Anime Movie Highlights 2021: Pokémon, Doraemon and Pretty Cure

29 Dec

The best new anime features I saw in 2021 were the newest movie spin-offs of three long-running TV anime franchises, Pokémon, Doraemon, and Pretty Cure (aka Precure). I saw two of them in Japanese without subtitles and one with subtitles. Two were released in theaters in 2020 in Japan and one in 2021, but I didn’t get to see them until my local Japanese video store got them this past summer. One was eventually released in the U.S., but only on Netflix.

GEKIJOBAN POCKET MONSTER KOKO (aka POKÉMON THE MOVIE: KOKO) is the 23rd movie in the Pokémon  franchise and was released in Japan on Dec. 25, 2020. It tells the tale of a human boy, dubbed Koko, who is raised in the jungle by a tribe of ape Pokémon, and only finds out he is human after encountering Satoshi (Ash Ketchum in the English-dubbed version), a young Pokémon  trainer who is looking for new Pokémon  in the jungle, and heading back to civilization with him. It was not released theatrically in the U.S. nor shown on a U.S. cable channel but instead premiered its English-dubbed version on Netflix on October 8, 2021 under the title, POKÉMON  THE MOVIE: SECRETS OF THE JUNGLE.

DORAEMON: NOBITA’S NEW DINOSAUR is the 40th movie in the Doraemon series, the longest-running anime TV franchise in Japan, about a robot cat from the future who assists hapless school boy Nobita and his friends on various adventures, comical and otherwise. In this one, Nobita finds a dinosaur egg and it hatches in his bedroom, revealing two twin baby dinosaurs with wings, prompting Doraemon to use his time machine device to travel back to find the proper historic period for the return of the two creatures. It was released on August 7, 2020 and became the fourth highest-grossing film in Japan that year.

HEALIN’ GOOD PRETTY CURE THE MOVIE: GOGO! BIG TRANSFORMATION! THE TOWN OF DREAMS!! (aka Eiga Healin’ Good ♥ Precure Yume no Machi de Kyun! tto GoGo!) was designed to be released at the time of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but the Summer Olympics got pushed back to 2021 and so was this movie’s release (3/20/21). In the film, the Pretty Cure team of fashion-conscious “magical girls” visit Tokyo and get involved with a modern incarnation of the famous fairy tale character of Kaguya, the moon princess, and a devious plot to steal people’s “dream buds.”

POKÉMON THE MOVIE: KOKO was seen without subtitles although I found a synopsis on the web that was partially helpful. Directed by Tetsuo Yajima, its tale of a boy raised in the jungle interacting with other humans for the first time recalls the Tarzan and Bomba the Jungle Boy series of American literature and lore, but also seems inspired by such films as James Cameron’s AVATAR (2009), Hayao Miyazaki’s PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997) and, perhaps, the recent “Planet of the Apes” films. We first meet Koko, the jungle boy, as a baby as he is found on a river bank in a protective high-tech bassinet by Zarude, the leader of a tribe of ape Pokémon, and raised by him as if he were an ape and grows to adolescence with the tribe. The apes live in the shadow of a Great Tree in a hidden valley that has never been seen by humans. We learn that the boy has some connection to an abandoned lab in the jungle that used to be operated by the Biotope Corporation.

After Koko is accidentally knocked unconscious and falls over a waterfall into a river, he is rescued by Satoshi/Ash and his Pokemon sidekick Pikachu. He is taken to a Pokemon Center in the nearest city and, after he’s released, Satoshi shows him around, slowly trying to teach him words. (They do have a whole “You Satoshi, me Koko” exchange, like that in the first sound Tarzan movie from 1932.)

Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) meet in TARZAN, THE APE MAN, 1932. He doesn’t quite say “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” but it’s close enough.

