Tag Archives: Steampunk

FANTASIA 2023: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: KURAYAKUBA (2023)

クラユカバ

Wanderers in the Darkness

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

DIRECTED BY: Shigeyoshi Tsukahara

FEATURING: Voices of Hakuzan Kanda, Tomoyo Kurosawa, Raikou Sakamoto

PLOT: Ne’er-do-well detective Sotaro is hired to investigate a series of disappearances coinciding with a touring carnival, and descends into “the Dark,” an undercity plagued by gangs and, it is rumored, supernatural concerns.

Still from Kurayukaba (2021)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Jazzy steampunk, circus evil, and eldritch mystery shroud this animated action/noir gurgling with easy-going humor, and its big top finale makes for a wild ride of Caligari-style wonderment.

COMMENTS: There is a lot that makes sense about our protagonist, Sotaro. He’s a detective because his father was one, he’s disheveled because business is slow, and he’s got something of a sidekick in the form of a scrappy street urchin named Saki—because, frankly, a down-on-his-luck, alcoholic detective would. He also has two qualities to his credit, at least in the eyes of a newspaper man who wants an investigator: he’s broke, and takes a relaxed view of his own well being. This makes Sotaro (after some booze and cajoling) the perfect candidate to take a dive into “the Dark”, an underground labyrinth and cave system teaming with ancient shrines, modern hoodlums, renegade law enforcement aganets, and ghostly, carnivalistic evil.

Kurayukaba‘s visual style is reminiscent of a dog-eared, old comic: watercoloring bleeds, and a papery quality renders the image tactile at times. The hero’s world-weariness does a dance with his deep-seated vivacity: while he’s only shown drunk or hung-over, his quick wits and powers of observation make him the ideal “reactive protagonist” (contradiction in terms that may be). As he explores the glorious, cluttered mess of “the Dark,” the pastel-steampunk world below the surface comes alive in a confusing maze of train cars, gears, bridges, and colorful characters. The case concerns the recurring disappearance of random victims, with a chaotic muddle of black markings the only trace of evidence. Conspiracy is in the air, as these events are typically hushed by the powers-that-be. And Sotaro is on the case because—well, he’s on the case because he needs the money; he was hired because he has a long history with “the Dark.”

Rarely, if ever, before have I had the pleasure to witness this particular visual fusion found amongst the mysteries of Kurayukaba. Among the oddities to enjoy are an armored demon train reputed to haunt the labyrinth; a Greek chorus of clockwork birds on a merchant’s display stage (which reminds me of the strange behavior of our dear detective’s office parrot…); and Sotaro’s various flashbacks. His explorations continue his father’s work, culminating across the generations in a fantastical centerpiece. Kurayukaba is inspired by ’20s-era visuals and sound, with a particular bent toward German , and the film meanders along its tracks with an ongoing rota of eccentric characters and phenomena, de-layering an age old conspiracy until a vibrant, hallucinatory climax that ties the case together while resolving Sotaro’s difficulties with his father. After the explosion of light, sound, and spectacle, our tired hero can finally go top-side and have himself a well-earned drink.

Read our interview with director Shigeyoshi Tsukahara and producer Shinnosuke Yoshida.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s never a dull moment in this animation from Shigeyoshi Tsukahara, which mixes a detective story with an exuberant tale of a city’s mysterious underbelly all presented with steampunk verve.”–Amber Wilkinson, Eye for Film

21*. APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015)

Avril et le monde truqué

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christian Desmares,

FEATURING THE VOICES OF: Marion Cotillard,  Philippe Katerine, Marc-André Grondin, Jean Rochefort, Bouli Lanners (French); Angela Galuppo, Tony Hale, Tod Fennell, Tony Robinow, Paul Giamatti (English dub)

PLOT: In 1941, during the reign of French emperor Napoleon V, the world’s scientists have vanished, technology has not progressed for the past six decades, and the environment has been devastated by war, coal consumption, and rampant deforestation. The French Empire hunts the remaining scientists, hoping to enlist them to work on the government’s behalf. After April’s parents are kidnapped by a mysterious electric cloud, the precocious girl teams up with her grandfather, a petty thief with divided loyalties, and her talking cat Darwin to track them down, and possibly find a solution to all that ails the planet.

