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Oblivion Island: Haruka & The Magic Mirror DVD/Blu-ray Review

10 min read

A teenage girl named Haruka is whisked away to the land of forgotten objects in this tale of learning to appreciate the items we normally neglect.

What They Say
This internationally acclaimed feature film blends Japanese folklore and storybook charm reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland into an exhilerating tale sure to amaze animation fans of all ages.

Sixteen-year-old Haruka is on a mission to find her mirror – a precious childhood gift from her late mother that has disappeared. On her search, she follows a strange foxlike creature to Oblivion Island, a mystical world overflowing with once-cherished items taken from their neglectful owners. Trouble follows Haruka and her new friend Teo at every turn as the contend with the island’s overbearing ruler, who will stop at nothing to use the mirror for his own sinister plan!

The Review:
Both the DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film contain an English and Japanese 5.01 audio stream, with no 2.0 option. In both cases, the audio track seems crisp and free of any major sound blips or errors. On both the DVD and Blu-ray, however, the English language track is noticeably quieter. This is, of course, something that’s only really evident if one switches back-and-forth between the two tracks; anyone watching the film normally will probably not have any reason to do so.

The surround-sound is a bit of a mixed bag. The environments depicted throughout the film are often large and impressive, and the camera movement and angles used to show them off take full advantage of the fact that many of them are depicted fully in three dimensions, yet the soundtrack often doesn’t seem to relay the depth and grandeur of sound that one would expect to emit from these situation. In one scene, Haruka and Teo are dealing with a particularly large beast, and we follow Haruka as she runs underneath the creature, its huge legs pounding on the ground around her. Normally I’d expect something like this to make full use of the capabilities of a 5.1 system, but even at high volume I felt that the bass wasn’t deep and rumbly enough, and my rear-channel speakers seemed sadly neglected. I suppose that, without a stereo option for those who lack a full surround-sound setup, compromises must be made, but I found this to be a bit disappointing.

On the whole, the video quality of both the Blu-ray and DVD versions of the film is very good. The DVD video holds up to being enlarged well; even expanded to the full length and width of my screen, the quality was still very high. There is one point in the film during which the DVD video quality suffers dramatically; without spoiling the context, the scene contains a lot of very intense movement and a lot of light effects, due to the presence of several mirrors, and there’s some noticeable artifacting and grain that’s difficult to ignore if you know what to look for. Luckily, this isn’t a problem that carries over to the Blu-ray version of the film; the video quality is consistently crisp, clean, and definitely seems to be at home in High Definition.

This three disc release is packaged in a standard-sized Blu-ray case housed inside a thin cardboard slipcover with an embossed cover image. The slipcover adds some height to the package, so the discs could be stored alongside other DVDs if that were the buyer’s preference. I found the slipcover to be easily bent and damaged, however; even the nominal amount of storage and moving-around I did with it bent and frayed the packaging to the point that it became unappealing to look at.

The Blu-ray case itself is fairly standard, with a hinged attachment to hold two of the three discs. The cover image features the same artwork and information as the slipcover, with a background image on the reverse side that can be seen through the plastic on the inside. Overall, the case itself is sturdy and nice-looking if unremarkable.

The DVD menu screen is very simple, with a screenshot from the film serving as a backdrop and the four menu choices positioned below. A piece of music from the soundtrack plays in the background. The sub-menus feature character images, but lack background music. The scene selection screens are very rudimentary, and there’s a minor spacing discrepancy between the second and third rows which appears as if it could be some sort of quality-control oversight.

The Blu-ray menu is quite simple; the selections appear on an orange backdrop that appears from the left side or the bottom of the screen, depending on the sub-menu. The menu can be accessed at any time during the film without stopping playback, but the menu’s appearance becomes a bit too obvious and intrusive due to how stuttery the motion of its extension and retraction is. I would have been happier if the menu itself took up less screen real-estate, but as it is it’s serviceable.

This release really shines in its bonus offerings. There’s an entire extra DVD’s worth of bonus material (which is also included on the Blu-ray disc along with the main feature), the majority of which seems taken from the Japanese disc release of the film. Along with some fun voice-actor-centric snippets from the Japanese premier of the film, there’s also a neat mini-documentary about the importance of foxes in Japanese folklore that’s interwoven with several fox-related folktales told with some nice illustrations. The only real downside to these features are the fact that they’re included in Japanese with subtitles only, so very young children (who comprise the probable target audience for the film) will have difficulty benefiting from them.

Additionally, there are several trailers from the film, as well as two commercials from a charity tie-in aimed at helping the people of Sierra Leone which may not be appropriate for young viewers due to the brief but occasionally graphic nature of the images of starving people that are shown. The extras are topped-off by both Japanese and US trailers for the film.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
There’s a Shinto belief that objects which are used and loved by human beings will eventually take on a life of their own, becoming powerful youkai in the process. That may not seem to be the initial message of this film; by most accounts, the lesson at its core is that we humans should take care and treasure the things that have meaning to us, rather than leaving them to be forgotten. In a broader sense, though, this charming film for kids manages to express something inadvertently profound – that the life we’re given is at least in part the result of the love and care that others share with us.

This isn’t a realization that Haruka is ready to accept at the outset, however. Having lost her mother at a young age, the high-schooler maintains a strained relationship with her father, who works long hours at his office and relies on Haruka quite a bit. She recalls the existence of a hand mirror given to her by her late mother, but when she goes to look for it, she realizes that it’s gone missing. She remembers back to a folk tale from a storybook her mother would read her from her hospital bed, of a farmer who left offerings and prayed to the god Inari for his lost item. Haruka rides the train to a shrine outside of town to so that she can do the same. While at the shrine, she sees something unexpected and barely believes her eyes; a small, masked fox-like creature shows up to collect the knick-knacks left behind by some young children, and ends up taking Haruka’s house keys in the process.

