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Year: 2012
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Takekiyo Hitoshi
Animation Studio: 
Koo-Ki
Screenplay: Takekiyo Hitoshi, Komori Yōichi
CGI Direction: Tanaka Kenichiro
Soundscore: Kitazato Reiji
Runtime: 95 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Film’s official website: After School Midnighters

Preview of a festival screener courtesy of the Raindance Film Festival, which will be showing Hōkago Middonaitāzu on October 5 and 7, 2012. The film will also screen at Scotland Loves Anime on October 13 (Glasgow) and October 19 (Edinburgh).

At the elite St. Claire’s Elementary School it’s day 1 of term, with a whole lot of new students entering through the gates for the first time ever. Among them are Mako, Mi and Mu, three little girls who wander through the vast corridors of the school – though “wander” may not so aptly describe their doings. Mako, to be sure, is zooming and bouncing about with seemingly inexhaustible energy and in complete over-excitement about the life she is about to start, while Mi, proudly of rich descent, is inspecting the hallway decor (Greek marble) only to find it doesn’t quite measure up to her standards. And then there is Mu, whose face we can barely discern behind that curtain of long, dark hair and bangs, her sharp, hidden eye fixed on that insect that’s whizzing about, golden fly swatter poised for attack. Near the old Science Room Blabbermouth, Little-Miss-Luxuries and Geek Girl run into each other and are warned by builders not to enter the place – words that of course have zero effect on three curious kids. In they sneak and stumble across a human anatomical model, soon taking him apart and beautifying him, Renaissance-style.

What they don’t know is that it’s not just a model from bio class they are playing with, but Kunstlijk (short: Kun-sama), who comes to life after midnight to inhabit and haunt the school. In the hands of Mako, Mi and Mu, poor old Kunstlijk (he has been around some forty years) is living a nightmare, catching a real fright from his own reflection when he later sees what the girls have turned him into. Absolutely livid, he summons three rabbits in formaldehyde to bring the girls back to school instantly so that he may exact his revenge. What he doesn’t know however is that his opponents, despite their miniature size, are to be reckoned with for in their childlike innocence nothing instills fear, but only fascination (or, in the case of Mi, everything bores her to death) .

Kunstlijk and his loyal minion Goth.

At first instance Hōkago Middonaitāzu is very much an animation for kids, but is more enjoyable for adults than one might expect. Yes, its story is fairly straightforward and predictable in its direction – our little ladies must pass some tests and earn three legendary medals to save the Science Room that is set for destruction – yet it is not just light, brainless entertainment à la other kiddie animations (Disney & Co, I’m looking at you) that we are being served here. Hōkago Middonaitāzu presents itself rather self-assuredly (indeed, the producers are so confident that they have submitted the film for the Best Animated Feature Oscar) and delights in its attention to detail, foremost perhaps in the characters featured. There is of course Kunstlijk, who is arrogant and selfish, believing himself King of the Science Room, or rather, the whole school, unaware that the other residents – whether the pistol-wielding bunnies or the poster-flat classical greats in the music room – consider him only a raving lunatic, a coward or ‘an emperor with no clothes’. Always by his side is Goth, the resident school skeleton with lots of cracks (and a cracking laughter). Whether Kunstlijk is updating his personal blog or dancing through the school with his loyal minion, he is a riot and provides for many laughs.

Invincible miniatures: Mako, Mi and Mu.

No less diverting – and this comes as somewhat of a surprise – is the trio of girls. They are not given much prominence in the trailer and perhaps are not quite so rambunctious as Kunstlijk, but amount to quite a force in the film. The fact that they are well distinguished from one another, each with a clearly defined identity and characteristics of her own, is significant. Each one represents a particular kind of child: Mako is a hyperactive, bouncing ball of energy and always brimming with exhilaration, keeping adults on their toes and probably robbing them of their last nerve with her incessant jabbering. Mi, impeccably dressed like a little socialite (you can bet that those are Gucci sunglasses on her head), is a rich and rather snobbish brat. She measures the world in monetary value and constantly complains – nothing ever meets her exorbitant standards. Next to them Mu seems rather quiet, for she keeps her lips zipped tight unless there is something absolutely essential to be said, which in her case is either 「格好良い」 (“Kakkoii”/”Cool”) or “I want that” (some bug her observant, scientist eye has spotted).

