By Shelley Pallis.
Back in town for the summer vacation, would-be medical student Toto is reunited with his former middle-school bestie, Roma. In the intervening months, their roles have been reversed – Roma was once the sophisticated city-slicker transplanted to Hicksville, but now he’s just a farmer’s boy who has to muck out the cows, while Toto seems set on a career in the city, although he already feels out of his depth. Meanwhile, Roma has added a new member to their makeshift gang, the “Don Glees” – local weirdo Drop, who has persuaded him that the best thing he could possibly do with his savings is to buy a camera drone.
Quite possibly, Tivoli (Kana Hanazawa) could have held them all together, but she is largely a structuring absence – the town beauty, adored by Roma, who has left on a year abroad in exotic Europe. Without her calming influence, the boys resort to mucking about, leading to all the ingredients of an age-appropriate teenage catastrophe: fireworks and a lighter.
Director Atsuko Ishizuka’s self-penned script artfully delineates the growing gap between Roma and Toto, as the former middle-school friends are separated by more than just their different addresses. Roma is a farm kid with chores to do and no clear goals – he goes to Taki High because it offers a course in agriculture, and he can get there on his bike. Toto has pushy parents who have sent him away to what we might call a sixth-form college in That Fancy Tokyo, all the better to cram for those all-important medical school entrance exams. After only a semester away, Toto’s hometown suddenly seems small to him, and Roma’s continued obsession with childish things seems… well, childish. The fireworks are too small, the expectations are too low, and let’s face it, their childhood gang has a really stupid name, which, it turns out, none of them have properly understood.
Ishizuka’s teenagers live in that special parallel anime universe where firework displays are The Most Important Thing About Summer. They also think that the way to prank the other villagers is dress up in women’s clothes. Ha ha, that’ll learn ‘em. But such puerile diversions arguably form part of Ishizuka’s point – that these teens are on the cusp of growing up, and changing for good, and maybe even realising that there is a whole bunch of things that matter a lot more than whether they’ve bought some dud fireworks. As someone reared on years upon years of horrific anti-fireworks adverts every UK November, it is also strangely jarring to see the ease with which the boys faff around with explosives, but that, again is a plot point, since their activities lead to them being blamed for a forest fire, for which only their runaway drone might hold the footage that will exonerate them.
Much as Penguin Highway made light of the hyper-seriousness of pre-teens, Goodbye Don Glees paints the tribulations of a trio of 15-year-old boys as if they are an Earth-shattering quest. It certainly pushes them out of their comfort zone, since the mountainous terrain of central Japan has caused their drone’s location signal to show up not all that far away as the crow flies, but with a good eighteen hours’ walk ahead of them if they stand any chance of clearing their names. But a road trip and a camp-out into the Japanese wilderness looks like the only chance the boys have before they are drummed out of school or fined for arson… and as Roma tardily announces, indicted for flying a drone at night, which turns out to be illegal.
“I was conscious of the connection between these people,” writer-director Ishizuka told Osamu Kobayashi at Movie Walker, “or it’s more like these children’s sense of being confined in a narrow space. I want you to feel something like that the imagery, which is the sunlight never shines pure white.” The closest things come to glaring whiteness is the moment when the boys first step outside their hometown, passing through a portal-like tunnel in the mountainside to emerge in the forested hinterlands of the Other Side of the Mountain. There, they will face a series of potentially life-threatening trials, almost but not quite on their own doorstep, as well as some soul-searching about their place in the universe. In the hands of some writers, it could have all too easily turned into Lord of the Flies, but Ishizuka devotes a touching amount of screen time to a deceptively simple fireside chat, as the boys discuss the huge number of things they have already got wrong in life.
Atsuko Ishizuka has been groomed for some time as a star creator at the Madhouse studio, hailed, perhaps a tad prematurely, by famed talent-tipper Masao Maruyama as an artistic voice on a par with the late Satoshi Kon. She has enjoyed a long, and steady procession to the top, starting out as an animator on the acclaimed Monster, with occasional directorial gigs on the opening animation to Persona 4 Golden, several music videos, and episodes of Supernatural: The Animation. With ‘womenomics’ as the Japanese government buzzword of recent times, and widespread praise for the directorial works of Naoko Yamada at Kyoto Animation (and now Science Saru) and Mari Okada at PA Works, it should come as no surprise that Madhouse should start pushing their own lady show-runner, with Ishizuka’s stock rising exponentially during her tenures at No Game No Life and A Place Further Than the Universe. It’s the latter TV serial that seems to have formed the heaviest influence on her feature debut as a hyphenate writer-director, seemingly with directives from the production house to do something similar, but original… and in order to make it palpably and non-actionably different, to switch the all-girl focus to all-boys, and pick a far-off, final-reel McGuffin that would be the polar opposite to that anime’s final destination of Antarctica.