Eventually, the Biotope Corporation gets involved and they realize that Koko is none other than Al Molybden, the son of two researchers for Biotope who were killed in an automotive accident in the jungle. Dr. Zed, the director of the Biotope operation in the jungle, realizes that Koko can lead them to the apes’ Great Tree and the waters of the healing spring below it which have great power and great profit potential. Zarude himself has healing powers derived from the water. This is where the plot of AVATAR kicks in, as an evil corporation head seeks to exploit a natural wonder and displace the native population protecting it, in this case Zarude’s tribe. (AVATAR had such an anime-ready plot, it’s a wonder that it took eleven years for them to use it!) The healing waters are also used in a way that evokes the sacred forest in PRINCESS MONONOKE. Eventually, a great battle is waged in the jungle between Zed and his powerful machines of extraction and the affected Pokémon. Even Zed’s own staff rebels against him.

Interestingly, the apes speak perfect Japanese, as does Koko, yet we’re supposed to understand that it’s not the same language that Satoshi and the other human characters speak (also Japanese). Koko seems to learn only a few words in his dealings with Satoshi, e.g. “Ore wa Koko” (I am Koko), yet all the human characters speak Japanese rapidly to him and he seems to understand. Koko also speaks Japanese to Zarude in full view of the humans, e.g. “Ore wa ningen dai yi” (I am human), yet we’re supposed to think the humans don’t understand them. Since I don’t get Netflix, I have not seen the English dub yet, so I don’t know how this issue is handled in it.

UPDATE (1/27/22): I’ve now seen the movie in its English dub and it seems to be handled the same way. Koko and Dada (Zarude) speak English to each other but speak only in Pokemon talk when addressing Ash Ketchum and any other human characters. However, when Koko and Dada speak to each other in front of Ash, it’s in English but we’re to assume it’ll sound like Pokemon talk to Ash and he’ll understand none of it. Koko does learn a few English words to respond to Ash before it’s over.

Not one of Ash’s friends from the TV series is along for the ride, which helps streamline the narrative quite a bit. The series’ usual villains, Team Rocket, appear and infiltrate the Biotope Corporation garbed as employees but it’s never clear what they actually want and they ultimately seem to be helpful to Satoshi who never recognizes them. The villains are all human, which makes this a welcome change from some of the more abstract Pokémon villains we get in some movies. If this movie has any connection to the most recent Pokémon series, “Pokémon Journeys,” I’m not aware of it. After seeing the first two episodes of “Pokémon Journeys,” I can only say that it seems to me to be a reboot of the earliest season, when Ash acquires Pikachu and begins his journey to be a Pokemon trainer.

The film is filled with beautiful jungle imagery and a wide array of Pokémon  creatures. The pace is fast and there are lots of scenes of action and adventure. It was quite suspenseful throughout and touching in the scenes between Koko and his adoptive ape father and the flashbacks to Koko’s parents and their tragic fate, engineered, we eventually learn, by Dr. Zed himself.

Based on this viewing, I found this to be the best Pokémon  movie since POKÉMON THE MOVIE WHITE: VICTINI AND ZEKROM (2011) and POKÉMON  THE MOVIE: GENESECT AND THE LEGEND AWAKENED (2013). (Full disclosure: I enjoy all the Pokémon  movies.)

DORAEMON THE MOVIE: NOBITA’S NEW DINOSAUR, seen without subtitles, relies heavily for its appeal on the cuteness quotient of its two baby dinosaurs, one pink (dubbed “Myu”) and one green (dubbed “Kyu”). Nobita, the luckless, trouble-prone schoolboy to whom the clever, high-tech Doraemon has attached himself, finds a dinosaur egg at a school dig and takes it and leaves it to hatch in his bedroom. (If it’s ever explained why he feels entitled to the school’s property or why he never reports his find to the helpful and knowledgeable teacher who is conducting the dig, I didn’t catch it. The synopsis I found in English on Wikipedia, after seeing the film twice, didn’t offer any clues either, other than to identify the teacher as “Dr. Dinosaur.”) The film was directed by Kazuaki Imai.

