Friday 21 May 2021


Directed by Isao Takahata, Featuring the voices of: J Robert
Spencer, Rhoda Chrosite, Veronica Taylor and Amy Jones.  Animation, Japan, 1988, approx. 90mins, Cert 12.

Based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel, writer/director Isao Takahata’s 1988 Studio Ghibli anime focuses on 14 year old Seita and his 4 year old sister Setsuko, and their desperate struggle to cling to life and hope amidst the scorched ruins of a firebombed Japan in 1945.

With father away serving with the Japanese navy, Seita and his little sister live with their unwell mother in the city of Kobe. During a devastating air raid by US forces, the two children are separated from their mother and upon emerging from the dust and smoke are confronted with a decimated landscape. Forced to flee the rubble they initially escape to the countryside to stay with an aunt. Tensions soon mount as food supplies become scarcer and Seita takes the decision to leave their aunt and seek refuge on their own. Alone, they face an arduous struggle for survival.

Not an obvious choice of subject matter for an animated film then.

This is a profoundly moving and truly unforgettable piece of filmmaking. It fully deserves its status not only as classic anime, but also as one the greatest war films ever made. The depiction of the horrors of war are presented with searing honesty and without overwrought manipulation. Director Takahata himself experienced an air-raid when he was 10 years old and this clearly infuses the bombing sequence with a chilling level of authentic detail. The awful 'beauty' as the glowing firebombs fall from the sky, the eerie silence before the flickering flames of the incendiary devices burst into deadly life and rip through wooden homes without mercy are images which seer straight to the mind's'-eye and linger.

Although Seita and little Setsuko’s plight is heart wrenching, director Takahata takes time to pause from the inevitable bleakness and gives the children precious moments of innocent pleasure and beauty. Running on a sandy beach and paddling in the sea. Sharing a bath, Seita uses a piece of cloth to create an air bubble which splashes a giggling Setsuko. And of course we have the magical glow of the fireflies, caught in numbers to illuminate their abandoned sheltered hide-out. These gentle bittersweet scenes stand out like sun rays bursting through the storm clouds of war.

This is not an anti-American film. The B-29 bombers that drop their deadly cargo are of course US, but the film is not about apportioning blame, but instead about the loss of innocence and the consequences of war.

Originally released in Japanese cinemas as a Studio Ghibli double-bill with the charming MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, audiences understandably gravitated toward Miyazaki’s sweet fable compared with its more challenging and provoking accompaniment. (The intention was for TOTORO to be the soothing second feature balm, I can only imagine the impact if the audience had watched FIREFLIES after TOTORO). I freely admit I sobbed uncontrollably at the closing image. But this is a film everyone should see. It may not be one you can easily revisit time and time again, but even if you only watch it once, you will never forget it. 

*****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts


Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Featuring the voices of: Kirsten Dunst, Janeane Garofalo, Debbie Reynolds, Animation, Japan, 1989, approx. 103mins, cert U.

Adapted by Hayao Miyazaki from the children’s book by Eiko Kadono, this was Studio Ghibli’s fourth feature film and yet, somewhat surprisingly, their first real box-office success.

Upon turning thirteen, teenage witch Kiki must leave home in order to complete her training. Accompanied on her broomstick by her sarcastic familiar black cat Jiji, Kiki leaves her loving parents behind and clumsily flies off into the starry night. A storm forces her to seek refuge on an overnight cattle train. Awakened by the cows on board who are breakfasting on the straw Kiki and Jiji have bedded down on, Kiki takes flight once more into a clear blue sky morning and eventually comes to a picturesque city by the sea. Not possessing any specific skills like potion-making or fortune-telling, Kiki is initially at a loss as to what she can offer the city as their witch in residence. But she soon utilises her broom-flying abilities to reunite an infant with its “pacifier” (dummy to you and I) and an idea begins to surface...

This is a gentle coming-of-age tale set in an alternative 1950’s where world war hasn’t occurred. Bi-planes and airships grace the blue skies over the fictional city of Koriko (largely inspired by the cityscapes of Stockholm and specifically the city of Visby on the island of Gotland). Beautifully detailed buildings and streets are meticulously rendered and offer a breathtaking degree of realism. The magic elements of the story are played very matter-of-fact and at its heart we have a young teenage girl embarking on a journey of self-discovery (albeit on a broomstick).

