“Gold Kingdom and Water Kingdom.”

Three Works from the Animation is Film Fest that Adults Can Enjoy

Writer Amanda Walujono gives props to this trio of Asian-produced films to add to your watch list

“Gold Kingdom and Water Kingdom.”

Animation is Film Festival

Among the crowds of tourists gawking at the various stars of the Walk of Fame, the Animation is Film Fest 2022 took place in the center stage of Hollywood at the famed Chinese Theatre in October. While the festival featured animated films from all over the world, we took a look at three anime and anime-inspired films that speak universal truths of the human condition for all.

Gold Kingdom and Water Kingdom
Directed by Kotono Watanabe
Release Date: January 2023 in Japan, USA release presumed to be forthcoming by GKids

Gold Kingdom and Water Kingdom, an adaptation of a popular 2014 josei (women’s) manga, is an ode to the female fantasy. Though there is an assassination attempt midway through, the two-hour film never allows itself to be tainted with bloodshed, and violence is kept to a minimum. Meanwhile, revealing the male protagonist’s relationship status is a literal life-or-death circumstance, a grandiose romance in full blossom.

The tale is, at heart, a love story that arises from an arranged marriage gone awry. The Gold Kingdom (Alhamit) and the Water Kingdom (Baikair) have been at odds for as long as everyone can remember. The two rulers of the kingdom reluctantly agree to an arranged marriage between the most beautiful woman in The Gold Kingdom (Sarah, an honest but plain-looking princess) and the smartest man in the Water Kingdom (Naranbayar, an unemployed soil engineer). In the first of many zany mishaps, the rulers succumb to pettiness and send, instead of their lovers, a stand-in spousal dog to Sarah and cat to Naranbayar.

The tale is, at heart, a love story that arises from an arranged marriage gone awry.

When Sarah and Naranbayar meet, it is a perfect match of two kind-hearted souls. The film’s biggest issue is that their two almost-perfect protagonists, Sara and Naranbayar, are too nice and pleasant towards each other to have any real conflicts. Instead, the film relies on a mix of wacky hijinks and dense fictional politics to keep the lovers-to-be apart. The film’s tone oscillates between romantic comedy to PG-rated political drama with varied success; an hour into the runtime, superfluous characters are still establishing exposition through tedious dialogue scenes.

The creaky plot is ultimately secondary to the gorgeous animation, which remains clear-eyed and crisp throughout. Little details such as the horseshoe arches, ornate jewels on a fan, and the floral-inspired motifs on clothing are much more effective in establishing the worlds of the Gold Kingdom (the lavish Moorish-inspired one) and the Water Kingdom (the decaying, Feudal Japan-inspired one). When the water pavilion is surrounded by lotus flowers and peacocks, it’s easy to forgive leaden plotting.

Above all, Gold Kingdom and Water Kingdom is achingly romantic and optimistic. It’s a world where long-seated conflicts can be solved with the power of love. Sure, the audience may chuckle (as they did during my screening), but it’s hard not to get swept up when the Water Kingdom’s Romeo embraces the Gold Kingdom’s Juliet. As they stand at the center of a bridge on the glittering water, lit by the moonlight, Naranbayar tells Sara “you never look like a mess to me,” and the orchestra swells. The fairy tale triumphs.

Oni: Thunder God’s Tale
Directed by Daisuke Tsutsumi
Release Date: Now streaming on Netflix

“Oni: Thunder God’s Tale.”

Animation is Film Festival

Oni translates to “demon” in Japanese, but director Daisuke Tsutsumi clarified in a post-screening Q&A that the oni he used in this limited series is based on a lesser-known theory in ancient Japanese folklore (anything more would be a spoiler). As a collaboration between Netflix Animation and Tonko House, an independent Berkeley-based animation studio from former Pixar employees, Oni is an overly long but heartwarming, English-language four-episode series that will delight children, with few Japanese details (be forewarned that there are sprinklings of Japanese dialogue such as “ittekimasu” that is untranslated and unsubtitled) that will captivate adults, too.

The world of Oni mostly takes place in the forest, where various gods (“kami”) live and prepare for an upcoming battle against the oni. Our protagonist, Onari, is a spunky oddball heroine who has yet to discover what will be her power in the battle. Her father Naridon (voiced by Craig Robinson), does not speak in words but conveys his love for his daughter through immaculately prepared Japanese food, such as natto with rice. While Onari struggles to make friends at school, Naridon chooses to spend his days goofing off in the forest and occasionally emitting flatulence.

All of the animation is computer generated but done in a way to mimic stop-motion. While there are currently large conversations about rushed and shoddy CGI and VFX in blockbuster films, Oni’s CG animation is rich and tactile, more likely to age gracefully than many a Hollywood franchise, animated or live action. At times, Oni is heavily reminiscent of Princess Mononoke, particularly with its themes of humanist environmentalism. We also see glimpses of the world outside the forest, spending time with a Black child named Calvin who is called “gaijin” (foreigner in Japanese, often with a negative connotation) by his peers.

Ultimately Oni: A Thunder God’s Tale is a love letter to outsiders, which our ponytailed hero Onari exemplifies. Tsutsumi mentioned that he made Oni for his son, a Japanese American, to reconcile with his Japanese American identity (too Japanese to be American, too American to be Japanese: a classic Asian American outsider dilemma). While at times the series can feel a bit of a tourist’s guide to Japan, the little details are rendered with such love and warmth that Oni succeeds in being, in essence, a good Japanese American children’s film. All are welcome in this story.

Summer Ghost
Directed by loundraw
Release Date: Available on Blu-Ray Nov. 1

“Summer Ghost.”

Animation is Film Festival

With only a 40-minute runtime, first-time feature director loundraw uses every minute to establish the equally melancholic and nostalgic tone of Summer Ghost. Three bored teenagers light fireworks in the middle of an abandoned airway. According to urban legend, fireworks draw out the ghost of a teenage girl who is said to have committed suicide.

When her ghost appears, she introduces herself as Ayame Sato. Her demeanor is pleasant and cheerful, though she is quick to tell the three teenagers that only those who are reckoning with the concept of death can see her. As we soon learn, the three teenagers are plagued with schoolyard bullying, existentialist ennui, and an unnamed terminal illness.

The three teenagers embark on a quest to find the truth of Ayame Sato’s death and the location of her physical body, but never at the sacrifice of the film’s contemplative mood. Summer Ghost is an atmospheric and contemplative poem that trusts its audience to understand the literalization of an out-of-body experience to find life’s true purpose.

Teenage ennui and depression are topics that are easy to sensationalize and cheapen in the wrong hands. Director loundraw and his team instead tackle each character’s issues with sincerity and languish in the silences that speak louder than words. The wonderful soundtrack gives the film a resonant touch while taking care to never disrupt the film’s stillness. A vulnerable and mature film that does not overstay its welcome, Summer Ghost is a quiet and gentle tour de force.

Published on October 28, 2022

Words by Amanda Walujono

Amanda Walujono, an Irvine native currently based in Los Angeles, is an interdisciplinary writer with a digital media day job. She has written numerous anime-inspired scripts for the TV screen, and is currently working on her first literary novel.
Find her on Twitter at @misamandary and Instagram at @curvyazngurlfits.