Review: Pompo the Cinéphile

Gene Fini loves movies. He’s loved them for a long time. But more than movies, Gene loves movie-making. Whether it’s someone crossing the sidewalk against the bustle of a crowded city street, bathed in the light of a summer sunrise, or the continual flow of humanity in and out of an office building, hope or despair written on their faces—he sees a scene in everything.

So when world-renowned producer Joelle Davidovich “Pompo” Pomponett, affectionately known as Pompo, recruits Gene as her apprentice, Gene is overjoyed. This is it! His big break. His door into Nyallywood fame. Even if Pompo only produces B-tier action trash, Gene’s eager to learn as much as he can from the greatest in cinema. And maybe, one day, he’ll stand among their ranks, a fellow director like the rest of them.

As it turns out, that one day comes quite soon. Pompo has a script: It’s a tale of a conceited orchestra director who loses everything, only to heal under the care of a certain girl far from the classical music scene. It’s a lovely piece. And Pompo wants Gene—her unremarkable, socially-awkward, inexperienced apprentice—to bring it to life.

Thus begins Pompo the Cinéphile, the latest feature in GKIDS’s assortment of North American releases of anime films. And what a joyous feature it is! Director Takayuki Hirao (Technolyze, God Eater, Garden of Sinners ep 5) weaves together a heartfelt celebration of small-time creators, filmmakers, and dreamers everywhere, reminding us not to grow weary in our pursuit of the dreams that matter most to us.

Now, every killer film starts with a killer cast. Gene’s film is no exception, though that’s all thanks to Pompo, who’d already scouted out a cast for her script before handing it to Gene. For the orchestra director D’Alberto, she managed to convinced the retired star Martin Braddock himself to make his re-debut. And as for the optimistic country girl Lily, she scouted out an equally optimistic but utterly inexperienced Natalie Woodward, who came to Nyallywood out of an indomitable ambition for acting.

Truly an eclectic cast! But it’s one that mirrors the cast of Pompo itself, with its blend of talents old and new. On the one hand, Hirao himself boasts a strong resume, with previous work at both Madhouse and ufotable on anime as notable as Attack on Titan. Ryoichiro Matsuo (In This Corner of the World) tags along as producer. And Shingo Adachi (Sword Art Online, Wagnaria!!) brings some excellent character designs to the table. On the other hand, Hiroya Shimizu and Rinka Ōtani, who voice Gene and Natalie respectively, are first-time voice actors.1 And CIEL, whose stunning performance in the film’s theme song rings in my ears even now, was a small-time musician until her debut here.

Pompo is Hirao’s ode to small-time creators, and his love for them isn’t limited to the film. Even as Gene and Natalie get their big breaks in the film’s version of Hollywood, Hiroya and Rinka and CIEL do on the Japanese film stage.

Of course, not so many are as blessed as these. But Hirao charges viewers who might be tempted to give up their ambitions in the face of their own obscurity. Don’t settle! Press on! Find your place even in an industry as taxing as film, and one day, your efforts will pay off. That’s Pompo‘s exhortation to budding creators, and it’s truly inspiring.

After the cascade of Nyallywood dinners and film logistics, it’s off to the set with Pompo, Gene, Martin, Natalie, and their film crew. Most of their movie is set in an idyllic, mountainous vista, surrounded by the stirring of grass and the bleating of goats. Directing comes slowly to Gene at first, but he soon acclimates to his newfound authority and delights in the filmmaking process. Meanwhile, Natalie herself blossoms into her role, playing the perfect foil to Martin’s jaded persona.

The filming itself proves a great success, and that’s not just true of the film-within-the-film. Hirao effortlessly plays with setting and shot composition to tell a nuanced story with subtle character depth. Chief among the tools in his toolbox is the match cut, which he employs throughout the film to seamlessly connect themes.2 On a larger scale, though, Hirao seems to have taken his characters’ advice about film to heart. “A film set is a living thing,” Pompo’s grandfather mentions several minutes into the film, and Hirao’s storyboards certainly burst with life. The film isn’t scared to warp scenery so as to better feature its characters. In one scene, Gene and Pompo even watch the movie on a theater screen as it rewinds time to introduce Natalie.3

It’s fun stuff—not to mention the spirited character designs (watch out for some smug Pompo faces!) and variously strewn Hollywood references throughout.4 Pompo exudes affection for the filmmaking process. It’s made by people who love watching films and who adore those who make them.

