. Some of the background scenes were simply gorgeous, both when it was 3D and 2D. Speaking of which, the blending of 3D and 2D elements in the film was probably the best that I've seen in a Japanese animated work. The initial impression on the somewhat painterly, somewhat realism-appealing style that characterizes the 3D character animation can be a bit jarring, but once you get used to it the artistic style is seamlessly fluid and appropriately comic. While one might have liken the 3D visual style to cel-shaded 3D graphics found in some games, there is a good balance between stylishness and having good realism in terms of how the 3D objects move on the screen.
Those of us who may compare any Japanese animated film with the great works of Ghibli might find Oblivion Island lacking, despite its technical achievements. The visual style, while solid, doesn't invoke the same magic Hayao Miyazaki's masterpieces do. At the same time, Oblivion Island's similarity to other 3D CG works from the US also doesn't distinguish it on the visual merits alone. The story is simple, so it might not hook the parents in, even if it is enough for their children.
At the screening, animation director Naoyoshi Shiotani (Tokyo Marble Chocolate) gave an introduction to the film and answered some questions. His role was mainly to work with the film director, Shinsuke Sato, to turn their ideas into animation, and into components to put together into the final product. As one might guess, Shiotani told tales of a difficult work schedule towards the end of the production, with a sleeping bag and checking animation as the first thing he wakes up to in the morning. One important thing to note is that Shiotani created the mascot character, Cotton, who probably captured the hearts of everyone who saw the film. Be sure to look for him if you get to see it.
The four years of hard work for Shiotani certainly translated into a gorgeous movie, and hopefully Haruka's adventure will make its way overseas in more theaters and into home videos. Until then, the below screen shots will have to suffice!
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