Mako, Mi and Mu also make for rather realistic representations of elementary school children, the filmmakers not only taking a risk with these character choices but sticking to their guns throughout: as individuals, the girls (certainly Mako and Mi) can be intensely irritating, for their quirks never weaken but remain in action for the entire course of the film, leaving not only Kunstlijk and the other nocturnal creatures of St. Claire’s in want of a mute button for at least Mako, but probably quite some of us viewers too. The teeny-tiny heroines also do not possess any superpowers, they simply do what little kids would do: they yell at bugs in disgust (Mi) or delight (Mu), paddle around the pool in a horsey-shaped rubber ring and of all great classical compositions can only recognise Pour Elise – though only as music on hold. That they remain exactly as they are from the beginning to the end and win the tests for the medals their way, rather than by becoming superheroines of sorts feels rather refreshing. Moreover, there is also something ingenious about Mako, Mi and Mu as an invincible and essentially inseparable team. While in real life persons with such distinct personalities would often be unlikely to end up together, these girls, from the very second that they meet, simply accept one another, unquestioningly and without any prejudices. In a world with plenty of school bullying this is a great message to include in a film, even more so in the subtle manner that it is done: their acceptance of each other’s differences is never a discussion point in the story, it is simply a normality that requires no discussion.

The great, unknown classical composers.

Apart from the successful characterisation, it is obvious that filmmakers were also having plenty of fun making a colourful spectacle that includes a musical performance by Kunstlijk and a multiply-projected Goth, a moody time machine as well as a sky-flying motorbike, among other things. There are also some definite adults-only jokes, including a strategically placed (and shaped) elephant drawing and a scene that involves an umbrella grabbing some balls that would have never survived in a USAmerican animation. And more witticisms that only some viewers will pick up on: if I previously wondered about Kunstlijk’s name – how a Dutch word meaning ‘artificial’/’art corpse’ ended up in a Japanese animation – watching the film revealed an answer. It is in fact not just Kun-sama that bears an unusual moniker, but the filmmakers engaged in multilingual wordplay with characters across the board: there are plenty of English names (Goth, the skeleton, Sonny and Michael, two of the rabbits), the digital twins are called Dunkelheit and Lumière (darkness and light in German and French respectively), while Pinia, the wannabe-merman introduces himself with ¡Cómo estás, amigo! (How are you, friend!). And, finally, there is also Chabris, the frankenfly from the past, a reference to wine from the Chablis region in France. None of these things appear in translation as these are clearly insider games, very much bound to be lost on the kids but manifesting the jolly good time the people behind the film were having. And that, I would say, is rarely a bad thing.

Overall Verdict: A straightforward and simple story it may tell, yet by getting its characters right and taking care to serve up some amusing details and a good mix of – uncensored – humour and intelligence, Hōkago Middonaitāzu turns out to be more than just a fun ride for the kids and has its heart in the right place with some of the subtler messages it contains.

Rating: 8/10

Bonus Bits:

  • The double wordplay with the inaccurately rendered Chabris is particularly hilarious, with little Miss Know-All-Things-Luxurious not missing a beat: “Chabris? A new wine? I want to taste some wine.”
  • The film started as a 6-minute short, which was picked up by a French TV channel. Takekiyo was later persuaded to turn the short into a feature length film. This background behind the making-of Hōkago Middonaitāzu somewhat explains why the animation seems to have been aimed not just at the Japanese but the international market from the start.
  • The film was released in Japanese cinemas August 25 and seems to have had a few showings in Singapore also.
  • Hōkago Middonaitāzu is vying for the Best Debut Feature award at Raindance.
  • Interview with Takekiyo Hitoshi, the director.
  • I only found one review, over at imdb.com.
  • Website for the Raindance Film Festival and the page for Hōkago Middonaitāzu.
  • Website for Scotland Loves Anime and the Glasgow and Edinburgh page for the film with links to book tickets.
  • My previous posts on the Raindance Film Festival and Scotland Loves Anime.

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