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Andrew Osmond takes off with a new anime movie

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Anime returns to the heavens in The Princess and the Pilot, a lush romantic aerial adventure from the Madhouse studio. Then again, anime has seldom been away from the sky for long. Think of this year’s The Wind Rises, both Last Exile serials, Mamoru Oshii’s Sky Crawlers or umpteen older films, from Gainax’s Wings of Honneamise to the anthology The Cockpit. But practically all those anime had epic plots and/or weighty themes. Princess and the Pilot flies without such baggage, telling a very simple emotional story of a man and woman united in the sky.

It’s the tale of Fana, a lovely aristo debutante who’s betrothed to a prince. Because it’s a time of war, Fana’s engagement leads to her becoming a target for assassination (there’s a terrific air attack on her castle in the opening minutes, scary and exciting). For her own protection, it’s decided to fly Fana in secret to join her prince, across miles of enemy waters. The man chosen as her pilot and protector is Charles Karino, picked for his flying skills, though he’s also despised for his heritage. His late father was from the country now deemed the enemy. Fana may not realise it at first, but this isn’t the first time she and Charles have met…

The film has a ravishingly clean, clear look, full of sky and sea and shades of blue. Ghibli is the inevitable comparison, especially as the film treads similar territory to Porco Rosso (honour among pilots, the freedoms of remote islands). However, its artistry deserves to become a yardstick in its own right. Of the two reserved protagonists, the pilot Charles is voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki, a former child star in Japan. He voiced the bare-bottomed baby Boh in Spirited Away; later he was the shy mathematician hero of Summer Wars. Fana is voiced by the teenage actress and model Seika Taketomi, in what appears to be her only anime role to date, though she’s appeared in numerous live-action films and series.

The Princess and the Pilot is set in an imaginary world, looking more European than Japanese. Don’t let it worry you. While that world has been set out elsewhere in a series of books (by Koroko Inamura) and an anime TV series (The Pilot’s Love Song, broadcast in Japan this year), for the film’s purposes it’s a convenient way of portraying a timeless situation without getting bogged down in history. You might describe Princess and the Pilot as an airborne Ruritanian romance (an adventure set in a made-up bit of Europe), comparable to Prisoner of Zenda or Castle of Cagliostro. However, the film-makers also take the opportunity to have old-fashioned monarchies co-existing with the kind of giant flying mecha beloved by Hayao Miyazaki or Hideaki Anno. In the film, the enemy ‘Shinden’ planes which menace the heroes were actually inspired by prototype fighters built in Japan towards the end of World War II.

The film was made by the Madhouse studio and directed by Jun Shishido, whose credits include directing episodes of Spice and Wolf and Kids on the Slope, as well as directing a couple of series in a long-running boxing saga, Hajime no Ippo. However, a bigger name in Princess and the Pilot’s credits is the woman scriptwriter, Satoko Okudera. She collaborated with Mamoru Hosoda on his three most feted films, The Girl who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and The Wolf Children. While Princess and the Pilot isn’t obviously in the same mould, its characters and plot are similarly accessible to, well, pretty much anyone. You might also consider that all the films foreground joyous, buoyant kinds of movement; the stone-skipping time leaps in Girl who Leapt, the whizzing through cyberspace in Summer Wars, the romping through snow in Wolf Children, and the soars and swoops of Princess and the Pilot. (Okudera has subsequently written a live-action film version of Kiki’s Delivery Service.)

We’ve noted on this blog that quality family anime films rarely make much money in Japanese cinemas, unless they’re (a) from Studio Ghibli or (b) linked to a major franchise. Princess and the Pilot seems to have barely registered at the Japanese box-office when it opened in 2011. However, the film’s sheer accessibility suggests its makers were thinking of global audiences from the start. Let’s hope Fana and Charles find the welcome they deserve this side of the ocean…

The Princess and the Pilot is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

 

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