POMPO: THE CINEPHILE (Eiga Daisuki Pompo-san)

Producers: Kosuke Arai, Yoshinori Hasegawa, Tomohiko Iwase, Motoko Kaneiwa, Takumi Morii and Motoki Mukaichi   Director: Takayuki Hirao   Screenplay: Takayuki Hirao   Cast:  Konomi Kohara, Hiroya Shimizu, Rinka Ōtani, Ai Kakuma, Akio Ōtsuka and Ryūichi Kijima   Distributor: GKIDS

Grade:  B-

Based on a manga by Shogo Sugitani, Takayuki Hirao’s “Pompo: The Cinéphile” is a cheeky celebration of film as a dream factory not just for audiences but for moviemakers themselves, as well as a gentle satire of cinema as a business.  But though visually inventive and wildly colorful, it’s not very rich emotionally, unlike, for example, Martin Scorsese’s much more enthralling ode to the magic of movies, “Hugo.”  Still, it will be reasonably engaging for film buffs, and of course anime fans.

The title character is Pomponette (voiced by Konomi Kohara), who’s been handed control of her family’s movie studio by her grandfather.  She’s a high-string, screaming type who looks about fifteen, with a string of hits that follow her basic rules—action, a beautiful female lead like Mystia (Ai Kakuma), the star of the just-shot creature feature “Marine,” and a running-time of ninety minutes.

She has a shy assistant named Gene Fini (Hiroya Shimizu), a true cinéphile who aches to be a filmmaker.  After seeing his great work editing the trailer for “Marine,” Pompo gives him the chance to direct her own script, “Meister,” about a stressed symphony conductor whose fragile artistry is crumbling and who goes off to work on a Swiss farm, where his connection with its young owner leads to his finding his “voice” again.  For the leads she’s hired the greatest actor in the world, Martin Braddock (Akio Ōtsuka) and neophyte Nathalie Woodward (Rinka Ōtani), who also becomes Gene’s muse and romantic interest.  Then she’s off, leaving him and the crew to make the film.

The shoot goes wonderfully, with the crew a harmonious collective and the stars giving their all.  It’s when Gene enters the editing room to cut his seventy-two hours of footage down to feature length that problems arise: he has what might be termed editing block, and is hospitalized after an accident.  And he decides that he needs to shoot additional scenes for the movie to express his “voice.”

Pompo is willing to go along, but it’s a dangerous business, because the added filming will require an increase in the budget that will be hard to come by, given that “troubled” productions are automatically deemed bombs-in-the-making.  Salvation comes from Alan Gardner (Ryūichi Kijima), a handsome junior bank executive.  He’d bullied Gene in school, but is now dissatisfied with his job and becomes his champion, using an inspired ruse to convince the bank president to support the iffy investment over the objection of the board.  The addition of Mystia to the cast in an uncharacteristic role adds to the popularity of the finished film, which becomes a huge hit and sweeps the Nyallywood awards—a cat-themed version of the Oscars.

That final triumph, along with the fact that “Meister” clocks in at exactly ninety minutes (as does “Pompo,” without the end credits—thanks to Tsuyoshi Imai’s sizzling editing, a reflection of the importance the story attributes to that skill) points to the oddly mixed messages here.  On the one hand, it’s supposedly about the art of film, comparing Gene’s accomplishment to the conductor’s learning to direct an aria from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” with the proper feeling.  Yet in the end the criteria for judgment are commercial success and awards recognition.  Maybe that’s intended satirically, but it doesn’t seem so.

A more practical ground for irritation comes in the voice work, not of the men, which is reasonably modulated, but of the females, who are, in typical anime fashion, fierce and shrieking.  Why women are regularly portrayed in such a fashion remains a mystery, but it makes listening a chore.

Still, the dynamic animation, with its swooping movements, split screens and wild gyrations of color and tone, is outstanding, and goes far to camouflage the narrative peculiarities.               

One final point: this is really an anime directed at adults rather than children, who might find the sparkling colors attractive but otherwise be bored, especially by the subtitled Japanese version.  A dubbed English alternative is available, but it’s unlikely to be any more kid-friendly, despite the American distributor’s name.