Stephanie Sheh

140: Big Fish & Begonia Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

In the span of a few years, China has started to throw its hat into the ring of animation. They have now made it a goal to not just be the country other countries use for their animation, or the creator of a flood of mediocre features. While The Monkey King: Hero is Back was a good first step, I would hardly call it a good movie. The true first step for the country would come in the form of an animated feature that came out back in 2016, but finally got a release here in the states, Big Fish & Begonia. This unique and important title was the passion project behind the directors, Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun. It was based on a Chinese Taoist story called Zhuangzi, but apparently drew from other Chinese classic tales as well. After going through up to over a decade of financial troubles of getting funding, spending it, and lack of animation talent, the film was finally finished. It was picked up by Shout! Factory last year, and was a feature that people payed major attention to during film festivals, including being one of the big features of the Animation is Film Festival. So, was a decade of development worth the hype and final product? Well, let’s check it out.

The story follows Chu, dubbed by Stephanie Sheh. She is a 16 year-old girl who lives in a world that lies on the other side of the human world’s ocean. It’s full of powerful individuals and spirits. Chun has to go through a rite of passage, and venture into the human world as a red dolphin. While in the human world, Chun is smitten by a human male named Kun, dubbed by Todd Haberkorn. After a few days swimming around, Chun gets caught inside a fishing net, and Kun tries to save her. Luckily, he gets her out, but ends up drowning in the process. Feeling guilty as all get-out about Kun dying, Chun ends up going to a place called the Island of Souls to try and bring Kun back. She offers the caretaker, Ling Po, dubbed by JB Blanc, half of her life to bring Kun back. After that, she spends the next chunk of her life taking care of Kun as he grows bigger, and makes sure he can go back to the human world. The bad news is that while Kun is there, the world that she lives in is in major peril. Can she make sure Kun gets back alive? What is she willing to sacrifice to make sure that happens?

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A problem I see with many passion projects that take a good decade or so to fully complete is that the creators try to shove in too much into the film, and never think about cutting certain story elements, or redoing some of the script. Of course, animation can be a huge endeavor, and making changes on the fly can be costly, but you can run the risk of making the film feel too busy, bloated, and or unfocused. Unfortunately, a lot of the problems with Big Fish & Begonia is that there is too much going on. Much of the film is Chun’s relationship with Kun, and her learning about life, death, sacrifice, and the consequences to certain actions, but they shove in a lot of characters, and a lot of time spent with Chun over vast landscapes. I’ll admit, many of the logical issues I keep questioning throughout my time watching the film are probably more of a cultural thing, and how the film wants to be more of a fairy tale. However, how far can you go with those kinds of defenses until they become too distracting? How much homework does one need to do on Chinese culture to fully understand the magical logic used in the film? It shouldn’t turn into a homework project to fully get what’s going on, and who everyone is. I don’t mind learning about the culture, but the film should be explaining to me visually what’s going on. For example, there is this rat woman who is an obvious threat, but you don’t get why she wants to go to the human world, and you don’t see her again after a certain period of time. I mean, yes, you can tell by her design and the way she interacts with everyone, that she is a threat, but why? I also get that having Kun stay in their world brings upon a lot of damage and danger, but why? Why does having a human spirit cause such chaos? The story also goes at a rather fast pace. It’s not a truly horrible thing, but I think the film’s atmosphere and emotional investment would have been stronger if they let some time pass between certain moments. While Studio MiR, the same studio behind Avatar: The Last Airbender and Netflix’s Voltron series, has some breathtaking animation done for Big Fish & Begonia, its use of CGI is definitely distracting. It’s not as bad as, say, Blue Submarine No. 6, but you can always tell when it’s CGI. It becomes more distracting when you see the giant flying whales that look like something out of that Fantasia 2000 short.

