This body-swap anime, a major hit in Japan, doesn’t look set to repeat the world-conquering form of Studio Ghibli’s smashes Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Which is a shame because it’s a beautifully crafted film, somewhat akin to a Taoist Freaky Friday crossed with Donnie Darko. If you can’t imagine what that might look like, pay to see this film.
It concerns a city boy and a country girl who find that sometimes they will wake up in each other’s bodies. Cue the funniest running gag of the year (involving breasts) and much general confusion. As the film progresses it uses this premise to break down age-old binaries crucial to Japanese culture: male/female, country/city, past/present, traditional/modern, youth/old age, destruction/rebirth. The latter should conjure up painful images of post-war Japan, which this film subtly evokes in scenes of natural disaster that change this gentle comedy into something more urgent. The chronology also becomes confused at this point, a familiar Japanimation device, as both space and time collapse around our heroes. It seems they must find each other. But why? They’re not sure… And will they remember each other’s name? They don’t know… The mystery continues right up until the film’s final frame.
Director Makoto Shinkai has been touted as the new Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, but as usual these comparisons fail to do justice to his unique vision. This has a grandiose romanticism and bawdy humour that clearly marks it out from Studio Ghibli’s largely infantilised (not a criticism) output. It shares with those masters an ecological fascination, rendered in stunningly animated rural vistas, but contrasts them with the bustle of modern Tokyo in urban landscapes that Shinkai seems equally fond of, capturing them perfectly.
I was less enamoured with other aesthetic flourishes, such as the J-Pop and schmaltz concessions to the tween market on the soundtrack. Also the gender representations are too neat, with the girl becoming suddenly more ‘aggressive’ and the boy ‘compassionate’ as they inhabit each other’s bodies.
Yet these quibbles rarely detract from a film that was so compelling it caused the entire audience at my local cinema to burst into applause at the end, which should come as recommendation enough. Remember the name.
The Woman at the End of the World – Elza Soares
Elza’s surname in English conjures up two of her defining characteristics. She has ‘sores’ that run far deeper than ever should in any one person’s lifetime, including a poverty-stricken upbringing in the favelas of Rio, an enforced marriage at twelve years old, subsequent widowhood at twenty-one, the loss of four of her children, an abusive relationship with the footballer Garrincha (chronicled on this album’s ‘Maria da Vila Matilde’), and systemic racial abuse encountered throughout her career. But she also ‘soars’ in her music with a half-sung half-rapped rasp that evokes Macy Gray and Tina Turner, turning Elza into a legendary figure in the world of samba and beyond.
Now approaching eighty years old, Soares wisely surrounds herself with younger musicians who bring a panoply of sounds to bear on her own eclectically influenced voice. Members of São Paulo outfits Passo Torto, Bixia 70, and Mena Mena accompany her original tracks with a classic samba groove melded with jagged rock guitar riffs, polyrhythmic African percussion, avant-jazz brass arrangements, classical violin accompaniment, and hundreds of other wild effects drawn from a variety of sources. This may sound fairly challenging, but despite the sonic inventiveness at work it’s a remarkably easy listen, addictive and catchy, riff-laden and fun. The songs both expand into brave new territory and contract into conventionally hooky delights. This trick is what marks out the very top level of musicianship.
The show still very much belongs to Elza though, as demonstrated on the a cappella opening track, which instantly draws you into the record on her charisma alone. She comes across as a battle-worn figure, frayed and old and weary. Yet emphatically not defeated. The English translations, provided when you purchase the album, are illuminating in this respect: on key track ‘Pra Fuder’ she celebrates fucking with great relish, claiming ‘my turmoil turns me into a she-wolf’. The theme of this album has been stated as ‘sex and blackness’, which is why it comes across as a celebration, a triumphant middle finger up to the hardships of life.
On the title track she accepts the encroaching end to her life with a calm ‘I go on singing till the end’. One listen to this and you will hope that she can live up to her promise, for many years to come.