I think I have officially proved that I am an anime fan. I could point to 8 and half years of running a blog, 6 years of podcasting, or dozen of panels run at conventions as some sort of poof of dedication to the hobby. I think they all pale in comparison to braving a blizzard that dumped over 2 feet of snow on NYC just to see The Anthem of the Heart. That alone should allow me pass by any gatekeepers without a second thought.
(Truth be told gatekeepers almost always have their opinion formed before they talk to you but I like to believe beautiful lies.)
I do mention that in advance that if you are a strong proponent of the theory of effort justification and its effect on a viewer’s experience that it might be a factor in this review. My journey was not flying to Japan to see a movie premiere but it was a fairly long hike over quite a bit of snow through a very stressed transit system. I don’t think it prejudiced it me in favor of the film but it was quite a trial to see the movie and an equal undertaking to get home. When you have to climb over walls of ice that are as tall as you are, dig out trapped taxis, and stand in subway stops with snowdrifts in them you are going place some weight to the work you placed into your odyssey. Keep that in mind as you read this.
A good question might be what sort of movie would motivate me to do my best Robert Edwin Peary impersonation? The Anthem of the Heart has a fairly strong pedigree. Much of the staff of the movie including Tatsuyuki Nagai, Jin Aketagawa, Masayoshi Tanaka, Kazuko Nakajima, and Mari Okada also worked on AnoHana. While hardly a perfect work (as evidenced by its vocal detractors) I thought that AnoHana was extremely entertaining and rather touching anime so I was looking forward to seeing what this team could do with the tighter storytelling space of a movie.
Kazuki Joujima really wants his class to put on a musical for the class’ community outreach program. Since he is a teacher and not just some Stephen Sondheim loving student he is able to press four students into his pet project. The problem is his choices are hardly ideal. An angry baseball player, an unmotivated slacker, and a conflicted cheerleader are hardly anyones first choices but the capper is Jun Naruse. After an incident in her childhood Jun refuses to speak to the point where most of her classmates have no idea what she sounds like. Can this mismatched Breakfast Club create a musical that frees Jun from the curse upon her heart?
I have talked a little about Mari Okada on the blog and podcast before but I have never formally tackled her as a writer in a review. For better and for worse she has entered a rarefied position in the minds of Anitwitter. She is someone they know by name and look for. If you ask most people who did the series composition on Tokyo Ghoul, Steins;Gate, or Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood I doubt most anime fans could tell you. (BTW the answers are Chuuji Mikasano, Jukki Hanada, and Hiroshi Oonogi respectively.) And I’m not just talking about casual fans who don’t even know the manga-ka of their favorite series. I’m talking about bloggers and podcasters. Heck, even I’m even guilty of it. But there are a few writers that stand out and are known quantities and she is one of them. That also means she has a huge target on her back.
Mari Okada has a very distinctive writing style. Her scripts tend towards high romance, unusual relationships, and characters melodramatically screaming at each other during emotional climaxes. They all have a very easily recognized feel so you know a Mari Okada show when you see it. This also means that if you do a simple search for her you will get an equal amount of praise and vitriol for anything she has done. That said there are a good number of people who are neutral about her, have mixed feelings about her, or are simply unaware of her existence. The important thing is that she is one of the few writers that you can find multiple 5,000 word long screeds about how she has either saved or ruined anime.
So with that in mind this is a very Mari Okada movie. You have a love triangle, lots of personal drama, a bit of obsessive love (although not as unorthodox as some of her other works), and huge emotional climax with characters shouting at each other. So if you’re in the camp that thinks that Mari Okada is fairly competent then you have a solid chance of enjoying this movie. If you hate everything she does this is very much a story in her infamous wheelhouse. None of her work here steps outside of her comfort zone and the rest of the staff’s contribution works more to enhance that vibe instead of change it.
