As we did in 2021, I sit down to do some quick miniature reviews for a few films I saw in Japanese theaters. In this case, the three movies actually came out last year in Japan. Furthermore, this batch is all Anime. The titles are: Belle (2021), My Hero Academia: World Heroes Mission (2021), along with Earwig and the Witch (2020). The last entry has a minor asterisk as even though the movie was released in 2020 worldwide, Toho didn’t distribute it to theaters in Japan until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Belle (2021)

As a massive fan of Mamoru Hosoda, I nevertheless somehow missed his latest film’s opening night. Belle, Hosoda’s follow-up to the more down-to-earth Minari, returns to a technological fantasy land more in the tech flavor of Summer Wars—one of my least favorite of Hosoda’s works, perhaps because in this day we live in the fantasy land of the Internet, and it doesn’t feel like a fairy tale. Still, Belle constructs a virtual fantasy with an infused sense of humanity and longing for connection burning through its narrative fibers.

The story features Suzu (a name which means “bell”), a shy 17-year-old, who enters a virtual online world known as U and becomes an overnight musical sensation by accident. As she deals with her online celebrity, which clashes with her real-world anonymity, she begins interacting with a strange “beast” figure in the virtual space—a creature who saves her multiple times in the virtual world, but who has a number of dark secrets of his own.

Belle (2021)

Hosoda has crafted Belle as a retooling of Beauty and the Beast, particularly pulling on imagery and tropes from the Disney version of the film. Famously, Hosoda worked with Disney animator/designer Jin Kim for this film; Kim’s work is instantly recognizable in the familiar features of Suzu’s online avatar. Some sequences in the movie also deliberately ape the animated Beauty and the Beast film, and the movie plays with that movie’s musical center by injecting pop ballads into the core of this film. The songs are powerful and explosive—I loved the soundtrack, and felt honest excitement at the pitch and verve in singer Kaho Nakamura’s astonishing voice. Really—when I watched the movie in theaters, my honest reaction was a virtual wow.

But the virtualness of the movie I felt hampered the magic. Having lived with virtual worlds and the fickleness of the Internet here on earth for the last twenty years or so, the magical elements of Belle’s computer-programmed spaces felt shallow and underwritten in a way that made it difficult for me to connect with the movie. For example, the way in which Suzu becomes Internet famous—she just randomly begins singing upon entering into U, and for some reason this unplanned burst into song catches the universal attention of the virtual world of the movie, turning her absurdly famous. While certainly playing on real-world viral success tropes, it just felt dumb to me. This issue that I had is my own, of course—we are talking about an animated movie which was never meant to reflect reality. Nevertheless, the way that Hosoda created the fantasy online world rang false to me, and that skimpiness or fragmented logic hurt the movie for me personally.

Still, Belle overcame its spotty worldbuilding with a paean to the importance of caring for one another, for reaching out and overcoming the brutalities that so often reign in our suffering world—and that I could really appreciate in the midst of such an insane year that 2021 had been.

My Hero Academia: World Heroes Mission (2021)

After sitting through the third My Hero Academia film, I felt mostly uninspired. The promise of the film felt thin, and the concepts eked out of the script somehow rang hollower to me this time around. The movie does not fail to entertain, but it still feels slight in a way that previous movies in the franchise mostly avoided, and I just wished there could have been something more to this movie which seemed to be aiming bigger, but ended up landing with a smaller—and certainly not global—impact on my heart.

The story this time concerns another mysterious and sinister super-powered group causing mischief and mayhem—this time via a toxic substance which, if exposed to people who possess quirks (the source of superpowers in the My Hero Academia mythos, akin to mutant genes in X-Men), that exposure triggers them to explode spectacularly. Heroes, then, become the equivalent of bombs, weapons of destruction. Unfortunately for humanity, the aforementioned sinister group—known as Humarize—is so mysterious that nobody knows where they are located, or how they are attacking. In a race to find the villains as quickly as possible, the professional super heroes team up with hero students to essentially search the entire world for the baddies… but only Deku and his particular group end up finding the requisite big bad with the aid of a “diamond-in-the-rough” type scoundrel, who has an unusual quirk of his own.

My Hero Academia: World Heroes Mission (2021)

I prepped for viewing this movie by catching up on the My Hero Academia manga, which turned out to be useful—somewhere in the mid-twenties of the volumes, Deku develops a new power, which is prominently featured in this movie. But even with that “new” power shift, the movie felt to me as if it was grasping for something compelling—and missed.

One of the biggest issues for me was the movie’s title, and the way even the opening scenes set the tale up as something of a globe-trotting adventure-fest. We get to see which teams of heroes are traveling to which areas of the world in search of the members of Humarize, but the international flare never pays off because we never see what those other teams do on their particular adventures! The narrative remains laser-focused on Deku and his gang, with barely even glimpses of most of the familiar heroes for most of the film’s runtime. Still the inexplicably popular Bakugo is on Deku’s team, and he has a number of fight sequences, but thankfully (for me at least, as I never liked him) he was not a major focus of the story.

