The 13th edition of the UK’s premier anime film festival, Scotland Loves Anime, returned to big screens this October in both Glasgow, at the Glasgow Film Theatre, and Edinburgh, at the Cameo Picturehouse (following the sad closure of the Edinburgh Filmhouse, which you can read more about here) delighting and mystifying audiences with a wide array of films from the theatrical release of the final Rebuild of Evangelion film, to Naoko Yamada’s latest work, Garden of Remembrance. Several of our writers packed their bags and scuttled off up to Scotland to check out both the best and worst of what this year’s festival had to offer.
Hula Fulla Dance
Hula Fulla Dance, produced by Bandai Namco Pictures and directed by Seiji Mizushima and Shinya Watada, was the film that I really had my eyes on with it coming from the staff behind Aikatsu!, and honestly, it completely met my expectations for a work coming from that wheelhouse.
Taking place at a Hawaiian-themed resort in Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture, the film follows Hiwa Natsunagi, a new employee at the resort, as she follows in the footsteps of her late elder sister in becoming a hula dancer.
While not technically about idols, this is still firmly rooted in the genre and carries over the staff’s work on shows like Aikatsu!, Love Live! and The Idolmaster to produce a fun, if sometimes whimsical film that hits a lot of the same notes. You can see this immediately in Hiwa, as she is an airheaded protagonist who always ends up flat on her face (to the delight of the audience!) but is earnest enough that you can’t help rooting for her as she’s put through the wringer.
Hiwa is joined by a supporting cast of other hula dancers she is training with, who are all entertaining in their own ways and each have their own problems to deal with. However, they don’t get enough time alone to make any of them really stand out, and like one of my other main picks from the festival, Blue Thermal, it gives itself too much to cover in its limited run time, where, if this was a TV series instead, it would have had the opportunity to really flesh everyone out. That’s not to say there aren’t any characters in here that make a strong impression, but some are rather forgettable and their individual story arcs don’t add much to the greater whole.
Where the film works best is both in showing them all coming together as a group and trying to truly entertain the audience with their performances and make them smile, and in delving into how one person can influence and drive others to succeed. How it develops the girls’ relationship with their senior dancer and mentor (whose name I sadly can’t remember or find) plays a big role here, as she is tied in with Hiwa more closely than you initially realise. Plus, she has one of the funnier and more positive reveals in the film which I felt the audience really got behind.
One criticism though which really sticks out is something Teapot said to me after the film: “it feels like it’s trying to be something else”. I’d say this is potentially its biggest problem, as it tries to riff off its inspirations a little too much. Considering the self-insert idol concert and its pedigree, it sometimes feels like a testbed for the upcoming Aikatsu! film, which shares some similar themes to some of the story beats in this film. While stuff like this might make studio fans smile excitedly, it would have been better for it to focus on its own story.
Production-wise, I don’t think this is a film that will blow you away, but Bandai Namco Pictures have done a good job at giving the film a tropical vibe despite its Japanese setting. I found out after seeing it that the resort in the film is a real thing, which now makes complete sense with how it was represented. It’s also full of well-choreographed dance sequences and strong musical numbers, which is one thing its pedigree gives it a leg up on.
Overall, I think Hula Fulla Dance gets “just a fun time” down perfectly. Sure, it’s not the greatest film and has some glaring flaws, but it’s not the worst either and is filled with good jokes, a fun cast of characters that come together well as a group, and entertaining song and dance sequences. While this is a film that I’m doubtful will see a wider release, if all that floats your boat or you’re a fan of idol stuff already I’d recommend maybe hunting down the Japanese Blu-ray for it or snapping it up if it does come out over here at some point.
Blue Thermal, produced by Telecom Animation Film and directed by Masaki Tachibana, is thematically very similar to Hula Fulla Dance, but instead of hula dancing it focuses on the rather niche sport of flying gliders.
Adapted from Kana Ozawa’s manga, this film tells the story of Tamaki Tsuru, a first-year university student who has moved from the boonies to the glittering city of Tokyo to not only study, but to get a handsome boyfriend she can get her arms around. That plan quickly falls apart however, when she becomes partly responsible for wrecking the Aviation Club’s expensive glider, gifted to them by one of their alumni. Now facing a multi-million-yen bill, Tamaki is roped into helping the club as they compete to get the money to pay it off.
While I don’t think this film does anything particularly special, this is still a refreshingly decent slice of sports anime that pairs a goofy and likeable female lead with a very niche sport. If you’re familiar with the genre’s trappings, then I think you’ll find quite a lot of interesting stuff in here as it takes Tamaki from not knowing this thing exists to becoming an ace glider pilot. There’s a preliminary training arc, a rivalry with another school that results in some fiery drama, and a competition where the stakes are raised in a very melodramatic fashion!
