If any anime feature gets nominated this year, it’s likely to be this one. The epic reimagining of the “Beauty and the Beast” story, set partly in a vast virtual world, got off to a strong start with a Cannes premiere, where it received a 14-minute standing ovation.
Hosoda was nominated two years ago for Mirai, still the only anime feature outside Ghibli ever to get a nomination. Belle is helped by the fact that artists known in Hollywood, including veteran Disney character designer Jin Kim and a team at Ireland’s oft-nominated Cartoon Saloon, were involved with the production.
Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko
Director: Ayumu Watanabe
Studio: Studio 4°C
U.S. distributor: GKIDS
Based on Kanako Nishi’s 2011 novel of the same name, Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko is an earthy comic portrait of a mother and daughter who live on a houseboat. It’s a departure in tone from Watanabe’s phantasmagorical last film Children of the Sea (which qualified for the Oscar two years ago), but the two features share some things: “both are coming-of-age stories about girls attuned to the voices of the world around them,” wrote our reviewer Kambole Campbell.
He concluded, “Nikuko is a mostly pleasant, low-stakes series of vignettes that occasionally undermines itself, but mostly charms with its easygoing coming-of-age narrative.”
Josee, the Tiger and the Fish
Director: Kotaro Tamura
U.S. distributor: Funimation
This adaptation of a short story by Seiko Tanabe is one of several aquatic-themed young-adult dramas to emerge from the anime industry in recent years. Josee, who is paraplegic, is cared for by college student Tsuneo, for whom she has complex feelings.
The film is one of two on this list that were selected at Annecy this year (alongside Poupelle of Chimney Town). Reviews have been mixed, some critics noting disappointment with how the protagonist’s disability is portrayed.
The Laws of the Universe: The Age of Elohim
Director: Isamu Imakake
Studio: HS Pictures Studio
U.S. distributor: not announced
This is an outlier in the list, backed as it is by Happy Science, a controversial Japanese religious movement often described as a cult. The plot may seem like typical high-fantasy fare, but it actually presents aspects of the religion’s mythology: Elohim, the god of the Old Testament, is said to have spoken directly to Ryuho Okawa, the religion’s founder.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Okawa is credited with the original story on this film, and is also an executive producer. Happy Science has produced anime features in the past: two previous titles in this series qualified for the Oscar.
Pompo: The Cinéphile
Director: Takayuki Hirao
U.S. distributor: GKIDS
If Academy voters responded to zaniness, this manga adaptation would be in with a good chance of winning. The film serves up an absurdist caricature of Hollywood (rebaptized “Nyallywood”) in which Gene, a harried production assistant, learns how to make a film at the hands of child prodigy Pompo.
Our reviewer Kambole Campbell appreciated the sometimes “audacious visuals,” but wasn’t impressed on the whole: “Pompo is more ridiculous for its naive earnestness than for any kind of knowing or satirical silliness. For starters, it portrays Hollywood nepotism as a good, uncomplicated thing rather than a symptom of a narcissistic industry.”
Poupelle of Chimney Town
Director: Yusuke Hirota
Studio: Studio 4°C
U.S. distributor: Eleven Arts
This film has an unusual origin: it is based on a picture book by Japanese media personality Akihiro Nishino, which is available online for free. Set in a steampunk world, the story follows a chimney sweep who befriends a humanoid heap of trash. Nishino has vowed to “take on” Disney with his creations; this film will have a tough time against the Mouse at the Oscars. (Note: Poupelle is one of two qualified films produced by Studio 4°C, alongside Nikuko.)
Our reviewer Carlos Aguilar had mixed feelings: “Poignant without turning saccharine, the film handles Lubicchi’s loneliness and Poupelle’s innocent resolve to offer comfort with a beautiful tenderness that matches some of the dazzling moments of gorgeous visual wonder, especially in the third act. Yet the storytelling is rather convoluted.”
Images at top, left to right: “Josee, the Tiger and the Fish,” “Pompo: The Cinéphile,” “Poupelle of Chimney Town”