3D CG animation has come a long way since Pixar made the first major breakthrough developments. With only one or two notable exceptions in Japanese anime that have extended the use of the technology, nothing however has really make its mark or had the same mainstream international breakthrough success as something like Toy Story. Most of the real developments in CG tools have been geared towards Gaming, and Japanese anime has followed suit. That means that it's mainly been used in science-fiction and dark futuristic fantasy works like Casshern, Ghost in the Shell, Final Fantasy and The Sky Crawlers, and due to the connection with Gaming, it unfortunately hasn't always had a strong enough script or concept to match the visual innovations. More importantly, it has often lacked the necessary human element to really touch the general public.
As the brilliance of Pixar's three Toy Story films have demonstrated however, that doesn't necessarily have to be the case. There's something to be learned from the fact that it's animation that have children at the centre of the work, using it as an expression of the vividness of imagination, of the magic of a child's eye view of the world, that have tended to reach a wider audience and been more successful than the SF recreations of some fantasy world, alien planet or space station. Animation for children is not such a revolutionary idea but as Pixar have demonstrated it can appeal just as much to adults. In Japan, where the manga and anime entertainment industry is aimed at a slightly older adolescent audience, this has taken a little bit longer to realise.
A1-Entertainment's recent foray into 3D CG animation, Welcome to the Space Show (2010) is one recent film that has found this route productive, retaining a science-fiction premise that allowed creative and imaginative visualisation of alien worlds, but aimed specifically at a younger audience. The Japanese animation studio at the forefront of CG animation however is Production IG, and it's their 2009 feature Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror that best demonstrates how human sentiments in the form of childhood memories can be integrated into the cold sterility of animated computer generated imagery. There's a lesson to be learned from Studio Ghibli as well here that has been taken on board as well in Oblivion Island's casting of a young girl undergoing difficult changes in her life reconnecting with the wonder and imagination of her happier childhood.
The concept is put across admirably in the opening storybook sequence of the film, where the young childhood Haruka is told the legend of neglected objects by her mother in hospital. Where do all the lost or forgotten objects of the past disappear to? According to one ancient Japanese folktale, they are stolen away by foxes when their owners forget about them or no longer care about them. The implication, as we gather from the grown-up 16 year-old Haruka living alone now in a difficult relationship with her father now that her mother is dead, is that the happy memories of childhood can also be neglected. For Haruka, all those memories are tied up within a little handheld mirror, but inevitably it's been misplaced and lost. Or stolen by foxes. Remembering the folktale that the offering of an egg at the Inari shrine could recover the lost object, Haruka reckons it's worth a try.
Visually and in terms of how the animation style fits the concept, Haruka and the Magic Mirror really takes off at this point. Haruka follows a little creature that picks up her dropped keys and is accidentally transported to Oblivion Island, where the accumulation of missing and neglected objects are put to good use by its unusual inhabitants. The little mouse-like creature that Haruka has followed is called Teo. Although horrified that a human has found their way to Oblivion Island, Teo agrees to help Haruka look for the mirror. In this place however, mirrors have special powers and there is another creature known as the Baron who also seeks to make use of the very special properties of Haruka's mirror.
Like Welcome to the Space Show and their placement of children on a variety of alien worlds, Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror creates an environment where the imagination can run riot and be rendered impressively in the CG animation. This is achieved wonderfully in the Oblivion Island sequences, where you really get the impression that you have entered a magical place and are enveloped in its almost 3-D like qualities. It's not just the visual appeal of the fantasy world, but one of childhood imagination and lost childhood innocence where awareness of the rules and workings of the world is different, where there is wonder and magic but also peculiarities and dangers.
That's the great hook that makes this all meaningful and not just merely an excuse to indulge in CG flights of fantasy. In Haruka's search for the lost mirror of her childhood innocence the question is raised at how we could ever allow ourselves to forget a more simple time when life was happier. The answer, of course, is that memories are always with us. The objects and the people of our childhood may be neglected as we get older, but they aren't lost forever and their influence is always with us, even as time moves on. That's not so far away from the central concept of Andy in Toy Story, and Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror comes very close to capturing the same sense of childhood wonder and the bittersweet sentiments attached to growing up and life moving on. And that's something that everyone can relate to.
Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD and as a 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo. The Blu-ray disc is dual-layered BD50, the encode AVC at 1080/24p. The Blu-ray is playable evidently on Region B players, but hasnít been tested for multi-region capability. The DVD is a dual-layer DVD9 disc with the same content as the BD.
As you would expect from a recent film made and presented digitally, the quality of Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror is superb on both the BD and the DVD, but obviously it benefits more from the High Definition presentation. There's an intentional softness to the image and warmth in the colouration that prevents it from looking too artificial and sterile. The movements are fluid and almost head-spinningly so in some of the faster-moving sequences. I only noticed one or two little jerks in a few of the slower camera-pan type movements, but this was very rare. Colour banding also isn't much of an issue. I noticed some slight banding in one sequence, but how evident this might be could be down to your individual visual display.
Included on the Blu-ray is the original soundtrack in Japanese Dolby True HD 5.1, and an English dub also in Dolby True HD 5.1. With the film being aimed principally at a younger audience, I decided to go with the English language version, since this also meant that the superb visual impact of the film isn't spoilt by subtitles. Happily, the English dub is excellent, the voice - actors integrating perfectly with their characters. The Dolby True HD 5.1 mixes are highly dynamic and particularly loud during the action sequences/ chase scenes and explosions that build as the film gathers pace. On DVD, the soundtracks are also strong in English and Japanese, both in Dolby Digital 5.1.
The subtitles on the Blu-ray are in a clear, readable white font and are not too distracting if you decide to go with the Japanese language option. The subtitles on the DVD however are horrendous - bright yellow and bold, detracting considerably from the beautiful colour schemes of the animation. If you are watching on DVD, avoid them and go for the English dub if you want enjoy the viewing experience of the superb animation. Subtitles are available automatically when the Japanese audio track is selected from the menu on both BD and DVD, but they can't be brought up when listening to the English dub or switched on/off from your remote control. Likewise, audio tracks cannot be changed while the feature is playing.
There are a considerable number of extra features that cover the promotion of the film in Japan, each of them quite accessible at around 5 minutes each. In addition to a brief overview of the development of the film, these include the lead actress Haruka Ayase visiting an Inari Shrine, travelling to "Battleship Island", an abandoned mining island in Nagasaki and answering questions with the other voice-actors at the Q&A for the film's premiere. Animation director Nayoshi Shiotani also makes an appearance in New York for the US premiere. The most substantial feature is a 26-minute look at some of the illustrated fox folktales that inspired the film and other appearances of kitsune in Japanese shrines and temples and even as an inspiration for food recipes. The usual promotional teasers and trailers are also included. Extra features are the same on BD and DVD.
There's nothing particularly new in the plotting of Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror, which relies on the familiar schoolgirl-aged lead character and the usual fantasy representations of cute creature sidekick and evil villains. It does also get a little carried away as it descends into one fast-paced action sequence after another, but it's well enough scripted with folkloric elements and has a strong meaningful concept relating to memory and loss. Where the film really excels however is in the superb CG animation and the striking visual depiction of Oblivion Island. This is eyes-glued-to-the-screen animation with engaging characters and a storyline that has its heart in the right place. Released by Manga Entertainment, the film looks just phenomenal on both Blu-ray and DVD releases.