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Year: 2009
Language: Japanese
Director: Sato Shinsuke
Animation Studio: 
Production I.G
Screenplay: Adachi Hirotaka, Sato Shinsuke
Art Direction: Nomura Masanobu
Character Design: Ishimori Ren, Hirata Ryō
CGI Direction: Nagasaki Takashi
Soundscore: Ueda Tadashi
Runtime: 100 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Film’s official website: Oblivion Island (US)

Seen at the BFI’s biennial weekend showcase for Anime.

On the surface, Hottarake no Shima has a number of similarities to 「ももへの手紙」 (Momo e no Tegami/A Letter to Momo, 2011), which I reviewed recently on Otherwhere. Both films deal with a child’s loss of a parent and involve unreal creatures. Haruka, the protagonist of the former, however is already 16 and has lost her mother. Death in this case is not unexpected, as flashbacks reveal hospital scenes and hint at the mother succumbing to an unidentified long-term illness. There are differences in focus also, the film being not so much about the lost opportunities and regret with respect to the dead parent, but the estrangement between Haruka and her father (Momo and her mother, in contrast, have a good and rather close relationship, even if a fight between them serves the climax).

As a teenager, Haruka is at a difficult age to be without a female parental figure in her life. With her father working long hours, Haruka additionally feels neglected by the parent she does still have, the two of them becoming more distant by the day. Even when they do see each other – in the mornings, when one rushes to work, the other to school – words are barely or only reticently exchanged, with Haruka rebuffing her father’s suggestion to have dinner together and instead whiling away her loneliness at a shrine near where she used to live.

Teo, not so happy.

It is there that the teen first sees a small, rabbity creature picking up objects that have been left behind – accidentally dropped or carelessly forgotten – by humans. The creature, Teo by name, sets off with Haruka’s keys, unaware that the owner is watching. Flabbergasted about what she is seeing (or not, as Teo is initially invisible), Haruka follows and ends up tumbling Alice-in-Wonderland style into the world where things lost disappear to: the aptly named Oblivion Island. Kaleidoscopically constructed out of all the collected memorabilia with no regard as to what the objects’ original purpose might have once been, Oblivious Island is a wondrous place, but also strictly verboten for humans. When Haruka is finally noticed by Teo, he is terrified and tries to persuade her to return to the human world, knowing that her presence only spells trouble for him.

The young girl however is not so keen to leave once she learns what kind of place she has come to. She becomes determined to uncover a long-lost, but much cherished hand mirror given to her by her late mother. What Haruka does not know is that mirrors in general hold a special power on Oblivion Island and that her very own looking glass is the most magical and thus most coveted one of them all, making her quest even more complicated and dangerous.

Place of Things Forgotten: Oblivion Island.

While the basic idea behind Hottarake no Shima is full of possibilities – an island of forgotten things can only be filled with treasures and surprises – when we do arrive at the place, the colourful and sparkly innovations constructed out of ordinary human possessions cannot make up for what is missing: a story with meaning and depth behind it. Although a conflict is created, it is an entanglement of too many narrative threads, many of which are barely motivated and thus feel forced. Why is it, for example, that – of all things – mirrors have special powers and Haruka’s in particular? What is the story behind Teo’s outsider status and that trio of personal enemies that chases after him? Is there really a need for a stock character like the evil Baron? And how can it be that the inhabitants of Oblivion Island are unable to invent anything themselves, yet are suddenly – and for the first time – capable of building an airplane in the span of a few hours? (It’s thanks to team work of course, but even that makes no sense – for how is that Teo goes from friendless to hero before actually having done anything?)

If the animation is meant to cover up these plot holes – plenty of hair-raising rides across the island both over- and underground, aerial explosions and swinging acrobatics on a mirror mobile make for a breathtaking pace at times – I can only say it doesn’t quite work. For the real techies, Production I.G.’s first CGI feature simply isn’t at the level of state-of-the-art Western CGI animations, while regular viewers might find the style, which comes mixed with child drawings and bits illustrated by hand, off-putting to the point of opting out of seeing the film at all (I had to slightly nudge the friend I attended the Anime Showcase with to give Hottarake no Shima a try). For myself, the manner in which the CGI characters move still looked unnatural, although creatures are gorgeously designed. Cotton is super-cute and, yes, I would like a Teo to take home (his sad eyes profoundly stirred my heart), but they still felt underdeveloped as characters, as did all the human protagonists. Equally, while Oblivion Island seems like a place of many marvels, 100 minutes of running time don’t give one a real sense of it.

Cotton, when he gets mad. (Best not to cross his way then.)

Other reviewers – even if some are more enthusiastic about the film as a whole – seem to largely agree, Andy Hanley writing that “plot and story won’t shock and amaze you by any stretch of the imagination – in many ways it’s about as obvious and generic as they come” (UK Anime Network) and Niels Matthijs concurring that Hottarake no Shima is “not a film that will win many hearts with its elaborate plot or character development” (twitchfilm.com). The kids will certainly enjoy this dazzlingly colourful and past-paced ride, but I can’t deny that I was hoping for a wee bit more – it’s Japanese animation after all and from the studio that gave us「攻殻機動隊」(Gōsuto In Za Sheru – Kōkaku Kidōtai/Ghost in the Shell, 1995) no less.

Overall Verdict: With an island of forgotten things at its centre point, Hottarake no Shima starts with an idea that is full of possibilities, but soon becomes entangled in an unmotivated storyline of too many threads from which polychrome visual delights can only momentarily distract.

Rating: 6/10 (well, maybe 6.5)

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Note: This is the final instalment of my BFI Anime Weekend Showcase reviews – did not see the other films.

Bonus Bits:

  • Some websites describe Teo as a fox-like creature, but except when he is wearing his kitsune (fox-spirit) mask he looks more like a rabbit to me.
  • As for the panty shot: flopping-on-the-bed scenes occur in animations from「魔女の宅急便」(Majo no Takkyūbin/Kiki’s Delivery Service, 1989) to「ももへの手紙」(Momo e no Tegami/A Letter to Momo, 2011), but Hottarake no Shima’s was not so innocent as a pretty definite nod to a certain part of the adult audience – a bit risqué and out of place in my view.
  • Funimation (US) will be releasing the DVD for Hottarake no Shima in August. You can preorder the film.

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