The Secret of Kells: Yes, I’ve Finally Watched it for the First Time

I’ve wanted to watch Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore movies for a good while, even more so after getting into European folk metal. COVID is the reason why I took this long to get around to it! In case you didn’t know, the studio’s third movie never premiered in theaters. And so, GKids, for some ungodly reason, exclusively streamed it on Apple TV+, which—to be fair—I could’ve got a free trial and canceled it after watching the film. However, my consciousness didn’t want to. It also wouldn’t solve the fact that the other two movies aren’t up for streaming anywhere. So, I recently stumbled upon the environmentally friendly Blu-ray box set containing all three movies, and decided to get that through Amazon. Sure, Cartoon Saloon still wouldn’t get a cent of commission off of it, but I at least trust Amazon, for they seem to be the only ones capable of shipping anything in this day and age. Anyway, without further rambling, let’s review the studio’s first movie: The Secret of Kells!

In The Secret of Kells, a boy named Brendan lives in the titular town of Kells, run by his anal Uncle… uh… Abbot? Crap, I already forgot his name. Anyway, said uncle wants to build a wall that could trump Trump in order to protect them from Vikings. However, things get interesting when an old geezer named Aiden (and his cat) moves into town, with a magic book that is just one page short of completion. Aiden is too old to finish it. Guess who gets hoisted with the big responsibility.

Whenever I’ve reviewed Disney movies, I never know what to say about the visuals. As aesthetically striking as they are, I admit that the films are quite samey. The Princess and the Frog is probably better looking than most of the company’s films, and that’s because of something that a lot of millennials and boomers can agree on: hand-drawn animation. While it can look crappy and cheap (i.e. TV anime), Cartoon Saloon shows just what the art form is capable of. 

There’s so much to say about it, I can dedicate a real paragraph to talk about it! While it’s not as anatomically correct as even Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Secret of Kells has its own sense of beauty. Characters are made of basic shapes, which allows them to get really creative with the designs. The way people look lends to their personalities; Brendan is small and cute, while you already know his uncle is a big fat meanie from his height and stiffness. Beyond the cast, the movie does some wild things with the backgrounds; stuff I don’t want to spoil for your sake. It’s colorful, whimsical, and in 2022, still looks timeless. The Celtic world of Ireland really shows through in the natural splendor of the forest outside of Kells. If only Disney kept at the hand-drawn biz; who knows how their newer movies would have looked then!

As my first ever film outside of a natively English-speaking nation other than Japan, I was curious about if there was a sub or dub, like with anime. The answer is that there’s no such thing; it’s English through-and-through, but thankfully, it’s authentically European. Over there, other countries are like states to them, and it’s easy to be exposed to a myriad of tongues. In essence, this means that they can speak English but still have the beautiful accents of their respective regions. It really helps make the movie awesome, although that could just be the pagan weeb in me talking.

Anyway, despite the movie being artsier than Disney, it’s got about as straightforward of a plot. It boils down to Aiden and Brendan working together, under Uncle’s nose, to finish the miraculous last page of the book, and with an inevitable Viking assault capable of occuring at any moment. That’s more-or-less it; Brendan is pretty much just Aiden’s errand boy. Someone probably has a deep analysis of how the movie is an allegory to chauvinist postmodernism (whatever that is), but I definitely didn’t notice it if it was there.

The hardest part of a feature film is writing characters that you’ll grow attached to in that short time, but thankfully, The Secret of Kells does a good enough job with that. Brendan has that childlike wonder, and also becomes like Crockett Johnson’s Harold at one point. He meets Best Girl Ashley, a strange child who lives in the forest and is quite the tomboy. Aiden is a fun and eccentric old man, and conversely, Uncle is—well—we’ve established him. Thankfully, Uncle isn’t exactly a bad Disney parent; in 2009, Cartoon Saloon subverted a trope that it took Disney until—what—Encanto to subvert themselves? Wow, way to sound pretentious. Look, I love Disney, but being the embodiment of the mainstream can bite them in the rumpus room sometimes.

Kind-of-spoiler here, but I’m at least glad that The Secret of Kells doesn’t take the obvious route of making humans evil. Sure, there’s Vikings, who are all polygonal,  black, and have red fire, but they are clearly established as their own entity that don’t represent humankind as a whole. Also, this legendary monster that is supposed to be suffering and malice incarnate… most people would just make it a 40-something-year-old man. However, it’s actually just a monster… for once. I hope I’m not wrong about that, or else I’ll look stupid!