For Godzilla fans, I will note that Godzillo (the Godzilla-based superhero created for a brief scene in the first My Hero Academia movie) appears in this movie, but only very briefly—he is just a background character. Still, I was glad to see he is still around.

For me at least, MHA 3 just felt like a lesser adventure, with less-engaging action, and less interesting characters than previous films. The movie has made the most money in the series so far, and I certainly don’t bear the film any grudge, but I hope should the series continue that future installments create more compelling narratives and use their characters in more interesting ways.

Earwig and the Witch (2020)

At this point, I am something of a Ghibli completist. I’ve watched all the Ghibli films at least once (even The Red Turtle), visited the Ghibli Museum several times, and for a long stretch counted Spirited Away (2001) as my favorite film of all time. Still, I wasn’t excited to go see Earwig and the Witch. Goro Miyazaki’s third feature-length, which originally was released on TV ala The Ocean Waves, had a theatrical run for people silly enough to wish to spend around twenty bucks to watch a bad movie on a larger screen. The movie had widespread negative reviews, and the trailers did the movie little favor given the disappointing CGI work.

For the record, while I was not very fond of Goro Miyazaki’s first movie (Tales from Earthsea), I did enjoy his second, From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)—I gave it a mostly positive review here back in 2013. I was thus hoping that Earwig and the Witch might be a little better than critics were saying…

However… no. It’s really not.

Earwig and the Witch (2020)

The story follows Earwig (or Aya in the Japanese), an abandoned girl raised in an orphanage who has a knack for manipulating the people around her. She is eventually adopted by a fat witch named Bella Yaga and her stormy partner Mandrake, which proves a wild coincidence given Earwig’s mysterious patronage. Anyway, Bella Yaga tries to use Earwig as a slave, forcing her to clean and work as a gopher for her magic machinations, but the young schemer befriends talking cat Thomas and slowly learns bits of magic herself as well as secrets around the house. These discoveries, and her blossoming magical abilities, enable her to dominate or wheedle her caretakers to her own whims, right before her real parent suddenly appears at the conclusion… and the film ends.

The story has major issues. Earwig is not a very compelling protagonist, given she starts as a selfish brat and ends the same, and the events between feel meandering and sometimes pointless. There are moments of spice, images that resonate at times, but even what works arguably does so by referencing previous, better Ghibli movies. Ghibli movies have long played with a set of familiar character types and tropes and even very similar character designs (I remember in my youth arguing that Ghibli films had such similar character designs as to constitute reappearances of the same character in new roles), and Earwig continues this trend—but everything feels like lesser or worse versions of previous classics. Selfish and irritating Earwig compares poorly to Chihiro/Sen from Spirited Away—Chihiro started as a mildly spoiled child who grows out of her immaturity and actually cares for people. Earwig begins and ends as a controlling yuck-girl. Thomas the talking cat similarly comes across as a lesser version of Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service. Bella Yaga snorts and stomps around, wallowing in filth, and almost emerges from the shadows of previous, more nuanced witches like Yubaba and the Witch of the Waste, but she is far from compelling, and Mandrake is mostly a temper-tantrum on legs who becomes a tool for Earwig’s whims.

Plus the movie ends just as the story seems to be starting. To be fair, though I have not read the novel upon which this movie is based, apparently that book (written as author Diana Wynne Jones was suffering from lung cancer) also ends similarly… though I don’t think such narrative faithfulness saves the film from criticism. The movie still concludes poorly, with the plot threads wide open, and only partially tidied away via charming illustrations over the credits.

And those illustrations, done in playful 2D artwork, look much better than the computer-generated imagery of the movie itself. Perhaps every review will rag on Earwig and the Witch for its plasticky and stiff character models and backgrounds, and I think most of that criticism is fair even as I also have to say that the Ghibli house-style doesn’t necessarily evince a wider set of facial expressions than what we see in this movie. I think the greater issue is that the 2D style has an undeniable magic and charm that is just lost when transformed into computerized artwork, at least when executed as poorly as it was here. When Earwig is expressing her disgust and frustration again and again, the expressions felt pasted and copied rather than alive or as beautiful art.

I found myself wishing the entire movie had just been drawn like the still images over the credits. As sad as it may sound, I felt in the moment as if the film would have been more satisfying as a narrated picture-book than it did as the CGI doll-world created here.

Given how long it has been since we have had a proper Ghibli movie, Earwig and the Witch is indeed a big disappointment, though I still think a viewer going in with adjusted expectations can find entertainment and enjoyment from small moments and brief imagery. It’s just really too bad that so much of that enjoyment seems to come from what the movie should have been, fragments from a fantastic history of movies betrayed by ugly animation and poor storytelling.