Haruka chases the creature and finds herself sucked into a mysterious alternate world constructed from the neglected “treasures” that human beings have allowed themselves to forget. After some tense moments between them, she ends up partnering with Teo, the fox being she witnessed in her own world, and the two make it their goal to find Haruka’s mirror among the almost unimaginable number of misplaced objects that exist within the world of Oblivion Island. Unfortunately, they discover that the Baron, the fickle ruler of Teo’s world, is also searching for the mirror – and Teo may find himself caught between helping his new friend and doing what it takes to save his own skin.

Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror is many things, including predictable. Its feisty heroine, her scrappy sidekick and their almost comically evil adversary, along with the lessons the characters learn and their ultimate triumph, are footprints along a very familiar path. Luckily, though, it’s the details of the story that breathe new life into what could otherwise have been a very formulaic kid-flick rehash. The world of Oblivion Island itself is extremely rich and creative, and it appears as if the creators put a lot of thought into expressing the idea that the denizens of that world actually use the objects they collect in many different ways. Sometimes these ways are portrayed subtly – in one instance, old popsicle sticks are used as roofing shingles. Many times, though, the reappropriation of the human’s possessions is more obvious and directly important to the plot, as in an extended montage during which a group of fox spirits use their magic to re-create a rubber-band-powered model airplane in a larger scale. In any case, there’s a real sense that the creators of the film made a concerted effort to put their money where their mouth was, so-to-speak, and this gives the film a bit more of a lived-in, natural quality in spite of the fact that its setting is decidedly on the more fantastic side.

The two main characters and their relationship to one-another also serve as a charming reminder that this tale isn’t entirely business as usual. After watching the film, what struck me in retrospect was how Haruka and Teo form a real partnership as the story unfolds. Both characters have an opportunity to grow and to demonstrate the sort of heroism that may not have been obvious to themselves before having met one-another, and neither character is forced into the role of “victim” in an unequal way. Contrast this with Asuna, the main character from Makoto Shinkai’s Children Who Chase Lost Voices who first appears to be a heroine in the tradition of the female characters of Studio Ghibli, yet is essentially led by the hand throughout the film and isn’t given much of a chance to express her agency. Haruka is neither unrealistically gifted, nor weak; she simply grows to understand and appreciate her own power while also learning to trust in Teo.

Perhaps the most poignant part of this story, though, is the way in which Haruka’s mirror manages to reveal the true extent to which both inanimate objects and people are the sum of the care and love that goes into keeping them. I’m no fan of the oft-used trope wherein mother characters are stricken by whatever common anime-related wasting disease it is that leaves them deceased or otherwise out-of-commission (how about some more concrete mother-daughter relationships, anime creators?), but in this case, the memories of her mother that the mirror reveals to Haruka really help to drive home the point that the things with which we live and which find their way in our day-to-day use have their own stories to tell. Not only that, but mirrors are doubly-powerful, not only as the life-giving forces they are in the fantasy world of the film, but by their literal ability to reflect; upon coming face-to-face with the memories of her family housed within the mirror given to her by her mother, it’s plain to see that Haruka herself is also a living reflection, not only of the grace and kindness that she remembers in the love given her mother, but also the imperfect but earnest love her father continues to express into the present.

As far as dubs go, Funimation’s effort here is generally good. Christine Marie Cabanos puts in a convincing performance as Haruka and manages to express the character’s youthfulness and fleeting teenage cynicism without sounding as if she’s straining her voice to sound young or overacting to convey the more negative aspects of Haruka’s personality. Likewise, Cassandra Lee’s Teo is comparable to the original, though in some scenes her acting can seem a bit too cartoonish and hammy. On the other hand, Patrick Seitz hams it up big time as the Baron, but the character itself is ridiculous to begin with, so the performance doesn’t seem out-of-place (though it does speak to the fact that, as a villain, the Baron is essentially non-threatening). Either way, the dub ultimately makes this film very accessible to its target audience, and older children seem likely to get a big kick out of it.

In Summary
Though there are a few missteps along the way, this film manages to combine a solid story and a creative setting with an interesting element of Japanese folklore that many people might find unfamiliar but intriguing. The end product is not only enjoyable to watch, but manages to convey some surprisingly thoughtful ideas about the power of our influence on the things around us, as well as the way in which our existence is influenced by others. The animation itself may be a bit rudimentary – Pixar or Dreamworks this ain’t – but despite that there’s a visual liveliness and creativity that makes up for how dated some of the technical aspects may be. With a solid dub and a pile of extras, this release is well worth the asking price. And though the film is aimed at children, even anime fans who are all grown up should find something worth appreciating here.

Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: B
Video Grade: B+ (DVD)/A (Blu-ray)
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: C/B-
Extras Grade: A-

Released By: Funimation
Release Date: August 14, 2012
MSRP: $24.98
Running Time: 100 minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p Mpeg-4 AVC (Blu-ray)/ 480i Mpeg-2 (DVD)
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment: Acer P235H 1080p LCD Monitor connected via DVI input, Logitech S220 2.1 Speakers, Samsung SH-B123L Blu-ray Drive, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560, Toshiba Regza 1080p LCD Television, Playstation 3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080, Logitech Z5500 5.1 Surround-sound Speakers

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