In a nice touch, anime fantasy film Patema Inverted (written and directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura) begins with desperate radio transmissions that grow increasingly distorted and then fade away.
A wish to know the identity of the people whose communication has been cut off, and the reasons why, is intended to pull us forward into the story. Beyond these material facts, there are pertinent questions about human behaviour imbedded in the narrative, but it is a rather muddily executed affair.
Young schoolboy Age (pronounced Eiji) lives in a slick and highly controlled society ruled by a sinister and militaristic autocrat. It’s no surprise that this protagonist is an adolescent questioning the way his world operates, and consequently getting into trouble for doing so. Age and his peers are constantly subjected to exhortations to conform, and he is punished for deviation. If fear eats away at the population, it is apparent that the ruler acts out of some kind of dread, too.
We learn that there has been a cataclysmic event that literally shattered the world apart and created more than one gravity. The official line in Age’s society is that those who were torn into the sky must have sinned and, therefore, suffered divine retribution. But is the sky where they went?
The counterpart to Age is Patema, a young girl living in a dim and shabby underground society without sophisticated technology. These are the Inverts who are painted as threats in Age’s over-world, and though the film promotes Patema as the key character, Age is just as important since it is he who arguably takes the bolder step.
The underlying arc of the narrative and the trail of its actions are straightforward. Indeed, upside-down worlds and layered worlds have featured in stories of divided societies before, so there is not enough originality to draw an audience on that basis alone. The novelty here is that whenever Age and Patema meet, each is drawn by a separate gravitational force, and one of them is always therefore likely to fall (or is that rise?) to their doom.
Unfortunately, that technicality is also the most confusing element, given that further variations on gravity are featured as the movie progresses. You could just let it all roll over you and not be bothered trying to fathom the logical detail.
What you would be left with is a metaphor about division and prejudice, and how it would be nice if we all accepted our differences and tried to get along together. That’s noble, if simplistic, but it would be much better if the vehicle for that sentiment were clearer than this story. The unresolved ending points to a better future, though that is rendered with a very broad brush.
Patema Inverted is screening at the Mercury Cinema on Saturday, October 11, as part of the Japanese Film Festival.