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With all that said, Big Fish & Begonia has great elements in its overall package. Like I said above, the animation is gorgeous. The backgrounds are awe inspiring, the designs are whimsical, the movements are fluid, and it’s an incredible visual feast for the eyes. You can tell there was a heavy dose of passion throughout this entire film’s visual presentation. It’s an incredible treat for the eyes that you need to see on the biggest screen you can. I even regret not seeing this one when it came out in my neck of the woods! As for the dub, I have seen both the original with subtitles, and the dub that Funimation helped out with. I think the cast is pretty stellar that includes actors such as Stephanie Sheh, Johnny Yong Bosch, Todd Haberkorn, JB Blanc, Cindy Robinson, Yuri Lowenthal, Greg Chun, Kate Higgins, Kyle Hebert, Erika Ishii, and Cam Clarke. The music by Kiyoshi Yoshida is full of that Chinese flair. It’s fantastical, mystical, and epic when needed. You might have heard of his name and his music if you have seen The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, where he did the soundtrack for that film. Another strong element is the relationship between Chun, Kun, and Chun’s friend Qui, dubbed by Johnny Yong Bosch. Most of the time you see Chun and Kun together is done with very little dialogue. The visuals tell the story, which, you know, is sort of important in a visual medium like animation.

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Big Fish & Begonia might be a bit of a mess, but it’s an important film for China and the Chinese animation scene. If you watch the trailers or clips, and you think you would like this film, I definitely recommend checking it out. It’s an impressive start, and I hope that means that other 2D animated projects that are going on over in China, can start raising the bar as time goes on. Well, after this, I definitely need something a bit zanier, a bit more focused, and maybe something that can make the night go on forever. Next time, we are going to check out Masaaki Yuasa’s other hit film, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Go See It!

 

131: Lu Over the Wall Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Welcome to Far East Animation Month! This is pretty much Japanese Animation Month, but since one of the films I’m going to tackle is not from Japan, I decided to change up the title, because the far east has some pretty promising stuff coming out of the animation scene. Taiwan has a film showing in this year’s Annecy Film Festival, and Japan, as usual, has a bunch of films in production or are about to be released. This time, we are going to start out with what can be considered Masaaki Yuasa’s biggest hit out of his animation career, Lu Over the Wall. Animated by Science Saru and Toho Animation, this was Yuasa’s first major hit that was both a financial and critical success. In his past, he was getting critical praise, but was not the most lucrative director, which unfortunately gave him a stigma of not being able to bring in the big bucks. Thankfully, this one did super well, and he’s having a fantastic career right now with his other film Night is Short, Walk on Girl that came out before Lu Over the Wall, and the hit Netflix anime series, Devilman Crybaby. Let’s just dive into this awesome film!

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The story follows a young boy named Kai, dubbed by Michael Sinterniklaas. He lives in a small fishing town that doesn’t really have the brightest future for anyone wanting to expand on their life outside of what happens in the town. He ends up getting pulled into this band with its two founding members Kunio and Yuho, dubbed by Brandon Engman and Stephanie Sheh. He decides to join them for band practice on this mysterious Merfolk Island, a place where mermaids live and the townsfolk are told to not mess with them, or play music, which supposedly attracts them. During practice, Kai ends up encountering a small mermaid girl named Lu, dubbed by Christine Marie Cabanos. What will happen now that he knows that mermaids actually exist? What will the townsfolk think when they realize that the mermaids are back? Will the songs be groovy and jamming?

So, I have commented in the past that Yuasa has a very distinct style and way of directing his stories. His animation style sticks out with thin lining, and characters who look simple, and while polished in a lot of ways, are very stretchy and bouncy. By a lesser artist, it would look sloppy and ugly, but this stretch and bounce-style of animation is balanced this time, and shows off the fun and energy the characters bring, and also the ugly anger that can come from them. Everything feels like the old Tex Avery cartoons made back in the day, which is no surprise, because Yuasa was inspired by him. It’s simply a lot of fun to watch the animation in motion, since you get to see a lot of it through dancing. Even with the designs as they are, it leads to great expressions and comedy.

