Le Portrait de Petite Cossette Review
The problem with working with genre material on any kind of work - whether books, film, TV or animation - is that it is often constrained by the need to adhere to a predefined set of conventions. The danger with sub-genres, is that those constraints are even tighter, leaving the creator little room for personal vision and expression. Despite being a three episode OVA specifically designed to appeal to fans of Gothic-Loli, Le Portrait de Petite Cossette, director Akiyuki Shinbo however manages to put together an intriguing and beautiful work of great imagination and power, while being fully a part of, if not a defining work of a Gothic-Loli animation genre.
Gothic-Loli is short for Gothic Lolita, a fashion style that, as the name suggests, features frills and lace in Victorian doll-like designs. Its use here in animation would seem to stretch the visual flourishes of the costumes towards the dark lyrical romanticism and gothic horror of the likes of Vampire Princess Miyu. The Lolita of this animation OVA, dressed all in lace and frills and in peril from some dark evil person or entity, is Cossette, a young French girl who was murdered 250 years ago by her fiancé, Marcelo Orlando. Her spirit however has been trapped in a beautiful goblet of Venetian glass which has been discovered by a young art student Eiri Kurahashi in his uncle’s antique shop. Eiri falls in love with the beautiful Cossette, her sad eyes and the tragic tale of her death which unfolds before his eyes as he looks into the glass.
Eiri’s friends notice that he is becoming increasingly distant and distracted, obsessively drawing portraits of the young girl who occupies his thoughts - and as he becomes more involved, they start worrying about his health which has taken a dangerous turn for the worse. A spiritualist friend, aware that he has been possessed by a spirit or a demon, wants to help him out, but Kurahashi doesn’t want help. He is prepared to do whatever it takes to free the spirit of the murdered girl and slips between the gap between the spirit world and the real world – but there is a high cost to be paid for her freedom.
Le Portrait de Petite Cossette is Japanese animation at its finest, continuing to develop 2-D cel-animation and take it to new and imaginative areas while the rest of the animation world becomes bogged-down in increasingly homogenous computer animation products. Creator Akiyuki Shinbo and his team fully explore and exploit the considerable visual strengths of Gothic-Loli and its associated romantic horror elements, with strong character designs, elaborate backgrounds and imaginative animation techniques. CGI is used sparingly and effectively to enhance particular fantasy aspects of the story, but Cossette’s primary visual stamp is defined by the trend for pastel colouring and the blurred, matt feel in the style of Serial Experiments Lain. With an unconventional use of angles and strong storyboarding, the visual impact of the film is indeed striking.
Every other aspect of the production, from the script and music through to the actual pacing and editing of the story is equally effective, all of them combining to sustain the mood and atmosphere of the piece. And primarily, that is the whole point of the series. It’s doubtful whether anyone will find anything of real substance within the storyline, which is indeed constrained by the conventions of the genre, but even within that, the creators constantly dive deeper into the dark fantasy, following a flow and finding increasingly abstract, surreal and brilliant designs to express the horrifying Promethean experience that Kurahashi is forced to undergo. And ultimately, when the nature of his obsession becomes clear, the whole purpose of the alluringly beautiful image and its power to seduce justifies the visual richness of the film itself.
Le Portrait De Petite Cossette is released in the UK by MVM. The full OVA is included here, divided into three parts. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
The quality of the video transfer is certainly up to handling the importance of the series’ visual qualities, but there are some technical issues. The transfer is anamorphically enhanced, but the image is interlaced. This doesn’t present much of a problem and is scarcely detectable during normal playback, not even on a progressive display. Rather more evident is the banding in the gradation of colours and issues with posterisation (see screenshot below). I don’t think this is an intentional colouration effect and would appear to be a problem with the transfer. How much of a problem this presents will be an issue with the individual viewer. I found it quite irritating, but didn’t find it overly detracted from the colouration and overall tone of the animation. I’d be inclined to be more tolerant here as elsewhere the image looks fabulous, perfectly balancing the pastel colour shades and softness inherent in the animation style with a very stable image that exhibits no other issues with artefacts or compression.
The series comes with an excellent choice of soundtracks. An English/American dub is included in Dolby Digital 5.1 as the default choice, but the original Japanese audio – included in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes – is clearly better voiced. All options are of a high quality - the Japanese DTS track having only a slight edge over the other two tracks. Dialogue is clearly audible dialogue and the excellent music score rises well out of the mix. There are more than a few moments of deep subwoofer rumbling in a perhaps slightly over-bassy mix.
Two English subtitle tracks are provided. One provides a translation to the Japanese song lyrics heard on the English soundtrack, the other provides a full English translation to work with the Japanese soundtracks. The subtitles are in an awful bright yellow font, which is completely inappropriate, badly messing up the considered balance of the colour schemes. The translation appears to be fine - literal rather than dubtitles - but the colour alone is almost bad enough to make you choose to listen to the English dub and dispense with them altogether.
The main extra feature is a Behind The Scenes (19:56) and it’s a good feature, covering every aspect of the production with interviews with the whole team of creators, and the Japanese voice actors. Marina Inoue, the voice of Cossette, sings the film’s title theme ‘Gem’ which is included here as a Music Video (5:06) filmed in live-action gothic style. The remainder of the extra features are all trailers – the Japanese Trailer, the US Trailer and a Japanese TV Commercial for the DVD release. Trailers for other MVM titles are also included.
The rather insubstantial plot of Le Portrait de Petite Cossette may seem thinly stretched across the three episodes of the complete series and even quite repetitive, seeming to be almost wholly reliant on its strong visual look and feel and its evocation of mood. Consequently not everyone will be as indulgent of its frequently abstract imagery or its flirtation with lyrical romantic gothic horror, but I would argue that this is entirely what the film is striving to achieve and nothing more. MVM present the complete series reasonably well on DVD with some worthwhile extra features. There are some minor technical niggles, but the transfer conveys the essential tone well.