Birthday Wonderland (Cert PG)
1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray / 2 Discs Combo Collector’s Edition (Distributor: Anime Ltd.) Running time: 115 minutes approx.
Isn’t it funny how kids can’t wait to grow and do all the things adults do that seem cool and liberating, yet when it comes to the responsibility of being an adult, they don’t want to know? To get them to grow up, the only course of action is to put them in a situation where they have no choice but to face up to a crisis.
Akane is a teenage girl with confidence issues who prefers to avoid confrontation. When she fails to defend a friend at school over a silly issue of coordinated hair clips, Akane feigns illness as so to not face the fall out the next day. With it being Akane’s birthday the day after and refusing to have her moping about the house, Akane’s mother sends her to her aunt Chii to pick up her birthday present.
Chii runs a bric-a-brac shop full of esoteric wonders, in which a man appears from her basement. He is an alchemist, Hippocrates, with his sprite companion Popo, looking for the Goddess of the Green Wind to help save the world of Wonderland. Of course, this would be Akane, given a Momentum talisman that prevents her from going backwards, ensuring she agrees to the request, with Chii tagging along for the ride.
With the current proliferation of isekai anime TV series having reached saturation point, the thought of a film with an ordinary protagonist whisked off to another world would be overkill. However, this hasn’t stopped Keiichi Hara from adapting Sachiko Kashiwaba’s 1981 children’s story Chikashitru Kara no Fushigi na Tabi (Strange Journey From The Basement), with that same premise, for the big screen.
Similarly, every time a new anime film arrives with a fantasy concept or bent to it, it is inevitable, nay almost impossible not to mention the words Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli, putting undue pressure on the director, and indeed the film itself, to deliver something of a high standard to meet these lofty expectations. Hara, however, seems unfazed by this and ploughs ahead with the same verve present in his previous film, the exquisite Miss Hokusai.
The title Birthday Wonderland (or just The Wonderland in some territories) is the first indicator of Kashiwaba’s work being influenced by the likes of C.S Lewis (Akane-Alice?) and L. Frank Baum as much as Hara might be by Miyazaki and other anime peers. This other world that runs parallel to our world, except time is slower so three days there is one hour our time, and is full of bright vivid colours, unusual creatures and where magic is common.
Hippocrates looks like a 19th century gentleman, complete with snazzy moustache, as do most of the denizens of the Wonderland, although Hippocrates has a 1950s car. Yet, as the group make their way across this land, it becomes more magical and whimsical in structure; houses look like they made out of sweets or tin cans, and giant lily pads hold special water that allows humans to breath below the surface as they ride on the back of enormous carp!
Yet, in contrast to the steampunk villages and fantastic forests, the royal domain boasts an aesthetic from further back in time – namely the ubiquitous medieval veneer of isekai anime. It certainly creates the idea of this world being one of many wonders but also one where Kashiwaba threw all the ideas she had in head into this because they sounded fun. Not a complaint, just an observation as to how eclectic yet haphazard this world looks, possibly through necessary present day updates.
Equally as vague is why Akane is the Goddess and what is expected from her. It takes a while for Hippocrates to explain how Wonderland is experiencing a water shortage and is losing its colour. A traditional rainfall ceremony is imminent but the Prince of Rainfall has secluded himself from public having recently lost both his parents. A wizard sealed the prince inside an iron toy to give him time to rest but he too has gone into hibernation, leaving the prince trapped.
Meanwhile, a malevolent masked man named Zan Gu and his wizard sidekick Dropo are pillaging the villages for metal to build a weapon powerful enough to destroy the Rainfall well. Akane and co. encounter this deadly duo on many occasions but conflict never arises – except for Dropo turning Hippocrates into a fly for some great comic value – and they talk their issues out instead.
Coupled with no clear direction for Akane’s purpose in this whole affair, the lack of peril and high stakes crisis is a sadly lacking facet of the story that renders the adventure aspect somewhat flat. This isn’t to say there aren’t some hair-raising moments or rushes of comedic energy, there are plenty, but in the name of visual spectacle than narrative danger.
Fortunately, the main cast are very likeable, their individual personalities and presence meshing rather well. Hippocrates is amusingly unflappable, Popo is the comic relief, and straight talking Chii is the perfect anchor for the group. As a coming-of-age journey for Akane, the change in her is subtle and never didactic, and whilst the destination isn’t in doubt, it is not overly sentimentalised either.
Production IG spin-off Signal.MD Inc. handles animation duties and naturally there are no complaints there; the artwork is absolutely stunning in detail, texture, and scope of imagination whilst character designs are courtesy of Russian illustrator Ilya Kuvshinov, explaining the atypical anime appearance of many of the characters. The voice cast also boasts some well-known names like Mayu Matsuoka as Akane, Anne Watanabe as Chii and Kumiko Aso as Akane’s mother.
Birthday Wonderland is a hearty and enjoyable blend of fantasy, light comedy, amiable drama, and visual splendour but lacking a dangerous edge and true sense of conflict for full emotional investment. Miyazaki comparisons are therefore null and void for this reason, allowing this film can stand on its own merits as a delightfully charming slice of magical family entertainment.
English Language 5.1 DTS HD-MA
Japanese Language 5.1 DTS HD-MA
“Our Wonderland” Cast Interview
Mayu Matsuoka’s Amazing Adventure
Limited Collector’s Edition
40-page Art Booklet
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black