Still from April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Nominated for the César for Best Animated Feature; it lost to The Little Prince.
  • The most literal translation of “truqué” in the film’s French title is “rigged” or “fake.” The film’s English subtitles translate the title as April and the Twisted World.
  • An alternate history, the film’s point of divergence is the death of Napoleon III, who in our timeline lived to instigate the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. His prosecution of the war was such a failure that he was captured by the enemy, and his subsequent  rule inspired fierce opposition, ending his hopes of founding a dynasty.
  • Among the scientists whose disappearance has arrested the technological progress of this alternate world are Édouard Branly, Albert Einstein, Heinrich Hertz, Guglielmo Marconi, Alfred Nobel, Louis Pasteur, Enrico Fermi, and Sergei Korolev. Also, that may be penicillin discoverer Alexander Fleming giving a large sentient Komodo dragon a massage.
  • The film’s drawing style is modeled after cartoonist Jacques Tardi, who is credited as the creator of the “graphic universe” and gets a shout-out in the credits under an image of a pterodactyl.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nothing can quite compare with the first sight of a pair of Eiffel Towers looming over the Paris skyline, eventually revealing themselves as the central station for a fire-powered continental tramway that looms over the coal-stained cityscape. The image is so iconic that it figures prominently in the story, captured in April’s beloved snowglobe and playing a role in the film’s climax.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Ambulatory meta-mansion, spore rocket

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The film’s individual elements—setting, story, design—are each slightly off-kilter on their own. But combined, they add up to a unified vision of strangeness. With each plot development, the film manages to elevate the already bizarre circumstances to even greater heights.

English-language trailer for April and the Extraordinary World

COMMENTS: Say the word “steampunk” and your first thoughts Continue reading 21*. APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015)

CAPSULE: THE MOON IN THE HIDDEN WOODS (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Takahiro Umehara

FEATURING: Voices of Lee Jihyon, Jung Yoojung, and Kim Yul

PLOT: Muju, a dark cosmic lord, is enveloping the earth’s sky more and more each night because the moon has gone missing; a young princess and musician must work together to stop Muju and his earthly minion, the despicable Count Tar.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Moon in the Hidden Woods features two spectacular scenes of psychedelic light play, as well as a host of novel monsters and battles, but is grounded at heart in the world of fantasy.

COMMENTS: The Moon is the Hidden Woods‘ varied elements give it a feeling of timelessness. As a Japanese director of a South Korean story, Takahiro Umehara imbues The Moon Hidden in the Woods with a touch of universality, as well. Upon finishing the film, I felt that it could have just as easily been made forty years ago as a month or two ago. This is no criticism: it has the style and aura of a film you might have seen on occasion, with great excitement, as a child, reveling in the unfolding of a truly grand adventure grounded by young, likeable heroes.

These heroes are up against the double adversaries of the great, terrible alien, Muju, and the vain, manipulative Count Tar. The story begins in a bazaar where two troupes of musicians have gathered for a percussion battle. Janggu is the leader of “Nova Folk Band,” and with the help of the incognito princess Navillera, his team handily dispatches the sitting champions, “Pipe Beat.” The action then goes into overdrive, as royal guards pursue Navillera and Janggu, who escape with meteorite hunters riding mechanical war birds and retreat to the Nova village outside of the city. One of the Count’s agents betrays the villagers and Janggu and Navillera are forced to flee into the Hidden Woods. They know they must stop Muju, who threatens the planet, while being harried by Count Tar’s henchmen.

All that is merely skimming the surface of the goings-on in The Moon in the Hidden Woods. Though he’s perhaps late to the game, Umehara creates something almost mythopoeic in this movie. Although largely based on ancient Korean customs and myths, this distillation is a singular vision of the director and his animation team. The stylistic flourishes enhance the underlying mythology: the prevalence of Korea’s five colors which make up the world (black, blue, white, orange, and yellow); the importance of drum music, along with its metaphorical significance of “bouncing back” from adversity; and a Middle Ages-meets-steampunk mechanical aesthetic.

Admittedly I only fully appreciated what was going on after having interviewed the filmmaker the morning after the screening. But my initial impression, wholly ignorant of the film’s precedents, was still one of “kick-ass wonder”. The Moon in the Hidden Woods shows a vibrant society squaring off against great evil, the staple of any great epic. While its different threads are pulled from a particular culture, Takahiro Umehara, as an outsider, revels in the opportunity to weave them into something completely new. The one caveat to my praise is that Moon very much has the feel of a children’s movie. That said, it’s a children’s movie head and shoulders above the competition.

You can also read our interview with director Takahiro Umehara.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…will delight you with all the cool visuals and small details, while making you wish the filmmakers had been as creative with their story as the visuals.”–Steve Kopian, Unseen Films (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015)

April and the Extraordinary World has been promoted to “Apocryphally Weird” status. Read the official entry here.

Avril et le monde truqué

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci

FEATURING: Voices of Philippe Katerine, Marc-André Grondin, , Bouli Lanners (French); Angela Galuppo, Tony Hale, Tod Fennell, Tony Robinow, (English dub)

PLOT: In an alternate history where technology never advanced past 1870, young April seeks to find her scientist parents, abducted by unknown forces with superior technology.