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Surprise, surprise—The Secret of Kells is a really good movie, and I’m stoked to watch the other two. If I wasn’t already sold on Europe via its metal scene, then this might’ve been what did it instead. I recommend it to anyone who misses hand-drawn animated movies.

The Pandava Novels: Rick Riordan Presents’ Wildly Inconsistent First Series

Rick Riordan’s new publishing imprint, Rick Riordan Presents, is a great chance for other cultures to shine in the arbitrarily all-important spotlight of American popular culture. It all started with Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series. Is it a good first impression, or is it a hollow Percy Jackson knockoff? 

The Pandava novels begin  when the titular Aru Shah accidentally releases a villain named the Sleeper from a magic lamp in her mother’s museum. Fortunately, it turns out that she’s the reincarnation of one of five famous Pandava warriors, and she’s gotta go on a quest to whoop his booty before the Sleeper makes a big mess out of existence itself.

The writing of Pandava is a mixed bag. While the dialogue is fantastic (well, it’s fantastic if you like nonstop mainstream pop culture references), the descriptiveness of setpieces is a bit bare-bones, even if the ideas themselves show some level of passion and creativity. The action is exciting, which is at least something it has over the Storm Runner series. 

The characters are where Chokshi put most of the eggs into the basket, and they’re great, perhaps comparable to Percy Jackson’s cast. While Aru is a bit generic, everyone else is a real hoot. Her Pandava sister, Mini, is hilarious, due to her infinite knowledge of ways that they could die. Brynne is the typical, hot-headed, older-sister type, but she’s got a plethora of snide remarks to compliment her muscle. Brynn, introduced in book two, is a tomboy with some decent one-liners. Unfortunately, the weakest link ends up being the final two Pandavas: twins named Sheela and Nika. They occasionally move the plot forward, but when it comes to legwork, they do virtually nothing (and also have no personality).

The character who really won me over was Aiden, introduced in book two. As one of two lead male protagonists, he is super nonchalant, and he never fails to snap a cool pic with his camera, Shadowfax, regardless of the urgency of their situation. The other guyfriend is a naga prince named Rudy, who is as funny as his love for himself.

Sadly, that’s where the positives end. Oftentimes I found some aspects of Pandava to be… iffy. For starters, I felt like Chokshi was more concerned about putting as many characters from mythos in Pandava as possible. I get the excitement of wanting to share your culture with audiences, but cohesion comes first. If I was writing a book like this, I would’ve come up with the story first, then used my research to figure out which characters from mythos could appear at any given time.

There are also many, MANY times that Chokshi infodumps the actual tale of the folklore character instead of, you know, actually giving them a real character arc in the story. In doing this, she also fails to use the reliable technique of making us fall for plot twists through justified lying by omission. At least two developments are easily telegraphed because she tells us literally everything about them all too soon. In context, it’s probably meant to be a cruel irony; a major theme of the series tries to be how these characters don’t want to do what legends foretell and end up doing it anyway. However, I feel like that’s simply a poor excuse to use a smooth-brain twist on par with a Saturday morning cartoon.

While we’re on the topic of the characters from legend, i.e. what’s supposed to make us interested in the series to begin with, let’s talk about how awful they are. They are like Rick Riordan’s trope of “gods who could solve the problem but don’t” on steroids. They’re not only cynical and mean, but I forgot half of them over the course of me reading this series since 2019. Also, where was Best Girl Kali? You’d think that someone as mainstream-savvy as Chokshi would use one of the more iconic Hindu gods, but nope. Apparently that, of all things, would be selling out.

Another flaw is that I felt like Pandava got heavy-handed. From book two onward, Chokshi tried an interesting take on the portrayal of the antagonists of Hindu mythology, and created a morally ambiguous story. While the attempt is pretty good, the problem was how the results were handled, if that makes any sense. Basically, what I’m saying is that there are frequent instances of the narration itself telling the reader what questions they should be asking instead of letting them figure it out from context. I don’t know if Chokshi or the editors or someone else made this choice, but it definitely was a choice that comes off as undermining the intelligence of children. I’m sorry, but that’s something I cannot stand. Kids might be “dumb” at times, but that’s because of the many adults who numb their minds (and give them social media accounts).