Myu comes out of the egg eager to engage with the world and find her way and hungry for any food Nobita brings her. Kyu, on the other hand, comes out of the egg slowly and timidly and seems awed and scared of the outside world and refuses to eat anything until Nobita offers him sushi, which Kyu gulps down but then vomits up and gets sick. (We never see him successfully eat and digest anything, and then only fish, till much later in the film.) Under Nobita’s care, the two dinosaurs grow to the size of Nobita and his friends, undetected by Nobita’s clueless parents but glimpsed briefly by some astonished neighbors at one point. Myu learns to fly pretty easily, but Kyu fails repeatedly in his numerous attempts.

Eventually, Nobita and his friends, next door neighbor girl Shizuka and two boisterous boys who are usually more trouble than they’re worth, Suneo and Gian, join Doraemon and the two young dinosaurs on a time travel platform, first back to the Jurassic era, which is dominated by ravenous carnivores and turns out to be the wrong one for these creatures. (They lose something in the process, which has enormous ramifications in the next era they visit.)

They make it to the right era, late Cretaceous, and encounter some breathtaking scenic vistas of dinosaurs grazing, after which Nobita and his friends bond with various dinosaurs by using Doraemon’s “tomodachi chocolate” bars, one of many clever items provided by Doraemon’s access to the future, which allow one to connect with whatever you share one with.

The party eventually finds a lush valley populated by the same species as Myu and Kyu and then have to find a way to negotiate the two outsiders’ entry into the tribe, all while Kyu continues unsuccessfully to try and fly. (Only later, when Nobita is in deadly peril, is Kyu finally able to fly to his friend’s rescue.)

During the course of all this, the narrative is rocked by turbulence from two sources. One is the “Time Patrol,” some kind of police agency that monitors time travel and blocks interference. The other is the sudden appearance of a comet which smashes into the earth and spells doom for the dinosaurs. Only the timely intervention of Doraemon and one of his high-tech tools is able to save the lush valley from certain destruction, along with its cute pink and green species, joined by whatever peaceful herbivores have sought refuge there.

It’s an epic tale filled with adventure and suspense and unpredictable plot turns. It works without subtitles because it’s less about the plot than about the experiences of the characters, whether of the baby dinosaurs trying to adjust to the world, Nobita learning how to care for them, and the adolescent dinosaurs returning to their proper time period and trying to process it. More importantly, we never fail to be affected by the plaintive cries of Myu and Kyu, whether expressions of delight and joy, pleas for help, or fearful laments. The voice actresses who perform the roles clearly provide the emotional core of the film. The animation, design and voice characterizations of Myu and Kyu more than mitigate the frequently annoying behavior of Nobita, Suneo and Gian (a problem in all the Doraemon movies).

I wish I’d seen this on the big screen as I did two previous Doraemon movies when I visited Japan in 2016 and 2018. Here’s a shot of the theater in Ikebukuro I attended on a rainy day after visiting the Pokemon Center next door during my 2016 trip. I believe I went to the 13:30 show:

Photo by Brian Camp © 2016

Photo by Brian Camp © 2016

And a TV ad for it:

The very first Doraemon theatrical animated feature happened to be NOBITA’S DINOSAUR (1980), which I’ve seen on VHS and tells only a slightly similar story to this one, but focusing on a single Plesiosaur hatched from an egg, rather than flying twins, and the efforts of Nobita & co. to return it to its own time. The earlier film was remade in 2006, also as NOBITA’S DINOSAUR, which offered a more elaborate, padded-out version of the same story, with more spectacular animation and design and a more intricate music score. It’s 15 minutes longer than the 1980 film and includes more scenes involving an evil time hunter, out to bag dinosaurs for a secretive organization, and the intervention of the Time Patrol (which appears in all three Doraemon dinosaur movies). However, the 1980 film is more streamlined and has a simpler charm that one finds in the cell-animated anime of the time. The newest one goes in a whole different direction, featuring way more dinosaurs and an apocalyptic finale, although some scenes are very similar. I’ve seen quite a few other Doraemon movies and NOBITA’S NEW DINOSAUR is one of the best, alongside NOBITA’S LITTLE STAR WARS (1985), which was slated to be remade in 2021. I can’t wait to see that one. None of the Doraemon movies I have are subtitled. Here are the VHS covers for NOBITA’S DINOSAUR and NOBITA’S LITTLE STAR WARS:

