This Week in Anime
Begonia, I Hardly Knew Ya

by Jean-Karlo Lemus & Monique Thomas,

South Korean studio Studio Mir is loved by fans for its work animated hits like The Legend of Korra, Voltron: Legendary Defender and Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks. The studio's labor of love, Big Fish and Begonia is now streaming for free on Tubi TV. Jean-Karlo and Nicky look at the emotional ode to Chinese mythology in This Week in Anime!

This movie is streaming on Tubi TV

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @mouse_inhouse @NickyEnchilada @vestenet


Nicky
Hey, Jean-Karlo! How are you doing? Are you feelin' that cool autumn breeze? Doesn't it feel nice? Weather like this always makes me want to go for a walk. Sometimes it's nice to get a little exercise in. Really take in the scenery. Just you, the trees, and your big giant honkin' fish. Of course.
Jean-Karlo
If I have to call dolphins "fish", I will face the entire population of the Spirit World and walk backwards into Hell.

Anyway, it took three weeks, but it seems we found the one thing I'm not a huge hyper-fixated fan of, and it's Big Fish and Begonia, an animated film that came out on Tubi TV kinda recently. And hoboy. Hoboy. Do I have taxonomic issues with these people.
Localizations aside, Big Fish & Begonia is an ambitious 2016 animated film brought to you as a collab between the Beijing based B&T Studio and the more well-known Studio Mir (Hint: they did a little show called Avatar: The Last Airbender). What started as an online short in 2004 is now a gorgeous well-animated film with looks that could rival any Ghibli movie. I first saw this movie in 2018 when it was finally brought to American theaters and its big fantasy world and story full of love carved a big place in my heart ever since.
Yeah, it's definitely pretty, but the movie didn't quite win me over. I'm already not the hugest fan of Studio Ghibli and its overwhelming influence on animated film, Legend of Korra by way of Spirited Away isn't exactly my idea of must-see television. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I think calling it a rip off of Spirited Away or Korra is actually pretty uncharitable to uhh, let's say thousands of years of Chinese mythology. But I won't deny that the influence is there, especially the fact that it centers on the young female protagonist, Chun, who's name means Begonia.
So, Chun is 16, and denizens of the Spirit World undergo a ritual when they hit that age where they turn into fish dolphins and explore the oceans of the Human World for a week to see how it and the Spirit World are linked. But the catch is, Chun has to avoid humans and be back in a week or else she gets stuck in the Human World. So guess what happens.
Before that, I love how the movie sets up Chun's family's worry. Even though Chun isn't human and comes from the other world beneath the human world, they're also not gods, and still experience many universal things like love, death, and sadness.

The movie definitely has some very creative Spirit People whose designs I enjoyed. But then you've got people like Chun and her family who are just... people.
But what Big Fish & Begonia is really good at hooking you in with these small moments of overwhelming emotion. First they open you up with Chun's family, and then on her way Chun encounters a human boy about her age along with his little sister.

So even only a few minutes into the movie you can already tell how deeply important family is to both of these characters.

As it happens, Chun does the thing she's not supposed to and both gets involved with a human, and is almost late in returning to the human world. The boy drowns trying to save Chun from a net, and Chun struggles with coping over an innocent young man dying for her sake.

I wanna point out that this one scene here with Chun and her grandfather has a beautiful transition, one of many that makes me give legitimate props to this film for its presentation. It's stellar.
If anything, the visual storytelling for this movie are on another level. but it's all in order to drive home it's more existential narrative about the intermingling of Life and Death.

