Book Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sôsuke Natsukawa

Author: Sôsuke Natsukawa
Title: The Cat Who Saved Books
Narrator: Kevin Shen
Translator: The Cat Who Saved Books
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2021)

High school student Rintaro Natsuki is orphaned after the death of his bookseller grandfather.  Already shy and nerdy, Rintaro stops going to school and isolates himself from the world as he prepares to close up his grandfather’s bookshop and move in with an aunt.  He is surprised by Tiger, a sarcastic talking tabby cat, who tells him that he is needed to save books and leads him into a magical labyrinth within the bookshop.

On three adventures, Rintaro engages in metaphorical confrontations with a collector who keeps books behind glass, a scholar who disfigures books with notations, and an Amazon-style corporate president who treats books as a commodity.  Rintaro also starts forming a connection with a girl from his high school named Sayo.  It’s a sweet narrative that anyone who enjoys books, cats, and coming of age stories should enjoy.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Spirited Away (2001)

Title: Spirited Away
Release Date: 20 July 2001
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Production Company: Studio Ghibli

10-year-old Chihiro Ogino (Rumi Hiiragi) is traveling with her parents to a new home (not unlike My Neighbor Totoro) when they get lost on road through the forest that leads to a mysterious tunnel.  They find that the  tunnel leads to a mysterious village with restaurant stands and a bathhouse which Chihiro’s father surmises is an abandoned theme park.  Eating the food, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro finds it impossible to escape.

Chihiro finds she has to request a job from Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), the witch who runs the bathhouse in order to have any hope of rescuing her parents.  She finds help from a mysterious boy, Haku (Miyu Irino), who may have nefarious purposes, as well as the boiler maintenance man Kamaji (Bunta Sugawara)  and a fellow worker, Lin (Yoomi Tamai).  Chihiro’s ensuing adventures are absolutely bonkers in the best possible way, some of the most imaginative fantasy sequences ever set on film.  It’s also refreshing that Chihiro resolves her predicaments not with violence or magic, but with compassion.

There are some parts of this movie that are a bit, well, gross and sometimes it guess a bit intense.  So be warned if you’re squeamish or watching with young children.  But overall this is a magnificent, fantastical film that I think just about anyone should enjoy.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Dreams (1990)

Title: Dreams
Release Date: May 11, 1990
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Akira Kurosawa USA

I saw Dreams at an arthouse theatre around 1991, and even though I never revisited the movie until now, it has always stuck with me.  This was the first Akira Kurosawa film I’d ever seen, although I didn’t know who Kurosawa was at the time.  The movie features eight vignettes based on actual recurring dreams that Kurosawa had.  As a result they can be quite perplexing although maintaining a dream logic.

Some of the dreams are quite horrific although others are more uplifting.  They all share a theme of the necessity for humans to live in balance in nature and the hubris of when they fail to do so.  The stories are also informed by Japanese folklore and history.  The movie can be slow moving at times, but it is largely a visual spectacle with some impressive music and dance set pieces.  Akira Terao appears in several segments as the dreamer.  American directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg supported Kurosawa in bringing this film to fruition, and Martin Scorsese appears as Vincent van Gogh (who speaks English with a New York accent) in one of my favorite segments when the dreamer finds himself in Van Gogh’s art works.

This movie is considered a lesser work of Kurosawa’s but I have to admit that I really like it and include it among my all time favorite movies.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: My Neighbor Totoro

Title: My Neighbor Totoro
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Production Company: Studio Ghibli

This absolutely delightful animated fantasy film tells the story of two girls, 10-year-old Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and 4-year-old Mei (Chika Sakamoto), who move to an old house in the country.  Their father (Shigesato Itoi) takes them there to be closer to the hospital where their mother ( Sumi Shimamoto).  With childlike innocence and curiosity, the sisters befriend the forest spirits, including the fluffy giant Totoro (Hitoshi Takagi) with whom they share many adventures.  On a deeper level this story shows how children can use their imagination to deal with the stress and uncertainty of their lives.

This movie just oozes childhood for me and reminds me of exploring the woods around my house as a kid.  I sometimes came upon mysterious and wonderful things which probably could be explained by science, but maybe they were magical.  I also daydream of a public transit system provided by catbus!  It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a movie as joyfully wholesome as this one and it has quickly become one of my all-time favorites.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Your Name. (2016)

Title: Your Name.
Release Date: July 3, 2016
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Production Company: Toho | CoMix Wave Films

Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi) is a teenage girl living in a rural Japanese village.  Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a teenage boy living in the heart of Tokyo.  They have nothing in common, and don’t even know one another.  But one day they mysteriously begin swapping bodies, something that continues periodically over time.  They begin to learn more about one another by recording diary entries into one another’s phones. Ultimately they begin to realize that their fate is tied in with a comet that broke-up over Japan three years earlier.

This movie has some commonalities with other in the body swap genre, such as a running gag of Taki fondling “his” breasts every time he wakes up in Mitsuha’s body.  But it goes way beyond those surface similarities and works really well as romantic fantasy that draws on Japanese culture and collective trauma.  I felt at times that the musical score was inappropriate to the mood of the movie, and that the epilogue of the movie runs on a bit too long.  But other than that it is a brilliant and imaginative story with a great visual delight.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

Title: Howl’s Moving Castle
Release Date: 20 November 2004
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Production Company: Studio Ghibli

Wow! Howl’s Moving Castle is both visually stunning and wildly imaginative.  Based loosely on a British novel, it is set in a fairy tale version of fin-de-siecle Europe with steampunk-like flying machines and where magic is real.  The story focuses on a young milliner named Sophie who gets caught up in a whirlwind of events at a time when her country has entered into a senseless war.  Early in the film, Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Waste (voiced by Lauren Bacall) and turned into an elderly woman.  In the English language version, Sophie is voiced by Emily Mortimer when she is young and classic film star Jean Simmons when she is old.