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In terms of the themes, story, and characters, I liked it all. I have some issues with how parts of the story were handled, but this feels like the most focused of Yuasa’s work. It deals with the trials of growing up, being able to interact with your loved ones, the downsides to fame, and the dangers of fear mongering. I love seeing some of these themes, because while you definitely see them tackled in a couple of the foreign films, too many of the non-Disney or non-Pixar films decide to have different morals that you don’t often see in most animated films. Seriously, more animated family features need topics of parents and really, anyone needing to be upfront when talking about certain issues. It makes it better in the long run when everyone is on the same page. Lu Over the Wall is also very charming and sweet. I love the scene where Kai and Lu are walking around the town at night. It reminds me of hanging out with my niece. It’s easily the most heart-felt part of the movie. I even like seeing Lu’s dad interact rather peacefully with the humans. Her dad probably has some of the better laughs of the film.

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The voice cast is pretty stellar. I have seen this film in both English and Japanese, and I found the dub cast to be awesome. While I have made some snarky remarks that two of the leads are voiced by the same two who voiced the leads in the critically acclaimed Your Name, and they were chosen for that reason alone, I do think Michael Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh do a good job with their roles. Michael pretty much kills it as a middle school boy unsure of his future and still bitter after his parents’ divorce. It was nice to hear voice actors like Derek Stephen Prince, because I love hearing from voice actors I don’t normally hear from, or simply don’t recognize them right off the bat. One major aspect that I admired about the dub was that they dubbed the songs. Usually, they would just put up some subtitles while the characters sing in Japanese. Kudos for GKids to make sure the dub also covered the songs. I can tell they did this for the next film I’m going to review, and hopefully this will be the case with Fireworks. While I would say the English singing of the song is not 100% perfect, I give the actors credit for having to deal with it, because I’m sure it’s not easy to have to speak and sing for roles like these. Speaking of music, Lu Over the Wall’s soundtrack was composed by Takatsugu Muramatsu. There is a great mix of jazzy upbeat tunes, soft, giving off the vibes of being by the sea, and dramatic tunes when needed for the story.

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The only major complaint I have is that there is a lot going on in the last third. It’s great, but the film builds up a couple of storylines, and they either didn’t know how to pace them, or couldn’t cut them. Some of the side stories get fleshed out decently enough, but a lot of them have endings that wrap up too quickly. Some have touching conclusions, while others give you that feeling of “Is that it? Okay, I guess that was somewhat satisfying.” It does end up making the last third feel drawn out a touch, and a bit busy. It was the only time where I felt like Yuasa’s busy mentality almost got free.

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Overall, I really loved Lu Over the Wall. It’s cute, funny, charming, energetic, and such a fun watch. I had a smile on my face from beginning to end. I know some are trying to twitch react to this film being a clone of Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo, but it’s not. Both are entirely different movies, both have entirely different themes, stories, and both are amazing. It’s still playing in theaters right now, but I bet by August or September, it will be out on DVD. If you can’t catch it in theaters, then definitely buy the movie. Next time, we shall tackle our first South Korean-animated feature that has weird baggage attached to it. That’s right! We will be tackling another GKids-distributed film with Satellite Girl and Milk Cow! Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Criterion/Essentials

127: Only Yesterday Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

It was incredibly depressing to hear that Isao Takahata, one of the cofounders of Studio Ghibli, passed away this year. While unfortunately being under the shadow of Hayao Miyazaki, in terms of being the face of the studio and Miyazaki’s films getting more of the spotlight, Takahata deserves to be just as well-known as his friend. If it wasn’t for Takahata, we wouldn’t have Ghibli, because he convinced Miyazaki to join up with him and Toshio Suzuki to make the studio. He is just as important as Miyazaki, and his films definitely deserve more recognition. This is especially true when he has films like Only Yesterday under his belt. Directed by Isao Takahata and produced by Toshio Suzuki, Only Yesterday is unique for its time, because while animated, it was a film aimed at an adult female audience. While we have recently seen more adult-focused stories in animation, you simply never saw that back in 1991. It was a commercial and critical success, but unfortunately, the US never got this film. You had to either import a copy, or watch a subtitled version online through questionable individuals. Thankfully, for its 25th anniversary, GKids decided to bring it over stateside with an English dub. If you saw my Worst to Best Animated Films of 2016, you know I love this movie. Let’s dive into this classic film from Isao Takahata.

