Birthday Wonderland Review (Scotland Loves Anime)

Best Anime Crazy Aunt (left) and Reluctant Anime Heroine (right)
Best Anime Crazy Aunt (left) and Reluctant Anime Heroine (right)

My children have designed a disturbing new ratings scheme for anime films, based on whatever substance they think the director was abusing at the time of production. Of the films from this week’s Scotland Loves Anime season at the Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen, these are their ratings so far:

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Psycho-Pass: Sinners of the System: Caffeine. My daughter found this really boring (I disagreed) so surmised the director would need to be hopped up on triple espressos to keep awake.

Children of the Sea: ’Shrooms. I am in full agreement for reasons obvious to anyone who’s seen it

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Promare: Punch, Viagra and Poppers. Uh... my son’s suggestion because “It was a good time. And also very, very GAY.”

Ride Your Wave: Tentative score as this is tomorrow’s film: due to my son’s previous experience with director Masaki Yuasa’s Devilman Crybaby, this is likely to be: “Coke, but we can’t quantify how many fresh white lines were snorted until we’ve watched it.”

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Weathering with you: Again, we’ve yet to see it, so going by Makoto Shinkai’s past form, this is likely to be fueled by The Freshly Shed Tears Of Love-struck Teenagers Separated Forever By Fate and Circumstance.

Which leads us onto today’s movie Birthday Wonderland. It apparently scores Weed.

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So chilled, man. I want one of these massive fluffball sheep for my garden.
So chilled, man. I want one of these massive fluffball sheep for my garden.

Directed by Keiichi Hara whose earlier film Miss Hokusai I reviewed here, Birthday Wonderland shares much in common with it - namely a sedate pace, a distinct lack of stakes and the structure of a string of vignettes strung loosely together. At least with this there is a definite destination for the main characters’ journey and more cohesive plot progression.

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Hippocrates - premier Top-Hat Dude and alchemist extraordinaire
Hippocrates - premier Top-Hat Dude and alchemist extraordinaire

Teenage protagonist Akane decides to pull a sickie on the day before her birthday, triggered by relatable “I can’t even” feelings in regards to her demanding schoolgirl clique. Her mother sends her on an errand to visit her eccentric twenty-something aunt Chii who runs an eclectic bric-a-brac shop full of interesting oddments. During her visit she accidentally triggers a random magic implement and a sharply dressed man in a top-hat emerges from the basement and spirits her off on a fantasy journey into a parallel world as apparently she is the latest incarnation of the “Goddess of the Green Wind”. Sounds kinda hippy-ish. Or like someone with unpleasant bowel trouble.

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I don’t like heights. Even scenes like these in animated films make me want to vomit. I am a wuss.
I don’t like heights. Even scenes like these in animated films make me want to vomit. I am a wuss.

With fun auntie in tow, they traverse a colourful world, driven by a vague quest to fix a problem with the climate. This alternate Earth is drying out and with the disappearance of water, people’s livelihoods are threatened and all of the colour is draining from the world. Akane is expected to fix this, somehow. Along the way they meet the cuddliest ever sheep, some pint-sized pixie people, an immigration office run by bureaucratic cats and a deeply un-threatening villain duo. They help to repair the economy of a town dependent on sweater-knitting, drive across a terrifying rope bridge, swim underwater with enormous fishes and become involved in ritualistic child sacrifice. Um, yeah.

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Pretty bauble-tree. There are lots of striking background designs that help make this a worthwhile watch.
Pretty bauble-tree. There are lots of striking background designs that help make this a worthwhile watch.

This is not a film with a great deal to say about anything. It’s a fun, brightly coloured romp through a fairly generic fantasy world albeit with some lovely production design and interesting settings. There’s a homely and rustic village, dark industrialised city, extensive dusty desert, snow-clad ice country... All pretty standard, but even the most humdrum areas have some eye-catching individual stylistic flairs, like the stripy ground outside the cat city that reminds me of the iOS game Tiny Wings or the weird triangle aesthetic in the doorways and windows of castles and citadels. Rather than modern anime isekai shows, it takes its cues from older sources like the Oz books, Alice in Wonderland or even The Chronicles of Narnia - this is a much more traditional “transported to another world” story. More of a day-trip than a death and reincarnation deal like so many contemporary equivalents.

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Climactic wet anime boy. Don’t worry, it’s not *that* sort of film...
Climactic wet anime boy. Don’t worry, it’s not *that* sort of film...

My daughter really enjoyed this and said it was the best of all the films so far. My son almost drifted off to sleep in the middle. To be fair, at 115 minutes this film is too long. With a few trims here and there to sharpen up the pacing, this could easily have lost half an hour. It’s a film full of odd little digressions and by nature is extremely episodic. Filled with gentle humour and some nice running gags most likely to raise a smile with younger audience members, Birthday Wonderland is an undemanding but fun fantasy road trip. The producers were certainly trying to channel some of the Studio Ghibli aesthetic here, but it does not come close to equalling any of their most notable successes.

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Aunt Chii. I love her. She reminds me of my wife. Oh God, I married an anime character.
Aunt Chii. I love her. She reminds me of my wife. Oh God, I married an anime character.

Without a grounding emotional core, it does feel like something is missing. We rarely fear that Akane is in any real danger, we are in little doubt that her road trip will end in success, and her main motivation is mainly to go home. For me the best character by far was Aunt Chii. She is a free-spirited woman who speaks her mind (to often hilarious effect) and flits from one shiny thing to the next in search of fun and adventure. Characters like her remind me I definitely have a type when it comes to anime females. My daughter said afterwards “You always like dem crazy bitches.” I need to have a word with my daughter about appropriate language, but she has a point.

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Zan Gu and Doropo - the least terrifying of antagonists
Zan Gu and Doropo - the least terrifying of antagonists

Birthday Wonderland also has a significant villain problem. The main “bad” guy is quite creepy-looking but he’s never very menacing, and his diminutive sidekick is incongruously cutesy and looks like something from a Pokemon film. They are impossible to take seriously and come across as more naughty/misguided than evil. This is not one of those grand and epic fantasty films with a life-or-death battle against the Dread Forces of Darkness. By the end of the film, which for spoiler reasons I won’t elaborate on, these criticisms become moot points anyway. The end, by the way, relies on a barely-explained contrivance that would be infuriating if the plot was even the point of this. It isn’t. It’s a lightweight, relaxing and enjoyable family adventure film suitable even for younger children. Just don’t go looking for anything deeper or more satisfying than that.

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Sometimes you don’t want a full 3-course meal, when just a nice big strawberry will do. This film is a strawberry.
Sometimes you don’t want a full 3-course meal, when just a nice big strawberry will do. This film is a strawberry.

Birthday Wonderland

Directed by: Keiichi Hara

Produced by: Warner Brothers Japan/Aniplex/Fuji TV

Written by: Miho Maruo

Based on a story by: Sachiko Kashiwaba

Japanese cinematic release: April 26, 2019

Runtime: 115 minutes


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