Anime pals take an eventful walk in the woods

Trying to scare off an angry beast they meet in the forest are (from left): Drop (Ayumu Murase), Roma (Natsuki Hanae) and Toto (Yuki Kaji). (Photos courtesy of Studio Madhouse).

By Richard Ades

The opening of Goodbye, Don Glees! finds teens Roma and Toto (Natsuki Hanae and Yuki Kaji) racing their bikes down a dark, twisty road. A near-collision with an oncoming motorist sends Roma flying into the nearby woods, with Toto following behind. After getting their bearings, the two find themselves looking out over the magical place they see as their gateway to the world beyond their tiny village: an airport.

We have to wait to learn what happens next, as the Japanese anime film then flashes back to the events that led up to this moment. They include a fireworks display, a forest fire and a difficult journey the boys undertake along with their new friend, Drop (Ayumu Murase). The ostensible purpose of the trip is to prove the trio didn’t start the fire, but that’s really just the “MacGuffin” that launches a trek filled with danger, beauty, self-discovery and a touch of supernatural mystery.

Goodbye, Don Glees! was directed by Atsuko Ishizuka, who’s previously worked only in television and on 2017’s No Game, No Life: Zero, a big-screen prequel to a TV series. So this is her first completely original work, made more so by the fact that she also wrote the script. It’s an impressive debut, filled with awe-inspiring images and indelible characters, each experiencing a private version of teenage angst that isn’t always clear to the others.

Roma, embarrassed by the odor he picks up shoveling manure on his uncle’s farm, suffers from low self-esteem and is too shy to admit his feelings for Tivoli, a classmate he idolizes. Toto struggles to keep up his grades in order to fulfill his parents’ lofty plans for him. And Drop, the newcomer, carries a burden that will be obvious to viewers long before it is to his companions.

The teens’ inner struggles often cause them to lash out at each other. It’s probably predictable that they eventually learn to appreciate each other more thanks to the shared travails the journey puts them through, but the plot also leaves viewers with some unexpected developments—including one that defies rational explanation.

Filled with impassioned speeches about finding one’s “treasure” and tinged with a sense of mortality, Goodbye, Don Glees! may be too difficult for young children. In fact, the original Japanese version may challenge some English-speaking adults, especially when it divides the screen between subtitles and the characters’ social-media posts. Fortunately for slow readers, a dubbed English version is available, though seeing it would deprive you of hearing the masterful work of original voice artists Hanae, Kaji and Murase.

In case you’re wondering, “Don Glees” is the name of a club Roma and Toto founded. As we learn late in the film, the moniker was inspired by their pessimistic attitude toward life.

Rest assured that if you enter the theater feeling the same way, you’ll leave on a more buoyant note.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Goodbye, Don Glees! (PG) will be screened Sept. 14 and 20 (original Japanese version), and Sept. 18 (English version) in theaters nationwide, including Central Ohio’s Marcus Crosswoods Cinema 17 (all three dates) and AMC Dine-in Easton Town Center (Sept. 18 and 20 only).  

Love of cartoons opens door to boy’s closed mind

Owen Suskind, whose struggle to reconnect with the world is the subject of Life, Animated.
Owen Suskind’s struggle to reconnect with the world is the subject of Life, Animated.

By Richard Ades

The first time we meet Owen Suskind, it’s in home movies that show him as a young boy playing with his father and brother and watching Mickey Mouse on TV. The second time we meet him, he’s a 20-something man muttering to himself in cartoon-like voices.

The connection between the child and the man is explained in Life, Animated, a documentary that is both uplifting and heartbreaking. Directed by 2010 Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence), it’s about a family’s struggle to connect with a son afflicted by severe autism.

According to Owen’s father, former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, the first signs of trouble arose after his son turned 3. Though Owen had been developing as expected until then, he suddenly stopped communicating or learning new language, and he regularly had trouble sleeping.

Ron said he and his wife, Cornelia, tried to find out why, but it was like “looking for clues to a kidnapping.” The Owen they knew seemed to have disappeared.

The only bright spot in young Owen’s life was that he appeared to love watching the family’s VHS collection of Disney animated films. But it wasn’t until Ron made an astonishing discovery that this proved to be the key that would unlock the door to his son’s private world.

One day, in a desperate attempt to reopen communications with Owen, Ron greeted him with a squawking impersonation of Iago, the parrot from Aladdin. To his surprise, Owen responded with lines from the movie. The father soon realized that Owen had memorized not just Aladdin but all the Disney flicks, a fact he used to open up more channels of communication.

Though Life, Animated is about a man mesmerized by Disney tales, don’t expect it to follow a simple path to a Disney-like happy ending. The documentary frankly shows the ups and downs Owen encounters as his family tries to push him toward leading a full, independent adult life.

Romance is a particularly difficult problem. Even though Owen begins hanging out with a young woman he considers his girlfriend, he has no idea what a romantic relationship entails. “Disney doesn’t help with sex,” notes his concerned brother, ironically named Walt.

The film uses original animation to bring to life the characters Owen has imagined on his own.
The film uses original animation to bring to life the characters Owen has imagined on his own.

Helping director Williams tell this fascinating story are animators Mathieu Batard and Olivier Lescot and animation producer Philippe Sonrier, who bring to life the cartoon characters and dramas Owen imagines on his own. A couple of celebrity voice actors also show up in a surprise visit to a class Owen organizes for people who share his challenges.

If the movie has one element that may rub some the wrong way, it’s that the background music is occasionally on the manipulative side. Mostly, though, it’s as on target as the rest of this unique and heartwarming film.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Life, Animated (rated PG) opens Friday (July 29) at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St., Columbus. For tickets and show times, visit gatewayfilmcenter.org.