Sophie finds her way to the titular moving castle which is watched over by a young wizard named Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and powered by a fire demon, Calcifer (Billy Crystal, sounding restrained compared to his voicework in Monsters, Inc.). The emo wizard Howl (Christian Bale) is initially a fleeting and mysterious presence, but over time he and Sophie begin to fall in love and realize that they can help with the other’s curse.  Slowly they begin to put together a found family in the moving castle, bringing on the likes of a humbled Witch of the Waste, a dog named Heen, and a living scarecrow that Sophie names Turnip-head.

I don’t want to give too much of the wild and wooly plot, but it’s ultimately a story with a great message about pacifism and the power of compassion.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Title: Tokyo Godfathers
Release Date: November 8, 2003
Director: Satoshi Kon
Production Company: Madhouse

It’s Christmas in Tokyo and the snow is falling.  A trio of homeless people find an abandoned baby in the trash and their attempts to care for her lead them into a fantastical adventure. Each segment of the movie leads to a spectacular coincidence, which is usually an annoying element in filmmaking to me, but in this movie it works because of the time put into developing the characters.  The leader of the trio is Gin (Tooru Emori), an aging alcoholic who left his wife and daughter decades earlier because he had run up too many debts.  Hana (Yoshiaki Umegami) is the heart of the trio, a transgender woman who sees the baby as a miracle and names her Kiyoko. The youngest member is Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) a teenager who ran away from her controlling father.

The movie is very sweet with the three homeless people and the baby making a pseudo-family in a story that reflects the Christian story of the first Christmas. Subtly and effectively the movie deals with themes of poverty and inequality, crime, and mental illness.  It also has great humor and scenes of adventure.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) #AtoZChallenge

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter H

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Hiroshima, Mon Amour
Release Date: 10 June 1959
Director: Alain Resnais
Production Company: Argos Films | Como Films |
Daiei Studios | Pathé Entertainment | Pathé Overseas

Along with The 400 Blows and Breathless, this movie kickstarted the French New Wave.  Director Alain Resnais previously made the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, and this movie similarly pulls no punches in using archival footage depicting the horrors of the atomic bomb detonation in Hiroshima.  The better part of the movie though focuses on a non-linear conversation between French Actress Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) and Japanese architect Lui (Eiji Okada) as the have a brief and passionate affair.  Note that their names are French for “Her” and “Him.”

They talk about Hiroshima and the bomb, and they talk about their own experiences during the war (which includes many flashbacks to Elle’s family home in Nevers, France).  The focus of the film is on memories and trying to remember while needing to forget.  It is a bit on the talky side and a bit pretentious as well.  I’m afraid it didn’t hold my attention all that well, but the lead actors are great and I liked the location work and the then innovative “flashes” of memory.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Grave of the Fireflies (1988) #atozchallenge

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter G

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Today’s film is not on any of these lists, but it is highly regarded and in my opinion is an all-time classic film.

Title: Grave of the Fireflies
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Director: Isao Takahata
Production Company: Studio Ghibli

I have very limited experience watching anime and associate the genre with fantasy film so was surprised to learn that Grave of the Fireflies is an historical drama set in Kobe, Japan in the final months of World War II.  It tells the story of two children struggling to survive on their own after their mother is killed in by American firebombing raid and their father is away serving in the Japanese Navy.  Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) is a young teenager who takes on the responsibility of raising his four-year-old sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi).  The film depicts him as hard-working and devoted but nevertheless still a child himself and limited in what he can do.  Setsuko is the sweetest and an accurate depiction of a very young child.

The movie is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.  Heartwarming in that is a love story between the siblings who care for one another when there is no one else to do so.  Heartbreaking in that it depicts the suffering and poverty of child refugees that is a constant outcome of war.  This film could easily be updated today and be set in Syria, Yemen, or Myanmar, and that’s terrible.  The movie is also beautiful with the bucolic setting of their pondside shelter and a trip to the beach contrasted with the devastation of war.  It’s clearly a deliberate choice by the filmmakers to draw the titular fireflies in the same style as the incendiary devices falling from American bombers.

Grave of the Fireflies is among the saddest films I’ve ever watched but it’s also one of the best.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Sans Soleil (1983)

Title: Sans Soleil
Release Date: March 2, 1983
Director: Chris Marker
Production Company: Argos Films

Sans Soleil is classified as a documentary but it’s really more of a series of vignettes and video essays arranged in an experimental matter.  It is the work of Chris Marker, creator of the equally experimental La Jetée, who presents himself as a fictional traveler who has sent his film to be described by the narrator (Alexandra Stewart). The original footage is largely from Japan, with a loose discussion of Japanese culture and customs, but also includes filmed in Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco.  The San Francisco segment is from a sequence that feels like a non-sequitur as the filmmaker visits sites from Vertigo.   I was up too late watching this film and started drifting off to sleep which I think only helped to accentuate the dreamlike qualities of this strange and wonderful film.

Rating: ****1/2