Hurrah for film festivals, allowing me to watch all the latest anime films before they come out illegally. At last years Leeds Film Festival I got to see Redline and Mardock Scramble, both films I was eagerly anticipating. This year I got to see In the Forest of the Fireflies Light (thank god they gave it an english name, I kept forgetting the Japanese one) and that new Shinkai film Children Who Chase Lost Voices in the Deep. Which, I’ll admit, neither of which were quite high up on my priority list. But whatever, I want them to keep bringing these movies to these sorts of festivals, so I shipped up the money on principle more than anything. Well, actually In the Forest of the Fireflies Light was free to watch because it was such a late announcement, but the intention was there and that’s what counts! Anyway, review time.
From the same mangaka that wrote Natsume Yuujinchou, being adapted by the same animation studio that brought you Natsume Yuujinchou, directed by the same man who directed Natsume Yuujinchou. Would you believe then, that this is nothing like Natsume Yuujinchou? That it is, in fact, a rip-roaring action-packed adventure flick as the main characters ride wave after wave of explosions and cynical social satire? Of course you wouldn’t believe it because you’re not gullible. This is just Natsume Yuujinchou the Rather Short Movie.
The story is very simple, almost refreshingly so compared to the convoluted mess that sometimes invades blockbuster flicks. A little girl gets lost in a forest and befriends a yokai in there who helps her find her way out. From there they establish a friendship and she goes to visit him every summer. The main crux of the story is that this yokai is lonely and has learned to dislike humans, but this girl has eased his loneliness and taught him how to feel love. You know, the exact same story that every single episode of Natsume is based around?
It might sound like I don’t like this movie, but that isn’t the case. Like Natsume, the story is very capably told. It has a knack of hitting you with the emotional core of the story at the right parts, and does just enough characterisation of the lead two to make you care about them. It’s a very short movie, only 45 minutes, so they wisely kept to only two characters. It’s also got this neat way of not showing the characters faces at certain times so you’ve got to figure out for yourself what they’re thinking. The yokai wears a mask throughout the film, but lifts it up every now and then and even puts it on the girl at one point, right at the moment when she (without spoiling) should have had a very…expressive face. It’s a clever little move.
I think my biggest problem with it is I don’t see why it had to be a full movie. The animation looks the exact same as Natsume. Same light toned colours on all the characters. Same watercolour backgrounds. Same bloody sound effects even. Not that it’s a bad look, but it wasn’t even particularly well animated. I’m used to the idea that studios splash out when they go to the big screen. I also didn’t feel like it needed to be 45 minutes. Most of the film was spent on the kid and the yokai playing in the forest. Sure, it as fun to watch the kid being a kid, because there’s something inherently infectious about children’s joy in simply playing. And sure, it was cool to watch the kid grow up slowly over the course of the film from a small girl to a teenager. But you could have easily cut out half that film and it would have still hit the right emotional notes at the right times.
You know what? Take an episode of Natsume Yuujinchou. Have Natsume ask Nyanko has any stories of other yokais to tell him. Stick in a 20 minute version of this movie and have Nyanko occasionally narrate to imply he’s the one telling the story, and it would fit perfectly. Same animation style, same music, same world setting, same essential moral to the story. Nobody watching would be able to tell the difference.