For one thing, the movie isn’t really about Joelle Davidovich “Pompo” Pomponett, an eternally prepubescent girl who happens to be the most powerful super-producer in all of Nyallywood (basically Hollywood, but cuter and full of cats). For another, Pompo is more of a mogul than a cinephile. The studio that she inherited from her grandfather has built its success by making explosive junk that adheres to a simple mantra: “As long as the lead actress looks attractive, it’s a good movie.” Also, anything that runs longer than 90 minutes is disrespectful to the audience’s time. As a different character puts it towards the end of this upbeat and pleasantly childish paean to the power of creative obsession: “There’s no profit in dreams.”
Voiced by Hiroya Shimizu in the subtitled cut made available to critics, Pompo’s neurotic personal assistant Gene Fini doesn’t see things quite the same way. The kind of overzealous film geek who’s always sought refuge at the movies because he finds waking life so unbearable (for reasons this anime never bothers to explain), Gene dutifully gets coffee for his pint-sized boss because he worships “Cinema Paradiso” and still believes in the camera’s power to crystallize the inherent beauty of being alive. Pompo’s thoughts on the matter are a bit more complicated, but she’s happy to nurture Gene’s natural sense of wonder; so far as Pompo (Konami Kohara) is concerned, people who run from reality create richer inner worlds.
Perhaps that explains why “Pompo the Cinephile” departs from the world as we know it in such a hurry, ditching the ruthlessness of showbiz for a fantasyland where an introvert like Gene might be given a chance to direct a juicy piece of awards bait just because a studio exec thought their baggy-eyed gopher looked sad enough to make something good.
Indeed, writer-director Takayuki Hirao seems to share his title character’s take on things. Not only does “Pompo the Cinephile” never push back against the idea that happy people make second-rate pictures, this manic adventure unapologetically maintains that a certain amount of misery and/or masochistic sacrifice is necessary to achieve your dreams. It’s a strangely grounded moral for a wish-fulfillment movie that unfolds like a fairy tale, but it makes sense in a film that’s determined to embrace Pompo’s entertainment-first ethos at every turn — a manic trifle about the cost of artistic creation that whittles the wounded beauty of Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” down to (exactly) 90 minutes of feel-good fun.
“There’s no correct way to make a movie,” Pompo insists, but this tiny kewpie doll of a producer tends to follow her gut (anime logic prohibits anyone from questioning why Peterzen Studios is run by a little girl with giant orange ringlets, but it also allows you to imagine that Pompo might be an emotionally stunted adult who was cursed to spend her entire life in a child’s body… a prospect this film makes a half-hearted effort to imply). After meeting wannabe actress Natalie Woodward during a failed audition for another project, Pompo is moved to write a script for the bright-eyed newcomer: a mawkish two-hander about an aging composer and the cute Swiss farm girl who reignites his creative flame. The movie will be called “Meister,” Gene will direct it, and Natalie will star opposite “the world’s greatest actor” (and good-natured horndog) Martin Braddock.
“Pompo the Cinephile” is at its most lucid — if also its most naïve — during the idyllic second act spent on the “Meister” set in the Swiss Alps. Gene’s apparent crush on Natalie is quickly subsumed into his passion for the movie he’s making with her, robbing Hirao’s film of what little tension it might have had (and sealing Natalie’s fate as a smiley nothing of a character), but the emerging auteur’s do-or-die enthusiasm proves contagious among his cast and crew. Ludicrous and dramatically unsatisfying as “Pompo the Cinephile” might be, its kid-friendly portrait of life on a movie set captures the same electric crackle that make far better films like “Day for Night” and “Irma Vep” such irresistible ads for joining the circus. If “Meister” seems like a hackneyed old Hollywood mess, there’s no denying the joyful sense of purpose that Gene derives from making it.
But who is he making it for? The question hangs over the second half of “Pompo the Cinephile” like a bad smell that Hirao sniffs out during the second act and tries to ignore in the third. Is Gene making “Meister” for himself, the people who funded it (brace for a sweet but unmotivated subplot about that), or for the audiences who might pay money to watch it? The answer, of course, isn’t as simple as picking one of those options, but the process of arriving at a compromise between them — an art known as “editing” — is enough to drive the first-time director insane.
It’s here that “Pompo the Cinephile” is able to embrace its nature as an anime, as Hirao illustrates the editing process with a hyper-literal maximalism that no live-action movie about making movies could ever hope to achieve (for better or worse). Cutting 72 hours of footage down to 90 minutes would require anyone to kill a number of their darlings, but Gene is tasked with defeating them all in a psychedelic sword fight right out of “Samurai X” or “Demon Slayer,” the director slicing ribbons of celluloid with a giant Steenbeck blade even though he’s editing “Meister” on a computer.
It’s as if Hirao is hoping that the thrill of shearing raw footage down to its essence might somehow mirror (or compensate for) all the things that someone needs to eliminate from their lives in order to achieve their dreams, a message that might have been dangerous for impressionable young audiences in a film more interested in arguing that point. Here, in a fairy tale so heightened it makes “Cinema Paradiso” feel like hard-boiled neo-realism, the idea that absolute devotion to the arts might guarantee a measure of happiness is perhaps the greatest fantasy of all.
GKIDS will release “Pompo the Cinephile” in theaters on Friday, April 29.