In Miyazaki’s skilled hands he conjures up a potent charm which avoids falling into saccharine sweetness by its genuine honesty and consummate craftsmanship.

Purists will no doubt insist on the original Japanese audio track (and I would never usually go against this point of view) Audio-wise, but the US dub is a fairly decent effort, albeit tweaked for its targeted audience. Kirsten Dunst gives a reasonable account as Kiki but Phil Hartman’s sub-Nathan Lane turn as JiJi the cat adds a welcome touch of cynicism to the proceedings which plays more favourably to my ears than the harsher-sounding original (sacrilege I know but...)  

*****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Saturday 1 May 2021

RAW (2016)

Directed by: Julia Ducournau. Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella
, Rabah Nait Oufella. France/Belgium 2016, 99mins, Certificate 18.

Released on Blu-ray in a limited edition by Second Sight Films from 26th April 2021.

Early on in writer/director Julia Ducournau’s 2016 debut feature, first-year veterinary student Justine (Garance Marillier) is asked by the school’s doctor: “How do you see yourself?” Justine replies: “Average”. There is however nothing remotely average about this arthouse coming-of-age cannibal hybrid. Nor, fittingly enough, is there anything average about Second Sight’s stunning limited edition blu-ray release both in terms of disc content and in the gorgeously designed slipcase, booklet and collectors’ art cards that accompany it.

Having been brought up in a strictly vegetarian family, Justine follows in the family’s footsteps by enrolling at the same veterinary school her parents graduated from, and where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a senior. Having barely had a chance to unpack and be introduced to her gay male roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), the hazing initiation rituals orchestrated by the senior faculty begin their onslaught. These culminate with Justine having to eat a rabbit kidney after her and her fellow newbies are drenched in animal blood. After being pressured into consuming meat for the first time, Justine suffers an allergic skin reaction before a craving for meat takes hold and she’s pocketing burgers from the canteen and chowing down on raw chicken breast from the fridge. However, Justine’s cravings for meat will transition from animal to human flesh following an unfortunate accident, forcing her to confront family secrets and wrestle with her newly acquired animalistic instincts.

In what sounds like classic grindhouse exploitation hype, during a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, several audience members allegedly fainted during the film’s graphic scenes and required medical attention. (Clearly, they hadn’t been repeating to themselves: ‘It’s only a movie…only a movie…’). Whilst hardened gorehounds would certainly sneer at this over-reaction, the film does contain some genuinely raw (no pun intended) real sequences involving animal dissection and veterinary practice which I can appreciate could be deemed upsetting. Given the film’s subject matter, the actual on-screen cannibalism is however relatively restrained (at least when compared to the notorious Italian gut munching nasties of the 80’s). But its intimacy, coupled with the searingly committed performances of Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf, sell the prosthetics (and light-touch CGI in one scene) and achieve far greater impact as a result. If I am honest, after revisiting the film it made me ravenous (not for human flesh you’ll be pleased to know). I actually feel the most wince-inducing moment involves a close-up botched Brazilian wax job.

The brutalist architecture of the location lends the film visual comparisons with David Cronenberg, as does aspects of the body horrors presented. Overall, it has an arthouse sensibility which is somewhat jarring with the gore and jet-black humour, (and may account for the Toronto audience’s reaction). The clear early visual nod to De Palma’s CARRIE, whilst audacious, seems to hint at an intention to position the film firmly in the horror genre, but there are multi-faceted aspects at work which straddle genres, and takes them confidently in its stride.

Ultimately, it is an exploration of humanity, or as director Ducournau states in the interview feature on the disc entitled ‘In the Name of Raw’: “I think it’s the story of a girl who becomes a human being”.

Speaking of the discs extras, there’s a rich bounty to get your teeth into which provide plenty of food for thought (and that’s enough of the puns). The extraordinary Garance Marillier is interviewed a fresh, providing her with an opportunity to look back on her experiences and close collaboration with her director. Producer Jean des Forets shares some of the practical considerations in terms of the film’s budget, and its selling challenges. As well as a previous audio commentary with Julia Ducournau and film critic Emma Westwood, there is also a new commentary by film critic Alexandra West to lend a fresh critical perspective. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ new video essay contributes a perfectly succinct, and frankly perfect 12-minute summary of the film’s themes and concepts. There’s tons more content including footage from the Australian premiere, panel discussions, an alternative opening, deleted scenes and trailers.



Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.