The main thing that comes across with all this is the beauty and freedom of flying, as this is a very pretty and colourful film that really glamourises free flight and really does the gliders justice when they are up in the sky. As much as the sweeping vistas of the hills and mountains spreading out underneath the sky there’s also some nice shots getting inside the cockpit and actually showing you what it’s like to fly one of these things, which is something it’s great at both showing and explaining as the characters hunt for the updrafts (and the elusive “blue thermal”) to propel themselves higher into the air.
Where it mainly falls back down to Earth is in the fact that it’s had to cram what was originally conceived as a TV series into a 90-minute film, which leaves a lot of the side characters and subplots surrounding them painfully under-developed. A lot of the other club members you end up either not either caring for, or wishing they had more screen time. The latter is particularly the case with Daisuke Sorachi, the guy who falls on the glider in the first place, and Kaede Hatori, Tamaki’s erstwhile rival and one of the rival school’s ace pilots. Both are presented in some ways as potential love interests which reveal the film’s main weakness in its romantic elements which, while they don’t ruin the film, take it in a weird direction at the end. I think seeing them come through as a team and winning the competition would have been more rewarding than placing the focus on the wet blanket of a club president, as while he comes across as an endearing mentor at the start, his choices through the film ultimately make him more and more dislikeable. I wasn’t that keen on their alumni and benefactor being pushed as a kind of villain in the piece either.
That said, I wouldn’t get too hung up on these shortcomings as otherwise this is a perfectly enjoyable film and, like Hula Fulla Dance, works perfectly as that bright, lazy Sunday afternoon style of entertainment, taking our goofy main character from newbie to glory with plenty of endearing moments along the way.
Her Blue Sky
Initially advertised as this year’s Mystery Film, Her Blue Sky is undoubtedly the movie that became my favourite for the weekend. The project reunited Mari Okada, Tatsuyuki Nagai and Masayoshi Tanaka, who worked together on Anohana and Anthem of the Heart. Like the previous two works, the story is set once again in Okada’s hometown of Chichibu. It follows second-year high school student Aoi Aioi whose an aspiring musician dreaming of going to Tokyo once she finishes high school.
Aoi presently lives with her older sister Akane Aioi, who has spent her life looking after Aoi ever since the death of their parents when Akane was in high school. Before that Akane herself had planned on going to Tokyo with her boyfriend at the time, Shinnosuke Kanamuro, but ended up staying to support Aoi. Our protagonist has mixed feelings about this, largely resentful that she held her sister back from following her dream and being with the man she loves, someone that many years later she’s still not been able to move on from.
Things begin to change for Aoi when one day while practising her bass she’s reunited with Shinnosuke, but he’s not an adult like he should be – instead this is a high-school version of Shinnosuke and one that’s trapped within the town hall – the same place he, Aoi and Akane always hung out practising their music after school. It turns out he’s a living ghost, one with regrets of his own that Aoi can helpfully help him with and in turn figure out some of her own problems.
Like Anohana and Anthem of the Heart, Her Blue Sky is a coming-of-age story where the protagonist has to face up to feelings they’ve kept buried. Emotionally, it’s messy, whimsical and often nonsensical but that’s what being a teenager is and something this team have always managed to capture excellently. Despite the fact it does lean into the whimsical at times (particularly for the final 15-20 minutes of runtime), the story holds together surprisingly well. The characters are likeable enough that you’ll instantly be rooting for them and sympathising with their struggles. This is helped by having Aoi and Akane as main characters since they have such different struggles that will appeal to audiences of different age groups.
If you’re not a fan of teen melodrama then this is certainly not the film for you, but on the other hand, if it is your thing then I can say Her Blue Sky is well deserving of the watch. This team have polished their craft and made a name for themselves on projects exactly like that and you can certainly tell it’s being handled by a team with that kind of experience. For a film that came out in 2019, I’m quite surprised it hasn’t found its way to home video in the US or UK yet, but I’m hopeful that the positive reception at SLA will change things and allow a much bigger audience to enjoy this fantastic film.
The Tunnel to Summer, The Exit of Goodbyes
Now the film I was most looking forward to seeing at SLA this year was The Tunnel to Summer, The Exit of Goodbyes which is based on a light novel by Mei Hachimoku (published in English by Seven Seas). Our story follows high school student Kaoru Tono, who discovers the mysterious Urashima Tunnel where time passes differently (two hours spent there ended up being a week outside the tunnel and it only gets worse the further you go inside) and it’s said that if you get to the end, your wish will be granted.
Kaoru has a lot of problems in his life, the number one being his abusive father. But his family never used to be like this back when his sister Karen was alive, so Kaoru wishes more than anything he could bring her back to life and restore his life to what it was before. Throughout the film, he becomes friends with transfer student Anzu Hanaki, who helps him investigate the tunnel as she has her own wish that she wants to fulfil.
