Celebrating the BFI's Japan season with an Introduction to Anime

31 Jul 2020 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

9 mins
BFI Japan 2020 header
BFI Japan 2020 header

On 11 May, the BFI launched their new six-month season entitled BFI Japan 2020: Over 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, which is made up of eight thematic collections which celebrate the country's rich cinematic history. As of today (31 July), the latest of those collections is now available on the BFI Player streaming platform which means it's time to talk about anime.

Into the Mainstream

Anime is the fifth BFI Japan 2020 collection to go live, following packages of films on the works of major Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, as well as thematic collections around classic and cult titles, with three more to follow in the coming months: Independence on 21 August, 21st Century on 18 September and J-Horror on 30 October.

Sometimes termed 'Japanimation', anime is hand-drawn and computer-animation that originates from Japan and is often characterised by colourful graphics, vibrant characters and fantastical themes, though this varies across filmmakers and there are many different styles and types of anime.

Since the turn of the century it has morphed from a western cult interest to a phenomenon at the global box office. This has been in no small part thanks to Studio Ghibli, best known for family-friendly fantasies like Spirited AwayMy Neighbour TotoroPrincess Mononoke and Ponyo.

There have been seven anime titles nominated for the Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards since the award's inception in 2002 (with Spirited Away winning in 2003). Five of those nominations have come since 2014, showing the increasing impact of the medium on the mainstream.

The Two Mamorus

The five titles being made available on BFI Player within this Anime collection are Ghost in the Shell, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children. The first two of these are directed by Mamoru Oshii, while the filmmaker behind the latter three is Mamoru Hosoda.

Outside of Ghibli, Ghost in the Shell (alongside Akira) was probably the biggest anime hit of the 1990s and attracted a cult following upon its release; not in cinemas, but on home video. Based on the manga series of the same name, the 1995 film is a cyberpunk anime set in 2029 which involves technological themes that proved to be a clear influence on revolutionary western films such as The Matrix. It has since spawned a number of sequels and spin-offs, including TV series and video games, as well as a 2017 live-action remake starring Scarlett Johansson. 

2004's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, however, is the follow-up that received the most acclaim. It became the first ever anime nominated for the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is included in Sight & Sound's recent anime edition as one of the 50 essential anime titles, in which they state that "Innocence should be viewed as much more than a mere sequel to an international breakthrough anime title".

But whereas the Ghost in the Shell franchise feels very much tied to a particular era, the work of Mamoru Hosoda represents a new age of anime.

Anime in the 21st Century

Hosoda's The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children were released in 2006, 2009 and 2012 respectively, at a time in which the landscape for anime looked very different compared to that of the 1990s. The form has come a long way in a relatively short space of time, and now benefits from global accessibility and appeal.

Hosoda's films are also separate from Oshii's in their style and sensibility. Oshii's films are partly characterised by their dystopian futures and innovative soundtracks, whereas Hosoda's are softer, lighter and more family-friendly. While fantastical elements remain, they involve teenage protagonists with more relatable themes around family, friendships, romance, and growing up.

In some ways, the two Mamorus represent the opposite ends of the anime spectrum and the different audiences Japanimation is able to appeal to. Put simply, there is no one single type of anime.

Hosoda Continued

These five titles can be viewed by BFI Player subscribers from today (a free 14-day trial is currently available for new users). For Into Film Clubs that wish to explore more of Hosoda's work, his two most recent directorial efforts can be ordered from our catalogue: The Boy and the Beast (from 2015) and Mirai (2018).

The former sees a human boy and a rebellious bear from the beast world join forces, acting as master and apprentice, as they each have something to prove to those around them, as well as plenty to learn about themselves and from each other.

If The Boy and the Beast is closer to Wolf Children, then the filmmaker's most recent output, Mirai, reverts to themes around time and family as found in his earlier work. In it, a 4 year-old boy who is struggling to handle the arrival of his new baby sister finds a way to travel through time and meet his relatives at different stages in their lives, finding a greater understanding and acceptance of his current situation in the process.

For more on the director, check out the BFI's new article: Family guy: The anime worlds of Mamoru Hosoda.

Beyond the Status Quo

Studio Ghibli is undoubtedly the perfect place to start for any newcomers to anime, and one of their lesser seen titles perhaps offers timely viewing in the form of From Up on Poppy Hill, which is set against the backdrop of the upcoming 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

However, there is so much more to explore and discover in the world of anime beyond Ghibli, especially considering the quality and quantity of output in recent years.

Arguably the best known of these is the international sensation Your Name, Makoto Shinkai's body-swap coming-of-age sci-fi fantasy which wowed audiences and critics alike, becoming the highest-grossing anime film of all time. Fans of Ponyo may also find a kindred spirit in Lu Over the Wall, which has much in common with Ghibli's children's classic, including its themes and setting, and also shares a similar wackiness in the form of its music-mad mermaids.

Japanimation is not merely confined to flights of fancy, though: A Silent Voice is a serious look at mental health; Okko's Inn deals with loss and grief; and both In This Corner of the World and Giovanni's Island examine the impact of World War II on Japan and its people in different ways.

The Future of Anime

Despite the temporary demise of Studio Ghibli - it was reported that the studio had halted production following the retirement of its principal director, Hayao Miyazaki, in 2014 - the future looks bright for anime.

While Ghibli is set to re-emerge from its hiatus with Miyazaki currently working on his next feature, a number of the studio's key alumni went off to start their own venture in the form of Studio Ponoc, their first release of which was the enchanting Mary and the Witch's Flower.

Beyond the major studios, there are a number of anime creators to look out for, with 2020 already giving us Weathering With You. The medium is suddenly more accessible and popular than ever thanks to the availability of titles in cinemas around the world, as well as titles featuring on streaming services.

BFI Japan

Having originally been scheduled to run in venues all across the UK, the BFI's Japan season is currently digital-only, although it is set to continue in cinemas as and when they reopen - likely later in 2020 and into next year.

As well as the titles available for subscribers to BFI Player, the season also includes a major new free collection called Early Films of Japan (1894-1914), numerous DVD and Blu-ray releases, an online events programme on YouTube, and the aforementioned special anime-edition of Sight & Sound magazine, which has been recently published and is available to purchase now, both in-print and digitally.

The article on 50 key anime films taken from the anime edition of Sight & Sound can be found in full on the BFI website.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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