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EIFF 2022 Review: Goodbye, Don Glees! – “A beautiful-looking, wonderfully emotional work”

Directed by Atsuko Ishizuka
Starring Natsuki Hanae, Yuki Kaji, Ayumu Murase

Making its UK debut at the 75th Edinburgh International Film Festival, Ishizuka’s Goodbye Don Glees comes out of the Madhouse stable, and we got to see it relatively quickly by the standards of some Japanese films – it was released only in February in Japan. Ostensibly it’s a coming-of-age tale – Roma (voiced by Natsuki Hanae) and Toto (Yuki Kaji) are best friends, founders and only members of the Don Glees club. They’re the two uncoolest kids in their school and small town, a situation that only gets worse as they go through Junior High and are about to move on up, and Toto goes off to a special school programme in Tokyo, leaving Roma stuck at home, shovelling manure on the family farm – not exactly his dream life.

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When Toto returns for a few days for a big local festival, he’s boasting a cool haircut and big-city manners and confidence, making Roma feel even more left behind, but as the film goes on we discover Toto’s life isn’t as perfect as he projects. He’s barely back before he’s introduced to a new, third member of the Don Glees, a slightly younger, very exuberant boy, Drop, who seems full of boundless energy and enthusiasm, becoming something of an engine for driving the older two forward into an adventure, which includes tracking a crashed drone they were using to take photos, a forest fire and a wilderness trek.

In the time-honoured tradition, the adventure as they head out into, then get lost in, the forest, leads to hidden thoughts, fears, hopes and submerged emotions coming out. And yes, we’ve all seen similar tales before, of course, but that really doesn’t distract from this story, because Ishizuka handles it so deftly – she revealed when writing it then coming to direct it, that she wanted to avoid “anime speak”, where certain styles, even pauses, are used quite a lot. She said she thought of it the way she would approach a live-action film, and told her voice actors that she wanted it to be more naturalistic, more the way teens actually talk to one another. It certainly works, you quickly come to love the characters and feel their emotions. There’s a good bit more to it than that, but I won’t risk spoilers, except to say that it involves some very deeply emotional moments (be prepared to be blinking away tears at a couple of points – in the best way). I was reminded of other coming-of-age films, especially Stand By Me, and Ishizuka actually mentioned in the post-film talk that it has indeed been a huge influence.

The animation is frequently gorgeous, especially the nature scenes – the forest looks beautiful, a night-sky in the woods as the kids stare into the Milky Way is breathtaking, while rivers and waterfalls are recurrent visual themes, with special importance for young Drop’s story arc, flipping between scenes in the Japanese countryside to time Drop spent living in Iceland. Talking with the audience through an interpreter after the screening, Ishizuka described her feelings that animation should be beautiful, that some scenes should look like a painting.

Goodbye Don Glees warmly captures those teenage years of yearning and doubt and hope as you totter on the bores of childhood into adulthood, that huge importance of good friends, of the time you spend with them, how that will mark you for life, create some of the core emotions and memories that will be inside your for as long as you live; for younger viewers it will talk to them of their own lives as they grow, for the adults it will remind you of the importance of those years, emotions, friendships and what they meant to you, what they still mean to you years on. A beautiful-looking, wonderfully emotional work, Ishizuka told us that there will be a UK release in November – I highly recommend watching out for this one.

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