As a kid, summer holidays were always an interesting time – you’d start off all excited and having fun, then gradually you’d get bored with nothing really to do. That’s the exact situation Renge and the gang find themselves in at the start of this cute summer movie about finding friends in unlikely places.
After persuading the adults to take them along to the big shopping centre, the gang end up with a couple of tickets for one of those lottery machines that only ever seem to give out packets of tissues. While Renge gets exactly that (to her utter childlike amazement!), older brother Suguru ends up winning the grand prize: tickets for a 4-day trip to Okinawa! Together, our main cast of girls, along with Suguru, teacher Kazuho, candy store owner Kaede and Renge’s older sister Hikage (who literally begs to come along!) set off for sun, sand, sea and just a little dash of mischief!
Non Non Biyori Vacation sits as a standalone story between the series’ second and third seasons and plays out as an extended episode, simply showing more of the Asahigaoka kids’ adventures. This time though, it takes them away from their countryside village and out to Japan’s most well-known tropical island. While it is one of the typical holiday destinations within Japan and has been covered a lot, I actually loved the choice to send them there as there’s plenty of similarities and differences with the series’ main countryside setting to set up some good jokes while also giving the girls a wide variety of new things to do. As a result, the tone is still familiar, but it feels a refreshing change of pace from their slow, country lives and is packed with stuff that you’d find on a summer holiday adventure, from just chilling on a beach, to kayaking down a river or snorkelling with some manta rays.
The story itself splits itself into two main plot points, one focussing on Renge as she attempts to fill out her sketchbook of things she did over the summer, the other focussing on Natsumi and the friendship she strikes up with Aoi, the daughter of the owner of the inn where the girls are staying. The parts with Renge are as cute as always and offer some key development for her as she learns to make compromises as she doesn’t quite get what she wants, yet as she feels like the main character a lot of the time in the series, I found myself becoming more invested in Natsumi’s storyline here. It’s just great to see her get a chance to shine and to freely unleash her energy away from the main group as she has a lot more to say as an individual.
Newcomer Aoi meanwhile is a great addition to the cast, as she provides an interesting contrast to the other girls’ smaller but more carefree lives. As the innkeeper’s daughter she often helps her mother out doing some of the more menial work at the inn, like doing the laundry and cleaning up after guests, which leaves her little time for doing what she really wants to do and practice badminton. On the other hand, she has what the others lack in a larger school and more friends of her own age, and the film plays a lot into this aspect as it gives Natsumi that friend of the same age that she really needed.
Outside of the main two plot points there’s also plenty of time to have fun with the group at large, and I feel there’s something here no matter what character you’re invested in. A split in the activities that they do gives a few cute moments over to Hotaru and Komari, while Kazuho also ends up overdoing it and having to be carried back to the inn. There’s also some of the typical lurking in the background gags for Subaru and one particularly funny one about Hikage trying to be really mature when she’s not; meanwhile Kaede has to knock a lot of sense into people.
While this all sounds rather typical of the series in terms of its story and characters, I never felt that it needed to try something too different as it clearly knows where its strengths lie. It excels in showing the innocence of youth and in how it grows its main cast by giving them that space to learn and discover. And as much as it is a light-hearted comedy, it’s still very endearing to the point at which its climactic scenes did make me cry out of that feeling of not wanting something to end.
The film is produced by Silver Link and directed by series director Shinya Kawatsura, so visuals-wise it doesn’t differ too much from the TV anime. This isn’t a bad thing as it already looked decent enough, but you can tell it’s maybe lacking some of the big budget in comparison to some other shows that have jumped to the big screen, which becomes evident in the couple of stills montages that it has. These do pack more in but break the flow a little when transitioning between certain scenes. Despite this, it does know where to up its game in key moments, with the climactic scene on the beach being particularly beautiful, while it manages to do Okinawa justice in applying the same lens it had for the countryside to the island. There is a lot of focus on the local colour and culture, showing off the landscape as well as architecture like the guardian shisa lions. This is also incorporated into the film’s score, where familiar themes have more tropical sounding instruments thrown into the mix.
Non Non Biyori Vacation is brought to us by MVM, and like the TV anime is a subtitle-only release. I had no issues with the subtitles here, and with the Japanese voice acting employing the same cast, it remains a lot of fun to listen to as they all really get into their characters. On-disc extras include TV spots and promotional videos for the series, which largely matches the Japanese release, apart from leaving out the cast audio commentary.
Overall, Non Non Biyori Vacation manages to pull off a delightful adventure that successfully transplants the series’ fun and cosy feel to a new location. It’s a fresh look at the same themes, and the focus on fleshing out Natsumi rather than drilling down more on say Renge or Hotaru is really appreciated. Despite the lack of budget put into its animation dragging it down a little, I think existing fans of the series will both love and get a lot out of this one.