DVDanger: Animation Nations

Napping Princess leads this week's home releases

Napping Princess, the new anime from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex director Kenji Kamiyama (Image courtesy of Gkids)

If the Oscar nominations were the only guide (Ferdinand? The Boss Baby?), multiplex-friendly animation looks to be in pretty sketchy shape. Yet while even shoe-in front-runner Coco is not exactly exploding through uncrossed boundaries, at least the home release scene is a little more vibrant.

Of course, even if the U.S. studios seem to be in a lull, the Japanese studios remain in full force. Aside from the recent theatrical release of Mary and the Witch's Flower by the Studio Ghibli alums over at the newly founded Studio Ponoc, and the spectacular Your Name ending up on multiple year-end lists, there's Napping Princess, the latest from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex director Kenji Kamiyama.

If the director's name conjures up images of cyber-terrorism and complicated globe-spanning conspiracies à la his GitS contributions, or his Eden of the East franchise, think again. In an interview accompanying the film, Kamiyama explains that he decided to take his work in a radically different direction after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, and turn away from grand disasters to a more intimate story.

Well, yes, but it's still Kamiyama, and his version of small and intimate is always going to be painted on a grander canvas than most. The titular napping princess is Kokone Morikawa (Mitsuki Takahata in the original Japanese version, Brina Palencia in the above-average U.S. dub directed by Stephanie Sheh and Michael Sinternklaas), a high schooler in rural Japan, living with her mechanic father Momotaro (Yosuke Eguchi/Doug Erholtz). But she is also the much younger Ancien, a mystical princess in a fantasy version of Tokyo, where everyone works in a car factory, and her father is the aging king who has locked her away from a tablet that she can use for techno-magery, bringing machines to life. In her dreams, Kokone lives as Ancien, and her real-world father is Peach, a rogue worker punished for his non-conformity.

How the two worlds fit together is never explained in a clear, functioning, rules-of-the-universe kind of way. Instead, Kamiyama applies dream logic, which is the only kind of logic that is needed.
How the two worlds fit together is never explained in a clear, functioning, rules-of-the-universe kind of way. Instead, Kamiyama applies dream logic, which is the only kind of logic that's needed. Sometimes Kokone can bring other people into the dream world with her, sometimes it all just seems like coincidence when the real and sleep realms mesh. Even the final reveal of why the world exists doesn't explain everything that's going on. But that's OK. Kamiyama, who has become a master of action-packed political metaphysics, embraces the magic of emotion and wishes. There's something grand and wonderful here, as he slides between the two very distinct worlds and increasingly blurs them, with little regard for the niceties of continuity. It's the essence of the characters he wants to reach, and he does so with a very modern sense of whimsy.

It's also slightly bonkers. Kokone's plot is set in the days before the Japan 2020 Olympics, which is sort of a plot point, but not really: not as much as Kamiyama's very odd use of the story to advocate really hard for: a) the traditional Japanese auto-industry and b) self-driving cars. Really.

This may well be Kamiyama's most endearing film to date – Evangelion-esque robots and giant lava-bat monster notwithstanding. It's a fascinating development, and even if there are a few headscratching moments, and some rushed world-building in the opening minutes. Like Kokone's dream, it makes sense in your heart, if not quite in your head.

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (Image courtesy of Gkids)

Obviously, Japanese animation is in a remarkably healthy place, even if it's generally ignored by the Academy (in 17 years of the Best Animated Feature category, no non-Ghibli Japanese feature has been nominated). Similarly, the Academy played oddly conservative with its U.S.-made nominations (and continued its inexplicable grudge against the Lego franchise), with the "high art" slots going to the Polish Loving Vincent and Canadian-European co-production The Breadwinner. That makes it all the more disappointing that the fascinating, if flawed, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea got overlooked.

With critically lauded works like Doctors and BodyWorld, Dash Shaw has been a mainstay of independent comics – less autobiographical than Chester Brown, yet still often a character through alter-egos. While he’s best known for sequential art, he has experimented in shorts (several of which are included in this packed disc) and installations. His feature debut as an animator is therefore heavily anticipated – and from the art and storytelling sides, a success.

My Entire High School fits into Shaw’s established format of a conventional drama with an extraordinary component that the characters quickly accept, so they can get back to their more mundane bickering. In this case, it’s a high school, as the title says, sinking into the sea. Tides High School has been built over a fault line on a cliff, and when a tremor and an unpermitted extension combine, the building, students, and staff all slip down the hill into the ocean, and have to evade explosions, electricity, sharks, and maniacal jocks to survive.

Not that this really concerns Dash (Jason Schwartzman), who is most annoyed that his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts) is getting too close with the editor of their school newspaper, Verti (Maya Rudolph).

This Fantastic Fest 2016 title saw a 2017 theatrical release, when Ashley Moreno said it "feels like the spirit of a zine come alive – with a few over-the-top, Muppet-esque explosions." That’s to its benefit and loss. Shaw, who leaps into traditional cel animation with glee, deploys an endless panoply of techniques and effects, to mesmerizing and dreamlike effect. However, he falls down on a classic mistake: not using more experienced voice actors. His approach is deliberately low-key, and while no one would want Looney Tunes histrionics, the cast deliver a lot of lines like a first table read. Stylishness blends into awkwardness (rarely more than with Susan Sarandon as Lunch Lady Lorraine, a smoke-clogged mumble that lacks any vibrancy).

Yet that's a relatively small quibble: better that this broad, vibrant experiment exists than not.

Napping Princess and My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea are both available on DVD/Blu-ray combo pack from GKIDS.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More DVDanger
DVDanger: <i>To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story</i>
To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story
New documentary reveals the man behind moviedom's monsters

Richard Whittaker, July 21, 2018

Cracking Open <i>The Devil's Doorway</i>
DVDanger: The Devil's Doorway
Horror director Aislinn Clarke on Ireland's dirty secret

Richard Whittaker, July 14, 2018

More DVD
DVDanger: <i>Victor Crowley</i>
DVDanger: Victor Crowley
Adam Green and Kane Hodder head back to the swamp

Richard Whittaker, Feb. 6, 2018

DVDanger: <i>The Poughkeepsie Tapes</i>
DVDanger: The Poughkeepsie Tapes
Missing found-footage finally escapes, plus Bautista in Bushwick

Richard Whittaker, Nov. 14, 2017

More by Richard Whittaker
The Liminal Lone Star State: Iliana Sosa’s El Paso in <i>God Save Texas</i>
The Liminal Lone Star State: Iliana Sosa’s El Paso in God Save Texas
HBO docuseries screens at AFS Cinema this weekend

March 1, 2024

Opera Fights, Puppet Plays, and More Arty Events
Opera Fights, Puppet Plays, and More Arty Events
Get an arts fix this week

March 1, 2024


DVDanger, DVD, Blu-ray, Animation, Napping Princess, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, Dash Shaw, Gkids

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle