Sound! Euphonium: The Movie – Our Promise: A Brand New Day (Ishihara Tatsuya, 2019)

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Liz and the Blue Bird was one of the great films of 2018. A spin-off of the slice of life anime series Sound! Euphonium, it focused exclusively on two of the show’s supporting characters, digging into their psychology and relationship as the band prepared the eponymous performance piece for a competition. It’s the strongest work yet by Yamada Naoko, one of the guiding directorial voices of the Kyoto Animation studio that was devastated last year by a deadly arson attack. This new movie, originally released here for one single show last summer but now playing at the Grand Illusion as one of their virtual cinema offerings, is not like Liz and the Blue Bird at all. Instead it is a direct extension of the series, picking up right where it left off, following the same primary characters over the next school year, but squeezed into a hundred minutes rather than patiently unfolding over the course of two dozen episodes.

It’s a curious decision, one that skims over the things that made the show so great, the small moments of human connection realized through the playing of music, in favor of a whole lot of teen melodrama plotting, mostly among new characters that we don’t much care about. The Sound! Euphonium series, like any slice of life story, anime or otherwise, is about detail, the accumulation of small, everyday moments that in the aggregate coalesce into a kind of epiphany or catharsis that can be overwhelmingly emotional. This effect isn’t unique to anime or dependent on the extended length of a TV series, by the way, two of my favorite films from last year’s VIFF, Mikhaël Hers’s Amanda and Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen (which will be getting a virtual release in the next few weeks) achieve the same kind of epiphanies in much the same way, in running times of less than two hours. A Brand New Day picks up where Sound! Euphonium left off, with the show’s main character Kumiko, a euphonium player in her high school’s concert band, moving to her onto second year. The movie follows the whole year, from the initial meeting with the incoming freshman, several of whom will have interpersonal problems which Kumiko will end up helping to solve (in keeping with the structure of the series), and culminating in the band’s performance at the regional finals, where they hope to earn a spot at the national competition.

Everything about the movie is consistent with the original series. The show’s director, Ishihara Tatsuya, is in charge, and he keeps the visual style exactly the same, where in Liz and the Blue Bird, Yamada had slightly altered it, elongating the characters and muting the color palette to give the film a somewhat less cartoonishly anime appearance. The show is structured around a series of little interpersonal mysteries where Kumiko finds herself in the position of needing to figure out why Girl A is upset at Girl B so that they can both play better and the band can improve. This works in the series not because of the stories (which are mostly generic and not all that interesting) but because they merely form the structure around which hang smaller moments of beauty and because each little story ends up illuminating some aspect of Kumiko, a character who is revealed (to herself as much as to us) only through her interactions with other people and, perhaps more so, through the music she plays. A Brand New Day still does that, but because the stories are all so compressed, they have no weight. Moments that would have been incredibly powerful in the series (Kumiko’s tentative relationship with the trombone-playing boy next door Shuichi, and her much more romantic one with star trumpeter Reina are the highlights) move by too quickly, and would be all but incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t seen the series. By the end of the movie, Kumiko doesn’t seem to be all that different from when it began.

The film’s highlight, in fact, is the final concert, which is also its only extended musical sequence. And its power comes not through any of the characters we’ve focused on for the previous hour and a half, but rather in the oboe solo that was the primary focus of Liz and the Blue BirdLiz takes place somewhere in the middle of the school year depicted in A Brand New Day, and while we see the shy but brilliant oboist Mizore in the background a few times, she doesn’t, as far as I could tell, have a single line (just as Kumiko and the series’ other primary characters were sidelined in Liz). The concert in fact doesn’t feel like the accumulation of Kumiko’s story at all, or any of the other primary characters from the movie. It’s the epilogue to Mizore’s story, the only one from this school year that really seems to matter.

The Case of Hana and Alice (Shunji Iwai, 2015)

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What do you do if you want to make a prequel to one of your best movies, one built as much around the performances of two terrific young actresses more than anything else, but a decade has passed and the actresses are now much too old to be playing the same characters? Well, if you’re Shunji Iwai, you make it as an anime. That’s the case with The Case of Hana and Alice, the prequel to his 2004 film Hana and Alice. Anne Suzuki and Yū Aoi (respectively) reprise their roles in voice form with an origin story for the two slightly odd friends. In most respects, the film is of a piece with the original: both are slice of life films about teen girls, with meandering plots filled with small moments of wonder and mystery. That they could be so similar and yet be made in dramatically different media speaks to the paucity of Hollywood imagination, where “animated” is a genre unto itself (an almost exclusively kid-oriented one), rather than merely one method among many for telling a story.

Alice moves into a new house and starts a new school in the 9th grade. She’s immediately set upon by her classmates because her assigned desk belonged to a boy who is rumored to have died the year before, which the students have interpreted as some kind of occult phenomenon. She fights back (ably beating up one boy who tries to torment her) and sets out to solve the mystery of the former student’s disappearance, which leads her to her reclusive neighbor, Hana, who sat behind him in class the year before. The two eventually join forces, with Hana coming up with various schemes to track down the boy’s father and Alice lackadaisically playing along.

This leads to a remarkable yet entirely tangential sequence, as Alice, accidentally following and then befriending the wrong old man, finds herself in a miniature remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru. With several shots lifted straight out of the Kurosawa, she befriends her wistful elder, visiting a crowded restaurant and a swing set with him. It’s a completely inessential sidetrack, having literally nothing to do with furthering the plot, and it’s absolutely perfect. A film about the wonder and possibility of youth taking the time to meditate for a bit on what it means to be old and alone.

The Kurosawa thing makes me think about the connections between Japanese feature film and anime. One of his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu’s more famous recurring stylistic features is the pillow shot, a short scene of nothing in particular, a sky, a city street, some power lines. They serve no narrative purpose whatsoever, but they help with the pacing of his films, allowing a momentary breath between scenes, giving the audience a space to think about what they’re seeing. Such shots are also a common feature of manga and anime, individual panels with no story-related content that simply serve to break-up the flow of the narrative, and they’re as anathema to traditional American comic book making as Ozu’s pillow shots are to standard Hollywood editing. In the American tradition, forward movement of the plot is everything, and anything else is a waste of time. This is on its face an absurdly limiting idea of narrative art, but it persists nonetheless (think of all the people out there complaining about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s leisurely pacing as a failure to properly edit).

I don’t know much about anime, but I’ve watched a few series and movies and have maintained subscriptions to both Crunchyroll and Funimation for awhile, despite not really using them as much as I should (as it is with all my streaming services). This summer the tragic fire at Kyoto Animation finally spurred me to watch some of their series: Sound! Euphonium, of which last year’s wonderful Liz and the Bluebird was a spin-off; and K-On!, an earlier series that is also about a high school musical group. They’re terrific, almost directionless shows (K-On! more so than the other: it has an episode that is literally about it being rainy outside, and another about how it’s too hot in the music room) that aren’t so much about growing up or coming of age as they are simply about being young. The Case of Hana and Alice is that kind of movie. And maybe it’s that I’m becoming more and more conscious of the fact that I’m nearer in age to the elderly businessman than I am to the kooky teen girls, but it’s the kind of movie you don’t want to miss when it plays for two more shows this Sunday at the Grand Illusion.