The Imaginary (2023) Review

The Imaginary (2023)
Director: Yoshiyuki Momose
Screenwriter: Yoshiaki Nishimura
Starring: Kokoro Terada, Rio Suzuki, Sakura Ando, Riisa Naka, Takayuki Yamada, Atsuko Takahata, Issei Ogata

The Imaginary follows Rudger (Kokoro Terada), an imaginary friend who is separated from his real friend – the grieving Amanda (Rio Suzuki) – after an accident leaves her in a coma. While Amanda is in the hospital, Rudger runs the risk of being forgotten. With the help of Zinzan (Takayuki Yamada), a cat with enough majesty to rival The Cat King in The Cat Returns (2002), Rudger discovers a forgotten imaginaries sanctuary in a library – the imagination in the books enough to sustain the friends’ lifeforces.

Just when you feel like the peril of being forgotten is enough for poor Rudger to deal with, it turns out there is a far more menacing force afoot: Mr Bunting (Issei Ogata), a truly sinister creation. A more grotesque and unnerving animated villain is hard to find.

Mr Bunting sniffs out imaginary friends to eat them, because that’s the only way he can keep his own imagination alive. While he appears unassuming on first glance, in his baggy Hawaiian shirt and glasses, when he opens his enormous mouth the screams of his previous victims can be heard.

There are some really smart moves that make this film resonate. Rudger and Emily appear to be the only humanoid imaginaries. By casting them amongst a sea of wonderfully wacky creatures, it is these two that we are drawn to, who we care about, who we relate to the most.

The imaginary tackles weighty themes such as grief, fear and friendship, and packages it up in the vibrant world of animation. Even though it is a Japanese anime with all the stylistic tropes that go with that, it also has a simplistic quality, reminiscent of early Disney. There is a smoothness, with some of the finer details missing from features and background scenery. This adds a layer of nostalgia, perfect for a film about childhood.

And that is part of The Imaginary’s problem. It is a film about childhood through a very specific lens. It’s saccharine and nostalgic, more a children’s film for adults than a children’s film full stop.

It is a little too boring and a little too grown up.

Some might be put off by the darker topics tackled, but difficult themes are often found in children’s films and literature. Stories are a safe space for children to process challenging emotions and learn about grief and trauma. The Imaginary doesn’t shy away from pushing those buttons and should be commended for doing so. Amanda is grieving the loss of her father, Rudger is grieving the loss of Amanda. Two imaginaries disappear on screen. And Mr Bunting is full horror – his eerie sidekick is a hybrid of Wednesday Adams and Samara Morgan/Sadako Yamamura. If your child is comfortable with films like The Last Unicorn (1982), The NeverEnding Story (1984), Coraline (2009), Song of the Sea (2014), or Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), then this will be a welcome addition to their collection. It might struggle to become a universally loved film though.

While there is a lot to like about the film, some things just don’t work. Some of the characters are irritating and get too much screen time. There are too many worried gasps and meaningful silences, like the film doesn’t trust its audience to know when to feel sadness or concern without the characters making it blatantly obvious. Most spectacularly, the film manages to have too much going on, and also be too slow-paced. Some scenes seem to only exist to show off the animation – which is just as lovely as you would expect from creatives who were involved with such films as Spirited Away (2001) and The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014) – but at times it feels a bit aimless. Unfortunately, the plot seems a bit chaotic and coincidental, so ultimately feels unsatisfactory.

The biggest issue with the plot of The Imaginary is that Mr Bunting is so relentless in his pursuit of Rudger that it simply loses its impact. There is also no reason given. No motivation behind Bunting’s actions, even when he is in a hospital room inflicting great pain on a real child. The relentlessness makes the peril quite boring because it is inevitably going to happen again and again. Oh, Rudger’s safe, no there’s Mr Bunting. It’s fine, he’s safe again. No, Bunting again. Yawn.

Unfortunately for The Imaginary, it was on the backfoot from its release. With a creative team so heavily involved in Studio Ghibli in the past, the film is going to draw comparisons. Maybe this is unfair, because The Imaginary isn’t a bad film by any stretch. It just has some fierce contemporaries. Perhaps a fairer set of films to compare it to are those about imaginary friends – from classics like Pete’s Dragon (1977) to Drop Dead Fred (1991), and fodder for older audiences like Donnie Darko (2001) and Jojo Rabbit (2019) all the way to this year’s syrupy summer fantasy IF (2024). While The Imaginary might struggle to join any lists of all-time children’s classics, it won’t struggle to stand proud amongst its peers in its very specific sub-genre.

Score: 15/24

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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