For a sci-fi film based on a light novel the first half, even three-quarters are fine. The characters were a bit flat and one-note, but I was willing to forgive that since the premise was interesting for what it was (particularly as someone who’s familiar with The Tale of Urashima Taro, on which this plot is loosely based) but the ending absolutely ruins any goodwill I otherwise held for the film. Without going into spoilers, there were several ways the story could have ended and that would have been more satisfying for the characters and us viewers. After the film, the AUKN team at SLA got together and already had a number of plausible theories for how you could have concluded this story. In fact, even the SLA jury had been ready to give their votes to the film until the very end, which soured their opinions. You can hear more about it in the special podcast episode here.
I don’t think a single one of us came away from the film having enjoyed it on the whole, although a few of us were invested enough to pick up the original light novel after hearing that some stuff had been cut down or removed and we hoped that may make at least the characters a little more interesting. My copy is halfway down a stack of to-be-read books, but at some point, I’ll crack it open and find out if it truly is better or not…
So while Her Blue Sky is a must-watch, The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes is an avoid which is a shame for something I’d been so excited for previously. However, it did get a great cheer from the audience when Anzu punches the school bully early on which is certainly going to remain memorable even if the film itself wasn’t.
Break of Dawn
In what was perhaps one of the most polarising films of the festival, we have Break of Dawn, a science fiction film largely aimed at children that tries its best but ultimately comes off as a jumble of ideas better presented in other films.
Set in the year 2038, the film focuses on a group of young kids who live on an estate comprised of apartment blocks that are in the process of being demolished. One of these kids, Yuuma Sawatari, is a complete space nerd and is looking forward to getting a glimpse of an approaching comet, but is annoyed that the family’s AI robot, Nanako, keeps nagging and getting in the way of his hobby. On trying to give her the slip, she ends up being possessed by the AI of a spaceship taking the form of one of the apartment blocks. With demolition day fast approaching, Yuuma ropes his ragtag bunch of friends into helping the spaceship return to space.
If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like E.T., then you wouldn’t be wrong as this takes a lot from that film in terms of its main objective in trying to help something from outer space go home. Sadly, it lacks a lot of the charm and the depth of the works it is clearly appreciating, giving us an overly long and repetitious quest with a bunch of annoying children.
While it tries to play directly to its audience of 8-to-12-year-old boys, the long-windedness of the dialogue, the repetitive story beats and the overall length of the film come together to make something that I can see its target audience becoming tired of very quickly. It has a major problem with portraying the science stuff as something that is interesting, and in particular in a way that younger children will be able to understand, while it also places too much emphasis on the children’s petty squabbles. There’s a bullying subplot that goes in a scary direction that involves one of the group being pushed off a roof, which felt completely unnecessary and overly mean-spirited.
Despite all these issues though there are some good elements and ideas in here, such as looking at the emergence of AI and how that affects our daily lives, or how children can end up inheriting their parents past regrets.
Nanako the AI robot is adorable and honestly has more personality than the majority of the cast and goes through a pleasing amount of development through the film. While I won’t spoil how her story ends, I did think it was sweet and sentimental, which is a real contrast to how some of the audience didn’t get on with it. Additionally, as Jonathan Clements pointed out in the SLA podcast, we actually have some involved parents this time who actually add something to the story instead of just being bystanders or completely absent. Meanwhile, I also appreciated some of the classroom science that gave me a chuckle as the kids make their little bottle rockets and try to land them using drones.
Overall, while there were people that enjoyed this one, the general consensus was that it was all a bit flat in terms of its story and characters and was certainly the weakest film of the festival.
Goodbye, Don Glees!
Audience and Jury Award Winner
While Demelza has a longer review of this one for its theatrical release, I couldn’t not mention this year’s in competition winner.
Frequently compared by Jonathan Clements to Stand By Me, the film showcases a road trip of discovery for three teenage boys as they strive to recover a drone they lost in the mountains to clear their name from a crime they didn’t commit.
While this was the strongest film in this year’s line-up, it’s a lot more subtle in tone than a big blowout blockbuster, and it’s all the better for it. There’s a lot of themes here centring on coming of age and discovering who you really are, which are told in a very sensitive and empathetic way that really treats these characters as the awkward about-to-be-young-adults that they are. It’s not ashamed to have some fun, like when they all dress up in women’s clothes to make the slightly dorky Toto look popular, but it also knows it must get the characters’ emotions across in the right way, and it does this with its stellar writing and composition.
This is important as it makes no secret that one of them doesn’t survive the film’s runtime, which makes it quite a fascinating film to watch, as you think you are prepared for the moment as you continuously wait for it, but when it does come it hits you like a hammer.
The film looks absolutely beautiful as well, with some stunning cinematography, particularly when the boys find themselves adventuring to Iceland in search for the telephone booth at the bottom of the golden waterfall. The final shots here left a really strong impression on me, as it shows off not just the boys’ achievement in reaching the end of their adventure, but the sheer artistry of the piece overall.
This is a film that will mean different things to different people, but I’d really recommend seeing this one for its beautiful depiction of living your best life, no matter how long you have left.