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).