I am taking this week to drop my first of occasional movie reviews to recommend the 2006 Koichi Chigira animated adaptation of Brave Story (ブレイブ・ストーリー Bureibu Stōrī) from the fantasy novel of the same name written by Miyuki Miyabe.
The story of the firm is at first is pretty standard for Japanese fantasy fair and certainly in many anime. A rather hapless 5th grader, Wataru Mitani and his friend are investigating a supposed old haunted building when he sees a mysterious youth about his age named Mitsuru. Mitsuru then shows up as a new classmate in school the next day and starts a chain of supernatural events that end up transporting Wataru into another realm where he is put through trials and becomes a “hero apprentice” and must undergo essentially the archetypal hero’s journey to change his fate. A lot happens in the first fifteen minutes of the film. In fact the first nine minutes are very impressive in terms of how much occurs and yet nothing feels overtly rushed and in fact feels rather generous as if it lasted longer than it’s true duration. As a writer of both plays and screen scripts myself, I was very impressed how tight the script was. Be warned, there are some pretty abrupt tone shifts that certainly caught me off guard in the beginning.
Going on seven years old the movie still looks great and seems to be a rather underrated film despite the novel spawning somewhat of a franchise with more conventional videogames and its own manga. The animation is beautiful. Spliced with cg, the visuals are bright and intricate and gorgeous to look at though have a bit of .Hack aesthetic. Character designs are clean, and even the lizard, cat and animal people that populate the fantasy realm look interesting. A great testament to the quality of the animation is that Wataru’s character design and his mannerisms are very age appropriate and realistic; often in anime shows people forget age appropriate mannerisms for younger prepubescent and young “tweens” and then it becomes rather hard to discern what age a character is supposed to be. At least I find I have problem sometimes when it comes to anime design; they often look too old. Or on the flip-side they can revel way too much in the shota, look too young and the character will give you cavities and diabetes in one swoop.
I enjoy that Wataru is younger than the common fourteen to seventeen age range of most protagonists in these kind of situations, but he isn’t infantilized either. He’s just a twelve year old boy. He is delightfully klutzy and not particularly skilled (acknowledged in story) once he’s sent to the other realm compared to those same sixteen year old secret wunderkinds of great power in other anime series. That in itself is refreshing. A good example of the film portraying the age correctly that I particularly liked and also from a cinematic perspective was in the first fifteen minutes of the film when Wataru and his friend are going to school in the morning they go an “alternate” route. The way in which they go about that route is also exactly how boys his age would generally do. And I love that, as I’ve lived that. Very well animated and a nice sensitive touch.
The fantasy and supernatural elements starts early and keeps going from there. As the movie goes on Wataru rises up in his “rank” as he falls into various situations with his friends, Kee Keema, Meena and Kattsu. Wataru is also occasionally assisted by a mysterious disembodied voice that serves as a voice of conscience along the way.
The thing with Brave Story that sets it apart from your average adventure film is that it deals with some pretty serious real life issues concerning family such as love, divorce and abandonment juxtaposed against the fantasy setting. Much like Puella Magi Madoka Magica this movie is a bit deceiving in terms of the cuteness and carries some rather heavy themes that weave throughout and delivers some real emotional resonance and punches to the gut. Real life for Wataru often bleeds through the fantasy but one can’t be sure if either is real. A lot of it reminds me of Neon Genesis Evangelion. A bit heavy for younger kids, but those that are perceptive could be able to watch this. I found this movie very enjoyable much in the same way I enjoy the above anime. That does not mean it is entirely as serious as those but you should perhaps watch it fully yourself before sitting down and watching this with a kid under a certain age.
If you haven’t seen this film yet, I highly urge you to. Good stand alone anime films seem sparse or at the lease a bit less common these days so any good ones are welcome in my book. Both charming but also terribly serious and poignant, this film has something that can appeal to a lot of people. Watch it and tell me what you think!