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GOCRITIC! Animafest Zagreb 2024

GoCritic! Review: Phoenix: Reminiscence of Flower


- Shôjirô Nishimi’s adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s groundbreaking manga is a heart-rending work of animation, executed with uncommon élan and passion

GoCritic! Review: Phoenix: Reminiscence of Flower

Shôjirô Nishimi, a veteran Japanese animation filmmaker, is back with a new film. This time, he delivers a compelling adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s seminal manga, Hi no Tori. Translated as “Phoenix” and published between 1954 and 1988, it’s an intricate saga consisting of multiple storylines. Fortunately, the director doesn’t lose his way while depicting the film’s huge dichotomy of hopelessness and the resurrection of life.

Nishimi’s sci-fi anime, which screened in Animafest Zagreb’s Grand Feature Films Competition, is an adaptation of the manga’s seventh volume. Set in the expanded universe of this literary work, Nishimi’s nihilistic parable proposes an array of themes, first and foremost lovers’ devotion to hope and the yearning for home, ingeniously combined in one coherent fable. We follow a couple, Romi (voiced by Rie Miyazawa) and George (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who decide to leave pillaged Earth and start a better life by colonising a new planet, Eden17. Ironically, this place is a Shangri-La in theory only, as it appears to be in an even poorer state than our very own planet. And this is only the beginning of their troubles in this not-so-idyllic world.

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The plot might sound familiar; Nishimi’s animation is practically the same as his four-episode TV show, Phoenix: Eden17, currently available on Disney+. We still follow what happens to Romi and why exactly she starts missing her first home, it’s just the ending that’s different. Presumably, the source of this creative decision can be attributed to the manga’s history: its main storyline was never finished on account of Tezuka’s death, so we might say these differing narratives are the result of a more liberal approach.

Following the love story in Phoenix, one might wonder whether Netflix’s popular anime, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, drew some level of inspiration from Tezuka’s writing. Besides establishing a fatalistic premise for its characters, both stories are, to an extent, bitter vivisections of true loves impacted by an unexpected tipping point, a U-turn which will change the characters’ lives forever.

Nishimi’s film offers up a massive time-leap. At one point, the story moves forwards in time 1,300 years, now led by Romi’s descendants who have created a new society in Eden17. What seemed to be a contained sci-fi love story suddenly turns into an epic, just like in Frank Herbert’s Dune saga, where so many universally relatable plot lines develop and characters constantly come and go. But Phoenix evolves into a dense, transcendent parable on homecoming and the passing of time.

Although based on a popular manga, the film almost feels like a lost novel by the famous sci-fi writer, Stanisław Lem (the planet’s name, Eden17, nods to one of the latter’s books), with the added enchantment of Nashimi’s anime aesthetics. Phoenix is jam-packed with dynamic transitions, theatrical voice-acting, and cross-cutting sequences, making for a wildly entertaining overall experience. And when we come to Romi’s decision to leave her might-have-been home, Nishimi’s film turns into a high-powered action piece, bursting with cosmic dangers, space chases, and one or two thrilling explosions.

Wide shots, meanwhile, call to mind impressionistic paintings of vast cities, apocalyptic environments and majestic nature, offering up warm colours and a distinct, ethereal atmosphere. The film’s complex animation - multi-layered within the mise-en-scène - flows admirably, and these visual aspects interweave with Phoenix’s philosophy. The story freely explores Lem and Tezuka’s futuristic predictions over the dynamics of co-existence between robots and humans; in fact, the film’s very first phrase is uttered by the AI aboard Romi’s ship. The fact that this AI is responsible for freeing the heroine from her cryogenic hibernation is crucial: Tezuka was right when he believed we would all, one day, be dependent on technology.

“Being reminded just how precious home is gives humans the strength to live on,” we read at the very beginning of the film, while staring at an awe-inspiring image of our precious Mother Earth. This Coelho-like quote is echoed throughout the anime’s storytelling, and the more we ponder on it, the less trite it feels after the final credits roll. The juxtaposition of two planets - Romi’s real and substitute homes - poignantly highlights the ecological theme running through the story. It becomes evident that Phoenix is more relevant now than it was fifty years ago. It’s yet another cautionary tale, written way ahead of its time, about losing Earth as a result of a global crisis.

To date, there have been close to ten adaptions of this manga series (the first of which premiered in 1978). In this context, Nishimi’s take on Tezuka’s crowning achievement seems an accessible entry point to this sweeping saga. Caught up in the giddy frisson of excitement we feel while following Romi’s pilgrimage, we realise we need more stories from this particular universe.

Phoenix: Reminiscence of Flower is a Japanese production by Studio4℃, who is also managing international sales.

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