HEALIN’ GOOD PRETTY CURE THE MOVIE: GOGO! BIG TRANSFORMATION! THE TOWN OF DREAMS!! is the only one of this batch I saw subtitled and is easily the one that most needed it. Pretty Cure (or Precure, for short) is the newest franchise discussed here, having begun only in 2004. This season, at least, is about a team of four girls who can transform into “Pretty Cure” magical warriors, each with their own colorful fashions and accessories. Each has a cute little talking animal sidekick, most of which fly (i.e. circling above their human companions), and each of which transforms into a scepter for use by the girls when they fight their various villains. I call this “Sailor Moon on steroids,” for those who remember the popular 1990s “magical girl” franchise which was only recently rebooted and seemed a lot more demure and low-key in comparison to Pretty Cure.

The plot of the movie, directed by Ryota Nakamura, revolves around the introduction of a new app, called “Dream On,” in which a special pendant allows participants to experience Tokyo in a dreamlike way, allowing for all kinds of magical sights and sounds, including giant whales like the one I noted in an anime film earlier this year and covered in a previous entry, YO-KAI WATCH THE MOVIE: A WHALE OF TWO WORLDS. The host of the events promoting the “Dream On” app is none other than a cute model/idol named Kaguya. Nodoka seems to be the main character among the Precure team and she and the other girls visit Tokyo as a group, accompanied by Nodoka’s mother, in order to use the new app.

The big appeal of this movie for me is found in one of the narrative elements and in the setting. Kaguya turns out to be an actual modern incarnation of the moon princess from the Japanese fairy tale. We even see storybook depictions of the tale of the Bamboo Cutter and his wife who discovered Kaguya as a baby in a stalk of bamboo, a story made into an anime feature in 2013 called THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA and directed by anime great Isao Takahata, his very last film.

Isao Takahata’s THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA (2013)

Here in the Pretty Cure universe, Kaguya is born in a “miracle flower” and nurtured by a woman scientist, Dr. Gashuuin, who develops a plan for the flower to blossom and make everyone’s dreams come true, but to achieve this she develops a creature called Egoego who becomes quite a nefarious beast and sets out to steal “dream buds” from selected people and use them to feed the flower, thus robbing them of their dreams. (At least I think that’s how it happens—it gets very convoluted and I was never altogether sure of Dr. Gashuuin’s true motives.)

In the course of all this, I was thrilled to see animated scenes of actual Tokyo sites, some of which I’ve visited. As I watched, I kept thinking out loud, “I was there!” The girls first arrive in central Tokyo at Tokyo Station, a landmark which I had occasion to travel to on numerous occasions when I was in Tokyo.

The main events introducing “Dream On” occur in the famous Shibuya Crossing of Tokyo (not quite the equivalent of Times Square, but close to it), which I’ve visited and photographed numerous times.

The studio even did a promotional event in Shibuya when the film was released in Japan, designed to capitalize on the film’s connection to the location, all described here:

At one point there’s a Tokyo Girls Collection Special Program, which seems to be a reference to an actual semi-annual fashion event by that name.

At one point the girls arrange to meet Kaguya at the statue of “Hachiko,” a famous dog, outside Shibuya Station. (I once had to meet a friend there.)

At one point we see the Tokyo Skytree, a sightseeing tower on the other side of the Sumida River, which I once ascended.

The girls stay at the Royal Grand Tokyo Hotel, a large western-style structure built on the water (presumably the Sumida River). It may not have a real-life counterpart, but it reminds me of a famous short-lived hotel, the Tsukiji Hotel Building, dating to 1870, the first western-style hotel built in Japan, also on the water, probably the same site as in the film. (My hotel on both trips was a very short walk from the Sumida. I used to walk along the river at dawn.)

