Thinking back on my storied career as film writer, it occurs to me that I haven’t devoted much time to anime, outside of Fantasia, that is. Normally I’d scour the internet for some new and relevant anime film to pick apart but this is me, so let’s look at Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror, a 2009 movie nobody probably cares about. Less chance of inciting a lynch mob that way.
Not that the movie doesn’t have something interesting going for it, being one of the exceedingly rare all-CGI anime films. CGI does seem to be something of a forbidden fruit in the glorious cell animation Garden of Eden that is Japan, and there’s always a chance that when an anime decides to go all CGI it’ll be like that scene in the coming-of-age movie where the nerdy straight-laced kid tries drugs and becomes the life of the party, running around with no pants leading a rousing number of Whole Lotta Rosie, because after all that’s totally how drugs work right?
But sadly, after sampling the forbidden drug of CGI, Oblivion Island just curled up into a ball and wept, and when I found it the next morning on my kitchen floor it was half naked, covered in baking flour, manically texting its ex with one hand and humping an old throw pillow.
Or to put it simply, it wasn’t very good.
The story follows Haruka, a latch-key kid tomboy-ish girl whose mother died of script-itis and who finds herself in the world of totally not the Borrowers, magical creatures who take forgotten objects to build a fantastic city, all under the rule of a nefarious baron. Along with Not-Borrower Teo and Haruka’s magically animated stuffed lamb Cotton, Haruka must retrieve the hand mirror her mother gave her from her death bed, which (surprise, surprise) figures heavily into the Baron’s evil plans.
You may notice right away that we aren’t dealing with the most original stuff, here. The whole thing feels like something a less talented Miyazaki would write in his sleep, driven by contrivance. Characters appear or disappear as needed, swooping in to save the day and vanishing from sight to add tension as is needed. The villains seemingly have the ability to manifest a giant ostrich/puppet creature or what I swear to God is the Big Wheel from Spider-Man comics at will, and rarely to any kind of interesting effect.
The rules of the universe are about as well-defined and coherent as a shoggoth, with macguffins and deus ex machinas out the ass. Now granted, the vaunted Miyazaki’s movies weren’t above this kind of holly-go-lightly script laziness from time to time (looking at you, Howl’s Moving Castle) but at least he tried to explain why shit did shit. Tell me, Oblivion Island, why exactly do mirror shards animate stuffed animals? And why, oh why, can a giant room full of mirrors strung up from the ceiling power an army of robots? An army, I might add, that has a hard time menacing a Japanese schoolgirl, let alone take over the fucking world. Johnny 5 was more intimidating than these things!
And why is Haruka’s mirror the key to the whole thing? Is it….more mirror-y than the others? There’s some plot point about mirrors containing memories, but surely the mirror of some whiney teenager isn’t the most memory-charged mirror out there, especially if it’s been shut up in a box for several years. It all smells unpleasantly of “because we say so” logic, to which I usually reply with a firm “Well, fuck you. Because I said so.”
The animation isn’t exactly ground-breaking either. The characters often seem to glide around weightlessly, a problem most Western animators got under control around the time of the neolithic age, and while the stylized, cartoony visual aesthetic can excuse the usually flat, bland textures, I still can’t help but wonder if it would have held up if the animators had been called upon to texture something more complex than a balloon.
Where things really get wonky is the backgrounds. I’m not sure if the decision to actually use flat, painted background was a cost cutting measure (in which case, caught you, ya sly, cheap buggers!) or some kind of stylistic decision (in which case, what the fuck were you thinking…..ya sly, cheap buggers!) but either way, more often than not it looks like ass. Very flat ass, but rather well painted, like a Carnival parade at a junior high school, and yes I do realize that is the worst analogy I’ve ever made. Often it looks like the characters are moving in front of, marveling at or running away from very large paintings, and while the thought of a fifty foot tall landscape painting coming at me with a thirst for blood is pretty terrifying, it makes for a visually dull movie.
Now is all this to say Oblivion Island is a monstrous, unintelligible, cliched heap of bantha fodder, on the level of Legend of the Millennium Dragon or Tales From Earthsea? Well, no. What it is just kind of half-hearted and sub-par. There are some fun scenes, like when the admittedly adorable talking lamb plush rides to the rescue like the Lone Freaking Ranger on a tiny plush stallion, and it will probably amuse any young children you plop in front of it to get them to shut their cake holes for an hour and a half. But for the discerning anime fan, Oblivion Island will probably just make you yearn to re-watch Nausicaa for the millionth time. Or maybe Ghost in the Shell if you’re more in the mood for violence, boobs and musings on trans-humanist philosophy.