Unable to cope with her failures. Chun seeks out the Lady of Souls, Ling Po, to go make a deal in order to spare this young man's fate so that he may return to his young, helpless sister. The fish lady agrees on the condition that Chun give up half her life-span in order to restore his. Though, if only it were that easy.
God, I wanted to talk about that scene so badly. Ling Po is giving Chun the Dr. Phil "You're ugly, you're stupid, I hate you, give me $200" routine but in that one scene Ling Po goes through so many emotions over something they're still grieving over after 800 years. Who hurt you, Ling Po?
At any rate, Chun, teenager that she is, gives up half her life to resurrect the boy and even spends hours in a library searching for his very soul out of an ocean of identical ones (another very poetic scene). And she brings him home and names him Kun, after a massive fish so large he had clouds for wings. In doing so, Chun takes it upon herself to care for Kun so he can grow strong enough to return home, even though his very existence is a blight on the natural order of the spirit world.
Kun, the giant fish that turns into a bird, is also the central myth in the classic Zhuangzi, in which Big Fish & Begonia pulls much of its imagery and Taoist philosophy. As Kun grows, Chun faces many hardships as bringing the dead back to life makes her world unhappy and unstable, bringing about salty rain, rapid seasonal change, and the ire of the other townsfolk. Fortunately, Chun isn't alone. Even when she gets sabotaged by her parents or someone else from town, she's always helped out by her childhood friend, Qiu.
I wanna snark about how it took 40 minutes for the movie to deign it necessary for us to know what Qiu's name was, but we're a dignified column dangit. Anyway, Qiu's a great character himself. He runs the gamut of wanting to rid Chun of Kun for the sake of her safety and the safety of the world, to being her only ally in keeping him safe. Once Chun confides to him that she gave up half her life to bring Kun back, Chun immediately sets about trying to find a way to help her--and he's not afraid to go the whole nine yards for it.
Qiu, is the real MVP of the story for me even though his problem is as simple as being in love with your childhood friend who doesn't necessarily see you more than anything more than a brother. He still wants Chun to be able to live her life and to be happy by whatever means possible, even if that means that she'd rather be with a oversized goldfish than him. He despairs at the idea of having to live without Chun. There's many sacrifices made in the film but all of them compound as a small part of being able to love.
His is definitely the arc that resonated with me the most, if only because his moments are the few that aren't choked in oversaturated whimsy. Like, I get this is your big high-budget animated feature and you gotta shoot the money. But I'm not feeling these sky-dolphins, dude.

I mentioned Ghibli earlier and I'm not a huge fan of movies about chaste, non-threatening, platonic heterosexual couples holding hands in rolling fields of grass while Emotional Thing Happens™️, but if you gotta crib from someone I guess it may as well be the house that Totoro built.
After all, we also gotta deal with Dancing Rats!!
Rat Dance! Rat Dance!

If you have to waste my time with ostentatious flights of fancy that only serve to demonstrate your inflated budget your sneering contempt for your peers in animations your outdated single-minded vision for what animation is "supposed" to be your budget and introduce a character that has no bearing on the plot, you can do way worse than Rat Queen.

I appreciate that she hoses Chun over, contributes to the ruination of the Spirit World, and gets away with it, scott-free (and with a newer, hotter younger bod to boot), but uh... thanks for potentially having an antagonist and then writing them out with no further fanfare halfway through the movie?
"Slay, queen"?
I'll also note this film took ten years to make and YEARS to get proper funding because despite being so LUSH no one thought it would make any money! So I don't think it's merely about showing off your stacks of money, and truly most of this film a labor of love. In fact, in terms of money, this movie actually only cost about 1/5th of what Spirited Away cost in USD. Yet it still has time to have fun with stuff like Shu Pozi, here.
See, I don't know what it is about this movie or Ghibli movies in that they put so much effort into lavish scenes that are clearly meant to make you feel something but ultimately bring the snark out of me. I'm a sap, I love melodrama, I'm a sucker for tearful confessions and painful longing, but you put it into a movie like this and I just wanna scream at the screen "Stop trying to make me feel something and just make me feel something!" So when things do go sideways in the Spirit World and Chun's decision starts ruining everyone else's life in material ways, I don't feel like Chun's struggling with her inner morals. I just feel like the world got hosed over because Teenagers™️.

