Brave Story, a paradoxical anime
It's been a few years since I've noticed that Japanese cinema has a tendency of breaking trends and challenging accepted wisdom; or maybe it just seems that way because we're otherwise so deeply immersed into Western media that we forget it can be done differently. To be sure, the differences are sometimes grating. So it's a pleasure when you can spot them all and still enjoy the show for what it is.
The first thing I spotted in Brave Story was the art, an equal mix of traditional animation, 3D modeling and rotoscoping. It's a technique Western animators have abandoned entirely after the financial collapse of Titan A.E. in 2000, but which the Japanese continued to use successfully in gorgeous anime such as Steam Boy. So much for it being too expensive. Unless you're Hollywood, operating on the mega-blockbuster model, in which anything but record sales in the opening weekend isn't good enough. But I digress.
The second striking detail was how much of Brave Story is based around videogame cliches. I wonder if it's because the creators thought it would appeal more to a young audience. In any event, they're aware of it to the point of lampshading the more ridiculous aspects, and since the story ended up making sense and being satisfactory, that's not a complaint. I did, however, have plenty of fun spotting all the tropes; one could easily play a TVTropes drinking game while watching Brave Story. Call me jaded if you like; must be all my recent writing.
(There are also easy to spot influences from specific videogames and movies. Many elements remind of the classic Prince of Persia, and the ending is pure Inception. Oh wait, Inception is from 2010 -- four years newer than Brave Story. A funny revelation in retrospect.)
Ultimately it's a run-of-the-mill fantasy adventure of the Narnia flavor, except with a lush, original, well-designed setting and a credible, sympathetic primary antagonist who isn't so villainous after all. Only one plot thread remains dangling by the end, and the bittersweet ending is most welcome. Bonus points for how vividly the material world is rendered, along with the hero's problems. Then again, Japanese cinema is generally notable for presenting life unembellished and unrehearsed, and that's a major reason why I love it.
Verdict: while Brave Story is hardly a timeless masterpiece, it's well worth seeing if you can. Go with kids if you have any available; they might actually learn a moral or two. As for me, I'll be sure to keep an eye out for Koichi Chigira's name from now on. Enjoy!