Although I’m still recovering from a severe cold, I ventured out to Village East Cinema to catch a screening of Keiichi Hara’s The Wonderland (alternatively titled Birthday Wonderland, according to some sources)—because I pre-ordered the ticket weeks ago, and I wasn’t about to let seventeen non-refundable dollars go to waste.
As far as the bare bones of the plot are concerned, the film represents a fairly typical example of the ubiquitous “two worlds” anime trope: an ordinary girl is spirited away by magical forces, and must embark on an epic quest through a fantastical parallel dimension in order to return home. Hayao Miyazaki and Makoto Shinkai have utilized the same basic narrative structure throughout their careers, and its stylistic influences date as far back as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz. Fortunately, Hara—whose body of work includes such visually-stunning cinematic efforts as Colorful and Miss Hokusai—tells the familiar tale with great panache; as his heroes travel across lush farmlands, sprawling deserts, and smog-choked industrial cityscapes, the director consistently delivers the spectacle that is so integral to the sub-genre.
Of course, like most fairytales of its ilk, The Wonderland is, beneath its surface-level razzle-dazzle, a simple-yet-effective coming-of-age story. Our young protagonist, Akane, lacks initiative and confidence when we first encounter her. In one early scene, for instance, her fair-weather friends intimidate her into ostracizing a fellow classmate—and her complacency in the bullying plunges her into an unshakable depression. Later, when adventure comes knocking in the form of an unfailingly polite alchemist, she steadfastly refuses the call (as she must; Joseph Campbell said so)… until an enchanted amulet literally compels her to follow her newfound companion across the threshold, whether she wants to or not. Gradually, however, her experiences allow her to discover her repressed bravery and resolve; by the climax, she’s able to make all the right choices of her own free will, without the need for any mystical coercion. Her character development is even mirrored by the movie’s central antagonist, who initially resembles the industry-standard ineffectual-yet-intimidating villain, but slowly reveals a surprising degree of emotional complexity (I’ll keep his motivations vague for the sake of avoiding spoilers).
This rich thematic subtext ultimately elevates The Wonderland. Yes, Hara’s imagery is absolutely breathtaking—but his gentle humanist touch is what will truly linger in your memory as the end credits roll.