The biggest thrill, though, was seeing Harumi Island in Tokyo Bay and the famous Harumi Terminal recreated in the film for one of its big fight scenes. This location is often used as a backdrop for live-action Japanese superhero shows from the Super Sentai and Kamen Rider franchises. I visited it on my last trip to Japan in 2018 and took many pictures there and covered it in a previous blog entry. Here are scenes of Harumi Terminal in Super Sentai shows and then three of my corresponding pictures:

Photo by Brian Camp (c) 2018

Photo by Brian Camp (c) 2018

Photo by Brian Camp (c) 2018

When I went there, most of the land around the terminal had been cleared for the future Olympic Village and there were construction cranes and signs everywhere. The terminal building itself was closed, although the outdoor plazas were still open to sightseers like myself and a public restroom kept open (Yaaay!!). I wondered what would happen to this space once the construction was finished. Would it be demolished? Repurposed for another use? Renovated in some way?

Photo by Brian Camp © 2018

Photo by Brian Camp © 2018

Photo by Brian Camp © 2018

Photo by Brian Camp © 2018

I was happy to see from this animated sequence that it remained intact, although the nearby Olympic Village edifice is visible that wasn’t yet built when I visited. The action extends to the plaza where I had taken pictures;

The girls also visit the then-newly-built National Stadium, designated for use in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics (which were pushed back to the summer of 2021), a massive structure which replaced the now-demolished National Stadium which had been built for the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. In the scene, one of the Precure girls, Chiyu, uses the “Dream On” app to act out her own dream of participating in the Olympics in a track and field event.

It gets pretty overwrought at times, with a whole other team, Precure 5, consisting of six older girls, presumably from an earlier season, showing up to help them fight. At one point, Egoego causes a massive explosion which seems to destroy all of downtown Tokyo and we see the girls lying amidst the debris.

Moments later, when they call on all the crowd at Shibuya to summon their dream power to help keep Kaguya alive, Shibuya and its denizens seem strangely untouched and unharmed by the blast. Not even the subtitles could help with this one.

I have to confess that all of this made me nostalgic for the old Sailor Moon movies because the Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon members were usually characterized in greater detail and seen more in their off-duty lives and relationships. Besides, the plots were smaller in scale and easier for me to process. Here’s a scene from one of the Sailor Moon movies:

Still, the Pretty Cure movies offer lots of spectacle, wild imagination, cute outfits, interesting settings, plenty of action, some delightful music and lots of sweetness and light–when you’re in the mood for it. Plus some great eating scenes:

Of the above films, only the Pretty Cure one was made by Toei Animation. When I visited Toei Kyoto Studio Park in 2016, they had a display of life-size models of the then-members of the growing franchise.

Photo by Brian Camp © 2016

Photo by Brian Camp © 2016

In fact, my first exposure to the Pretty Cure TV show was watching it in on TV in my hotel on that visit:

Of course, I got to watch all kinds of great shows on those visits.

Japanese kids have all the fun, don’t they?


3 Responses to “Anime Movie Highlights 2021: Pokémon, Doraemon and Pretty Cure”

  1. Brandon December 29, 2021 at 3:30 PM #

    Thanks for this. I didn’t see much anime at all this year. Only Star Wars Visions which is a series of shorts set in the Star Wars universe produced by Japanese animation studios.

    I saw Scarlett watching a trailer for Pokemon The Movie: Koko on Netflix. She’ll probably watch it before years end. I think she’s seen a bit of every Pokemon show on the service and there are four series and four films.

    • briandanacamp December 29, 2021 at 7:09 PM #

      Has she ever seen Pokemon XY or XYZ? Those are my favorite seasons because the focus is on Serena, who trains her Pokemon to perform at Pokemon Showcase events and not battle each other.

      • Brandon December 29, 2021 at 10:00 PM #

        She says that she has seen XY but not all of XYZ. It was removed from Netflix before she could finish. But she says she loves it so far.

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