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Jonathan Clements on the movie that turns anime on its head

Deep in an underground society, Patema defies her elders by exploring the forbidden levels, discovering a seemingly bottomless pit, into which she falls. On the surface, the disenchanted schoolboy Age (an odd choice of spelling for the Japanese name Eiji) plays truant at the edge of a hole in the ground, out of which Patema “falls” upwards. Her world is entirely upside down – she and her people are the descendants of the victims of an experiment gone wrong, who will fall into the sky unless they are anchored to the Earth.

Boy-meets-girl has never been so strange as in this feature, in which the leads must literally cling to each other or fall away to an uncertain fate. Originating, like the director’s earlier Time of Eve, as an Internet animation upgraded to a feature, Patema Inverted winningly plays with matters of spatial awareness, perspective and weight, regularly flipping its angles until the viewer literally can no longer remember which way is truly up. Its release a few scant months ahead of the similarly-themed Hollywood movie Upside Down (2013) shows that Japanese storytelling can still be at the forefront in global competition.

Like the protagonist of Osamu Tezuka’s classic Jumping, Age and Patema swing up and down in increasingly far-reaching leaps, exploring the odd history of their world in the process, and also challenging the established order in both of their tribes. Age’s is the better realised – an Orwellian state in which even looking up is frowned upon. Patema’s is more roughly delineated, with little consideration of how the “Inverts” might acquire clothes or food in their limited-resource underground hideaway.

Yoshiura playfully subverts a few traditions, including a lead who interrupts her own swelling musical soundtrack to confirm her arrangements for meeting later, and a baddie’s henchman who not only switches sides, but charmingly offers comfort to a thwarted love interest. Yoshiura confessed in an interview that these are all part of his overlying scheme for “inversions” throughout the plot, that every possible element of his film should involve a clash of opposites or the confounding of expectations. This attention to detail can be seen in everything from the regimented but unhappy overground realm to the chaotic but jolly underground exiles. Even Michiru Oshima’s music is revealed as an outgrowth of this idea, with the two leads’ themes each written as a musical palindrome of the other, advancing on its own counterpoint until they unite in a new synergy.

The film also features impressive penmanship from Michael Arias, who is credited with much of the contents of the English-language notebooks, to which the action occasionally cuts away for expository scenes. Ending, like Hayao Miyazaki’s  Ponyo, with the world explained but the central relationship still immensely unlikely to succeed, Patema Inverted is an immensely ambitious movie that perhaps really should have been made in vertiginous 3D – given the treatment of, say, Gravity or Inception, it could have truly dragged Japanese animation to the forefront of experiments in Cartesian space.

But as Yoshiura reveals, even this element was approached “backwards”. Where Japanese animation usually constructs solidity and depth out of pencil sketches on paper, Yoshiura and his team experimented first with 3D layouts and imagery, only then building their storyboards out of these artefacts. In a sense, then, Patema Inverted began in three dimensions, with detailed experiments in world-building and storytelling for an audience that must engage with an upside-down world, only flattening into a 2D movie as the production process went on. It’s this three dimensionality – a depth of field and a sense of ever-challenging perspective – that makes Patema Inverted such a feast for the eyes, and a tease for the brain.

Patema Inverted goes on limited release in UK cinemas in May, and features at the Sci-Fi London Anime All-Nighter on Saturday 26th April.

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