Munto: Two Unrelated Shows in One
I bought Munto a while ago based entirely on the fact that the box looked vaguely interesting and it was dirt cheap. Just got around to watching it, and that was certainly not what I was expecting.
It’s not based on anything, and is written, directed, and has character designs by Yoshiji Kigami, so you know it’s one of those labor of love things that is entirely spawned from one guy’s head. I haven’t seen the second OAV (they’re each pretty long at 50 minutes or so) yet, but the first one is downright bizarre. Not bad, just… fractured.
See, there are two different things going on: A wild fantasy story about a floating world of magic fighting an apocalyptic battle against its neighbors over diminishing magic power (aka fossil fuel allegory), and a touching little slice-of-life story about a trio of adolescent friends, one of whom is planning a very small-scale romantic quest with her boyfriend while the other two try to make sense of it. They have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with each other, apart from a very vague symbolic coming-of-age connection and the fact that one girl in the latter is (completely arbitrarily) the key to saving the world in the former.
What would possess you to try and stuff both of these stories into the same show is somewhat baffling to me; the scale and mood are so utterly opposite, and they are so completely unrelated, that it’s nothing but confusing to have them mashed together. Or not mashed together, really—there’s no connection or overlap between them apart from the protagonist occasionally spacing out while someone from another dimension talks to her and her friends worry.
I actually really liked the romantic little real-world tale; it’s sweet, touching, and a bit unusual, with a very nice symbolic finale and some memorable but down-to-earth characters. It could have easily stood on its own as a 30-minute story with the rest cut out, and with a little fleshing out to movie length (or even just an hour) could have made for a very nice, low-key slice-of-life adolescent drama.
The fantasy story, on the other hand, has a whole lot of imaginative imagery, but spends most of its time in confusing backstory exposition about the history and mechanics of a world with nowhere near enough viewer connection to care the least bit what happens to it. There are potentially interesting people—the amusingly blandly-named Gus (a foreign god of some sort with a cheerful sidekick fighting against armies to protect his adopted homeland), the enemy leader fighting against Gus (who apparently has history with him), and a seer who (we see in brief flashback) gouged out her own eyes so that she could see the future path to saving her world. Then there’s title character Munto, who has no personality whatsoever apart from looking grim and being haughtily blunt the few times he talks. And that’s it—potential with no emotional hook. At all. The big, dramatic, world-saving finale at the end of part one is painfully cheesy—“Yes, I’ve accepted my unexplained responsibility so I can now use my hidden power to save the world.” Like we haven’t seen adolescent girls droning on about that one twenty times already, and it wasn’t even interesting the first time.
Now, even this story has enough imagination evident that it could have been spun into something interesting given sufficient time. Here, though, it’s almost comically rushed.
This is one of the few times when I’d love to read an interview with the writer/director—the only thing I can figure is that he had two completely unrelated ideas kicking around in his head, and when given the chance to animate one he couldn’t resist trying to get both on the screen.
Either idea alone is the kind of thing indie auteur Makoto Shinkai built his reputation on—big ideas with a core nugget of emotion that snaps into sharp focus at the last moment, with rich visual language and a sense of l0w-key normalcy with an undercurrent of nostalgia or melancholy. It’s certainly a beautiful-looking show—fluid, big-budget animation and lovely scenery in both the real world and the fantastic fantasy kingdom in the sky. And with the down-to-earth half of the story he actually comes close to the sort of thing Shinkai pulled off in 25 minutes with Voices of a Distant Star, which is saying something.
It’s just that the fantasy story is so simplistic, hollow, and full of confusingly random backstory it sort of overwhelms the emotional truth in the other half, and adds nothing other than the visual hints of what could have been so much more.
The result isn’t exactly bad, just… confusing, I guess. I’ll reserve judgement on a full review until I sit down to watch the second half (I finally got a copy off Amazon), which it was at least promising enough to want to watch (and was thankfully dirt-cheap).
Obviously somebody saw the potential in the idea, though, since it was resurrected five years later (which is to say last year) as a sequel/expansion TV series and manga adaptation. I’m very curious to see if it works given a full TV series to flesh things out, or if the emotional core just gets diluted—going to have to track that one down.