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The film follows a woman named Taeko Okajima, dubbed by Daisy Ridley in the US release. She is turning 27 and pretty happy with her life, even though her mother is annoyed that she hasn’t been able to find a guy. Taeko decides to take a trip to the countryside to help out a family with their safflower farm. As she takes this trip, memories of her younger self start to pop up in her mind. She then starts to think back about her life and her relationship with her family, and with the family she is helping on the farm.

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I think what might turn off some people about this film is that it’s not as whimsical as Ghibli’s other offerings. It’s not really all that fantastical in its setting. Not to say there isn’t some whimsy, but it’s mostly kept with the flashbacks. This is a very grounded film, and you can see that through its themes and its visual style. Something I noticed about this film, and it’s probably because of Takahata himself, who made this decision, he adds a bit more detail in how the humans are designed. When it comes to designing human characters in animation, you can afford to sacrifice some details. It’s why many times when you see animated properties turned live-action, the added detail to the designs were not meant to look good in live-action. You can see this in a lot of the live-action Dr. Seuss films. The humans in Only Yesterday have more wrinkles and more detail to their facial movements that you don’t see with other Ghibli films. The more creative visuals come into play with the flashbacks when Taeko is younger. Instead of the gorgeous and highly detailed buildings, leaves, plants, and so on, everything has a soft watercolor style. The backgrounds have an interesting detail that they look incomplete. To me, this was a purposeful artistic decision, because memories can feel incomplete and fuzzy at times. However, do not take any of these comments as the animation isn’t good. It’s Studio Ghibli, and the animation they do is always amazing. It’s all very detailed, expressive, and it does not fall into any of the traps that anime falls into.

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I also love the music selection. While much of the wonderful music is done by Katz Hoshi, there are some foreign song choices that pop up from time to time that fit the tone of the film. If you can find the soundtrack to this film on YouTube or somewhere online, definitely check it out. It’s one of my favorite soundtracks. I also liked the voice cast for this film. While having plenty of great animation voice actors like Tara Strong, Nika Futterman, Ashley Eckstein, Laura Bailey, Grey Griffin, and Stephanie Sheh, I think Daisy Ridley, and Dev Patel, who plays Toshio, a man she meets on her trip, do a good job. While it might be distracting to hear their voices with Daisy holding back the British accent, and Dev Patel not really hiding that accent at all, they do gel into their characters. Even Alison Fernandez who plays Taeko as a young girl is also good.

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So, the animation is interesting and unique among the studio’s work, the music is fantastic, and the voice work/dub is done well, but what about the story and characters? A word I used for this film is grounded. It feels relatable to actual people. I think as we get older, we do look back at our childhood or maybe even a couple years back, and wonder if we are happy with what’s going on right now. Are there any regrets? Do we wish things had gone differently? Are you doing what you dreamed of when you were a kid? Are you doing what you are doing right now, because you want to? I think that’s fairly complex, and to my knowledge, not many films, especially animated films, tackle these types of plots. It’s refreshing to see an adult-themed film that doesn’t rely on cursing, violence, and sex. This film also got me to learn a few things about the Japanese culture. Some scenes might only make sense if you learn about certain parts of Japanese culture, like the scene with the pineapple.

