A Whisker Away – Netflix

Written by Mari Okada

Directed by Jun’ichi Satô & Tomotaka Shibayama

 Japan / 2020 / 104 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

leeping all day, prowling all night – the life of a cat seems a pretty sweet gig, right? No responsibilities, no commitments and all the glasses you can knock off the table. For Miyo Saski, being a cat means more, though: it’s the only way she can feel loved. Or at least, loved by someone specific. A schoolgirl, Miyo is smitten with classmate Hinode, and her over-zealous attempts to woo have failed. One night, a mysterious Mask Seller offers Miyo a Noh mask, with whiskers and pointed ears. By day, Miyo is a young girl who ‘masks’ her emotions and pain, by night she takes the form of Taro – a white cat, and goes on adventures.

Captivating as it is peculiar, there’s a mesmeric drive behind committing to Mari Okada’s film which will (assuredly) pay-off. Living up to western stereotypes of the genre, A Whisker Away plays into the hegemonic ideas of what anime ‘subscribes’ itself as – exaggerated, perplexing, and occasionally awkward to a western mindset. Yet, it has a droll charm, with a fascinating wit behind the storytelling and fantastical characterisations set against whimsical animation. 

Undoubtedly paying homage to the Cat Returns series from Studio Ghibli, A Whisker Away reinforces itself with European and American fantasy, notably Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaidand passing references to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Animation studios Toho, Colorido and Twin Engine design A Whisker Away with a soft palette of primarily pastel shades, solely utilising the intensity of colour for Taro’s eyes. Much of the backdrop fades into a watercolour, with a focus on characters, and occasionally allowing the scenery moment to shine.

Only when we enter the Island of Cats and find ourselves at the mercy of the omniscient Mask Seller does the tone shift to an intense blaze of lights, deep forests, and emeralds. Illustrated in a way to maximise how different this is to the human world, the Island reflects fantastical versions of bars, fountains, and parks, but with enough removal from reality to suggest an uneasy feeling.

A poignant symbol of folklore in Japanese culture, the antagonistic Mask Seller lurks not as a villain, but as a playful spirit akin to the Norse Loki or Shakespeare’s Puck. Sinisterly frolicsome, Kōichi Yamadera’s voice performance and Okada’s writing hint at a deeper, more enigmatic structure than a simple bizarre tale of cats and school children. Offering Miyo the opportunity to shed her human face and live the life of a cat, the Mask Seller allows the audience to reflect reality through the eyes of a troubled adolescent, whose home life and experiences belay a hidden truth she refrains from confronting.

Gradually, the narrative lets these truths unravel in a deceptively authentic manner, as revelations and troubles are suggested, hinted and then reinforced or discussed after a breaking point, rather than spouted as exposition. Mirai Shida captures boundless energy as Miyo, but when called upon switches her into a distressingly subdued shell of sentiment. Even her characterisation of Taro alters enough of the pace and pitch to compliment the feline aesthetics.

If you could buy into The Little Mermaid trading her soul for legs, then you can get behind a young girl trading her legs for a tail. A Whisker Away is as bemusing, absurd and enchanting as one would expect. Yet, it shocks in how surprisingly astute its portrayal of childhood emotions is, from undervaluing a parent’s struggles at keeping a steady home and grappling with divorce to the dangers of concealing emotions. Tapping into an intense, if bewildering imagination, A Whisker Away spins out a contemporary fairytale, with firm roots in Japanese lore and feline escapades. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/a-whisker-away/

A Whisker Away is available to stream on Netflix

TRANSFINITE – Scottish Queer International Film Festival

“As infinite as nature itself”

Neelu Bhuman’s omnibus of short films TRANSFINITE defies the expectations of a societal construct and achieves a place as a force of nature. The sixth annual Scottish Queer International Film Festival will run October 14th to 18th 2020, with the full programme available in August, but for now, these accessible digital productions should be engaged with. 

Screening alongside a selection of Black queer short films beginning June 25th until June 28th, SQIFFLIX will host Neelu Bhuman’s sci-fi collection of series of seven short stories. Collectively, they spread across various cultures and backgrounds, as various trans and queer people use their supernatural gifts to educate, share, love, fight and thrive. Following the premiere, there will be a live discussion with Black queer UK artists taking place on Saturday, June 27th at 7 pm.

