Apparent from the outset, ‘Ancien and the Magic Tablet’, the newest anime from Kenji Kamiyama (‘Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’,’ Eden of the East’), is a checklist of current Japanese buzzwords, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, rural revitalisation and robotics.
The film opens with a familiar Kamiyama theme: namely, the existence of a parallel world. While in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘Eden of the East’, this alternative world exists in cyberspace, in ‘Ancien and the Magic Tablet’, it’s the dream world of protagonist Kokone (voiced by Mitsuki Takahata, ‘Haruko Azumi Is Missing’, ‘Rage’).
Kokone, a high school student who lives in Japan’s rural Seto Inland Sea region with her father Momotaro (voiced by Doug Erholtz, ‘Patlabor: The Movie’), is prone to naps (the Japanese title of the film is ‘Napping Princess’), in which she dreams of a kingdom whose residents are all employed by a giant automobile manufacturer.
In this world, Kokone is the princess Ancien, on the run from her gilded home of Heartland because of the monsters she seems to attract with her powers. All this ties into long-buried family secrets involving Kokone's mother and her family's mysterious connections to a technology company that's planning a big reveal for the upcoming 2020 Olympics. The link between both worlds may be her father's magical tablet computer, which holds strange powers that summon all of Kokone's desires -and makes her a magnet for her father's professional enemies. As the lines between the dreaming state and the “real” world start to blur, like in Mamoru Hosada’s classic anime ‘Summer Wars’, Kamiyama taps into a sense of escapist wonder that connects to Kokone’s own reality in a tangible way.
‘Ancien and the Magic Tablet’ is a gorgeous-looking film, with a soft storybook visual style. It also has terrific music, by ‘Kingdom Hearts’ and ‘Final Fantasy XV’ composer Yoko Shimomura, which is always perfectly placed to bring the right emotion to each scene.
An apprentice of cyberpunk wizard Mamoru Oshii (‘Angel’s Egg’, ‘Ghost in the Shell’, ‘Patlabor 2: The Movie’), Kamiyama came up through the directorial ranks at Production I.G, helming science fiction series that established him as a creator of brilliantly complex, intellectually-stimulating anime. ‘Ancien and the Magic Tablet’ is a big stylistic departure for the director, a fairy tale film geared toward a family audience (it was animated at SIGNAL.MD, a new subsidiary of Production I.G which is reportedly focused on animation for “children and families”).
‘Ancien and the Magic Tablet’ is a gorgeous-looking film, with a soft storybook visual style.
Kamiyama (who also wrote the script) definitely has something to say in this film: it is a story about family and coming to terms with the past, as well as teens learning to make their own way through the world (there’s also cynicism towards Japan’s stagnated society), but it seemingly gets buried in the twists and turns of the plot. The film throws different elements at the wall to see if they stick, like magic computers, mystical princess dreams, blatant sentimentality, pirates, living toys, giant robots, kaiju, cool steampunk-designs and, um, the Olympics? The characters also veer on the simple and archetypal side.
So, while ‘Ancien and the Magic Tablet’ looks and sounds great, the screenplay is the film’s weak point - it wants to be an accessible film geared to a younger audience while attempting to broach too many diverse topics and themes, pushing a tonal imbalance for the sake of having all the toys out on the carpet. There’s so much going on in the third act that it loses focus, cutting rapidly between the realities to the point of confusion, leaving you to just go limp and admire the pretty pictures on the screen.