Looking at a map for a focus that was as far from Antarctica as it was possible to be, Ishizuka decided that Iceland would do nicely, only to have her hopes of a studio-funded location hunt thwarted by the onset of the COVID pandemic.
Ishizuka’s film begins with a sight that, for Japanese viewers, would summon up images not of Iceland, but of the tumble-down wreckage of post-quake Tohoku. There, too, an iconic phone box was installed by an avant-garde artist, supposedly as a symbol of all the words left unsaid to lost loved ones – it was a famous landmark of the town of Otsuchi, which itself formed the inspiration for the location of The House of the Lost on the Cape. But when Ishizuka’s contact in Iceland sent back a picture of a similar installation in the east of the island, Ishizuka was hooked. “When I saw a picture of a red telephone booth standing on an empty hill in a city, it made me feel really good. So, I definitely wanted to use this telephone booth in my story.” Which is why the opening shot of the film has the incongruous image of what appears to be a British phone box with an Icelandic number, used by a mysterious figure.
Iceland, as a topic, shuffles incongruously into the film again at the thirty-minute mark, as Drop talks about his unexpected experience of having been there. It is, perhaps, a bit weird that he has not bothered to mention such a life-changing trip before, but then again, the boys have been busy trying to set light to things. It’s all part of a growing realisation on the part of Roma, that not only is the world a truly big place, but that anyone, including him, is free to explore it. The boys’ mountain wanderings are taking them barely a few dozen miles from the suburbs of Tokyo, but already they are in a primeval forest, learning the hard way about the fact of survival. This is not merely Ishizuka’s playful poke at modern complacency, but a perfectly realistic account of the Japanese countryside – huge swathes of Japan, even today, remain practically uninhabitable “national trust” land, given over to forested mountains where no towns can reasonably be built.
“While I was pondering the themes of myself, life and the world, I thought boys would be a good fit,” Ishizuka said. “Male protagonists are commonplace of course, but nowadays, there are works with girls as the main characters… but when girls are the focus, too many works end up just saying the same thing. I wanted to challenge myself with a different worldview, so I delved into themes that were beyond my experience and became a boy.
“This might sound presumptuous, but especially for boys of that age, they have this question of what it is they can do for the world, and for society. I feel like I kind of woke up to that sense of pride in the outside world.
“The goals and dreams that many modern teens have in mind are too vague to express symbolically. They have diverse sets of values; everybody wants to do different things. Even if we ask them for a concrete goal, they can’t agree on one. It’s better to gradually cross off their shortcomings and finally find some sort of treasure in that. It’s easy [for viewers] to sympathise with that kind of maturation, and you want to support it.
“There is also,” she admitted to Yahoo Japan, “a physicality that we couldn’t have in A Place Further Than the Universe. It’s more problematic to throw girls on the ground! Is it okay for me to say that? I’m letting them have a crazy adventure.”
“I guess that the way we frame the dialogue is not very anime-like,” Ishizuka told Yahoo Japan. The editor said to me once that it was as if in every conversation, I’d cut out the thing that they were actually talking about. I do have punctuation in my scripts, but generally they match where someone needs to breathe. My lines also have line breaks in strange places, so I try not to punctuate my scripts too much. From the performer’s point of view, while expressing emotions and keeping an eye on a character’s facial expressions, you play with the sense of tempo as if you are speaking naturally. Those are high hurdles to clear, but because we were able to do that as if we were recording the voices before the animation. It meant I was able to follow their own rhythm, as if we were prescoring.”
“Human beings usually show different things on their faces, in words, and in their hearts. Even if they don’t express their emotions with facial expressions or words as symbols, they can transmit their feelings in unexpected ways. For example. Instead of saying ‘I’m angry for this reason’ in words, I can also stop saying something, and express it only with my face and attitude. When I’m really angry, I don’t say a thing. Using words to frame the appearance of an angry face limits the reason for being angry to those words alone. But the reasons for anger are complex and there are no words to explain complex emotions. In moments of real emotion, it can be hard to speak at all. “
And indeed, so much of Goodbye Don Glees is unspoken, or even mis-spoken, as the boys argue about the meaning of their club’s name, and it turns out that it isn’t donguri (“acorn”) after all. Or named after some previously unmentioned celebrity called Don Glees. Or some strangely rude-sounding word like donglies. Sharp-eyed viewers, however, may spot an acorn motif popping up in the film, along the lines of being the things from which mighty oaks grow, much as the directions of the boys’ lives are destined to sprout from unexpected seeds of influence and experience.
“I wanted to make a movie that would reward me for paying for it and going to see it,” said Ishizuka, “so I hope there is something there. But, if possible, I hope you see it twice. Because you can see these events the first time through Roma’s eyes, but if you revisit it objectively, with a sense of the complete form, you get another perspective, such as how things look to Drop. I hope you notice that. It really will look different second time around.”
Goodbye Don Glees is released in the UK by Anime Limited.