Fans of Japanese animation needn’t restrict themselves to fantastical TV series – a bit of digging can uncover rare Studio Ghibli features and beyond
If you happen to see Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s lovely Mary and the Witch’s Flower in cinemas this week, and its iridescent bouquet of mad delights gets you on something of an anime kick, the streaming world offers mixed rewards for fans of vibrant Japanese animation. Deep-diving acolytes in the busy, complex realm of anime TV series are increasingly well catered for; film buffs in the genre, however, often have to do a bit more hunting.
A key hindrance on the cinematic front is that Studio Ghibli – still, for most, the gold standard of anime film, and the obvious gateway for dilettantes – has thus far proven rather resistant to video on demand technology, preferring to make tangible collector’s items of their DVD and Blu-ray releases. In a way, that fits their brand: it makes sense, in a medium overrun by sleek digital means, that a company dedicated to continuing the art of hand-drawn animation should be as old school in disseminating their work as they are in creating it.
Dig around, however, and the odd exception slips through the cracks. Two films by Ghibli’s late co-founder Isao Takahata, whose death last month prompted an outpouring of tender-hearted cineaste tributes, are available to view online should you wish to pay tribute. Not that you need any such excuse to wallow in the viscerally exquisite heartbreak of Grave of the Fireflies (streaming on Amazon Prime), a survival story of two children left with nothing but each other after the 1945 bombing of Kobe, which ranks among the most soulful, sorrowful second world war films in any medium.
The same is true of Takahata’s rapturous folk-tale swansong The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which enlivens its 10th-century source material with a delicate, blossom-hued aesthetic inspired by eastern brush painting. It’s available at Sky Store, alongside another recent, sweetly mellow Ghibli effort, Yonebayashi’s ghostly friendship tale When Marnie Was There.
Away from Studio Ghibli, Amazon offers an essential primer on the late Satoshi Kon, with both the backflipping sci-fi dreamscape Paprika and the loose, lively crime saga Tokyo Godfathers – available through Amazon’s Mubi channel – serving as a suitable introduction to his genre-bending gifts. Netflix’s film offerings are scarcer, though they are streaming an under-the-radar charmer in A Silent Voice, Naoko Yamada’s plaintive melodrama about school bullying and its long-term effects on victim and oppressor alike.
Netflix’s selection broadens when you cross over to anime series, where the fantastical world-building grows denser and the visual style can range from Pokémon-type crudeness to video-game sophistication. Covering everything from wholesome nursery school fare to bewildering space opera, anime television is daunting to navigate for non-experts like me, though some of the streaming giant’s exclusive series under the Netflix Originals banner make for intriguing samples. A friend’s recommendation led me to Devilman Crybaby, a cheerfully bananas manga adaptation centred on a human-demon hybrid superhero, blending Saturday cartoon artlessness with nightmarishly warped imagery.
If you’re sufficiently hooked, consider graduating to more specialist subscription services. The splendidly named Crunchyroll keeps dedicated geeks abreast of anime series currently airing in Japan. FunimationNow is slightly more newcomer friendly, with an enhanced menu oriented toward classics in the genre – it’s the home of the jaggedly irreverent adventure series Dragon Ball Z and the industrial fantasy epic Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s all a universe away from the fragrant poetry of Mary and the Witch’s Flower; the more you explore anime, the more it evades definition.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Sony, 12)Nobody asked for this harmless, hyperactive sequel to the 1995 Robin Williams zoological nightmare, but the money it made suggests people wanted it anyway.
Duck Butter(Netflix)Landing on Netflix fresh from its premiere at last month’s Tribeca film festival, Miguel Arteta’s funky, forthright romantic comedy stars the terrific Alia Shawkat and Laia Costa as two casual lovers getting to know each other on a sex-first basis.
Suddenly, Last Summer(Powerhouse, 15)No longer taboo-breaking but still ripe and riveting, this perfectly overheated 1959 treatment of Tennessee Williams’s unhinged gothic melodrama, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn, gets a delicious 4K restoration for Blu-ray.
The Ice King(Dogwoof, 12)Following Adam Rippon’s ascent to stardom at the Winter Olympics, this heartfelt, straight-ahead study of ice skater John Curry (the first openly gay Olympian) is neatly timed.
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