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).  

You say kabuki, I say ka-pokey…

Julie Klein, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Billy DePetro (from left) in The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live photo)
Julie Klein, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Billy DePetro (from left) in The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

No one ventures outside its comfort zone more than Shadowbox Live.

The troupe could play it safe by sticking to its usual formula of skits and rock tunes, but it continually pushes beyond that SNL-like envelope by putting on ambitious, original shows. In recent years, those shows have largely been huge successes.

With The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale that opened last week, Shadowbox pushes the envelope more than ever. Not only has it consulted with an international collaborator for the first time, but it’s completely redesigned its space—to the extent that its other current productions had to be placed on hold for the show’s three-week run.

What a shame that all of this effort has added up to a decidedly mixed success.

Visually, the show is striking, thanks to Britton Mauk’s Japanese-style scenery, Linda Mullin’s ornate costumes, David Mack’s macabre makeup and Aaron Pelzek’s lighting, along with puppets designed by Beth Kattelman and others.

Musically, the show is a bit less satisfying, though the original score is an interesting attempt to combine traditional Japanese sounds with rock beats.

But it’s in the drama department that the show really lags, suggesting that there’s a reason kabuki has never caught on in America. Adapted from a play written by Izumi Kyoka and translated from the Japanese by Hiromi Sakamoto, it lacks the unifying plot that Western viewers expect from a theatrical work.

Instead, it’s united by a single character and her mysterious home. All of the events occur in and around an ancient castle whose fifth floor is inhabited by a ghostly noblewoman named Tomihime (Stacie Boord) and her entourage.

Act 1 deals with Tomihime’s preparations for a visit from her friend Kamehime (Leah Haviland), as well as her use of supernatural powers to repel a band of samurai warriors led by the evil Lord Harima (Jimmy Mak). There are moments of enchantment and beauty, but much of the time is spent simply telling stories or exchanging gifts and pleasantries.

Act 2 finally gets to the meat of the tale: Tomihime’s potentially romantic encounter with a disgraced samurai named Zusho (JT Walker III). Unfortunately, the encounter proceeds so slowly that viewers’ patience may be put to the test.

Throughout, director Stev Guyer has the actors speak in a deliberate, declamatory manner. It’s probably meant to mimic the style of kabuki acting, but the approach makes it even harder for Western viewers to maintain interest in the slow-paced tale.

Shadowbox head writer Mak tries to make up for the script’s talkiness by adding action scenes reminiscent of Japanese samurai flicks or anime cartoons. Among them are two intricately choreographed swordfights and an attack by a huge, flying creature with glowing eyes.

Dancing also plays a role, courtesy of Katie Psenicka’s choreography. The most memorable dance represents a battle between a falcon (Nick Wilson) and a crane (Amy Lay).

The dance numbers are graceful, while the action sequences are thrilling. There just aren’t enough of them to make up for the show’s long stretches of lifeless dialogue.

The talent is all top-notch, both onstage and off-, but it’s not enough to sell the exotic story. Maybe what’s needed are subtitles—not to translate what happens but to explain why we’re supposed to find it compelling.

The Tenshu continues through Oct. 25 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40, $10 for ages 12 and under. An abridged version will be presented at 1 p.m. Friday (doors at noon). Running time: 45 minutes. Tickets are $10, $5 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.