Still from April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: More than one mainstream critic has referred to April and the Extraordinary World as “wonderfully weird.” Checking my movie reviewer decoder ring, I see that when used as a modifier to “weird,” “wonderfully” translates as “mildly and in the least threatening way imaginable.” April may not be super-strange by our standards, but it is at least playing in the right ballpark. This exciting, imaginative and visually superior cartoon it may be able to make the List on the sliding scale: the better the movie, the less pervasive the weirdness required. (Also, there was one walkout in the theatrical audience of three, and walkouts automatically earn List Candidate status).

COMMENTS: Let’s try an alternate plot synopsis for April and the Extraordinary World: in 1870, Napoleon III’s attempt to create an army of invulnerable monkeys (just roll with it) to fight the Franco-Prussian War goes awry, resulting in a world where technology stalls in the steam age and France goes to war with the United States over timber resources in Canada. The “extraordinary world,” not April, is the star of this French import; and what a world it is! The Eiffel Tower is now a stop on the Paris-Berlin steam line, cars run (badly) on wood-burning engines, and our heroine, April, has a talking cat (although that‘s unusual even by the standards of the time). Whenever a scientist—Fermi, Einstein, the Curies—nears a revolutionary discovery that would drag society out of the Steam Age, they mysteriously disappear, abducted by governments who want to use their talents to build super-weapons to fight the ever-raging wars over scarce resources (when our story begins, the world’s coal supply has been exhausted, and nations’ industries are now burning less-efficient timber). This world is not the quaint, cute utopia imagined in much of steampunk literature; although the tone is adventurous rather than bleak, the world is dystopian and polluted. In Europe, freestanding trees are found only in museums, and the streets are covered in ash. It’s not steampunk, it’s sootpunk.

April has garnered comparisons to everything from The City of Lost Children to Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin with a touch of Metropolis, but I think the most appropriate touchstone here is the works of . Not just Howl’s Moving Castle, even though this one does feature a house that moves on stilts. It’s actually the fully-realized, impeccably detailed fantasy world, the lovingly hand-crafted animation, and the plot centered on young protagonists making their way through an epic setting that spurs the comparison. Like a Miyazki film, April expertly interweaves world-building episodes and light character development with sequences focused on action and spectacle, while leaving aside animated Hollywood’s emphasis on pat morals, clever pop-culture references and jokes aimed over the heads of kids.

If the word “extraordinary” in conjunction with a fantasy-adventure set in a low-tech France starring a female heroine whose name begins with “A” sounds familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. That’s not an accident, as both movies were based on graphic novels by Jacques Tardi, whose name appears in the opening credits under a drawing of a pterodactyl.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a visual delight, an animated French steampunk adventure that is smart, exciting and wonderfully weird.”–Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

146. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)

Hauru no ugoku shiro

“I love the animation, ’cause it’s very magical and very… fantapsychological?”—12-year old Josh Hutcherson (who played Markl) on Howl’s Moving Castle

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Chieko Baisho, , Akihiro Miwa, Tatsuya Gashūin; Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, , Billy Crystal, (US dubbed version)

PLOT: Sophie is an 18-year old girl who works in her mother’s hat shop in a kingdom where wizards exist alongside flying airships. One day a witch strides into the shop and curses the girl, turning her into an old woman. Sophie runs away from home and finds work as a housekeeper for the wizard Howl, who lives in a magical wandering castle powered by a captive fire demon.

Still from Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was loosely based on the children’s novel of the same name by English writer Diana Wynne Jones.
  • Miyazaki stepped up to complete this project after the original director quit over creative differences.
  • One of the major changes from the novel is that the action is now set during a senseless war. Pacifist Miyazaki added the war subplot to express his anger at the United States-led invasion of Iraq.
  • In the Japanese version the same actress (Chieko Baishô) voices both young and old Sophie; in the English dub the duties were split between Emily Mortimer (young) and Jean Simmons (old). In the original Japanese the Witch of the Waste is voiced by a male (drag queen Akihiro Miwa).
  • Howl was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film (losing to the Wallace and Gromit feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, it’s Howl’s moving castle, as clinking, clanking, collection of caliginous cartoon junk as ever animated. The castle is a random assortment of turrets, gangways, girders, smokestacks, and bat wing fins, with cottages attached at various points, lurching along precariously on mechanized chicken legs like some replica of Baba Yaga’s hut commissioned by a mad steampunk billionaire.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take witches and wizards and place them inside a world with low-tech Victorian technology, and you have a steampunk fantasy. Now, filter that peculiarly Western brew through Japanese sensibilities, and add in Hayao Miyazaki’s flair for spectacle and childlike surrealism, and you end up with a story containing so many strata of magic that it approaches the casual incoherence of classic folk tales.


Disney American dub trailer for Howl’s Moving Castle

COMMENTS: Although set in a mythical European milieu—the picturesque cobblestone streets and red-trousered dragoons with handlebar Continue reading 146. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)