Anime Reviews: Liz and the Blue Bird
Some Info About This Already-Beloved Film
Title: Liz and the Blue Bird a.k.a. Liz to Aoi Tori
Production: Kyoto Animation
Film Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: 4/21/2018
Age Rating: 3+ (no objectionable material)
Summary: Starting a brand new year at Kitauji High School, the Kitauji High Wind Ensemble has started work on a new free-choice piece: "Liz and the Blue Bird," a multi-movement suite based on a fairy tale, in which a girl named Liz discovers a mysterious blue girl, who is actually a magical blue bird, and the two live together happily until Liz realizes she's doing the blue bird an unkindness by keeping her all locked up and decides to set the blue bird free. For reserved oboe player Mizore and her charismatic flautist friend Nozomi, the fairy tale seems to reflect their own relationship, Nozomi says, but as Mizore begins to think about that very subject, amidst her instructors pressuring her to think about her future, she begins to seriously think about their friendship and her own trajectory in life, as seemingly mirrored by the fairy tale, and may soon have to make a difficult decision of her own.
The Good: Gentle, welcoming, gorgeous aesthetics; my least favorite characters from the TV series get the moving and emotional growth they so desperately needed, making this a worthy spin-off; newcomer-friendly
The Bad: Absolutely glacial pacing; doesn't truly shine until the final act
The Ugly: When you begin to notice that everyone's necks are a little too long
So, how did I get here?
It's no secret that Sound! Euphonium is probably my absolute favorite anime franchise to come out in the past few years, barely beating out Mob Psycho 100, and the second season's ending was perfect in every single way. With that said, I was a little apprehensive at the announcement of a sequel film, and especially apprehensive that the film would focus on Mizore and Nozomi--my two least favorite characters from the show. But then it released in Japan, a bunch of people I follow online went and saw it, and the praise Liz and the Blue Bird was getting was nothing short of monumental. Naturally, I had to see what all the buzz was about. And then the film proceeded to take its sweet, sweet time getting onto Blu-Ray. But now it's mine, and now I've seen it, and I can safely say that this was a good little movie. Was it the superlative film I was led to believe it would be? Nope. But that's why we're here--to give my opinion and serve as your buyer's guide, because I am the best in the world at that (don't bother second-guessing me, I'm always right, rest assured of that). Anyway, let's get into the nitty-gritty.
How does the film earn its massive acclaim?
First of all, Kyoto Animation. You know what to expect by now. They did not disappoint. Fans of A Silent Voice will be delighted to see that this film utilizes a very similar art style--softer and more subtle than the studio's TV projects, bursting with life and beauty. It's incredible, the amount of detail KyoAni continues to stuff their films with, from characters' individualized accessories and stationary, to the scuffs and imperfections of the floors, to how the sunlight beautifies the rather drab and plain and commonplace school building as it seeps in through the many windows, to the fairy tale segments with their watercolor backgrounds and painterly character designs. And the gestures! Each and every character has their own unique set of gestures and movements, and eagle-eyed viewers can read between the lines and learn literal volumes about each member of the wind ensemble purely by their actions, especially our two leads. Again, though, Kyoto Animation. It's what they do. No one in the world of 2D animation can match their consistent greatness.
The film also employs a gorgeous minimalist soundtrack (outside of the "Liz and the Blue Bird" orchestral piece, which is more pastoral than minimalist) which really helps to set the tone of the film--lackadaisical, carefree, sometimes somber, contemplative, and occasionally sad and wistful. The scene in which Mizore and Nozomi are separated by a small school courtyard, waving to each other as Nozomi plays with her flute's glare shining on Mizore before Nozomi wanders away...that scene is beautiful, not just in how it shows Mizore's loneliness (Nozomi has many friends, Mizore only has her), but the melancholic piano accompaniment is one of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful tunes I've ever heard, and matches the scene perfectly. The music really does serve the movie in perfect harmony, accenting sound effects, swelling and morphing at all the right times, to the point where imagining this film without its soundtrack is literally impossible. Absolute aural mastery.
As for the narrative meat of the film, I am absolutely astonished at how invested I was. Like I mentioned before, Mizore and Nozomi's story was my least favorite part of the TV series, because they were introduced far too late and their conflict felt weak and rushed like crazy, so I never felt much attachment to them as a result. Also, their shy/sociable dynamic isn't anything new, so that didn't help. But here? It's hammered home right from the word "go" how serious the underlying problems in their relationship are. I don't want to give too much away (spoilers ahoy!), but there's a lot of turmoil going on with these young women--especially Mizore--and I found myself far more interested and engaged in these two characters than I had ever been in their TV story arc. And that finale! Hoo boy, I get misty-eyed just thinking about it! Everything--from their problems to the movie's themes to the fairy tale story being given to us in parallel--resolves in the most satisfying manner possible, and it's a real treat.
A treat that can be enjoyed by all, in fact! Not only is the film devoid of anything objectionable for all you soccer moms out there, Liz and the Blue Bird also does not require you to know anything about the Sound! Euphonium franchise whatsoever! I mean, it helps--you'll know exactly who Yuuko, Natsuki, Reina, Kumiko, and all the others are from prior experience, but their roles are so minor that knowing who they are is not essential at all to the story. For the newcomer, they add credence to the feeling of a vibrant school club where everyone knows everyone. So yeah, if you're even remotely curious, jump right in! The water's fine!
So, why don't I love this film to death, then?
The cardinal sin that Liz and the Blue Bird commits is the sin of Sloth. It's too slow, man! Like, literally the first 10 minutes of the film is nothing more than watching Mizore waiting at the school gate for Nozomi, and then the two walk into school, through the halls, up the stairs, and into the music room. The sequence is lovingly crafted and impeccably scored...but it's 10 freakin' minutes long! Like, come on, dude, I'm checking the clock over here constantly, just do something! "You mean, like walking to the music room?" DO SOMETHING ELSE! LITERALLY ANYTHING ELSE!! Geez Louise!
As a result of pacing that would get overwhelmed and run over by a speeding glacier, the film is an excruciatingly slow burn that, while it has worthwhile moments all throughout, doesn't truly begin to hit its stride until the final third, wherein it hits its stride out of the park and fires on all cylinders so quickly that it gave me a case of whiplash nearly as legendary as In This Corner of the World gave me. But man was it all worth it, because as I stated above, the finale of Liz and the Blue Bird is nothing short of incredible. Absolutely worth the wait...but the wait was real, and the wait was rough.
So, what's the verdict?
Liz and the Blue Bird is very, very close to being an absolute masterpiece. The animation, the details, the sound design, the direction, the character development...it's all master-class and top-shelf and every superlative you can imagine. But it's the pacing that kills it. I just can't love a film that makes me check the clock constantly during its first two-thirds. Now, take my griping with a grain of salt--there are numerous anime critics out there who have appointed this movie as one of the best anime films of all time, and maybe they're right. Maybe I'm the problem. Maybe I'm an impatient so-and-so who can't handle a slow burn. But I do know that I'm not the only impatient so-and-so on Planet Earth. If glacial pacing is no issue for you, then by all means, enjoy what might very well be one of the most impeccably-crafted anime films of all time. But for all my fellow impatient so-and-sos out there, you have been warned.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10. Immaculately-crafted and heartbreakingly bittersweet, Liz and the Blue Bird is the ultimate spin-off--one that requires no prior knowledge of its predecessor while also fleshing out that same predecessor in fresh new ways--but its slow pacing might cause some attentions to wane and some clocks to be checked.