I spent that much time talking about Mari Okada because this is not a movie that is going to wow you with its visuals so much that you ignore the story. It is not that the movie is ugly or even mediocre looking. A-1 Pictures is a fairly consistent studio with very few shows that are utterly ugly-looking even if their long running shonen shows are nowhere as polished as some of their shorter shows. Everything looks lovely and draws you into the story. The thing is The Anthem of the Heart does not have any major action scenes like you expect from a shonen movie or detail porn like something from Kyoto Animation. Sakuga scholars could easily find parts that shine and places where they try to hide the sloppier animation but overall it looks very fluid. One of the benefits of a movie is you can sometimes make up for deficiencies that would hurt a TV series with spectacle that would not be possible with the schedule and budget in that format. The Anthem of the Heart can’t hide that way.
Thankfully The Anthem of the Heart builds its story on a solid base. Everything hinges on Jun Naruse. If you’re not sympathetic for her plight then the story falls apart very quickly. The movie has to quickly show why she does not talk anymore and get you to connect with her because she is going to be very quiet after that point. Despite that the opening does not have to do all the heavy lifting as Jun is very expressive despite the fact that she barely says a word so even when she is silent you know what she is thinking. They also eventually let her text, write messages, and sing as the story progresses so she does not have to pantomime everything but they never forget that her body language is her best canvas for expression.
Takumi Sakagami is a bit more of who would expect to the protagonist of a stereotypical anime. The nerdy nice guy who is a bit lackadaisical but hiding a more passionate self underneath. He has a bit more depth than the standard self-insert dude but he is also still firmly in that mold despite greater richness. If Daiki Tasaki is not Kate’s favorite character I would be shocked. The story surrounding his injury, his relationship with his baseball team, and his integration into the musical committee is pretty much just catnip for Kates. (Maybe milkbones for Kates would be a better expression.) Natsuki Nitou at first seems to be the polite and responsible third leg of the love triangle but her story is a bit more complex then it first appears.
The other main character is the music which only makes sense since the story is ostensibly about the group putting together this musical. Over the Rainbow is the main star with its major costar being Piano Sonata No. 8 and they even literally share the stage at the climax of the movie with original lyrics. I have a theory about those songs being the leitmotif of two of the characters but I would have to watch it again before I say that with full confidence. Around the World in 80 Days and Greensleeves along with several other songs are re-purposed as well. There is even faux-Hatsune Miku called Miss Mint to add in a bit of a contemporary touch. It is not a full of meta-musical but music is a constant theme as both a method of expression and just a hobby to be enjoyed.
In a way The Anthem of the Heart fills a hole that I feel a distinct category of fandom is looking for. All too often I hear that people will like a TV series but they wish it was half of its 13 or 26 episode length. In many ways this is the perfect fit for that need. When I was watching Aki no Kanade as a part of the 2015 selection of Anime Mirai films I felt that while the story easily could have been a whole TV series but instead by focusing on a very specific story it told exactly what it needed and got out before it wore out its welcome. In that regard The Anthem of the Heart juggles more stories than Aki no Kanade but it tells a complete drama with four characters in one sitting. It is like a ToraDora or Hanasaku Iroha you can effortlessly watch in one night. Any problems with pacing are greatly mitigated when the story is only 120 minutes long as opposed to 15,180 minutes long.
But all of that ignores the heart of the movie which is a tale of four people locking away what they want to say with the hopes that it will make everyone happy (or at least cause them the least amount of drama.) Each of the cast has something they refuse to tell others. While it is obvious how Jun has locked away her feelings all four of them can’t actually tell the people most important to them how they feel. This of course leads to some major drama. I have been going out of my way to avoid anything thing that is a major spoiler since Kate did not get to watch this movie (and know which side my bread is buttered on) but I will say that certain parts of the ending where bit unexpected for me. It is not completely and utterly unpredictable but I think some people will be genuinely surprised.
In the end it all comes back to that melodrama. I have a fairly good tolerance of over the top theatrics so I ate up the movie. On a scale of how Mari Okada it is I would say that is more Okada than Toradora! but less Okada than AnoHana. If that sounds good to you then the solid visuals, moving music, fun characters, and high drama will grab you. If you don’t have any exposure to the AnoHana this is a good place to start. It is a small time commitment and is a bit more approachable than AnoHana while also giving you a good sense of how the team operates.
Give it a try. It just might open your heart to the music of life.