Totally Hyped for Ni No Kuni II!!

Ni no Kuni II

After Playstation Experience, many gamers were left with even higher anticipation for Uncharted 4, and utter confusion as to whether the remake of Final Fantasy VII is actually a remake at all. But for me, there was one thing that stood out above everything else presented at the event, and that’s Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom.

When Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was released in the US in January 2013, it became one of my favorite RPGs of all time, and despite its release so early in the year, it remained my favorite game of 2013, and my favorite PS3 exclusive.

Though the game sold decently well and got its fair share of acclaim, it didn’t necessarily fly off shelves. And while it won a number of awards in the RPG genre, it failed to gain very many mentions for Game of the Year in 2013 (perhaps because it wasn’t purposefully created to be a Game of the Year like GTAV, Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us were).

So what made Ni no Kuni so special? For one, it was a good old-fashioned JRPG made new. It didn’t reinvent the genre, but it combined elements from series like Pokemon and Dragon Quest in a way that made it feel fresh and innovative. It had the best cel-shading since The Winder, giving the graphics a gorgeous, timeless appeal. The character designs and cut scenes were created by Studio Ghibli, and composer Joe Hisaishi – famous for his scores for Ghibli films – provided the game’s phenomenal soundtrack. And, of course, it told one of the sweetest stories I’ve ever seen in a video game, complete with one of gaming’s greatest cast of characters.

Ni no Kuni was a terrific game, and holds a special place in my heart for both personal reasons and for the game itself. And the announced sequel looks to keep the heart of the original, which can only be a great thing.

Ni no Kuni III’m not sure what other people’s reaction are to the fact that Ni no Kuni II features the same game world but a new cast of characters. Personally, I don’t think it would make much sense to have the same characters from the first game, since that felt like a complete story (more accurately, two complete stories). I suspect some of the secondary and tertiary characters will show up again, which is perfectly fine, but I’m excited to see where the game goes with the new characters.

The released trailer already gives a brief introduction to some of the characters and plot elements (though only vaguely), and shows how beautiful the series’ visuals look on PS4. Once again Ghibli animators and Joe Hisaishi return for the character designs and music, respectively. And it all looks wonderful.

Of course, the trailer didn’t show a whole lot in terms of gameplay, but there’s still plenty of time for that. Considering it’s only the second game in the series (not counting mobile spinoffs), and that the first one came out almost three years ago already (in the US, in Japan its been almost five), it’s not exactly like the series has seen overexposure. I’m hoping the gameplay remains similar to the first title, with maybe some meaningful additions here and there. There’s no need for a total overhaul at this point.

Sadly, the game has no release date as of yet (otherwise I may have to revise my list of most anticipated 2016 games), but no doubt it has joined the likes of Yooka-Laylee and Zelda Wii U as one of my most hyped games on the horizon.

If Ni no Kuni II is anywhere near as beautiful of a game as its predecessor, it will be a real work of art.

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Howl’s Moving Castle Memories

Howl's Moving Castle

It’s time to feel old! Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle was released in North American theaters ten years ago today. I certainly feel old now.

I was going to celebrate this milestone with a full on review of Howl’s Moving Castle, but I think I’ll get to that another time. I figured I’d just detail some of my personal experience with the film for now.

It’s important to note that Hayao Miyazaki is my favorite filmmaker. I’ve loved My Neighbor Totoro ever since I was a little kid, and have only grown to love it more through the years. It was with Spirited Away though, that I actually found out who Miyazaki was. While Spirited Away and Totoro sit at the peak of my list of Miyazaki films, Spirited Away introduced me to the director’s other work, and I’ve fallen in love with all of them (some more than others of course, but the man never made a movie that wasn’t great).

Leading up to Howl’s June 10, 2005 release, I couldn’t have been more excited. It was the first Miyazaki film to be released theatrically since Spirited Away, and I was counting down the days like a kid and Christmas.

Howl's Moving CastleI remember it was the first movie I saw at the El Capitan Theater in Los Angeles, and it was awesome! I’ve seen a number of movies there since, and have tried to see every major Disney animation, Pixar film and Studio Ghibli production there when possible. The theater gave a nice, classic movie atmosphere, and the crowd was pretty enthusiastic as well, so that always helps. Then there was the organ player playing classic Disney songs, so that made it all that much cooler. The build up itself was so great that I can forgive the poor assortment of trailers that included the likes of Chicken Little and Valiant (it was a CG movie about pigeons or something).

Then the movie started, with the big Studio Ghibli logo of Totoro’s mug engulfing the entire theater, and it was glorious. I absolutely loved the movie, from its striking imagination, beautiful animation, fun characters and everything in between, it was a great time. I also think that Disney’s dubs of the Ghibli movies are excellent (particularly the theatrically released ones), and Howl was no exception.