Ultimately, though, filmmaking isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Pompo knows this. Much of the film is spent with Gene in one of the many production booths, Adobe Premiere Pro5 strewn across four screens, as he works tirelessly to convert the vast riches from weeks of shooting into a cohesive cut that isn’t too long for cinema. It’s here where most of the drama of the film unfolds, so I’ll refrain from speaking of the plot further due to spoilers.

It’s also here, though, that Hirao’s artistic vision gains its nuance. Any third-rate movie can serve up a saccharine-sweet message of can-do enthusiasm. Anyone can say, “Chase your dreams!” It takes someone who knows first-hand the toil of creation—who’s invested the blood and sweat and tears necessary to transport their dreams from fiction into reality—to led weight to those words.

Pompo knows this as well. It tells a story of creators who push past their limits and then continue to push harder. It reminds us that chasing your dreams is worth it. It reminds us of why we create in the first place. We create for the sake of our audiences. We create to pour ourselves into our work, that our audiences might see our emotions in our work, and thereby find a little of themselves. We create that we might express our own hopes. We create so that others might find hope.

Through Pompo the Cinéphile, discouraged dreamers find hope to dare to dream again.

Just as filmmaking isn’t always the easiest thing, though, Pompo isn’t always the greatest movie. For one, the anime doesn’t devote much time to the character arcs of its supporting cast. It’s almost as if Gene is the only interesting character and everyone else exists to prod him on in his creative ambitions. Even the eponymous Pompo herself feels less developed than him.

That leads me to my more fundamental problem with this film: It lacks polish. Don’t get me wrong—the production values are fantastic, and I genuinely don’t see anything to critique there. It’s more about the plot, which, like a car on its last legs, occasionally stalls with exposition and dull, pacific storytelling, and occasionally bursts with flares of conspicuously convenient coincidences allowing the characters to overcome their obstacles. It’s disorienting. It lacks plausibility. And it detracts from the movie’s praise of diligent creators.

In the end, though, I’ll take a lesson from Gene: the Best movies are those with lots of heart. And Pompo the Cinéphile passes with full marks. It’s a movie by small-time creators for small-time creators. It’s a movie by filmmakers for filmmakers. And it’s a movie by dreamers for dreamers.

Sure, we might not get that big break like Gene and Natalie did. We may not suddenly star in a hit anime film like their voice actors. But may we learn from their faithful striving after the prize. And may we find encouragement in their success to press on in our own lives.6

Pompo the Cinéphile will be released in select theaters tomorrow, April 29th.

1 Hirao tells an amusing story about Shimizu in an interview from the press kit: “Shimizu-san gave an air of darkness in his heart and a little ‘accent’ in his performance. When that accent was pointed out to him, he said, ‘I’ll fix it before next time.’ I was surprised and thought, ‘So he came in already thinking he’d get the part!'”
2 If you’ll permit me some minor spoilers, during the scene where Gene’s editing the movie and begins to see himself in the overworked D’Alberto, there’s several nice cuts between Gene and D’Alberto that establish the link between the characters. Match cuts can sometimes be heavy-handed, but I think Hirao handles them well here.
3 Additionally, Hirao toys with many flashy scene transitions, echoing back to a time when wipes and other stock transitions captivated the hearts of filmmakers. He mentions 127 Years as a favorite film in that interview I linked above, and I loved seeing the early 2000s influence in this film.
4 Oh, Natalie also does a Fortnite dance at some point. That is all.
5 Or perhaps Nyadobe Premiere Pro…?
6 In honor of this film’s 90-minute runtime, this article is exactly 9000 characters long with spaces.


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