REVIEW: リズと青い鳥 [Rizu to Aoi tori] [Liz and the Blue Bird] [2018]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 90 minutes | Release Date: April 21st, 2018 (Japan)
Studio: Shochiku Company / ELEVEN Arts
Director(s): Naoko Yamada
Writer(s): Reiko Yoshida / Ayano Takeda (characters from novel Sound! Euphonium)

“I hope that day never comes”

The filmmakers behind リズと青い鳥 [Rizu to Aoi tori] [Liz and the Blue Bird] did a smart thing: they took an existing property (Ayano Takeda‘s novel series Sound! Euphonium which has subsequently become a manga, anime series, and film) and expanded upon two of its secondary characters by allowing them to take the lead. I’m not familiar with the original iterations of the property, but a bit of research shows that its plot surrounds a high school concert band in Kyoto, Japan just returned to competitive form thanks to a new music teacher in Noboru Taki. And while its main focus is on Kumiko, Reina, and Asuka traversing the ebbs and flows of adolescence, friendship, and identity, director Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida‘s shift this quasi sequel’s attention elsewhere.

This chapter takes a look at the relationship shared by shy Mizore Yoroizuka (Atsumi Tanezaki) and popular Nozomi Kasaki (Nao Tôyama). They’re an unlikely pair due to their differing personalities with the latter constantly swarmed by classmates and the former content to reside in the corner alone. Friends since middle school, it was Nozomi who actually got Mizore into band in the first place. She approached her when no one else would—creating a bond with this loner that runs much deeper than she could probably ever reciprocate. So while Nozomi bounces around with a perpetual smile as she switches crowds with ease, Mizore seeks to make herself invisible. If Miss Social Butterfly asks her to do something, though, she won’t hesitate. Anyone else receives a “maybe next time.”

It just so happens that the “freeform” piece chosen for this year’s competition has a duet between flute (Nozomi) and oboe (Mizore). Based on the children’s story Liz and the Blue Bird—one Nozomi remembers fondly from her youth—it portrays the melancholic goodbye shared when two best friends must part. Liz is a human girl that lives a solitary life amongst the animals who is inexplicably thrust into the orbit of a stranger we know to be the tiny blue bird she saw the day before. Personified by some unknown magic, the bird has arrived to provide Liz the love and companionship she was lacking. But while she enjoys every second of their time together, the bird will eventually have to go back to its own life.

The parallels between music, storybook, and reality are so obvious that even Nozomi mentions them. She laughs off the similarities as coincidence while Mizore reads the text much more literally until it begins affecting her instrumentation. What if she will have to let Nozomi go just like Liz with the bird? Could she do such a thing? Could she let the one person in the whole entire world that she’d follow to the depths of Hell go and thus be left on an island all alone once more? So blinded to a life always on her friend’s heels, Mizore is unable to have a future without her. She can’t even accept Ririka’s (Shiori Sugiura) invitation to hang out because it would feel like a betrayal.

What about Nozomi, though? Just as Mizore is challenged for improvement by Mr. Taki (Takahiro Sakurai), so too is his flutist. And while we first wonder if her change in attitude towards Mizore stems from her suffocating demeanor, it’s not long before we realize Nozomi might be even more scared about the future. Where we find ourselves aligned with our lead early on in thinking that Liz and the bird are very specifically metaphors for one student and the other—thanks to a watercolor animation of the book to contrastingly crosscut with the gorgeous anime style of Kitauji High School—the question is posed as to whether or not they can be both simultaneously. What if both are psychologically trapped, each envious of what makes the other unique?

The school campus transforms into a cage with birds flying freely outside windows while Mizore and Nozomi languish in the claustrophobic environment of their own uncertainty. The gregariousness of one is something the other thinks she’ll never possess and her talent is something the first aspired to possess but perhaps no longer wants despite old ambitions causing her to second guess what comes next. Forced to say goodbye in song, they subconsciously begin to acknowledge the fact that they may have to do so in real life too. That means confronting what they want to be as independent entities removed from the cliques and social conventions of school. They’re both birds changing for the other who’ve discovered they must each become a Liz comfortable in her own shoes.

But there’s more here than two girls waiting to see what the other does before choosing a career with which to pursue in college. There’s the subtext of jealousy driving them towards lives they may not fully want. The overt display of unrequited love as far as Mizore’s infatuation going much further than simple friendship and the delicate complexity of confronting how they move forward together with that knowledge—a scene where she and Nozomi put all their cards on the table is awkward, inspiring, and achingly pure of heart. And the embracement of confidence that comes from turning back into the birds of their destinies as portrayed via a rousing rendition of the titular orchestral song wherein the girls’ positional transference in the aftermath proves poignantly assured.

A huge part of this success is Liz and the Blue Bird having a women-led creative team. I’ve seen a couple anime features this year with the type of toxic masculinity and discomforting male gaze that ruins any good ideas they may otherwise present. This project doesn’t have any of that. We get close-ups on these characters’ feet, hands, eyes, and hair to understand the turmoil they’re experiencing through pigeon-toed anxiety, clenched fists of anger, compassionate tears, and embarrassed twirls. These are real teens so desperately searching for their place amongst each other that they forget to unearth what it is they want on their own terms. Being selfish enough to do so isn’t a bad thing. And those friendships that endure regardless are made stronger for it.

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