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If I had to criticize anything about the film, I think Toshio, the character played by Dev Patel in the English dub, is not the most interesting male character. He’s likable, but much of his dialogue is about working with your hands, and how it’s different than using machines. I just wish there was more to him than simply that part. I mean, there is, but it’s mostly 80% of him talking about how working with your hands is better than corporate companies doing the work for you. I also wish the ending wasn’t covered up by the credits. It’s really sweet and endearing, but they add credits over it, and they do this with Arrietty, Napping Princess, and I just don’t get why Japanese animated features do that.  You can wait and play the credits after the story literally ends.

Still, I really love this film, and I wish I could have told Isao Takahata how much this film connected with me before his passing. It has a lot of his trademark elements that he likes to use with his films, and I definitely need to catch up on his other films. If you haven’t seen Only Yesterday yet, do so! Buy the movie! I hope more people can watch it. I can sort of see why Disney didn’t originally distribute this one, due to some scenes, including visiting a bath house, and a small story part about periods, but I’m glad GKids brought the film over. I’m sorry for Takahata’s passing, and I hope more people can admire and love this man’s contributions to animation. Well, next time, I think we should go from Japan to the US. We will be looking at Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay. Thanks for reading! I hope you liked the review, and I will see you all next time.

Rating: Criterion/Essentials

120: Your Name

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

Warning/Heads up!: I will be talking about the story and will be spoiling a bit to explain my criticism. If you have not seen this film yet, then by all means, watch it, and then come back to this review. Enjoy!

To be honest, I was having a brain tickler of a time choosing the 120th review. The beginning part of the year is usually not swarmed with obviously bad or notoriously awful films. Instead, I decided to choose a popular film. It’s an animated film that was universally loved, and won critical acclaim around the world. This Japanese film in question is Your Name. Directed by Makoto Shinkai, Your Name was released back in 2016, and became the biggest animated hit in Japan of all time. It even beat out Spirited Away, which held the title for highest grossing Japanese-animated film. When it was competing in the 2016 Oscars, everyone online got mad that it didn’t get nominated. It’s a film that surpassed expectations, and got so big that Makoto Shinkai told fans of the film to back down on the praise. Not that he fully hated it, but he felt like the film was flawed, and some aspects could be fixed. So, for me, I have been fairly vocal about not liking it as much as everyone else, but do I think it’s bad? Well, let’s find out.

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Our story follows the life of two teens. They are named Taki Tachibana, voiced by Michael Sinterniklaas, and Mitsuha Miyamizu, voiced by Stephanie Sheh. These two live in different parts of Japan, where Taki lives in Tokyo, and Mitsuha lives in Itomori, a small rural town. They live their fairly typical teenage lives without many problems. Well, besides the fact that they have somehow swapped bodies with one another. Yeah, for one reason or another, they constantly wake up in the other’s body, and don’t know who the other is. It then becomes a ticking clock for the two to find out who the other is, all the while going through their days in each other’s body.

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As usual, let’s talk about the positives. Even if my opinion on Makoto Shinkai’s work does not line up with everyone else’s, I do still have a lot to say that’s positive. As usual, his animation in the later part of the 2000s is gorgeous. I say later part of the 2000s, because I was never a fan of early 2000s digital anime with the flat colors and bland designs. It was also the time period when anime was trying to combine 2D and CGI, and it was distracting. To me, Your Name is his best animation yet. Even from his first film, Shinkai has always had amazing skyscapes. They are just so vibrant and awe-inspiring. They are also grand in scope, and really show off how huge the sky is. While I find the character designs to be fairly generic, in terms of looking like most polished anime designs you see today, they do move well, and are fairly expressive. The colors are also very lavish. It’s a gorgeous movie no matter where you stand on the overall quality. There are plenty of scenes and shots that could be put into frames and hung on a wall.