And honestly, I felt like it went downhill from there (hot take, I know). There is just so much padding thanks to these numerous “trials” that keep getting shoved down the kids’ throats. With each book, I just cared less and less. And yes, it persists into the final book. Not gonna lie, I only resolved to finish Pandava because I wanted to roast the series on the Internet.

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Final Verdict: 7.5/10

The Pandava series is… fine. It has good humor, sometimes solid writing, and a metric-ton of love for itself and Hindu mythology. It’s just not the awesome thing that Riordan and a lot of people say it is. Like, have I been reading an alternate crappy version of it? At times, it’s ham-fisted, conceited, and has some annoying, smooth-brain plot developments. It would’ve been a rock solid trilogy, but as a quintet, it’s a slog. There’s no harm in reading Pandava, but I feel like it’s overall a net loss of time. 

Anyway, with that, I’m off to Disney AGAIN! Next post will be on May 7th, and it’s gonna be a doozie!

The Haunted Bookstore: Gateway to the Shallowest Shinto Portrayal I Have Ever Seen

This is another light novel series I really wanted to read. I mean, LOOK at that cover art. Also, the description implies that it’s stuffed full of Shinto folklore, i.e. my kind of jam. For the love of Amaterasu, The Haunted Bookstore: Gateway to a Parallel Universe had better be a banger!

In The Haunted Bookstore, an ordinary woman named Kaori Muramoto lives in an extraordinary place: the spirit world. Despite the title, our titular haunted bookstore is an establishment within said spirit world; it’s not actually a gateway TO it. She lives there with a cranky old oni named Shinoname, and helps all sorts of people. But one day, a weird exorcist boy named Sumei appears, and ends up lodging with them.

The thing that makes this inherently appealing is the commitment to Japanese mythology. If you’re knowledgeable about this stuff, you’ll see some familiar faces. And if you’re an American who’s struggling to find accurate research material for it, then The Haunted Bookstore has you there as well. 

Uuuugh, as much as I wanted to love this, I have to say “that’s about where the positives end”. Being a slice-of-life isekai, everyone and everything is super-grounded, and there’s never any reason to feel tension whatsoever. While this can be done well in certain (rare) cases, The Haunted Bookstore is one of those that “pretends” to have heightened tension with numerous action sequences that just aren’t exciting because, by nature of the subgenre, we KNOW that everything will have to turn out all fluffy in the end. 

The book also does a slice-of-life isekai trope that I hate: arbitrarily trying to wax poetic. One example is a side story where Kaori looks after a pair of cicada spirits who have a similar situation to Hikoboshi and Orihime, but in the form of dying and reincarnating over and over again. It’s supposed to make you cry, but… they just come back, so what’s the point of the feels? The universal theme of the series is a big philosophical question of whether or not humans and yokai can coexist. They make a big deal about it, but you just need to look at real life to know that it’s a ham-fisted thing. In the context of actual Shinto, humans and yokai live together whether we like it or not. It could be brushed off as a creative liberty, but it’s not like yokai have completely cut themselves off from humans in The Haunted Bookstore; in fact, there are plenty that live in the real world just the same. Also, I’m gonna have the gall to criticize a Japanese person for being inaccurate, but… the author categorizes jorogumo as a type of tsukumogami, which I’m pretty darn sure is wrong, since those are limited to household objects, while jorogumo is a spider yokai. 

The writing could also be better. For how enchanting the cover art looks, stuff is described with about as much heart as expected in a standard isekai; i.e. the bare minimum of what you could call a description. It’s a real shame, especially considering that this world is supposed to be the appeal of the whole darn series. 

As usual with me, the characters are what I really can’t stand. They are all boring. While they have some semblance of personality quirks, the subdued nature of the series means that no one can really express themselves in a way that has oomph. Kaori is kind of tomboy-ish, but she’s also super special and entitled for no reason, given her ability to live in the spirit world. Suimei is a garden variety kuudere; by living with Kaori, he’s forced to experience feelings for the first time in his life. Shinoname is a grumpy old man and that’s about it.

The characters from Japanese mythology were also not very engaging. No matter what their personalities are in the actual legends, they are all equally as dull here. Also, there were no kami present whatsoever. I feel like it would’ve mixed things up, but nope.

