Recently, I’ve reviewed two movies by one of my favorites of the younger generation of Japanese anime directors, Mamoru Hosada.
So it seems inevitable that I would also catch up with a film by yet another talented young Anime director, one of the best of the group often referred to as “the next Miyazaki” — and, I’ll admit, one of my personal favorites, Yasuhiro Yoshiura.
He directed two of my favorite recent anime, Patema Inverted and Time of Eve, both of which feature unusual settings and completely unexpected central conceits: a world where gravity draws certain people towards the sky rather than the ground; and a cafe where humans and Androids can meet without revealing which they are.
And yet, he was able to create elegant, entertaining movies around these eccentric ideas, which find interesting things to do with these concepts and yet manage to tell very human stories.
I’m sure I don’t have to remind you just how rare that is these days.
In his latest film, Sing a Bit of Harmony, Yoshiura has returned to robots and Artificial Intelligence, although, as you’d expect, in a very different way from Time of Eve. Satomi’s mother is a computer genius who is part of a team trying to develop an A.I. capable of interacting unnoticed with human beings. Hoshima Industries plans to test this robot by putting it in the local high school and seeing if it will go unidentified for two weeks.
Satomi learns about “Project Shion” from a file on her mother’s computer and is shocked when she recognizes the new girl at school, Shion, as the robot in the test. She wants her mother to succeed more than anything else, and is willing to do what it takes to help her.
But it all gets off to a bad start when Shion recognizes her, asks if she’s happy, then belts out a song to Satomi.
Satomi enlists the help of her friends to cover up Shion’s strange behavior, and to help Shion fit in better among the other high schoolers.
But Shion wants to make Satomi happy, and soon embarks on a variety of plans to help all of her friends find happiness, as she has already learned that makes Satomi happy.
However, someone — or something — is erasing Shion from the school video feeds, and covering up some of her stranger behavior…
Now I’ll admit that I’m getting grumpy in my (still young) old age, and I would tell you there is way too much singing in this film. I’m not really into female vocalists or J-Pop anyway, so I’m not really the right audience for the many, many songs Shion sings. However, younger audiences may enjoy it a lot more than I do.
Particularly if you are Japanese.
But I have to admit I enjoyed the way this one plays out, with Satomi and her friends helping Shion at first because of Satomi’s mother, but gradually developing a deep friendship with Shion that leads them to take huge risks for her.
There are a lot of nice details along the way, like Shion’s obsession with a goofy Moon Princess anime series which was once Satomi’s favorite.
And it does make the song and dance numbers seem a lot more plausible when they are led by an AI robot who can link to all the other AIs around and provide the appropriate lighting and music.
Yoshiura sets up a beautiful character arc for Shion as well, as she never loses her abrupt and sudden spontaneity, yet gradually understands more and becomes far more human — and far more sophisticated in carrying out her goals. There’s a nice little bait and switch, as one scene seems to suggest someone at Hoshima may have added a program that is causing some of Shion’s strange behavior, only for us to learn eventually that the real reasons go back even further than we expected and have a lot to do with Satomi.
As you’d expect from one of Yoshiura’s anime, the animation is beautiful, detailed, and yet with a looser touch to the character designs than you’d find in most Miyazaki films. Thanks to some clever settings and set ups, the film bursts with color, particularly in the night-time scenes with an iconic wind farm whose eggbeater blades are covered in multi-colored lights. There is quite a bit of action, particularly once we reach the climax
It is also a nice touch that Yoshiura’s world is very grounded: we see robots carrying out all sorts of tasks, from rice pickers to Judo instructors, yet the world around looks like a smaller Japanese town. It’s a nice blend of the mundane with the exotic, and is more or less what you’d expect in a society which has gone through a series of changes without fundamentally changing the society itself or the way people live.
Sing a Bit of Harmony isn’t as good as Time of Eve, where Yoshiura created a suspenseful and incredibly moving film about people sitting around in a cafe, talking. But it looks great, tells an interesting story, and has a lot of fun with its often eccentric cast of characters. It isn’t as extravagant as Mamoru Hosada’s recent film, Belle, but that just makes the film stronger and more focused.
I think it is also aimed at a younger audience, so some adults may find it less satisfying as a result. But to me, I found this a fun, lighthearted film with solid character development for all of Satomi’s friends and some interesting ideas underlying it all. I’ll confess I’m seriously skeptical about AI which is far more limited than most of us realize, but Yoshiura handles the subject beautifully, making the thought of an AI developing in its own unique directions joyful and promising.
And not a precursor to Skynet…