Spring and Chaos Review
To my knowledge, Spring and Chaos (a.k.a. Kenji no Haru, or 'Kenji's Spring') is unique in being the only biographical animé to emulate the artistic style of the person whose life it seeks to depict. Specifically, the film is an animated 'life story' of one of Japan's most beloved modern poets, Kenji Miyazawa, who lived in the rural Iwate Prefecture during the period of 1896 to 1933. Miyazawa – born to successful, business-minded parents – could not reconcile his suspicion that the family shop benefited from the hard luck of the lower classes, and eventually set out to focus on a career in education and to pursue his own artistic endeavours. As is often the case, his great talent went unappreciated during his life, and unfortunately he only managed to publish two works before his death at age 37.
Although some of the story is told in flashbacks to his youth, the bulk of the film concentrates on the 1920s, during which time he was employed as a teacher at an agricultural school. Adored by his students (who nevertheless also felt he was 'weird'), Miyazawa attempted to share with them his boundless fascination with philosophy and the sciences. While watching the show, you have to bear in mind that at this point in history Japan was undergoing rapid modernisation, moving away from an agrarian/feudal model and towards an industrial one. That Miyazawa was very much aware of this and yet still chose in the end to relinquish his comfortable teaching job and take up farming among the peasant populace gives some indication of his own moral outlook on life.
Die-hard animé fans may have even seen the acclaimed adaptation of Night on the Galactic Railroad and not realised that it was based upon a 1927 literary classic by Miyazawa himself. (Of course, one telltale sign is that both Night on the Galactic Railroad and Spring and Chaos are populated by 'cat people'; Miyazawa was particularly fond of writing stories that featured anthropomorphic animals.) There are a number of other stylistic parallels between the two films, and the surrealism of Miyazawa's unique perspective on the universe is beautifully conveyed to the audience by an admixture of animation techniques ranging from pencil work to computer graphics.
It takes a special kind of director to undertake a project like this, and it's fortunate that in this case Shoji Kawamori took up the challenge. Better known for his work on Macross, Escaflowne, Arjuna, and Ghost in the Shell, Kawamori has succeeded in recreating the underlying feel of Miyazawa's works. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Spring and Chaos won both the Japan Culture and Art Foundation Award and the 23rd Cultural Broadcasting Foundation Award for 'Best TV Entertainment Program'.
That said, it's important to note that the film may not be everyone's cup of tea. First off, this is a 'serious work'... although there are many moments of sheer wonder in the show, you won't find any evidence of the usual animé staples of slapstick humour, magnificent fight sequences, mystical special effects, detailed mecha, or buxom females. Second, despite the running time clocking in at less than an hour, you are almost certain to find the pace a trifle on the slow side. Whereas most animé is action-driven and some is dialogue-driven, Spring and Chaos is primarily thought-driven. Which is to say, we spend a lot of time in Miyazawa's head, experiencing his thinking processes and worldview. So you may find a re-watch is in order to really appreciate this approach.
Just to be clear, this review is of the remastered version of Spring and Chaos. As it happens, this title was the first one TOKYOPOP released on DVD, and some production errors snuck in. To be precise, the main issues were with the overall video encode quality and the use of 'dubtitles' instead of proper subtitles. To the company's credit, a recall was promptly ordered and new DVDs correcting both problems sent out ASAP.
The picture problems reported in the early version – not having seen it myself, this info is second-hand – mainly had to do with heavy background artifacting and problems with edge detail in lines (pixelation). I'm happy to report that there is no sign of any such defects on the new remastered disc. The image quality is good if a little on the soft side... but nothing that looks any worse than many contemporary (mid-90s) animé shows.
In case I haven't covered this in one of my other reviews, 'dubtitles' is a derogatory term coined by fans, and refers to subtitles which – instead of providing a direct translation of the original language script – simply present the text of the reworked English dub track. (In other words, you end up reading exactly the words the English voice actors are speaking on the English dub, as opposed to a translation of what the Japanese voice actors are actually saying.)
This is one of the cardinal sins of the Western animé distribution industry in the eyes of many dedicated fans, so it was unfortunate that the first release of Spring and Chaos used dubtitles. However, this remastered version has fixed the problem and perhaps even went above and beyond the call of duty, as it includes bona fide subtitles not merely in English, but in Spanish, French, German, Korean, and Chinese as well!
The audio quality of this disc is good but unexceptional, featuring a simple stereo mix for both the original Japanese language and English dub tracks. (Speaking of which, the English version does seem to be a little louder than the Japanese.) In fact, the most noteworthy aspect of the sound on this DVD is the haunting opening melody, which is essentially a Japanese rendition of 'Ave Maria'. The only music credit on the DVD case is for 'Shang Shang Typhoon', so I must assume this was the group that arranged/performed it... but regardless it's a lovely piece which perfectly matches the mood of the film.
The menus are serviceable and fairly standard stuff... mostly static screens, although two feature central animations and play a too-brief loop of the theme song. Access times are good (with the sole exception of returning from 'Special Features' to the main menu, which strangely inserts a second of black screen).
Speaking of special features, they include the English trailer (which auto-plays when you pop the DVD in, so you won't miss it); an art gallery with about a dozen images; one-page capsule bios of Kenji Miyazawa, Shoji Kawamori, and sound director Atsumi Tashiro; a rather bland two-minute biographical video of Miyazawa; and – by far the best extras – a series of short video interview segments with both Kawamori and Tashiro. These last bits reveal a number of interesting details behind the production of Spring and Chaos, and come across best if you select the 'Play All' option to run through them seamlessly. Also included in the standard Amaray DVD case is a nice little set of liner notes which give the reader a quick introduction to Miyazawa and Kawamori, as well as one of the former's poems, dated 1924.
Spring and Chaos is a worthy and unique work of animé, both in subject matter and its visual style. Although there is nothing complicated about Miyazawa's personal history, by focusing instead on how this now-revered writer viewed the world, the show succeeds in achieving a very high degree of artistic merit. His life story is underscored with sadness, but this is not a melancholy film. It is, however, a very slow-paced one, and one peppered with bizarre (at points, almost hallucinogenic) imagery. You may not know quite what to make of it after your first viewing – I certainly felt that way – but it has a strong heart and I suspect that if you enjoy art house cinema, you'll want to watch it again to get more out of it.