Patema Inverted (Sakasama no Patema): Written and directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura. Starring: Yukiyo Fujii, Nobuhiko Okamoto, Shintaro Ohata. Running time: 99 minutes
Patema Inverted begins with a bone-chilling image; the buildings of an entire city, including their occupants, slowly rising into sky, as if the planet’s gravity had simply ceased to exist, while the audience hears the panicked reactions of people talking over static-filled radio waves. However, although the mystery behind this first scene underlies and shapes the story of the film, it by no means defines it. This is one of those intelligent sci-fi/romance stories that never gives in to the temptation to completely explain how its world works, or to over-burden the interactions between the characters with exposition so that the audience knows exactly what happened and when. The answers are there, if you are paying close attention, but such details are not the focus.
This movie instead revolves around a young princess (of sorts) named Patema, whose people live in an extensive series of underground bunkers. One day, while exploring what appears to be some sort of vast silo, she falls. Only here, instead of falling into the Earth, she apparently falls out of it, popping out of a hole in a cliffside near a vast, strange industrial complex. There, she nearly floats into the sky, but is saved at the last minute by a young boy named Eiji, who jumps up and grabs her, and with his greater weight pulls her back down to the ground. Unsure what to do, he takes her to a nearby shed to allow her to hide, until they can figure out what to do.
I say hide, because we soon learn that the massive concrete landscape stretching across the landscape is actually a small dystopian autocracy, a school-and-industrial system ruthlessly ruled by Generic Creepy Autocrat #5721. Its existence is linked to the first scene of the movie- the disaster we witnessed there appears to have been the result of an experiment to use gravity as an energy source, and its failure resulted in a large part of humanity simply lifting off into the sky. How long this happened, no one can say, but the event has turned into something like a religion, utilized by the authoritarian regime to keep the population silent and subservient- those who were lifted into the sky, they say, were “sinners.” Thus, Patema’s sudden appearance presents a quandary for the regime, and as a result, a threat to the existence of her people.
What made Patema such a wonderful viewing experience for me, despite a few story hiccups (the villain is as uninteresting and undefined as it gets, and the story veers dangerously close at times to making Patema a Damsel in Distress), was how fully it embraces the unique logic of its world. Physicists need not apply- any effort to reason out the idea of reverse-gravity worlds existing right next to each other will probably cause your brain to melt, especially once the movie’s small but effectively-dealt twists come into play.
The basic conceit, as far as it needs to be important, is that even though Patema and her people experience reverse-gravity, they can be kept safely tethered to the earth by sufficient weight. When followed to its logical conclusion, this means that when Eiji, who weighs just a bit more than Patema, holds on to her, he can effectively moon-jump all over the place. And when the occasions for it come, the movie makes full use of this for some truly exhilarating chase sequences, leaning on its stunning animation to make you feel like you are jumping right along with the characters on-screen. The animation is also notable for when and how they switch the upside-down perspective to show us Patema’s point of view, reminding us that we see as normal, non-threatening up is to Patema what trying to walk across the top of the Grand Canyon is like for us. It’s another excellent cinematic trick offered by the logic of the world and by the style of its animation, and a well-utilized one.
The world and the simple but charming relationship that blooms between Patema and Eiji build up to a genuinely mind-bending third act, with the kind of self-confident use of its ideas that separate the really special films from the rest of the pack. It’s amazing plays on gravity aside, this is hardly a very complicated movie, but it doesn’t need to be, because that’s not what makes it great. It’s its unabashed willingness to embrace its own gleeful creativity that does.
And there you have it, dear readers. My thoughts on the movies I was able to enjoy at this year's Nippon Connection. Most of you have not seen any of these movies, even though they are all films that everyone should see. Seek them out, however you can, and let yourselves be amazed.