Studio Ghibli and Saltkråkan’s “Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter” Premieres on Amazon Prime on January 27, 2016
The opening moments of Patema Inverted successfully grab one’s attention and curiousity. As we watch through what appears to be a video camera and hear panicked, static-riddled cries in different languages, a city’s worth of buildings begin to rupture and float upwards into the vast sky.
Instead of being a misguided attempt to turn Pixar’s Up into a blockbuster thriller, it’s the ideal way to grab hold of the audience with an alluring mystery that is central to the story being told. A time skip of decades if not centuries introduces us to Patema, the princess of a group of humans who have made their home in a sprawling yet claustrophobic network of underground industrial tunnels. Although the people of this society are expected to stay within safe areas, Patema ventures into the cordoned off areas due to a fascination with stories of a fabled wider world spurred by her former mentor Lagos. This sits ill with her guardians, who attempt to sway her with stories of ‘bat-men’ who hang from the ceilings of the uncharted areas. She of course blows this off as a story to scare off children until she encounters one on her next excursion, her fear causing her to fall down a vast pit nearby.
She survives the fall and reaches the outside world promoted by Lagos, but hasn’t exactly fallen, instead dangling upwards from a metal fence. This is the sight soon seen by Age, a boy who is part of the other world of humanity. Recognising Patema as an ‘Inverted,’ he promises to help her return home. But despite its natural beauty, the world Age himself calls home is a dark place ruled by sinister forces who will stop at nothing to obtain Patema and use her to trace her fellow Inverted.
The central themes of Patema Inverted are ones that will be familiar to those who have seen enough family-friendly cinema. Themes of integrity such as ‘Follow your dreams’ and ‘stand up for what’s right’. While these themes are familiar, the film presents them in a fresh and invigorating manner.
The obvious centrepiece is the concept of humanity being split into two separate gravitational planes, both flipped 180 degrees to the other. Notions of flight and weightlessness are explicitly day-dreamy and although the film explores the fun and wonder of such a concept, it doesn’t forget the potential terror it could also evoke. The film allows Patema and the viewer to drink in the wonderful visuals while occasionally reminding us she’s at partial risk of floating off. We’re eased into this initially but later the conflicting sources of gravity find Age in a similar situation and eventually entire scenes are done with ‘inverted’ camera positions that mildly punish the viewer so they can truly understand that disorientation the characters are experiencing. I enjoy the safety of the fourth wall but equally enjoy when storytellers use their wits to bridge a fictional concept into the story presentation.
As a character, Patema is okay but I’m not sure if she’s anything outstanding. Her curiosity and spirit are appealing, but while it avoids making her a Mary Sue, the script sadly seems to keep her too close to other young women in modern anime, being that tiny bit too soft and cuddly.
Similar criticisms can be leveled at Age, sadly, in that I feel he’s reminiscent of many ‘uncertain young man who decides to make a stand’ protagonists in other Japanese productions. That might sound discouraging, but it’s the interactions between him and Patema that work well and at times even display a cheeky sense of humour about such stories. The pair may not be reinventing the wheel but they bring a sincere and likeable heart to this story which, when combined with the Inverted concept, really allows the film to take flight.
One of the most chilling and memorable components of the story is Age’s home of Aiga. Populated by humans who have kept the great disaster of the past firmly in their mind, this fact is used to stamp out notions of free thought out of fear that they could cause a similar cataclysm in the future. Although heavy handed in parts, the message is clear when we see Age and his classmates ferried to school on conveyer belt pavements as opposed to finding their own way. It’s clear there’s a crippling sickness to this place, underlined when we meet the central antagonist in the form of Aiga’s political/religious ruler. Spewing hatred about how only sinners were swallowed into the sky and that absolute obedience of the population is required to ensure the continued success of their rebuilt society, he’s mildly cartoonish, but largely an effective mirror of hate mongers in real life, right down to the hints of insecurity and use of religious crusades to publically mask his own vices.
The themes of exploration and discovery put a hefty expectation on the visuals, and they certainly do not disappoint. Every location shines in beautiful high-definition lush detail, be it the grassy plains of Aiga, the vast underground tunnels, or even the sky itself. These perfectly compliment the story and make you want to see the adventure through partly to see what other delicious eye candy is waiting. Upon seeing high quality character figurine manufacturer Good Smile Company in the opening credits, I initially worried that this would result in the ‘obviously made to become a toy’ trend of character design seen in many recent Japanese TV shows. This was a thankfully baseless concern, as the characters all boast sincere, complimentary designs. The Inverteds all tend to wear heavy environmental suits, while the people of Aiga favour a semi early/mid 20th century formal attire. It does well to highlight the divide in humanity and the damaged/lost culture.
The Japanese cast all offer solid performances, with no one over-acting or phoning it in. Obvious attention is placed on Yukiyo Fuujii and Nobuhiko Okamoto as the two leads, but well handled subplots allow the rest of the cast a chance to shine including Shintarou Oohata as Patema’s struggling bodyguard Porta.
Patema Inverted shows why Japanese cinema catches imaginations the world over. It’s a charmingly crafted story that takes concepts you’ve perhaps only subconsciously considered and weaves them into a unique spectacle full of heart and beauty. At time of writing, UK distributor Anime Limited are in the final days of a Kickstarter project to produce an extensive collector edition of the film, the kind that is common within Japan but rarely seen overseas. After watching the film itself, I would definitely encourage getting on board with this effort while still possible and/or attending one of the Picturehouse cinema screenings where possible.
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