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Since 2019, there has been a small uptick in how video game adaptations have been handled. Instead of being the biggest burning money pits, the mostly positive reviews and receptions to projects like Detective Pikachu, the live-action Sonic films, Dragon Age: Absolution, DOTA: Dragon’s Blood, as well as the upcoming Mario movie cause me to think that maybe we are slowly and steadily heading into a realm where we don’t have to dread these productions anymore. Even the world of animation suffers from this situation, where the adaptations of famous and not-so-popular video games are inconsistent in quality. For every anime adaptation of a mobile game that succeeds like Princess Connect: Redive, we get 15 that fail and or miss the point. So, where does Deemo: Memorial Keys stand in terms of animation adaptations?
This is based on the rhythm game by Rayark. It’s directed by Shuhei Matsushita, written by Junichi Fujisaku, and Bun’O Fijisawa, and produced by a collaboration between Production I.G. and Signal M.D. We focus on a young girl named Alice, dubbed by Anairis Quinones. She has lost her memory and is now stuck in an unknown world. That being said, she is not alone. Alongside her is a whimsical cast of characters that include the titular DEEMO, a mysterious entity that plays the piano every night.
Let’s talk about what may be the thing that will probably hold a lot of viewers back while watching this film, the animation. It’s pretty obvious that due to how rigid the movements are, a lot of the CGI is motion-captures, and the jittery look of the CGI models with smaller movements gives an uncanny valley feel to the characters in the film. It’s not Ex-Arm levels of bad motion capture since they did enough to smooth everything out to the best of their abilities, but it sure doesn’t look as good as something from Studio Orange or look as good as some of the recent CGI films from Japan like Lupin III The First or The First Slam Dunk. But with those two, they are franchises that were able to get the best CGI animation tools and teams around. It undercuts its visuals with this underwhelming CGI, due to how the film wants you to be enthralled in this mysterious place that our lead is in. It’s unfortunately drab looking.
I hate talking about the visuals of this film, because they really do show how hollow the story comes off. It’s meant to be this fantastical take on finding connection and dealing with grief and loss. It’s trying to be this emotionally touching story about this girl’s journey of what I just listed in the previous sentence, but due to how floating and flat much of the world and the characters are, it only makes those issues stand out more. There also doesn’t seem to be a lot there in the overall execution of the plot. The characters are all uninteresting, and you can probably guess what will happen and what the twists will be. There are some decent moments where everything works, and when it’s letting the music and atmosphere do their trick, the film gives this ominous and otherworldly feel. Because DEEMO himself doesn’t talk gives you a feeling of what is behind the individuals’ intentions. The big problem is that there is very little going on in this film. It has story beats, but for a film that’s only 90 mins long, it drags the pacing out and then relies on you to be connected from beat to beat. It wants to run on emotional and fairy tale logic, but doesn’t go the distance to go all the way with said logic. It’s as if it has heard about films that do this, but didn’t go the distance. Who knows?. Maybe this film was meant to promote the game and be a tech demo for the music for the game. The 2D visual pieces during the ending credits are lush and beautiful. I just wish the CGI translated the designs well. There is a universe out there where DEEMO: Memorial Keys has a truly out there Fantasia-like experience, but we can only judge what we get here with the film’s visual and musical presentation.
To be fair, the music is fantastic. The piano ballads are on point as they have these beautiful orchestrations that are the highlight of the movie. The composers for the film were Yoshichika Kuriyama, Shiho Terada, Kaho Suzuki, and Yu Sonoda, though the main theme was composed by Yuki Kaijura who worked on shows like Demon Slayer, Sword Art Online, Madoka Magika, and Noir. Without having played the game, these tunes were extremely catchy. Well, when you are based on a rhythm game that’s made to line up, or well, originally line up to release alongside the game, you should have killer music. The voice cast is small, but full of talented dub actors including Anairis Quinones, Bryce Pappenbrook, Mike Pollock, Stephanie Sheh, Luci Christian, and Michelle Marie. They do their best to work with the clunky dialogue.
Some people assume that all animated features from Japan and other parts of the world are great, just because they are not made by Hollywood. It’s an extremely bad take that rings hollow, when no matter where you go, whether it’s budget is small or big, films of all levels of quality are going to be made everywhere. The film has a lot going for it, but it fumbles the execution by being a hollow experience based on a game that is made to sell the game. It’s a shame, because if it had a bit more polish and focus on its story, or went “all in’ on a symphonic experience, it could be something special. Sadly, that isn’t the case, so what we got is a film that falls flat in the story department. Still, it’s nice to see the film gain a bigger audience by getting a US release. if you are curious about this film, it will be coming to blu-ray and digital soon. For now, we will be diving into a multitude of different animated films from around the world and on streaming services. You will just have to wait and see what unfolds.