shoujo.tsubakiFollowing our recent review of a disturbing horror production, I decided to write about a disturbing horror production of a different sort – a certain indie anime feature film.  I know what you’re thinking – anime films trying to shock the viewer with all sorts of nastiness and breaking all sorts of taboos are actually dime a dozen, but rarely offer anything interesting beyond having those ambitions. Midori aka Shoujo Tsubaki is different. For once, it was all written, drawn and animated in the course 5 years by a single man – a certain Hiroshi Harada, who was a recognized professional animator in the 70s and 80s, but grew disgruntled over the conservatism of the big studios and went solo once he was able to afford it.

I recommend you first read more about how the movie was created and about its cult status in Japan in this excellent write-up, and I’ll just go straight on to describing my raw impressions from the watching experience.

Shoujo Tsubaki tells the sad tale of a 12 (maybe 10) year old girl Midori who lives modestly with her mother in the early 20 century Japan and goes to school like all other children until the mother gets very ill. Soon she is unable to even move from bed and the small girl starts wandering the city selling flowers to gain any kind of money for living. But things quickly turn from bad to worse. The mother dies a terrible death and the seemingly kind offer from a stranger leads Midori to being forced to work at a freak circus where she is constantly abused and raped by its inhabitants. All presented as a collection of short moments taken from many months of Midori’s misadventures – interpreted through her own eyes and accompanied by her naive and still idealistic comments. With time the freak show slowly turns to everyday life for Midori and she stops to fear. She somehow manages to stay both sane and childlike as well. Sometime later, the circus troupe is joined by a dwarf with amazing abilities of illusion and mind manipulation. He befriends Midori and protects her from the others, but still won’t allow her to be independent and go away from to seek a different life.

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From the above description the disturbing bits of the film may seem not unlike those for a production made specifically for fans of demented sex stories. Is this one of those? Well, the way things are presented and paced in Shoujo Tsubaki doesn’t resemble at all the typical exploitation films which tend to “emphasize” that certain kind of scenes with a wealth of details and a long running time. Instead Midori’s story is told in a fragmented and whimsical manner – you never know what to expect around the next corner. The gruesome events happen relatively quickly and aren’t really dwelt upon, often only suggested, shown through symbols. Even the main heroine never refers to them directly in her narration, but keeps trying to move on, always looking for even brief moments of peace and happiness. Of course, let’s not pretend the nasty bits of the film aren’t meant to not only scare, but also to awaken and satisfy people’s curiosity and hidden desires – and there are some intense images to be found here indeed. However, with the slower, subtler tension building, and going for the surprise factor rather than expressiveness they work well at delivering a horror experience that primarily disturbs.

The interesting thing about Midori’s tale that through weaving historical events and small slices of real life into the background it feels quite real – like a newspaper clipping about exploits of some authentic personages. The movie has also a lot of lyricism and dreamlike appeal to it despite its gruesome parts. Let’s face it, it’s told a lot like a fairy tale, a lot like Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, maybe just a little bit more scary and brutal than Little Red Riding Hood.

I’ve read people write about how the animation in the movie is very limited even compared to the typically economically thought-out animation in anime. That it more resembles the pre-war Japanese paper play shows. I must disagree with the former (I can’t evaluate the latter as I never seen a Japanese paper play). Indeed the drawings are both very detailed and quite a bit static, but the amount of animation isn’t any lesser than in many of popular anime shows from the 60s, 70s and 80s. It’s a full-value anime feature by my standarts. The fact that it was all done by one man is amazing and encouraging for other indie creators. I think the resulting perfect consistency of the vision can be felt during the viewing.

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A while ago I watched the well-known Satoshi Kon‘s film Millennium Actress. Similarly to Shoujo Tsubaki it takes you on a journey through the life of a young girl struggling to realize her dreams in the early 20th century Japan, a life full of both ordinary, as well as extraordinary moments. However all events presented in its 90 minutes point to a single, simple thought, expressed verbally by one of the characters during the climax. So that movie has a specific message for the viewer. Midori clocks around 50 minutes and while it includes recurring themes, it seems to prefer to address a myriad of viewer’s emotions rather than have him to come to some enlightening conclusions. It also leaves him with an ambiguous, but memorable ending. Both movies are great works of anime. But Midori is better.

Igor’s Score: 4+ of 5 starps

Note: For anyone interested in horror fiction with freak show themes I recommend trying out the multi-layered, innovative adventure(?) game Bad Day of The Midway by Inscape and The Residents

Little Red Riding Hood