The Little Ghostly Adventures of Tofu Boy: Movie Review

A cute but forgettable animation best suited for younger children.

When judged according to the extraordinarily high standards of Japanese anime, the aesthetic quality of "Tofu Boy" would seem like a trifle to discerning Japanese audiences.

HONG KONG – With a timid, powerless goblin hero who literally must hang on to a square of tofu for dear life, it is not surprising that The Little Ghostly Adventures of Tofu Boy is soft and wobbly on the action-adventure front. Billed as the first fully 3D Japanese anime and co-produced by Warner Bros. Pictures Japan, the film is directed, written and executive produced by Gisaburo Sugii. There are enough cutely rendered supernatural characters to win over tiny tots, who probably won’t mind the film’s many formulaic elements, but anyone older might itch for more dynamic 3D effects.

When judged according to the extraordinarily high standards of Japanese anime, the aesthetic quality of Tofu Boy would seem like a trifle to discerning Japanese audiences. It has a better shot overseas where it can score points for exoticism.

Set in Edo Period, around 17th to 18th century, Tofu Boy (Kyoko Fukada) is a “yokai” (goblin) who must always balance a square of tofu on a plate, or he will melt into thin air. A gentle soul who can’t even scare a fly, he is a constant embarrassment to dad Mikoshi Nyudo (Ken Matsuhira), the lord of the goblins. A chance visit to contemporary Tokyo opens Tofu’s eyes to an impersonal metropolis that’s overrun by “tanuki” (raccoons) spirits, who have possessed humans and poisoned them with selfish ambition. Sick of being dissed by yokai, their leader Lord Trickster (Hiroyuki Miyasako) usurps human science to challenge Mikoshi’s command over the weather.

From goblins in funny shapes to raccoons who can masquerade themselves in different guises, there is enough happening to keep children amused. The blue color scheme, redolent of soft water colors, is a pretty sight. There is also a thoughtful lesson in the way Tofu saves the day not by performing some superhero feat but through an act of selflessness. But this in turn makes him a passive, inert character and his adventures rather tame (watching his tofu repeatedly slide off his plate becomes tedious after a while).

Although the animation is presented in 3D for its entire duration, the stereoscopic technology is narrowly deployed to produce deeper perspective in architectural or natural backgrounds, or to enhance the yokai’s unique physical attributes. What’s missing is a heightened sense of tactile stimulation through effects that jump out of the frame. Instances like Mikoshi thrusting a giant red-fisted arm or Shinigami (Grim Reaper, voice by Yo Oizumi) stretching his skeletal fingers out of the screen are memorable if only because they are few and far between.

While the yokai have a wide assortment of physical attributes, their adversary tanuki have an identical look (unlike the strong human characteristics of raccoons depicted in the Studio Ghibli-produced, Isao Takahata-directed Pom Poko). This results in visual monotony whenever the story focus falls on them. Likewise, humans are not as delicately drawn as most big–budget Japanese anime. Even for key speaking parts, facial features are not sharply defined enough to make them emotionally expressive.

The film’s lament about how humans are no longer in awe of nature or spirituality is almost a textbook theme in Japanese animation. It is only developed in rudimentary form, adding nothing to what Miyazaki or Shigeru Mizuki (the pioneer of yokai manga) already said. The relentlessly zappy songs lack subtlety.

Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival
Production companies: Warner Bros Pictures Japan, Fuji Television, Brosta TV, Dentsu, EPIC Record Japan, Urban, TIS, Sotsu, Kadokawa Shoten, Cybird
Voice Cast: Kyoko Fukuda, Tetsuya Takeda, Teppei Koike, Yo Oizumi, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Aya Hirano
Director-screenwriter-executive producer: Gisaburo Sug
Co-director: Shimmei Kawahara
Screenwriters: Mao Aoki, Kiyomi Fujii
Based on the novel by Natsuhiko Kyogoku
Producer: Yasushi Uchida
Art director: Nobuhito Sakamoto
Music: S.E.N.S Project
Editor: Motoki Nimi
Sales: Eleven Arts Inc
No rating, 86 minutes