I remember seeing the original Star Wars seven times in the theater as a child. I simply couldn’t get enough of it – the world, the characters, the story. Everything just seemed to work about it, and what I left with was an incredibly compelling and powerful film experience that affected me for years afterward in ways both obvious and unseen.
Movies like that seem to be a rare breed – the ones that get everything right. The ones that make you literally cringe when you watch your favorite character struggling with all their might, or that make you wish you could be magically transported into the world you see unfolding on the screen. The ones where the special effects or action serve the interests of the story, rather than stealing the spotlight, and where the characters aren’t simply cardboard cutouts, dropped in because…well…a story needs characters.
I’ve found myself becoming more and more jaded with the fare that’s been appearing in theaters these days, and I think most of it has to do with the fact that fewer and fewer films seem to be “getting it right” the way that movies like Star Wars, The Matrix, or Titanic did. With painfully few exceptions, I find myself watching the ending credits with a lingering sense of disappointment; in some cases with the entire film, but more often than not, with only one or two elements, albeit very critical ones. Maybe the plot was extraordinarily weak despite there being some good, original ideas in play, or maybe the characters came off as lifeless or unrelatable. Regardless, somewhere along the line, it seems as if the attention shifted from making something unique and special – allowing the film to be the best that it could be – to simply getting it done and out into theaters as quickly as possible.
I recently had the pleasure of watching both Puella Magi Madoka Magica movies, in preparation for the upcoming theatrical showing of Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion this weekend. I had already seen the original anime series, which both movies essentially recap, but let me say that watching all four+ hours of it again was no less compelling, powerful, and (at times) utterly heart-wrenching as it was the first time I saw it. Anime fans take heart: I will do my best to keep this post as spoiler-free as possible. For those unfamiliar with anime, the term refers to Japanese animation, which encompasses a wide range of genres, styles, and techniques. Madoka Magica turns the magical girl sub-genre popularized by shows like Sailor Moon on its head by offering up a distinctly dark take on the struggles and pitfalls of being a magical girl: it’s not all about pretty dresses and sparkling smiles.
Madoka is by far and away not the only anime series to have “gotten it right” in my opinion, but it is a particularly good, recent, and original example. Shows like Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai (thankfully shortened to Ano Hana), Witchblade, and Key’s work (Clannad, Kanon, Air, etc.) plunge characters deep into conflict and allow that conflict to play out on the screen in ways that are oftentimes surprisingly engaging. Even within the most fantastical settings, the stories and characters mesh in a way that reaches beyond what any one element could have possibly achieved on its own. In other words, I don’t think it’s just the characters, or the setting, or whatever else: it’s the way that these different elements are brought together and interact. Despite a growing trend in recent years to make anime shows more appealing to certain American audiences by incorporating a greater amount of “fan service” (sexualized elements), the Japanese animation studios still seem to have an affinity for developing and producing some truly remarkable work.
The beauty of comedy is that is that it allows us to laugh at our own shortcomings and foibles; the beauty of fantasy is that it allows us to live inside our dreams and go places we may not be able to go in reality; the beauty of horror is that it holds our deepest, darkest fears up to the light of day and allows us to face them head-on, with the kind of courage that only our heroes may possess. I think that story in itself is one of the most powerful tools we have to bestow wisdom, evoke emotion, and capture our values and our essence as a people, but like any tool, how (or how well) it is used is up to each wielder.