From the subversive narrative of Nova or Shayla to the blunt rally cry and empowerment of Viva, the seven films range in their capability to communicate, but each screams of the capable talents of their producers and echoes the necessity of diverse and accomplished film-makers and promotion of their voices. 

Whether a message of preserving our ecosystems, tying into the film’s value of nature or a playful piece depicting the often untalked about the parental environment of polygamy – TRANSFINITE encompasses all, while highlighting the necessity to endorse queer and black film-makers. Perhaps best demonstrated in Davina Spain’s piece Viva, and though as blunt as a hammer, it categorically addresses the issues that, in 2020, shouldn’t be issues. Shouldn’t need to be shocking revelations or be confronted with confusion and hatred, but addressed.

And even as the quality of pieces varies, none are without merit or substance. With this, the three pieces NajmeAsura and Maya stand-out for similar, yet also strikingly different reasons. Plunging deeper into myth, rather than the general sci-fi premise exudes, Najme and Asura concentrate their storytelling into an archaic form of a fable, particularly with Najme’s depiction of the Naga – a half-woman, half-serpent creature. Tempting, beautiful and cunning, the ignorant mindset of a scaley, phallic creature lurking beneath an outward aesthetic is something many cannot overcome, and more harrowingly an inward projection of aggression for the lead themselves. It’s the complex thought-process, the everyday existence for these producers, which offers insight for many and makes SQIFFLIX an important festival. 

Projecting mythos in a more positive light, Asura and Maya utilise a nature of understanding, and love, one from a familial and the other a romantic/physical dynamic. Ryka Aoki’s writing for Asura is the most accomplished as a complete narrative, tying together humour with the physicality of the role and storytelling, combining the artistry of dance with the intensity of martial arts. Dance, if anything, is the singular theme throughout the series of films, with a sense of movement, a fluidity if you will, evident in all. These freeing routines, often open with the elements, exposing bodies to the world, offers a frank connection and resistance to the bitterness of those who misunderstand.

Seeking unity through core parallels, the seven short films differ in design, capability, and premise, but throughout they share a common ideal and goal which stretches beyond movement and aesthetics. The collective speaks that, like anything, our bodies are akin to nature itself, uncontrollable by any who seek to impose a doctrine, belief, or policy onto it, despite how brutally they attempt to.

Alongside Vision Portraits, which launched earlier in June, access to both films can be located from www.sqiff.org, where online tickets can be purchased on a pay-what-you-can basis from £0-£8. Ticket holders will be able to access the films at any point during the online run. Live Q&A sessions will stream on www.facebook.com/sqiff June 27th.

Mary and Max – Retrospective Review

Written & Directed by Adam Elliot

Australia/2009/92 Mins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A two-fold coming-of-age narrative ‘Mary and Max’ (2009) charters the progression of Mary’s, a young, ‘chubby’ and socially anxious Australian into a woman, friendship with Max, a middle-aged Atheistic Jew in America. Pen pals, a support system, their friendship grows as Mary seeks an escape from her abusive, sherry-soaked mother Vera, all marvellous narrated by Australian treasure Barry Humphries. At random, fascinated by the states, Mary picks an address from a U.S phonebook and hopes to receive a reply to her letter. Gradually, as life moves on the pair grow distant, and after taking a degree in psychology, Mary uses her experiences with Max, who suffers from anxiety and lives in isolation due to his Asperger’s syndrome, as a case study for a book.

Written & directed by Adam Elliot, this stop-motion feature refuses to tread lightly on a plethora of usually difficult to digest themes. Not limiting itself to, but including anxiety, isolation, depression, obesity, addiction & substance abuse, friendship & ultimately forgiveness. In traditional Aussie style, these subjects are the basis of comedy, but not distastefully so, rather hyper-realism. They offset the grim, scathing commentary which scrapes the bones of truth, and leads us to smile while tears well our eyes. The blossoming friendship Max and Mary develop, and the falters they share as they hold grudges with one another, is entirely genuine, having been based on Elliot’s own experiences.

