If there’s one thing that all cinephiles share, it’s that excited feeling when the house lights turn down low, the screen lights up, and the possibilities are endless for the adventure to come. It doesn’t really matter if you’re in the theater or at home (though that’s an on-going debate), a good story is transportive no matter what and cinephiles live for that experience. Personally, my favorite subgenre of film is the “making a movie” movie, a story that’s not necessarily a meta-take or exploration of a period, but which highlights the processing of movie-making, often led by a group of dreamers seeking to make art. This is where director/co-writer Takayuki Hirao’s (Attack on Titan) adaptation of Shôgo Sugitani’s manga Pompo: The Cinéphile fits; it’s a glorious, up-lifting ode to the filmmaking process from the below the line crewpeople to the financial backers to the creative team to the director. Making full use of the language of cinema in the way only animation can, Hirao’s Pompo: The Cinéphile is an exuberant affirmation, reminding cinephiles why it is that they love movies. Even better, it’s a reminder that being a cinephile allows for all forms of movie-making from microbudget pictures to B movies to Oscar bait. There’s room enough for them, and us, all.
In the bustling movie-making town of Nyallywood resides Joel D. Pomponette, known as Pompo (voiced by Konomi Kohara/Brianna Gentilella), the energetic and exceptionally knowledgeable producer and operator of Peterzen Films. Normally she works on making action/adventure popcorn fair, but this changes when she decides to write a script for a drama, one she thinks has the potential to be award-worthy. Given her gift for recognizing talent, she taps her assistant Gene Fini (voiced by Hiroya Shimizu/ Christopher Trindade) to make the leap to the director’s chair, convinces the semi-retired legendary actor Martin Braddock (voiced by Akio Ohtsuka/Kenneth Cavett) to come out of retirement, and selects first-time actor Natalie Woodward (voiced by Rinka Ōtani/Jackie Lastra) as the leading lady. What seems like a recipe for disaster given the lack of experience on-set also has the potential to become something extraordinary, exemplifying the very thing that audiences go to the theater to see: a dream come true.
There are some stories that require a specific medium to be told correctly. As much as folks these days love live-adaptations of stories (see: Marvel Studios and Disney cannibalizing their animated films for live-action releases), there are some tales that just can’t make the leap to live-action without losing something in the process. In this case, shifting Pompo from manga into animation is both the smoothest way to transition from one medium to the other, but it’s also the best way to tell the kind of story Hirao wants to tell. From top to bottom, Pompo is a film about the relentless quest to make art via moving pictures and does so using literal and imaginative takes on the process. In the literal sense, the film begins with a “Picture Start” message that’s typically part of the film leader, or part of the head or tail of a projector reel. There are other moments in the film where things pause, rewind, or are otherwise put through a color correction process to make them more cinematic. Sometimes this is just a colorful affectation, a quirk of a story told about filmmaking, while, other times, it’s to provide the perspective of a specific character and how they see a moment. Other times, Pompo adopts a more traditional anime hyperreality feel, such as when Gene sits down at the editing bay to work, film reels unspooling around him as he stands with a yellow and purple blade, hacking away at footage; dramatizing the process of selecting and deleting footage to create the picture he seeks to make. Even better, as Gene finds his groove, he’s suddenly charged with energy, a rainbow of light radiating around him as black trails furiously follow his movements, almost like Goku transforming into his Super Saiyan form. These few examples are but a taste of how Pompo selectively utilizes the strengths of animation to convey the language that all cinephiles recognize, while speaking the language of animation aficionados. It’s a clear demonstration of knowledge and awareness from both Hirao and Sugitani as storytellers, elevating the whole of Pompo from just a light popcorn flick (which it is) into a celebration of filmmaking.
The narrative, as the skeleton upon which the animation style evokes the spirit of filmmaking, is equally ambitious and aware. Frankly, it’s Capra-esque in its proclamation of films made by teams, not people, and the battle between money and art. Soup to nuts, Pompo is a story of dreamers making dreams to inspire other dreamers, perpetually balanced on the edge of cynicism and optimism, hopelessness and jubilation. Some of this may be because Pompo herself is a young girl, so there’s a sort of naïve energy exuding throughout the film, except that, as written, she’s a natural talent for identifying potential and a well-spring of cinematic knowledge. Once the audience accepts Pompo, we, like the characters, are swept up in the tale, fully committed to the cause, ready to do what must be done to make a good film. This is, perhaps, the sneakiest thing about Pompo: it makes you believe in the power of teamwork and the idea that each film is only as strong as its weakest link. The narrative takes great pains to follow Gene’s journey at every step of creation from location scouting to shooting to editing, making it clear just how many folks are involved and how things could work if everyone is onboard. It’s also lovely that Pompo takes the time to highlight not only the connection of the audience to the art, but how finance and perception play into a film’s success, and does so without losing the momentum of its story.
Pompo: The Cinéphile is entirely mythical, lacking in bruised egos and devoid of friction, whereas real world filmmaking has plenty of both; yet, it’s hard not to feel a sort of glowing optimism about what making movies is like for the people who get to do this for a living. In the same way that Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) captures the aspirational spirit of people who come to Hollywood seeking to be found, so does Pompo present an entirely unrealistic version the cinematic journey, but what a grand story it is, filling audiences up with the kind of magic and wonder that inspires new art-makers every day. This is the true success of Pompo; it allows cinephiles, general audiences, and the crafts and crewpeople of movies be seen as they are for what they are. It’s glorious, gentle, heartwarming, and hilarious, powered by the kind of magic that smells of celluloid and freshly made popcorn.
As someone who loves film of all kinds (even the one’s I struggle with (looking at you, body horror)) and who watches film constantly, there comes a point where it feels difficult to be dazzled. There may be interesting ideas presented or stirring performances, but something feels missing, overdone, or both. Hirao and Sugitani’s Pompo: The Cinéphile lacks for virtually nothing and is entirely invigorating, a strong reminder of why going to the movies is as much an escape from reality as it is an opportunity for empathy and exploration. Even more so, it highlights that which audiences often forget: movies are made by people who seek to tell the best version of the story that they can. It’s great if others appreciate what the filmmakers create, but, ultimately, the filmmaker must be happy with it as they are the central audience attempting to share their truth. When audiences land on the same frequency, when they vibe with what the filmmakers create, that’s where the magic happens. This is why the notion of a “guilty pleasure” film riles me up so, as no one should ever feel guilty for connecting with a piece of art. Love what you love without shame as the artist created (in the perfect scenario) what they felt is the best version of their vision. Even as recent releases lean toward the lengthier side of runtimes (two – three hours+) and Pompo herself idealizes a specific length (90 minutes), there’s no denying that the undercurrent notion within Pompo: The Cinéphile is simple: ars gratia artis. Make art for the sake of art and don’t look back.
Exclusive Premiere Screening April 27th and 28th, 2022.
In select theaters April 29th, 2022.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.