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Verdict: 6.5/10

What a disappointment. I shouldn’t have expected a straight-up masterpiece, but I at least expected something that wasn’t just as mediocre as a standard isekai, especially with the legitimately cool ideas at work here. It’s not the worst thing ever, so I’ll try to keep up with it. But to be honest, there isn’t much appeal with The Haunted Bookstore. At this stage, I wouldn’t even recommend it to a fellow weeb.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya Movie Review

Cropped out the poster of the movie

Just in case you haven’t read my profile, I’m gonna let you in on something: I’ve been intensely studying Japanese culture since earlier this year. And as such, I already knew how Ghibli’s adaptation of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, titled The Tale of Princess Kaguya, would turn out. And thank Jizo that I did! You’ll see why later in this post.

To sum it up, it all begins when an old bamboo cutter finds a baby girl inside a bamboo stalk. Since this is a Shinto story, he doesn’t bat an eye whatsoever at this find, and decides to raise her. Before we know it, bamboo stalks start oozing gold and his daughter is in the lap of luxury! 

Normally, I’d discuss visuals last. But since the paint-like art style of Kaguya stands out so much, I gotta talk about it first. My first instinct is to chalk it up as gimmicky. However, the implementation of the different textures of the brush, as well as colors, helps the movie convey mood and motion better than most modern TV anime. The simplistic designs also help make characters super expressive and movements to be consistently smooth and fluid.

But the question becomes: “If you took away the unique artstyle, is the movie still any good?” Narratively speaking, Kaguya is more-or-less a family drama of the “Kid just wants to be a kid but gets all of it yanked away from them on account of their dumb, money-grubbing parent(s)”, a la Citizen Kane. I personally don’t care much for family dramas as a narrative theme, and I only chose to watch this movie because of my familiarity with the original story.

And I made a good call, because otherwise I don’t know if I would’ve liked Kaguya otherwise. At two and a half hours, this adaptation of a folk take that takes about five or ten minutes to read takes its sweet time. Despite how she’s supposed to be rapidly growing, it takes about the first hour for her to actually become a teenager and for the core narrative to start in earnest. Leading up to that, you end up deathly curious as to what her origin is (well, you’re meant to at least), but find yourself just watching a kid just bumbling around with other kids for a while. As admittedly boring this first act is, I greatly prefer it over the alternative, which is to have the sh** go down within the first five minutes before you can acclimate yourself to her childhood. Because of this, it actually feels emotional when the aforementioned sh** goes down.

But the thing is, despite how expressive the characters are in the animation, most of them are very unremarkable. The titular character, Kaguya, is probably the only one you’ll remember over time. Like in the story, she’s a real rambunctious rascal, and merely wants to live out that Cindi Lauper dream of girls just wanting to have fun. Watching everything crumble around her is pretty darn engaging, as sadistic as that sounds.

Her parents are polar opposites, with the “bad” parent being the dad. He starts as this jolly old fart and becomes an utter ass in his hunger for glory. Fortunately, Kaguya’s mom still gets her daughter, but she can’t do much. Time period and all that. Most other characters, besides Best Girl Chubby Loli Servant, aren’t that interesting.

The background music is nice. It’s obviously traditional, old school Japanese classical instruments, and it’s very beautiful. I noticed, in the opening credits, that the music is by the same guy that did Children of the Sea (if only it premiered in American theaters *glares at GKids*).

One big issue I can see viewers having with Kaguya is its final act. I can’t even imagine what audiences thought when they first saw it. I mean, this movie spends almost two hours building up this big family drama, and just when it’s about to go down… from straight outta left field… POW! Sudden new development! But there was no way around it. Here’s a fun fact: that ending is canon. I’m not joking; this movie’s ending isn’t Ghibli taking any serious creative liberties; they are following the source material. From a narrative standpoint, it is a very BS note to go out on, but there ya have it. Maybe someday, Disney will do a fluffier adaptation and retcon it like they did with the Grimm brothers, but for now this is what we get. I would’ve been livid if I wasn’t familiar with the source material, that’s for sure.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

It’s slow-paced, relatable, and cynical; no wonder it was so successful in the West! In all honesty, despite how good The Tale of Princess Kaguya is overall, I can’t easily recommend it. It is very slow, nuanced, very cultural, and that ending… Hoo boy! For all intents and purposes, this is probably the best version of her story. But movies are an inherently bigger investment than a cute little folktale, so the crotch-kick at the end hurts more than reading the original. It all depends on what medium you’d prefer. I’d recommend Kaguya if you want a reprieve from the cheapo anime that they churn out like Jeff Daniels in that disgusting scene of Dumb and Dumber, or if you’re studying Japanese culture and want to know about one of its famous folktales.