DVDanger: Animation Nations
Napping Princess leads this week's home releases
By Richard Whittaker,
2:30PM, Mon. Jan. 29, 2018
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.
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.
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.