With mainstream anime TV shows and, in this case, movies helping ingrain the genre deeper into the global pop culture sphere, we’ve also been getting a path paved for a welcome dose of refreshing, smaller-scale movies hitting Western theaters. Anime like Inu-Oh and Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko are examples from just this year, and it’s a pleasure to see director Atsuko Ishizuka (No Game No Life, A Place Further than the Universe) and veteran animation studio Madhouse’s (Death Note, One-Punch Man, Hunter x Hunter) Goodbye, Don Glees! continue that successful trend.
Goodbye, Don Glees! tells a story with a grounded and tight scope in an emotional fashion, and almost exclusively through its main trio of characters It serves as an effective coming-of-age story that doubles up as a reminder of the importance of living in the moment that should resonate for just about anyone.
In an original story by Ishizuka set in modern-day Japan, the main trio of Roma, Toto, and Drop are something of outcasts in their wider social groups and call themselves “Don Glees.” It’s an informal name for their childhood group of outdoor adventurers, and they initially try to use a drone to record their own fireworks show since they’re shunned by their peers, but they find themselves blamed for unrelated forest fires and set out to prove their innocence.
The basic premise serves as a creative launching pad for such a resulting emotional story, as the individual characters’ diverging life paths start to show the rifts in their relationship. It’s a very down-to-earth plot that cleverly uses its catalyst for thematic significance.
Roma lives in a quaint rural town but desperately wants to see the wider world, but he simultaneously is the one that holds on to the childlike idea of what “Don Glees” represents to him. Toto aims to live up to his father’s expectations of him by going to school in the city and, as a result, has conflicting feelings about holding onto their past. Last but not least, Drop is the free-flowing member of the group who best depicts the films underscored theme of grounding yourself in the moment. Still, Drop is an endearing and fully realized character in his own right at the same time as being a center of poignant commentary.
Meanwhile, the MacGuffin to potentially clear their names — the drone — is a beautiful depiction of how coming back down to earth can be done by gaining a larger perspective of the world and how limitless the possibilities can be for someone who wants to find something substantive in their life, a “treasure” even, so long as they’re willing enough to take the initiative.
In addition to the writing and direction, part of that theme is tastefully conveyed through Madhouse’s stellar animation work. Aside from the character designs, the visuals are stunningly portrayed as lush, picturesque, and gentle environments complemented by an equally striking use of lighting.
“Intimacy” is probably the best adjective to describe Goodbye, Don Glees! in terms of both scope and storytelling style. The plot is entirely dedicated to character-driven development, aside from the initial conflict that sets the stage and jump-starts the main trio’s coming-of-age journey of reconnecting and introspection.
Characters like the group of bullies that ostracize Roma, as well as his family, all essentially function as extras to fill in the world and quaint towns, with Roma’s school crush, Chibori Urayasu, being the only real supporting character. This would be a fault in most cases, but it works quite seamlessly in this context.
Chibori’s character could have afforded to be a bit more fleshed out, but overall feels perfectly in line with the anime’s tight sense of scale and warm atmosphere while making the world around Roma, Toto, and Drop work as dressing for their respective stories. For such a personal story, having background characters be just that is an excellent way to let the rest of the movie around the main cast be in service to their aforementioned adventures of collective and individual discovery.
Their pivotal moments of character growth feel that much more genuine for it, with Madhouse’s lovingly crafted environments also pulling their weight in moving the trio through the story. So much so that the inviting forests and waterfalls almost act like honorary background characters.
It’s the character design that shines here. Each member of the cast is seemingly designed with the same gentle approach taken to the natural environments, with soft and expressive facial features, along with more showcases of brilliant usage of lighting.
Each of these artistic decisions blends wonderfully together to create one of the most emotionally sincere anime films released this year. The talented voice cast behind these characters is also just as moving, as watching the dynamics between Roma, Toto, and Drop play outwill be resonating and vaguely nostalgic for anyone with similarly fond childhood memories.
It’s hard to point out some kind of glaring flaw with this anime movie’s overall approach. Goodbye, Don Glees! impressively manages to use its tidy 90-minute runtime to effectively convey a story about living with ambition, appreciation of who and what’s around you, and growing up — while never losing that inherent sense of childlike wonder.
Atsuko Ishizuka and studio Madhouse’s Goodbye, Don Glees! will be playing in theaters starting September 14.
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