Although we here at Toho Kingdom tend to focus a great deal of our energy on the tokusatsu output of Toho studios, given that Toho is one of the biggest movie studios in Japan, they also are responsible for just scads of anime films of many stripes and colors–some of which get relatively little attention Stateside… and some of which have made massive waves and big bucks around the world. Here are my recent impressions of a number of these films which I personally had the opportunity to watch in movie theaters within the last six or so months. If you have also had a chance to watch any of these movies, share your thoughts below!
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train (2020)
This is a movie that deserves a full review. A massive megahit in Japan, the all-time champ in fact as far as box-office goes (having made over 400 million dollars worldwide) and most of that money from Japan alone, Demon Slayer is no joke. The manga was already a colossal success, with reports that the comic had finally toppled evergreen One Piece with sales within the year 2020—and by a massive margin. I think a big part of the success of the property has stemmed from the incredible animated series, with its gorgeous animation—to me, while I have enjoyed reading the manga, it struck me as being somewhat underwhelming when compared to the lyrical, fluid TV series.
From reading the manga, I really liked the warrior Tanjiro and his relationship with Nezuko, his little sister who has become a demon. The pathos in his situation, as he tries to save his last remaining family member while learning the arts of demon hunting, was definitely engaging… but I found the art unappealing, and the enemies often one-dimensional and uninteresting. I read through the Mugen Train arc, and was dismayed that the key antagonists in that particular section were quite shallow.
The movie follows the arc from the comic very closely… and yet, somehow, the storytelling had a lot more punch in cinematic form. Perhaps it was the IMAX screen on which I saw it, or the beautiful animation, the stirring music, I am not sure… but everything coalesces into a truly engaging, action-packed story with some very heartfelt moments.
The plot here concerns Tanjiro and his cohort taking a train infested with demons, and battling them in and out of their dreams, ala Dreamscape or Inception. The plot allows for a series of imaginative and off-the-wall set pieces, and I found myself tearing up at one key moment that depicted the loneliness of leaving one’s family behind. The action is solid and exciting, but because the film follows the manga so closely, it might be quite bewildering for those unfamiliar with the property.
Still, while it feels incomplete outside of an understanding of the greater story, the movie is entertaining and exciting, and it’s worth seeing just for its cultural impact alone. Recommended.
Detective Conan: The Scarlet Alibi (2021)
Having recently moved back to my old stomping grounds in Japan, and given that there is very little in the way of corona virus infections in this city (relatively speaking—it’s getting worse recently), I have made it a point to go to a movie every Friday, and I am aiming to watch Japanese films to practice my listening. I went into Detective Conan: the Scarlet Alibi without knowing anything about the movie (though I do have some familiarity with the franchise, having read one or two volumes of Case Closed). Little did I suspect that I was walking into a compilation film!
Detective Conan is one of a number of massively popular, long-running manga/anime properties in Japan that commands an astonishing fandom and a bewildering number of films—with Conan, we are talking over twenty. (Doraemon is even crazier, with a whopping FORTY FILMS listed on their Wiki, though apparently some of those are short films rather than feature-length.)
Anyway, The Scarlet Alibi is a compilation movie, taking scenes from the television series as well as from previous films and putting together a sort of preparatory viewing experience for the heavily hyped Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet, a Conan movie made last year but postponed until April 16, 2021. I watched that film as well, and having seen both, I am not sure that this one serves very effectively as a warm-up to The Scarlet Bullet. The movie attempts to introduce the members of a group of mysterious and dangerous individuals—an FBI agent, a powerful and athletic teenager with a secret, a brilliant and mysterious girl—but when I watched The Scarlet Bullet, it didn’t make much difference to me, knowing the scraps of data this film provides.
Given my Japanese level, this movie was also overwhelming, since it includes a litany of cases and their solutions, rather than just one or two, and as such there is a lot of explaining and scenes of deductions. Animation quality is fine, but variable given the sources are from TV and movies. Characters get scattershot development.
