As it turns out, I occasionally accept reader requests to write about specific anime. I watched Patema Inverted and thought it was interesting enough to discuss, so here we are.
Patema Inverted is a rather by-the-numbers adventure flick in the vein of Castle in the Sky, which is a bit disappointing given Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s heavy involvement in the indie anime scene. Aping Studio Ghibli classics appears to be a common trait among anime directors vying for a mainstream theatrical release. Like Makoto Shinkai’s Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Patema Inverted’s distinct visual flair is cheapened by a clunky narrative that paints its themes with broad, overly simplistic strokes.
I did still enjoy Patema Inverted quite a bit, though. It’s a film that succeeds in sketching out the small details, even when it doesn’t quite connect in the large picture. The camerawork is so strong that the flying scenes have a visceral impact; they make you feel so very small and insignificant. The key scenes manage to evoke fear and wonderment and joy and terror all at once. Animation fans will definitely get a kick out of this film.
Then there’s the central concept of the film, which remains interesting throughout. The idea of inverted gravity isn’t a new one, but it’s still a great way to visually depict the wildly differing perspectives of two people. The theme is framed through a romance, which I think plays with the whole “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” train of thought. (At least the love story in Patema Inverted isn’t as obnoxious as Upside Down.)
Patema Inverted has a broader focus than just its main duo, so the “try to see other people through their shoes” theme does have relevance beyond vague dating advice. The central theme is exploration and mutual understanding. It’s a story about uniting the world, not just individual people. So it makes sense that its upside down romance is built on the foundations of an upside down friendship.
That’s why it’s more than a bit disappointing that the villain is a power-mongering ugly old dude with the psychological depth of a sack of potatoes. If he had an evil moustache, I’m sure he’d be stroking it.
There’s one point in the film when our hero confronts the villain and tells him, “You’re all just too afraid to find out [how wonderful the sky is].” It’s a shame this perspective isn’t actually explored in any depth, because fear of the unknown is a very human impulse. Caricaturing the enemy is the stuff of war propaganda, not a genuine attempt at bridging perspectives!
I’m pretty sure, for instance, that the world of Aiga is meant to be a portrayal of far right wing totalitarianism. It’s a society that worships law and order. It explicitly orders its students to keep their eyes on the ground and punishes them for looking at the sky. This is certainly motivated by practical and not just ideological concerns. Because the higher ups intend to tamper with gravity for the sake of power, the heavy policing obscures their hypocrisy to the public.
This portrayal is rooted in evil things that happen in reality, though rarely do the perpetrators of such injustices admit – even to themselves – that their actions are horribly flawed. And it’s not like such rigid societies are constructed by one or two people. Conservative talking points resonate with many citizens of democratic countries because people are afraid of losing their social and economic stability, not necessarily because each individual conservative is an angry bigot or a mindless sheep.
Perhaps it’s a bit much to expect a children’s film to show that level of nuance in its social commentary, but the simplistic good versus evil conflict really does undermine the story’s broader theme about perspectives. That’s something I could say about a lot of stories and a lot of people, though. While well-intentioned, we’re not inclined to step outside our comfort zone. And Patema Inverted is very much comfort food.
There’s one more film that comes to mind when it comes to the “upside down” theme of human interaction. Head Over Heels (2012), a ten-minute British animated short, depicts an old married couple attempting to deal with their radically different perspectives. Instead of delving into abstract values or ideology, the film shows the couple simply coping with each other through small actions and gestures. It’s a story told without words. Hooks and levers and shoes nailed to the ceiling play their part instead.
As in Patema Inverted, the world doesn’t suddenly turn “the right way up” for everyone when all is said and done. Understanding a person’s subjective reality is just not that simple. This is a common theme across Yoshiura’s sci-fi works. Harmonie, his most recent OVA, explores this idea heavily, but it’s also present in Time of Eve and Pale Cocoon. So if the core idea of Patema Inverted interests you, you should probably check out Yoshiura’s other works. They’re significantly more nuanced and conceptually interesting than Patema Inverted is, though perhaps less polished.
Patema Inverted might be less than the sum of its parts, but it comes from a genuine place and deals with genuinely important questions. It’s a good film by a talented director. Though far from his best, it does promise more good things to come.