In a world which dictates itself in monochrome, a symphony of colour is located in the emotive spectrum Mary and Max covers. Colour is non-existent, with a simple crimson used to denote aspects of a character’s style, such as a hat or a coat. A profoundly ugly, callous, and cruel world surrounds itself in exquisite design, this is a masterpiece of animation. This method of stop-motion accentuates the illustrated depiction of anxiety, the shudders, and uncontrollable shakes. It bolsters the confusion Max feels to why he is rejected by society, owing to his disconnection from a misunderstanding towards autism. Neither tool overshadows the other, working in tandem to develop a story. The animation compliments the characters, and the accessibility of the writing ties the animation deeper into the audience’s mindset.

Unravelling the multitude of layers Elliot weaves throughout the narrative, ‘Mary and Max’ speaks to all, and years after the film’s initial release its premise, or at least an aspect of which, has become remarkably poignant. Isolation, interaction and correspondence, key topics as many of us sit separately from loved ones. In that no one is owed a reply, no one is owed communication and that the guilt-tripping of someone for living their life, by extension ‘ignoring’ yours, is not excusable, but is understandable. Explanations as to why Max refused to speak to Mary about his diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s specifically, and Mary’s crippling loneliness following a break-up, become examinations as to the dangers of co-dependency, but equally the reluctance to seek help.

Aspergers. It’s a subject many become fearful to engage, principally due to a lack of knowledge, an understandable concern given its disproportionate level of openness in the general public. Troublingly, it has become an almost ‘taboo’ subject, where people retract, rather than learn, out of worry of offending. ‘Mary & Max’ is unapologetic in its depictions of Max’s life with Asperger’s, and it should be applauded by simply making this a fact. It isn’t a ‘trait’, it isn’t a ‘quirk’, and Max considers this an aspect of who he is.

It’s a representation with honesty and tragically leads to Max’s eventual issues with mental health, social issues, and eventual collapse into depression. ‘Mary and Max’ isn’t easy viewing, it can be unpleasant, but the thing is that despite its animated nature, this is perhaps one of cinema’s most accessible, corporeal pieces into everyday mental health. Phillip Seymour Hoffman offers a great deal of Max’s characterisation, strengthening the caricature of Darren Bell’s sculptures. There’s an openness, an innocent, unfiltered honesty, to how Hoffman plays the role, which is accurate for a character living with Asperger’s, who doesn’t see fault with how he talks or interacts with people, despite their abuse and scolding.

Equally, Toni Collette and Bethany Whitmore (as young Mary) convey an innocence which evolves into a strong woman. Unsurprisingly, Collette carries tremendously mesmeric humour in the film, only being outdone by Renée Geyer as the detestably wonderful Vera. It’s a necessary levity in an otherwise dramatic film, particularly in its ingenuousness concerns of suicide. The depictions of bodily harm aren’t comedic or treated with disdain, they are addressed and handled with dignity, an astonishing feat given Eliot’s lyrical humour throughout the film. Then the finale, a shattering moment of life’s obscurity and the true testament of valuing our relationships to anyone and everyone. That there isn’t a weakness in addressing and accepting our battles with mental health, but strength in recognising when we need help, and in Max’s case, an unfortunate escape. No judgements are present, merely a solemn moment of tenderness captured.

A remarkably simplistic story, of two unlikely friends – continents apart, tells us in a barbarically brutal, but extraordinarily raw and touching manner, that even as the black dogs howl at the doors, there is someone who will listen. ‘Mary and Max’ treads headfirst into the harrowing cluster of various mental health topics, reminding us that in the seeming futility of life that there is hope, there is help and there are options – whether this is our favourite chocolates, a television show, medication, therapy, or a potent memory of someone we cherish. It reminds the downtrodden that deep down, just over the precipice of oblivion, that there is a light which doesn’t go out. All woven into a gorgeously crafted, sentimentally comedic Aussie delight.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2020/05/30/mental-health-awarenss-month-retrospective-review-mary-and-max/