This is not the ideal movie experience, and feels a bit like one of those episodes from a TV program where the entire program consists of clips from previous stories. I think what is most annoying here is that I had to pay full price (almost twenty dollars) for just a clip show. Can you imagine if they did this in the US for a long-running series, like James Bond or the Fast and the Furious? Still, a real challenge for my linguistic faculties, and it did spur me on to see the next film…
Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet (2021)
Watching The Scarlet Alibi did provide me with a heightened sense of excitement about The Scarlet Bullet. I have never been a big fan of Detective Conan and wouldn’t normally go out of my way to see one of his films (let alone two of them), but having watched an entire movie created as a preparatory viewing experience for this flick, I felt practically obligated to watch.
The story deals with the maiden trip of a new, supremely fast shinkansen with a peak speed near 1000 kilometers per hour. This maiden unveiling coincides with events surrounding the Conan universe’s equivalent of the Olympic Games, included as an obvious nod to the (now postponed) Tokyo 2020 event. However, with the faux Olympics event coming soon in-universe, various benefactors who were involved in supporting the train and/or the games (the details are a bit fuzzy for me) are being targeted by a mysterious attacker, and it’s up to Conan to figure out who is behind the attacks and take them out.
The animation is much snazzier than the clip show predecessor, unsurprisingly, though sometimes I thought the computer animation in the movie didn’t jive well with the 2D imagery. Still, there are a lot of car chases, foot-chases, and even some large-scale destruction by the end. The ludicrousness of the story just absolutely goes through the roof by the climax, including the titular crimson bullet, which… my gosh, it is so absurd as to be laughable. (SPOILER: Conan works with the head of the FBI and a hotshot sniper who positions himself to shoot a bullet down along the completely straight track of the shinkansen, from apparently miles away. Conan and his cohorts manage to maneuver the culprit into just the right position inside the train so that the shot hits that person at just the right time to save the lives of our heroes… but holy crap, the variables to pull off that shot are so far on the other side of impossible as to boggle the mind!).
Then it gets even more insane. My eyebrows got well acquainted with the ceiling, you might say.
I think the bombastic silliness might be a drawing point, though. Personally I find Conan himself to be a bit insufferable (he always has to be incredibly accurate in his deductions and smarter than everyone and everything, and it sticks in my craw a smidge), but the intrigue, silliness, and array of colorful characters make for a mild entertainment.
Evangelion 3.0 +1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (2021)
I’ve never been a huge fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and prefer RahXephon, but I admit to really enjoying the aesthetics of the show, and the music. I love the character designs and the iconic EVA units, and I greatly enjoyed seeing Godzilla face off against Hideaki Anno’s creations at USJ a few years ago. Nevertheless, while I have seen the entirety of the original series, I never watched any of the movies, and just went to see this one (called Shin Evangelion in Japan) on a whim.
Unsurprisingly, given my unfamiliarity with the Rebuild series, the fourth film can be confusing at times. The story… I don’t even know where to begin. This is a surreal movie, with many epic confrontations and hallucinogenic imagery. For me personally, the movie jumps the shark in a big way, as the dreamlike drug-trip elements overwhelm the story, and while the fight sequences are staged with complexity and dynamism, they lack credible stakes. I never really felt like the characters were in danger, or had a clear understanding of the limits of their powers, as the EVA units and other weapons used always seemed to manifest some new ability when they need them, rendering the spectacle into vapid noise.
Still, there is a verve and real drama to the personal lives of the characters. My favorite was the copy of Rei, who has a heart-twisting arc in an early section of the movie. Shinji must also face his demons and his father, but the movie doesn’t feel as hopeless as Anno’s stories often do. It also often slides over into outright and blatant attempts to recreate a lot of iconic imagery from the show. The conclusion even mocks the original show’s lack of budget in some clever ways.
Still, I felt the movie was bloated and dumb just as often as it hit the heart strings, and the exploitative way that Anno treats his female characters (who are always getting naked, or being maneuvered into compromising angles for the camera to ogle their crotches) really turned me off. Fans may love this, and I squeezed some enjoyment from the onscreen orgy of imagery, but found myself checking the time long before the movie was over.