While I am not always on board with teenage characters, and what archetypes Makoto Shinkai likes to use in his movies, I found myself really invested with the two leads in Your Name. One of my consistent problems with Makoto Shinkai films is that he constantly has the emotion down, but the characters never end up as that interesting. It has pulled me out of his films quite a lot. Thankfully, at least for me, I was constantly invested in what was going on. It was fun to see how being in each other’s bodies would affect how they would interact with people in their own respective days. I know we have seen this premise in films like Freaky Friday, and there are a few jokes that are predictable with this kind of plot point, but the gimmick of the plot for the first half starts out slow, and then builds up to a twist and sequences that will keep you invested throughout the two-hour runtime.

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So, what do I not like about the film? Let’s start with the small complaints. While I find the film to be downright visually gorgeous, the designs are not all that memorable. They look like most polished generic anime characters you can see in most anime these days. While the themes and style of film is all Makoto Shinkai, I wish he had his own designs as well. When I watch a film by Miyazaki, Takahata, Hosoda, and Yuasa, I can tell when it’s their film by their art style. I also found the anime-style opening to be fairly jarring, since this is a movie, and having an anime series intro feels clunky. I also found a few jokes to fall flat. Like, you know the first joke they are going to go to when the male lead finds himself in the body of the female lead. It’s rather tasteless. Sadly, they play out that joke a couple of times, and it’s really eye-rolling.

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So, let’s talk about the biggest problem I have with the film. It is not with people overhyping it. While I can make an argument about hype culture and how it can really be a film’s downfall, and the fact YouTubers hyped this film up without having the foresight to not hype it to heaven and back, that’s all temporary. The hype will die down, and you leave all levels of expectations at the door. The biggest problem with Your Name is the twist. About halfway through the film, something happens that makes the entire plot way more confusing than it should be. I know some people will tell me some half-baked college drop-out philosophy about the twist, but it simply ruined the film for me. You can tell me how it works, but even then, I’m still not going to like it. I don’t get why this couldn’t be this fun romantic mystery film about the two finding themselves. The twist simply makes a charming and simple plot way more complicated. I don’t get why this couldn’t be simply Freaky Friday, but animated. Another problem I have with this film, and I feel like most people don’t notice or care to bring up, is the fact that outside of the improvements, it’s another Makoto Shinkai film. While I think he is good at what he does, it does feel like he is making the same film over and over. Every film of his deals with teen romance, skyscapes, long distance relationships, and feeling alone. It’s almost the same exact story as his other films. At least with directors like Yuasa, Miyazaki, and Hosoda, they use the themes they like, but still make every film feel vibrant and different. While I was watching Your Name, I kept thinking back to his other films more so than seeing Your Name as its own film. There is nothing wrong with a director using familiar themes in all of his work, but you, at the very least, want every film to feel different. It’s why my favorite of Makoto Shinkai’s films is Children Who Chase Lost Voices. While it might be similar to the works of directors like Miyazaki, it feels different from his other films. I’m not mad or dislike Makoto Shinkai because he’s a bad filmmaker, because he’s not. I do not like his work, because it’s repetitive. I want him to expand on other ideas. I also get that some of his themes are tied to Japan’s culture, but the best animated films from Japan do not make me think of that. I want to feel like I can get where a film is coming from, despite its place of origin.

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I know I came off strong with the criticism, but do not misunderstand me. I do think Your Name is a good film. It’s beautiful, has endearing characters, the emotional moments are powerful, and the music is wonderful. I do not agree that it’s the best animated film of 2016, or when it was released in 2017 stateside, and I’ll admit, some bitterness towards the film was because people did overhype. I do see some people start to criticize it more in recent times, but they still enjoy it. I enjoyed Your Name, and when I don’t have other purchasable priorities on the mind, I will purchase a copy of Your Name. It’s a film that is worth experiencing, if you want to see non-Ghibli animated features. Personally, I prefer directors like Masaaki Yuasa and Mamoru Hosoda more, but I do think Makoto Shinkai is one of the great Japanese animation directors. I just want him to grow as an artist. Now then, let’s move to a Chinese-animated film that had some controversy behind it, and let’s talk about Have a Nice Day. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time.

Rating: Go See It!