Chun chooses to protect Kun, which costs her her family, her home, and even her powers as a spirit, and all I can think is, "You could have just gone to counseling for that Survivor's Guilt." The movie earns that big scene, make no mistake. But that chord doesn't strike with me for some reason. It's like those people who register cilantro as tasting like soap, I guess.
Meanwhile, pretty sure I bawled like three times watching this movie again. I'm a mega-sentimental idiot and this is the kind of stuff I got into anime for. To Each Their Own, mayhaps, but I will argue that part of what makes it effective is the fact that it doesn't run on regular ol' logic like that. Movies that simply run on plain logic aren't satisfying! Doing big stupid emotional things and sapping everything into emotions is what makes many stories great, and with animation, you have this power to control visual storytelling in a way that oozes with it.
You know a scene I really loved, though?
Oh yeah, definitely the thing I was thinking of. Such little space speaks VOLUMES.
Chun thanks Qiu for all that he's done for her, and how she thinks of him as a brother. And Qiu's heart just shatters. I almost resented this movie for having another 30 minutes left after the Big Tree Scene, but this subdued moment here earned those 30 minutes. I know that grip on his sleeves. I know that hunch in his back. As I type this, I know the way his jaw must be tightening. It might not have been because of a broken heart, but I've lived that pain. So, you go from that to Free Willy.
I think everyone has felt the same sort of suffering, the price that comes from trying to love others also comes with the bitter sweetness of parting. Just like Life and Death are two sides of the same cycle, yin and yang, Spring and Fall. Love and Sorrow are also two equals. Qiu, burns up into a flurry of autumn leaves so Chun, who after having sacrificed all her powers to fix their world, moves on with Kun into the human world.
Real talk, I thought he was immolating himself. The ending credits rolling and talking about the tree with equal Spring and Autumn makes so much more sense now. I figured immolation was more poetic, seeing as this guy would walk through fire if it meant Chun's happiness. But it's a beautiful visual either way. I mean, I still feel like they're just ripping off that one scene from Spirited Away where they're plummeting to the ground at terminal velocity while having a heartfelt conversation about a childhood memory, but your best friend destroying their body so that you can have your second chance at a better life works.
And just like the seasons, the movie emphasizes that since these are simply two parts of a whole, we have the solace knowing that in some way they'll always be connected. The last shot of the movie proper is Chun helping Kun on the beach and wearing a necklace made out of the rock that Qiu had given to her as a gift.
Nicky, you're way better versed in the imagery of this film than I am, is Qiu being resurrected by Ling Po and "taking [her] place" supposed to be happy? Because it feels like Ling Po is just passing misery onto another poor schlub who just wanted someone else to be happy.
I think it is because even indentured servitude is better than being Dead Dead, and also this means that no matter what, when Chun as the old-ass woman narrating the story eventually dies, he'll still be the first one to see her, and therefore unlike Ling Po, the crazy old cat lady of souls, he's not going to end up alone.
I really wish I had any other reaction to this movie other than "You're trying too hard" because so much of the production is undeniably stellar. This movie came out of nowhere for me and a lot of these screenshots I grabbed because they just looked that good. I wish I could say why this movie just makes me sneer when Ride Your Wave didn't, but this movie just left me cold. Which is why I'm insisting everyone else go see it, right now. I'm pretty much alone in my distaste for all of Miyazaki's flicks after Castle of Cagliostro, but people really love the meaningful dialogue and emotional outpouring, even if it's not very well-written like in Howl's Moving Castle. So I imagine that the more a movie tries to channel that and makes me snark, the more it's gonna appeal to your average person who cries when Chihiro rides Haku. I didn't enjoy this, but I know a damn fine film when I see it. I'm not so heartless I wouldn't know stellar creativity when it hits me over the head.
One thing can be said and that I don't think there's really anything else LIKE it. Regardless of if you think it's cribbing other more popular works, I think we should also be asking where else are we even seeing stuff like this outside of Japan? So I think the statement isn't just "This film is just like a Ghibli Movie" but rather the fact that great movies like the works from Studio Ghibli can don't have to be made by Mr. Miyazaki in order to be good or visually rich. In fact, good animation can come from anywhere. Many countries still struggle to create a stable animation industry, but I hope this film helps inspires people to keep trying to get their art made no matter what.
I would personally want a greater variety of works that don't feel like they need to be "like" a Ghibli film to be good, but even movies in Japan struggle with coming out from under "dear uncle" Hayao's shadow and will for a long time. If this is B&T Studios and Studio Mir's calling shot, then we're in for a lot of really, really good movies. And like you say, hopefully this leads to other countries making films based upon their own mythologies and experiences. All the more reason for people to ignore my grousing and just watch this movie; someone cared a lot to put this out there. I know it's weird for people to see a guy slam a film but then say "Please watch this", but trust me on this one. This is just a case where our vibes don't sync up.
It's as pretty as a picture, an excellent exploration of Taoism, and at just under two hours it's a great way to spend an afternoon. All for the price of FREE.

Just remember to bring tissues for yourself and your giant bird grandma.

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