It all begins with three words: Lights. Camera. Action! Sure, with the changing of technology, the specific terms have changed, but they all go back to these three. Three words which, while not large, immediately call to mind tales of drama, untold adventures, and stories of places beyond our comprehension. For those who live and breathe cinema, either as new fans or as well-worn cinephiles, these three words inspire opportunity to engage with people like us but not us in situations both known and foreign, the best of which increasing our empathy and worldly understanding with each new story. This is a large reason why director/co-writer Takayuki Hirao’s (Attack on Titan) adaptation of Shôgo Sugitani’s manga Pompo: The Cinéphile lands so strongly for this reviewer. From start to finish, Pompo is a story about the love of filmmaking featuring lovers of film for lovers of film. Rather than being oddly sanctimonious about it (a major complaint of La La Land (2016)), Pompo is both sweet and charming, replacing naiveté with awareness that neither diminishes positivity nor aggrandizes the negative. Coming available on home video and digital thanks to a partnership between GKids Films and Shout! Factory, audiences will be able to enjoy Pompo: The Cinéphile when they like while enjoying a few delightful behind the scenes featurettes to extend the experience.
If you’d like to learn about Pompo: The Cinéphile without spoilers, head to the initial theatrical review. Moving forward, there will be specific discussion of the film which will include details related to plot, characters, and surprises.
In the fictional town of Nallywood, the place where dreams are made and broken on the big screen, lives renowned producer Joel D. Pomponette, known as Pompo (voiced by Konomi Kohara/Brianna Gentilella), who serves as the head of her family’s production house, Peterzen Films. After having wrapped her latest action/adventure, Pompo decides to produce something far more personal, a script she wrote titled Meister. Rather than selecting a weathered director, she gives the job to her assistant Gene Fini (voiced by Hiroya Shimizu/ Christopher Trindade), a young man who studies cinema closely but has never had the chance to direct. To ensure his success, Pompo convinces semi-retired legendary actor Martin Braddock (voiced by Akio Ohtsuka/Kenneth Cavett) to join the production, while also hiring a fresh talent, Natalie Woodward (voiced by Rinka Ōtani/Jackie Lastra) to serve as Braddock’s co-lead. If not for Pompo’s reputation for identifying talent, Meister would likely be doomed from the start. Instead, it creates an opportunity for all involved to be reminded of why they love movies in the first place: not the accolades or attention and certainly not the business portions, but their passion to capture an in a way that moves an audience.
From the first frame of Pompo, audiences are clued in to exactly what Hirao has up his sleeve — a quick glimpse of “Picture Start” before a marker is visible, the center frame surrounded by framerate and shutter information, as we see and hear from several characters. The three we see, we do not know yet, and when it gets to the third, the screen transitions via an hourglass-like transition to a notebook thrown into a puddle, the final character standing over it, looking beleaguered. The image then zooms out to where we can see and hear the celluloid as it runs through a projector, shifting the image to a new location — a theater, a place of wonder and imagination — until we see a placard read “Opening Sequence” and the musical number sets the stage. All of this is structured to give us a taste of the characters to come and their story, but it does it using the language of the tools of cinema. Not just the more traditional filmstock of moving pictures, but the transitions, the signs of raw footage in an editing bay, a general sense that we’re looking through the lens at our characters — a movie within a movie within a movie. We, of course, come to later know the three characters we’re introduced to, as well as come to realize that that opening interview is the one the crew makes to try to shore up additional financial support from a bank, but all that comes later, once we’ve fallen in love with Gene, Natalie, Martin, and even the bold and ferocious Pompo. It certainly helps that much of what Hirao does is make the ordinary process of moviemaking extraordinary (my favorite sequences involve Gene editing because of how dynamically they are presented, Gene swinging a heavy blade to slice and remove footage in order to create the story that ultimately wins him awards in-film. It’s through the use of such fantastical presentation of the ordinary that Pompo becomes exceptional, evoking the kind of wonder and awe that comes from a well-made final product, pushing forward the little secret that movies aren’t just made on set, there remains artistry in the edit. Even more than that, if one were to come to Pompo will little to no knowledge of moviemaking, they’d walk away with the sense that every project is a group one, the director in the lead and all the players, from the actors to the crew, responsible for their part to bring the dream to life. It’s idyllic for sure as there are always real-life outliers where the director, members of the cast, or even part of the crew possess too much ego to recognize the value each individual brings, but that’s part of the magic of Pompo, it pushes an optimistic narrative without leaning into the saccharine.
If you found joy in Pompo as I did, the included feature-length audio commentary with Hirao, unit director Kenji Imura (Your Name.), and editor Tsuyoshi Imai (Kingdom) is going to delight you even further. Hirao actually starts the commentary by stating, with the other two present, that he’s not sure how much he’ll be able to contribute as they possess greater knowledge than he regarding certain details. How very Pompo and Gene of him to acknowledge their expertise from the jump. Moviemaking nerds, like myself, will find all kinds of delightful details within their commentary, from how they struggled to light certain scenes or their thoughts on the edits themselves. Sadly, this is the meatiest bonus feature on the home release. There is a feature-length storyboard version of the film, but I struggle to see the need of it when there wasn’t any audio attached. If you’re the type who wants to explore behind the scenes elements, while neat, not having music or dialogue just makes it a 93-minute unfinished animatic with little other draw to engage it. Speaking of behind the scenes artistic material, there is a gallery with 39 images to better understand the character designs employed, as well as nearly six minutes of Japanese and English-language trailers and TV spots, most of which are available on YouTube. Given all the goodies within recent release BELLE, what’s included with Pompo is underwhelming.
Thankfully, the picture is sublime, the bright and vivid colors popping off the screen with far more clarity than the streaming edition I observed for my initial release review. So where I thought it was beautiful and striking before, it’s moreso now. Equally, the audio is superb, dialogue coming through clearly on the center speaker and the score and ambient noises are well-balanced throughout. Both English and Japanese-language audio tracks are Dolby DTS-HD MA 5.1 and they make good use of it, should you have a 5.1 home system.
As of this writing, Pompo: The Cinéphile is my #9 film for 2022 and the best animated film I’ve seen this year. I don’t know if it’ll stay there nor do I have any sense of the films to come, but what I know right now is that this film moves me in a way that reminds me of why I love movies — about how they helped comfort me when I felt lost, uplift me when I felt low, and how they’ve given me community when I’ve viewed myself as an outcast. Through Pompo: The Cinéphile, I’m reminded of why I love movies and why I love writing about them. Movies empower me to explore different places and ideas and to discover that which I did not know. They have given me the ability to make physical that which has always been internal. Movies make me feel seen and films like Hirao’s adaptation are lovely reminders that there are others like me.
Pompo: The Cinéphile Special Features:
- Audio Commentary by the Director Takayuki Hirao, unit director Kenji Imura, and film editor Tsuyoshi Imai (1:34:42)
- Feature-length storyboards (1:33:44)
- Character design gallery
- Trailers and spots
Available on digital June 28th, 2022.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD July 12th, 2022.