Of course, as time has passed I now see Howl’s Moving Castle as one of Miyazaki’s “weakest” films, since Sophie is probably the least interesting Miyazaki heroine by some margin, and the subplot with the whole war thing seems to overtake the main story during the third act. But using the term “weakest” when referring to an unparalleled canon of films like Miyazaki’s is a very relative thing. Despite not being up to par with most of Miyazaki’s other works (I feel it’s on par with Nausicaa, but that’s just me), Howl’s Moving Castle is still a great animated film.

But that’s beside the point. Like I said, I’ll review it another day. The fact of the matter is that that initial screening I had of Howl’s Moving Castle remains one of the most fondly remembered moviegoing experiences of my life. I had a great seat, the place had a great atmosphere, the crowd was great, and most importantly, so was the movie. It’s experiences like that why I love movies so much.

Howl's Moving CastleMiyazaki made two more films after Howl’s Moving Castle and has since retired (though never say never, it’s not the first time Miyazaki has called it a career), and Studio Ghibli itself seems to be on the brink of closure. Whether or not Ghibli has come to an end though, the studio has a peerless legacy in the world of animation. My experience watching Howl’s Moving Castle on that June day ten years ago is but just one of the reasons why they’ve made such an impact on me.

Here’s to Howl’s Moving Castle! Keep on making me feel old.

Animated Films That Won Live-Action Movie Awards

Since the early 2000s,  more and more film award shows and committees have been introducing awards for animated films. The Oscars now have the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, an award which was later replicated by the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Japan Academy Prize (Japanese Academy Awards). The up side to this is that it finally gives these award shows the opportunity to acknowledge animated features, which have been notoriously ignored in the past. The downside is that these awards often come as something of a token, as animated films are rarely even nominated for any other awards on these shows (lest they be for music or songs), despite whatever critical acclaim and admiration these animated films have received.

But every once in a while, the people behind some of these awards manage to overcome their biases, and there are some animated films that have actually won Best Picture awards and the like from some award presentations. I’ve given up hoping that the Oscars will some day crown an animated film with their top prize – considering only three animated films have ever been nominated for it (already a bit iffy), and that none of them were taken seriously as contenders – but that doesn’t mean others haven’t acknowledged the merits and timeless appeal of animated movies.

The following is a short list of some of the animated films that proved they could not only go toe-to-toe with live-action films at award shows, but even overcome their competition. Keep in mind that this is merely a short list of examples. I’m mainly focusing on the animated films that won the big awards at more prominent award shows, so there are probably a few others I’m missing. I’m also not including various critic awards, since it’s been long-established that critics enjoy animated films just fine, but award committees are tougher to win over.

So without further rambling, here are some of the exceptional animated films that overcame the odds, and won Best Picture awards that are usually reserved for live-action films.

 

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro

Won: Mainichi Film Award for Best Film

Hayao Miyazaki’s tale about two girls who meet a magical forest spirit is one of the most beloved Japanese films of all time. It is also the earliest animated film I can think of that nabbed a Best Picture award over live-action competition, winning the Mainichi Film Award for Best Film. What makes this win all the more notable is that the Mainichi Film Awards already had a long-established animation award (they now have two, the older of which now going to smaller features and the newer going to big budget animations). Totoro won their animation award, and then went on to win the big prize as well. Well deserved.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Beauty and the Beast

Won: Golden Globe Award for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy

While Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, it became the first animated film to win the big prize at the Golden Globes. Beauty and the Beast remains one of Disney’s most charming features, and with a wonderful soundtrack to boot. How could it not win the musical category?

The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King

Won: Golden Globe Award for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy

I may not be the biggest fan of The Lion King, but no doubt the film has a very strong appeal to many viewers, as is evidenced by its repeating of Beauty and the Beast’s win for the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture. It was the highest-grossing animated film ever at the time, and its Golden Globe win only capped off its success.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke

Won: Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, Mainichi Film Award for Best Film

Hayao Miyazaki once again created magic when he released Princess Mononoke in 1997, which briefly became the highest-grossing film in Japan’s history (it still ranks in the top 10). It also became the first animated film to be nominated for and win Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards. It then became the second animated film to win the Mainichi Film Award’s top honor (also claiming its animation award). Princess Mononoke was a landmark animated film at the box office and in acclaim.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

Toy Story 2

Won: Golden Globe Award for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy

The third animated film to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture is also, sadly, the last. Shrek, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles would all get nominations, but after the Golden Globes established their Best Animated Feature category, their rules state that any films nominated in the animation category are ineligible for either of the Best Picture awards (the least they could have done was named the newer award “Best Picture – Animated“). But at least this trend went out on a high note, as Toy Story 2 is one of Pixar’s best.

Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away

Won: Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture, Mainichi Film Award for Best Film, Berlin Film Festival’s ‘Golden Bear Award’ for Best Film

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away, remains the highest-grossing film in Japanese history to this day. It also became the second animated film to be nominated for and win Best Picture at the Japanese Academy Awards (sadly, since the inception of the Japan Academy Prize’s Animation Award a few years later, no other animated film has been nominated for Best Picture).

Spirited Away followed suit with Totoro and Mononoke by winning the Mainichi Film Award for Best Film (where it also won the Animation Award, Best Director for Miyazaki, and Best Music for Joe Hisaishi). Spirited Away also became the first (and only) animated film to win the big prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. This string of awards would culminate with the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, giving that award some depth and credibility in its early days.

When it comes to animated films winning live-action movie awards, Spirited Away is the big dog in this league of animated all-stars.

Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

Wallace and Gromit

Won: BAFTA for Best British Film

Given the huge popularity of the Wallace and Gromit characters, it still comes as a surprise to some that the duo have only starred in a small handful of short films and one feature film. But that one feature film is the only animated movie to win the BAFTA award for Best British Film. Not bad for an absentminded inventor and his mute dog.

Frozen (2013)

Frozen

Won: Japanese Academy Award for Best Foreign Film

Frozen has taken over the world (and rightfully so, it’s so lovable), becoming the most successful animated film ever made, and winning numerous awards for Animated Features and for its music. But Frozen’s impact has undoubtedly been biggest in Japan, where it ranks as one of the country’s highest-grossing movies (it was the first film since Spirited Away that actually contested Miyazaki’s box office champ). It broke all home video records in Japan (overtaking Spirited Away in this instance), and it has etched its way into Japanese popular culture. It shouldn’t be too surprising then that it also became the first animated film to win the Japanese Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (previously, Toy Story 3 was the only other animated nominee in the award’s history).

The Oscars apparently couldn’t get over themselves and give Frozen a Best Picture mention, but the Japanese Academy Awards made up for it by acknowledging the film’s unprecedented appeal.

My Favorite Film of 2014

Princess Kaguya

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is my favorite film of 2014. The idea of me naming a Studio Ghibli film as the best of its year isn’t exactly unpredictable, but it’s with reason. No one makes films like Studio Ghibli. They weave together their stories with an unrivaled sense of imagination. They’re capable of  creating senses of awe and wonder even in their simplest moments. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is another of the studio’s triumphs.

Princess Kaguya tells the story of Japan’s oldest folktale. A bamboo cutter finds a tiny princess from the heavens in a bamboo stalk, and the princess transforms into a baby. She is to grow up as humans do, with the bamboo cutter and his wife serving as her parents.

Princess KaguyaDirected by the legendary Isao Takahata (his first film in 14 years), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is told with a sense of emotion and honesty that many animated films lack. It’s immediately inviting with the simplicity of its opening moments, and it grows into something deeper and emotionally complex as it goes on. Its story is told earnestly, and is crafted with such an elegance that it becomes something entirely unique, even among the Ghibli library.

Kaguya is depicted as a real person. She is not perfect, nor manufactured (even if the world around her wants her to be). She is a girl who (rapidly) grows into a woman. She is a bright and hopeful individual, but she has concerns and troubles of her own. Her life is filled with ups and downs, happiness and sadness. Life is never easy, not even for a princess, and Kaguya’s story is told with both beauty and tragedy in a simple, direct way.

Her parents lavish her with heavenly riches and the life of a princess, believing that anything short of the best is unworthy of her. But Kaguya simply wants to live a simple, peaceful, happy life. Her conflicts with her parents are never depicted as simple rebellion, nor are her parents made out to be antagonists (as they probably would be in most animated features). They’re simply people who are trying to do what they think is best, even if they don’t know how.

Princess KaguyaIsao Takahata takes this folktale, and turns it into a character-driven, emotional epic. And it’s all displayed with some of the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya ranks alongside Ghibli’s own Spirited Away and Ponyo as one of the most visually captivating of animated films. It’s visuals are minimalistic, and have the look of simple paintings and sketches brought to life. Princess Kaguya is arresting from its very first frame, and it never lets go.

The superb visuals make The Tale of the Princess Kaguya one of the most striking of animated films, but the best part about them is that their beauty is only complimentary to the artistry of the story and its depth of character. It combines a human element with a sense of magic and wonder, as all the best Studio Ghibli films do, and it does so with a subtlety and gentleness that’s all its own.

For its heartfelt, emotional story and its incomparable presentation, Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is, without a doubt, my favorite film of 2014.

Princess Kaguya

 

Runners-up

Guardians of the Galaxy

Big Hero 6

The Imitation Game

Song of the Sea