You’ll be forgiven if you find everything about Hotarubi no Mori e strangely familiar.
It’s plain to see that “Hotarubi” was a major influence on it’s successor, “Natsume”. This story could easily have stood as a two-part story from that series, with different characters – in terms of mood and theme, it’s absolutely consistent with the more episodic and heartwarming stories in “Natsume". Happily, that’s the element of Natsume Yuujinchou I like the best, and one that’s been a little underutilized lately as Brain’s Base have adapted the more plot-heavy and serious chapters from the manga, so this comes as quite a treat for me. One thing that absolutely strikes me about Midorikawa’s work is how utterly and quintessentially Japanese it is – while the feelings she portrays are universal, the language of the heart, eye and ear are thoroughly grounded in the traditions and legends of her homeland. If you enjoy that aspect of Japanese culture – and it would be an understatement to say I’m obsessed with it – you’ll probably love this film as much as I did.
The story here is very simple and straightforward. A young girl, Hotaru (Sakura Ayane) gets lost in the forest near her Uncle’s house in the country. She’s helped out of her jam by an odd teenaged boy wearing a cat mask, Gin (Uchiyama Kouki). Gin helps her find her way home, but there’s a catch – she can’t touch him. That doesn’t stop her from repeatedly trying – and getting a whack on the head for her efforts – but if Gin is touched by a human, he’ll disappear. He tells Hotaru that this is because of a curse that was placed on him by the Mountain God, whose forest this is. It’s not at all difficult to tell where the story is going to go from here – Hotaru will return to the forest over and over every summer to play with Gin, and as she grows (and he doesn’t) they will slowly and surely begin to fall in love with each other.
Predictability is not a bad thing in this case, because it leads to some wonderful fantasy slice-of-life as only Midorikawa and Omori-san can deliver it, set to Yoshimori-san’s wonderful soundtrack (he only works on great anime). Gin is reminiscent of Natsume in many ways – kind, gentle, fragile (even Uchiyama’s performance evokes a younger Kamiya Hiroshi) – but with a difference. Rather than see the spirit world, he’s a part of it. There’s more to his story than that, of course, including the reason he wears that mask. But the best parts of the story come from simply watching Hotaru and Gin spend time together exploring the forest (whose youkai inhabitants adore him and worry for him), attending festivals, and growing to love each other. There are wonderful little touches, like the lion dancer at the youkai summer matsuri being a lion spirit with a human costume, and the moment when Gin uses his mask in a unique way to show Hotaru how he feels - one of the sweetest I can remember.
I won’t spoil the ending , but again I’ll say it fits very nicely into the philosophy that also drives Natsume Yuujinchou. With Mirodikawa it’s always about choices – the choices we make to open our hearts and accept what comes with it, or to remain closed and pay a different price. Midorikawa-san is a real visionary – her worldview is unique, full of optimism and an urge to accept all the wonders of the universe, but also an understanding about the pain that only comes from opening your heart to others. If you boiled the whole of what Natsume Yuujinchou means down to it’s essence, a concentrated form, you’d have something like Hotarubi no Mori e – proto-Midorikawa, if you will. It’s also an absolutely lovely movie to see, with the same soft watercolor style so reminiscent of E.H. Shepard, elevated to new heights with the benefit of a feature budget. Uchiyama and Ayane are excellent - it’s a pleasure to hear two very young seiyuu who aren’t household names deliver fine performances in a feature film. Brain’s Base is steadily building it’s case as arguably the finest anime studio in the business, and this excellent effort will only bolster it.