Review: "Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror Blu-ray (UK Edition)": Reflections On Childhood
The first thing that struck me about this film was the contradiction in the title. ‘Oblivion Island’ brought up Elder Scrolls-style images of gothic adventure and battles against demonic hordes. But right next to it was the subtitle ‘Haruka and the Magic Mirror’, which sounds considerably softer and child friendly. It both raises and deflates hopes we’ll soon see Faust Meets Hello Kitty.
Confusing titles aside, the film is actually fairly enjoyable. The mother of a Japanese child named Haruka passes away, bequeathing her a decorative hand mirror as a keepsake. Years later at the age of 16, Haruka’s relationship with her remaining single father is rocky. Discovering that she has managed to misplace the mirror, she visits an old shrine from a folktale her mother used to read and prays for the guardian to return the lost mirror to her. She soon discovers that there is more truth to the folktale than most realise when she stumbles on a fox-like creature collecting abandoned items from around the shrine and follows him into an alternate world. The creature, a youth named Teo, is terrified of the punishment he’ll receive for allowing a human to discover their world, where the abandoned items are re-purposed to create an amazing island society. Haruka convinces him to help her find the lost mirror to which he begrudgingly accepts. As they begin their adventure, they learn that the mirror is far more than just an important keepsake.
The framing and structure of the story is one that has been seen in countless children’s stories, where a child with a problem in the real world is spirited away to an alternate magical one in order to analyse and address said problem. With Oblivion Island the obvious comparison is to Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, as both focus on a headstrong young woman contesting against a whimsical world with dark undertones.
As a character, Haruka doesn’t really become likeable until she travels to the other world. The opening scenes establish the bond between her and her mother, and in turn the bond between her parents as well as the great sense of loss at her mother’s passing, but the time skip to an angry teenager who rarely sees her father due to his intense workload somehow makes her more off putting than relatable. Once she transfers over she becomes quite a bit more likeable as we get more consistent flashes of a troubled but kindhearted and quick witted girl. Her enthusiastic reveal of her terrible disguise got a smile from me.
As a guide character, Teo works well as he has his own life and problems, rather than just being a construct for Haruka’s benefit. An awkward loner, his initial drive to get rid of Haruka is compounded by the fact she may be his first true friend and looks out for him in a way no one else seems too. This slots into the bigger backstory of Oblivion Island itself, which seems to be a society of creatures toiling after human leftovers to sell for meagre currency. It’s a simple character conflict but one that will resonate firmly with anyone who has ever wished someone would support their dream rather than look down on it.
Teo’s situation is illustrated by a trio of bullies who mock him and quickly suss out Haruka’s true identity. This leads into one of the more uneven factors of the film in that often the plot seems to steer things towards chase scenes of dubious importance. At one point the trio give chase on a massive beast of burden, destroying entire buildings as they cry Teo and Haruka will face justice. Maybe this is supposed to be comical but the entire time I was just questioning their sanity as to how destroying half of downtown infrastructure was okay in the name of catching an illegal immigrant.
In fact the two factors eventually converge. As said, Haruka adopts a disguise to awkwardly avoid suspicion, except there are several sequences where she’s minus the disguise with little to no negative reaction and it’s never really explained why Teo’s race seems to hate and fear humans so strongly. A sequence near the end in which Teo tries to galvanise a mob led by the trio into helping him hinges on his altered view of humans but his revelation isn’t well communicated, leading to a very awkward catalyst for the mob to do a 180º turn on their views.
In this way, Oblivion Island feels loosely inspired by Pixar’s Monsters Inc. Indeed, there are a few moments that seem to have dipped their beak into America’s animation movie vintage. Most prominently, a threat encountered in one of the movie’s darker moments is heavily reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Oogie Boogie, right down to its resolution.
Speaking of darker moments, a triumph of the film is the main antagonist, the Baron. I don’t want to give too much away but the design and personality of this character is fantastic. Reminiscent of the mad Queens of Carroll’s work, as soon as he debuts you’ll know who he is automatically. His eventually revealed palace, stuffed with narcissistic tributes, deepens his larger than life personality.
The animation is another true highlight. In the past I’ve often criticised Japan’s awkward current trend of blending traditional 2D animation with elements of 3D CGI. Very rarely does it look good and it quickly snaps you out of the immersion. Oblivion Island is the exact opposite of that complaint, blending both types into a rich, gorgeous harmony. The sequences in the human world appear to use 2D settings with characters and vehicles created in CGI, while the other world switches to full on CGI. Very good CGI, in fact, but arguably just below what Hollywood is putting out. I don’t mean it to sound like a negative but often the level of CGI and the overall art direction generally reminded me of certain CGI pre-school television shows or even the little known whimsical Gerry Anderson series Lavender Castle . However when the movie gives its all there are some breathtaking sequences and views, especially in the scarier moments.
Both casts do a great job. Haruka Ayase made her voice acting debut as her namesake, after a career in more traditional acting. The shift seems to grant her a beneficial air of detachment, allowing Haruka the character to come off as more natural and less like a standard exaggerated anime heroine.
Usually I find anime dubs workable in the sense that you could grant them a certain amount of leeway for being translations aimed at a niche market. It’s a minority I find really stand up well but I’m happy to say Oblivion Island’s dub joins that group. The voice work is solid enough that you could easily divorce the fact of its origin and expect it to hold up theatrically next to the like of DreamWorks and Pixar. A tiny mark against it is a brief flashback sequence which details Haruka’s immediate reaction to her mother’s death. The stark and honest wails of a child actress are more powerful and haunting then the dub version.
Like most Blu-ray releases there’s a large number of extras and they address another criticism of mine: self-congratulating extras for Japanese movies. The extras consist of bite-size videos covering things like promotional events and an American showing of the film. Many of these star Haruka Ayase as she builds up to the films release with a countdown tour of events. Although the common ‘stage greetings’ and similar are present, the bite-size nature spares us from having to sit through a ton of chat show waffle. The longest extra is possibly the most interesting, covering the very Japanese folktales of trickster foxes. As a lover of myths and legends I had a lot of fun with this, especially these were all new to my fledgling knowledge of cultural myths from that corner of the world. Sadly, a ‘making of’ featurette is barely anywhere near the length of this piece, robbing viewers of the chance for major insight into the production.
Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror is a charming film with a warm heart. It might not break new ground in terms of story but children will surely love it and the visuals are a treat for all ages. There are a few plot niggles that feel like the script could have used another revision or two but overall this is a good feature that shows Japanese animation can do more than just drawn out fighting and fanservice vehicles.