By Andrew Osmond
One of the century’s great philosophers sang that everything you know is wrong, black is white, up is down and short is long. Patema Inverted, by director Yasuhiro Yoshiura, confines itself to Weird Al’s middle axiom, that up is down. The heroine Patema begins in an underground world, falling ‘down’ a chasm to the surface. Once there, she must hang on desperately to anything she can, or plunge into the clouds beneath. A surface dweller appears, and the picture rotates one-eighty degrees to show what he sees; an upside down girl, being yanked up into the sky. “Don’t fall!” she shrieks at him. “Fall where?” he asks reasonably.
It’s a wonderfully fresh starting point for a film, though of course there are precedents. Gravity reminded us there’s no up and down in space. In fantasy cinema, David Bowie strode around an Escheresque castle in Labyrinth (an idea extended in the third Night at the Museum), while Paris rolled up on itself in Inception. A much closer film to Patema was Upside Down. Made around the same time as the anime, this was a French-Canadian live-action film whose leads, played by Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturgess, are kept apart by competing gravities.
It was close enough to give Yoshiura the heebie-jeebies. “When I was making Patema Inverted, the producer came to me and said there’s a film with the same concept, which was a shock!’ Yoshiura told me. ‘I looked at the poster, then I put it away… I haven’t seen the trailer because I didn’t want to be influenced.” Luckily for Yoshiura, Upside Down was a squib, getting poor reviews and scant distribution.
In Patema Inverted, director Yasuhiro Yoshiura uses ‘up is down’ to drive a boy-meets-girl fantasy in which the pair must cling to each other for dear life, often floating in mid-air or jumping across the landscape like conjoined astronauts. It’s a charming, funny image, dreamlike yet implicitly sexual, like a teen take on the flying in Peter Pan. The couple’s entanglements subvert an anime cliché, in which adolescents are often comically terrified of physical contact with the opposite sex. The idea might seem better suited to a CGI film, but Patema’s traditional animation gives the action an unpolished naiveté which works.
Although the set-up might seem fantasy, SF fans will see that it’s actually using a plot device from classic science fiction. “The kind of twists I like are ones where the world we believe in is fake, and we’re actually part of a bigger world, where things get bigger and bigger,” says Yoshiura. In other words, Patema Inverted is in the tradition of The Matrix and The Truman Show, and a great many prose SF stories. Yoshiura himself cities Orphans of the Sky, an American SF book by Robert Heinlein. Given that Patema herself starts out in an underground world, you could also compare the anime to the YA book City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau; it was later turned into a diverting live-action film, featuring Bill Murray and a man-eating mole. For more on this tradition, see the Conceptual Breakthrough entry in the online Encyclopaedia of Science-Fiction.
Yoshiura first took on such ideas in his early film Pale Cocoon (2006), a 23-minute story about inquisitive characters living, like Patema, in a suspiciously closed-off world. Yoshiura made Cocoon in his parents’ home; it took PC, software, paper, a scanner and a year of solid work. Patema Inverted, though, has much more space to develop its characters, showing how they cope when the ground’s swiped from under their feet. The youngsters’ free-falling adventures especially recall Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa; both films use the wide sky as a fantastical playground. Interviewed by MyM Magazine, Yoshiura readily agreed. “Of course! I think Patema’s concept, the upside-down idea, is what has let me venture into the world of Laputa and the boy-meets-girl story.”
Patema and Age, the boy character, are introduced as generic outsiders, but their chemistry is established through a neat gag. Patema, who’s starting to trust Age, still keeps firing demands at him and even interrupts the romantic music which is trying to build in the background. This broad cartoon joke rings true – Patema is coping with an impossibly terrifying situation and the film won’t let us forget it. Later, it’s Age who’s subjected to his fear of falling and made dependent on Patema. The reversal is no less effective for being transparently schematic.
The story feels simplistic despite its deft twists, even compared to Laputa. Patema Inverted has few important characters to distract from the youngsters’ story; the villain, for example, is a finger-steepling, megalomaniac bully. The final revelations leave huge questions unanswered. And yet they don’t really matter. Patema’s and Age’s journeys, to the bottom of the world and the top of the sky, are so much fun that the objections just fall away.
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films.