Birthday Wonderland (2019) Review [Fantasia Film Festival]

Introduction

While Keiichi Hara is not a big name when it comes to animation, spectators might know some of his most recent narratives, like Summer Days with Coo (2007) the award-winning Colourful (2010), and the award-winning Ms. Hokusai (2015). This time Keiichi Hara directs an anime-adaptation of Sachiko Kashiwaba’s children’s novel Chikashitru Kara no Fushigi na Tabi (1988) – screenplay written by Miho Maruo (General-note 1).

Fantasia2019-OfficialSelection

Review

The day before her birthday, Akane’s mother Midori (Kumiko Asō) send her daughter Akane (Mayu Matsuoka) to Chii-chan’s shop to pick up her present. Sadly, Chii-chan (Anne Watanabe) knows nothing of such a present. Wandering through her shop, while enjoying all the peculiar things, Akane suddenly tries to fit her hand in a special stone.

Surprised about the fact that her hand perfectly fits, she’s even more surprised to notice that her hand is stuck. While Chii-chan comes to help, she is distracted by a loud knocking noise from the basement. Suddenly, the basement door opens and a mysterious man, a man looking for the Goddess of the Green Wind, appears. After introducing himself as Hippocrates (Masachika Ichimura) and introducing his alchemist apprentice Pipo (Noa Toyama), he urges Akane to come to their world and solve its major crisis.

Wonderland, The 3

One could call Birthday Wonderland a female adventure fantasy narrative, but this characterization does not highlight the fundamental subjective dimension the narrative touches upon. Of course, this dimension is brought to the fore through the female lead of Akane. Before her adventure, Akane is marked by a subjective inability. This inability is function of the power of the image on friendship within the setting of an elementary school – an image, as supported by various individuals that includes those who abide to the image and separates those who failed to abide. It is only in Akane’s inability to help her friend, her friend who forgot to wear the hairpin, that Akane is revealed as being unable to go against the superficial but pleasant field of belonging the image conditions.

The inability to fulfill certain requests, the choice to remain in the safe comfort of avoiding a certain responsibility, is furthermore highlighted by Akane’s refusal – “I won’t go” – to aid Hippocrates. Both moments underline Akane’s passiveness, a passiveness that allows her to remain in a pleasing status-quo concerning her subjectivity. In other words, both moments show that, by not believing in her inherent power, Akane is not able to take decisions that orient her subjectivity as such.

Wonderland, The 9

Wonderland’s major crisis concerns an environmental crisis, i.e. the lack of rain circulation disturbing not only the ecosystem of the Cockswold area but the entire ecosystem of the world, e.g. land of the red wind. These environmental problems started when the mouse tank of Xan Gu (Keiji Fujiwara), a tank not without relation to the highly industrialization and polluted Nibi town, appeared. The interesting element in Xan Gu and Dropo (Akiko Yajima) violent endeavor is that they are revealed as taking whatever they like, irrespective of the consequences. In this manner, they do not fail to become a confronting mirror for our own relation – a relation of stealing – to the earth’s resources.

We thus have two different but intermingling themes supporting the unfolding of the narrative: a theme of coming-into-being and a theme of environmental crisis. As one can presume, it is only when Akane is able to come to accept the position she is given that the saving of Wonderland’s nature becomes possible. While one can indeed say that Birthday Wonderland has a rather simple and straightforward narrative, the plot twist was truly surprising (Narra-note 1).

Wonderland, The 10

The narrative of Birthday Wonderland is littered with visual lightheartedness and pleasing comedic moments. Before Akane enters Wonderland, the comedy originates generally from the (often subtle) presence of Akane’s fat cat, Goreh-beh. What makes him so effective as comedic relief, is his design as well as the very way by which the cat is brought to life, i.e. the way he is animated (Cine-note 1). Another truly effective comedic element in the narrative concerns the sequence with the fly.

Besides the beautiful character and world design, the visual enjoyment of Birthday Wonderland is heightened by its colourfulness – the abundance of bright colours by which the carefully drawn narrative spaces are brought to life. While the colourful nature of the narrative is already sensibly in framing the garden of Akane’s parent’s house, it only comes to full realization in the framing of Wonderland as such. In Wonderland, colour separates the areas of the word; the peaceful and colourful world of Cockswold – a place where people live in harmony with nature, is by way of colour-palette contrasted with other places of the world like Nibi town, a dark and grey industrialized town devoid of any nature, the land of the red wind, a land prone to sandstorms, … and so on.

Wonderland, The 16

The animation of Birthday Wonderland ranges from good to great. While it may not offer the best Japanese animation is able to offer, animation’s lover are still in for some treats. Certain moments of animation, like Akane’s mother Midori swinging on a swing, Hippocrates’ opening of the basement door, the swinging bridge sequence, and the drop mist ceremony, are nothing but true visual pleasures. It is not difficult to see that the beauty of these moments originate primarily from a truly pleasing fluid movement.

The cinematography of Birthday Wonderland offers a pleasant mix between fixity and movement. Nevertheless, it is, in first instance, the cinematographical movement that is able to fully underline the beauty of Birthday Wonderland. From the moment Akane enters the wonderland the spectator, just like Akane, is taken along on a wild explorative ride full of visual wonder and excitement.  It is especially in the bringing to life of the wondrous world of wonderland, in the bringing the wondrous adventure of Akane to life, that Signal.MD Inc. show glimmers of their animation talent.

Wonderland, The 1

Birthday Wonderland is, besides supported by an extremely well-done sound design, supported by a vast array of different musical pieces. The acoustic guitar-piece by which the narrative opens, for instance, immediately ground the narrative in the summer, by infuse a summery feel into the narrative. There are a wide array of other musical pieces, pieces that infuse wonder, e.g. when Akane walks in Chii-chan’s shop, into the narrative space as well as more bombastic musical pieces or even rock-sequences to support the more crazy action-sequences (Music-note 1).

While Birthday Wonderland might feature a female character, its essential message, beyond its ecological message, concerns subjectivity as such. The message, which is not uncommon in contemporary Japanese cinema, concerns the subjective growth towards a subjective act, an act driven by a subjective desire. Birthday Wonderland might not be able to compete with the best Japan’s animation offers, but it still remains a funny and very enjoyable visual experience, for adults as well as for children.

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Notes

General-note 1: Let us note that the poster depict as scene that is nowhere to be seen in the narrative.

Cine-note 1: The cat is, due to various small details (e.g. the background of her phone, the cat t-shirt she wears to go to Chii-chan) in the narrative space, revealed as being very important to Akane.

Narra-note 1: Without spoiling too much, we can say that the prince, in his own way, was afraid to take his responsibility, his responsibility to perform the drop mist ceremony. In this sense, Akane and the prince were exactly the same.

Music-note 1: The wonder also translates the wonder Akane feels while walking in the shop. It is at this moment that the spectator is subtle able to feel Akane’s position.

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