Reviewby Tim Henderson, Oct 12th 2006
Spirit of Wonder
The Spirit of Wonder is a collection of short stories set in old England. They all revolve around scientists pushing the boundaries of their world from the micro to the cosmic. But while they make these discoveries what happens to the people that surround them? Miss China is one of these people and she is always handed the short end of the stick. So how does she react to being the size of a thumbnail, or walking on the moon? The second short story follows the misadventures of the Scientific Boys Club. When they were young they made a pledge to each other to travel to Mars and now that they're older and wiser, they believe to have found a way to make that journey.
Title: Spirit of Wonder
Rarely is there an anime that deserves its title as much as Spirit of Wonder. This is a simple and straightforward tale, told through gentle means about characters that possess and have kept ablaze for a very long time what could genuinely be called a spirit of wonder.
Spirit of Wonder is a collection of tales, and as such is a little disconnected. This isn't the fault of the OAV itself in any direct sense, but rather of the way that all the parts have been put together. What we have here are two OAV episodes that constitute the bulk of the package, those being parts one and two of the Scientific Boys Club. Along with this come two separate short animations of a somewhat different nature that are only loosely tied to the main content. This is fair enough, and the different pieces were produced at different times so we're actually getting added content. The downside is that they have sandwiched the two Scientific Boys Club parts between the two short Miss China outings, which still works but the disc may have benefited by separating the pieces more clearly.
The Scientific Boys Club story really serves as the core content here. It's a simple, slowly told and even slightly touching story of a group of childhood friends who are still together in old age, still pursuing their boyhood club goal of travelling to Mars. Providing a convenient moment for the narrative to hang itself from, after its prologue Spirit of Wonder opens with a young man called Jack returning to his wife, Windy, who is quite eager to spend some time with him now that he's back from his voyage at sea. In conflict with his wife's wishes, though, Jack ends up heading out with Windy's father to club meetings most of the time. And so the plot finds wheels too cautiously move forward.
It's highly likely that younger viewers won't find much to hold their interest here. The story is the sort that's almost impossible to grade: slow moving but effective: simple, imaginative, and wholly uncomplicated. One person could quite easily argue that it covers quite a lot of ground, while another may instead state that nothing actually happens. Both would be correct from a certain perspective. The storytelling here is very placid, visually observed through a typically still camera that only allows for the most simple of pans. The narrative is generally happy to just drift along, and it does this effectively, allowing still imagery more time in the spotlight than is usual.
Visuals are modest, with animation that seldom goes beyond being merely adequate. There are, however, a couple of wonderful moments where extra effort has been put in to animating mundane actions throughout long takes, and the results are highly atmospheric. Colours tend to be quite muted, and the DVD carries the visuals well most of the time because of this: Light colours are clean and clear, although darker spots can be a bit grainy. Considering that apart from a section in the second half the aesthetic is almost never dark, this isn't much of a problem. There's also a distinct lack of 3D CG right up until the end, and sadly it ruins things a bit when it does appear, as it hardly does a fantastic job of blending in with the painted backgrounds.
Set in the 1950's, there is little surprise that the colours aren't at all vibrant, and the character designs are stuck somewhere between typical anime stylization and a minimal form of realism. It's not brilliant, but it works well, and all the old-fashioned characters themselves are likable in their own way; even the slightly generic perverted old man who's always flicking up poor Windy and Miss China's respective dresses. Japanese performances work despite the setting, but the English dub comes across as both overplayed and detached: it's simply too easy to imagine the actors recording in different booths at different times, never being able to play off each other.
At the end of it all, Spirit of Wonder spills forth a tale about the perseverance of a childish sense of wonder that is both bogus and meditative. It's told with patience and features some adventurous old men who celebrate quite a lot in a Chinese restaurant. A Chinese restaurant that is the only real worldly link between the Scientific Boys and Miss China OAV's, although themes such as a fixation with Mars and technological feats are kept in common.
The Miss China stories carry quite a different flavour. They're a bit more energetic in a conventional sense, and somewhat more likely to appeal to a broad audience. The first of the two shorts is a very Alice in Wonderland-like exercise in the physical size of the leading lady herself, and is told mostly through visual progression rather than dialogue. Miss China is a fun character who works well in this world of simple creativity as the roles of mundane objects change as she does. The second short is utterly bizarre, but behind its fruity crown lies an amount of nostalgic sentiment and it manages to be surprisingly complete in itself even though the explanation for the journey taken may confuse just about everybody. Not that it really matters as it's a fun ride.
All told, Spirit of Wonder is a little confusing in its arrangement, but respectable enough in terms of actual content. Anyone after special features will be disappointed, as these are limited to an image gallery and a few trailers, and the cover isn't even properly reversible. That's fairly unimportant though, and what is important is that this release is likely to appeal to an often neglected older demographic, and while it is not the second coming of The Wings of Honneamise, The Sprit of Wonder is still worthy for what it is.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Animation : C+
+ Delightfully simple story focus and telling.
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