Monday, November 05, 2018

Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird

Does instrumentation necessarily imply destiny? Maybe so in the case of the Kita Uji High School Concert Band. Mizore Yoroizuka plays oboe, so it is hardly surprising she is shy and unsure of herself. On the other hand, the popular Nozomi Kasaki plays flute, the instrument of Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway, and Herbie Mann. Yet, Yoroizuka is the more talented player. Of course, she does not see it that way. Their deep but strained friendship will find parallels in the Heidi-like children’s fable that inspires their senior competition suite in Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird (trailer here), which opens this Friday in most cities (screening Saturday and Tuesday in New York).

The band room and many of the supporting characters found within will be familiar to fans of the anime series Sound! Euphonium, but this is an entirely self-contained stand-alone story, with enough emotional resonance to justify itself to viewers coming cold. It might sound like a Yuri story, but it is really too chaste and too subtle for such a heavy label. Instead, it is really about the inequalities of friendship and the misunderstandings that often come as a result.

Yoroizuka and Kasaki joined the band together as freshmen, but the latter dropped out her sophomore year, moving on to other activities. Yoroizuka stayed, taking refuge in its familiarity, while hoping for Kasaki to return, which she does at the beginning of senior year. Their big competition number will be based on Kasaki’s favorite children’s book, Liz and the Blue Bird, about a blonde German teen, who befriends a blue bird mysteriously transformed into a young girl her age, only to inevitably lose her when the seasons finally turned. Yoroizuka sees this tale as an analog of her relationship with Kasaki, but she will eventually find even more analogous significance buried within it.

Yamada treats these themes with the respect they deserve. Although Liz is not quite as masterful as her previous film, A Silent Voice, it is still a serious examination of young friendship and the surrounding pressures of high school life. Frankly, these kids seem to have it a little easier, especially since social networking is largely absent from the film (whatever their parents are doing, they should keep it up), but they are still forced to make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

Despite an occasional lapse into melodrama, Reiko Yoshida’s screenplay is quite smart when it comes to teens and their attitudes. She and Yamada also take great care to prevent their main characters from falling into shy girl-popular girl caricatures. They are much more complicated than outsiders realize and therefore also more apt to be misunderstood. Kensuke Ushio’s delicate but catchy score perfectly captures the nostalgic mood, but ironically, the big suite inspired by Liz and the Blue Bird is the least distinctive music heard during the film.

There is no question Yamada is poised to become a breakout international brand name, on the level of Miyazaki. She is that good. Throughout Liz, Yamada displays a keen visual sense. Her style evokes pastels, with the sequences featuring the titular Liz and said Blue Bird getting a slightly Old World stylization. It looks great, but more fundamentally, it really is a gift to see high school students rendered with such sensitivity and maturity. Recommended for fans of animation and teen dramas, Liz and the Blue Bird screens this coming Saturday (11/10) and Tuesday (11/13) in New York, at the Village East and it is currently playing at the Laemmle Playhouse in Pasadena (find other cities and showtimes on Eleven Arts’ website here).