Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Sing a Bit of Harmony

Looks like this one is only getting two screening days - subtitled on Sunday the 23rd, dubs on Wednesday the 26th. I can't speak for the quality of the latter version, since I really couldn't tell you the difference between "folks who rightfully make a living as voice actors" and "non-union office staff who won't add anything to the bottom line what with the license so expensive" when I look at the English-language voice cast of an anime. But, I can say that I liked the movie quite a bit, more than I was expecting. I laughed hard when the android who was supposed to pass for a normal student showed up and was completely ridiculous from the word go, and kind of wish they went full Rumiko Takahashi-style bonkers at that point, not just because I can see some of her cartoony art style in the characters but because it's kind of a great screwball set-up with the very serious girl having to cover for this force of chaos.

Also, the filmmakers seemed to have looked at a lot of the tropes at play in manga and anime and found a sweet spot of understanding the appeal while nevertheless trying to script it as things teenagers would actually do. As much as I'm well past the age where I can really talk about what teenagers are like from any sort of recent experience, a lot of high-school anime seems to have picked up a template and set to mastering it rather than building from the characters. Yasuhiro Yoshiura doesn't quite completely break free - there are a lot of times when this film could work harder to defy expectations - but he does put the template to good use and seldom seems to be lazy about it.

It's also pretty good science fiction; Yoshiura has done another series/movie involving androids discovering some agency (Time of Eve), and he certainly seems to be starting from the position where we've got a lot of artificial intelligence software around us right now, and what's the world look like if we push it a little further. The folks in this movie don't seem to be trying to create an autonomous being like Commander Data who might rebel, but rather an Alexa/Siri that can interact with people in a familiar way in the physical world, and that feels like a distinction that a lot of people who write this sort of sci-fi adventure don't grasp.

So, one more show tomorrow, then hopefully on disc later this year. If you like this sort of thing, you can do a lot worse.

Ai no utagoe wo kikasete (Sing a Bit of Harmony)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2022 in AMC Boston Common #10 (special presentation, DCP)

Yasuhiro Yoshiura's Sing a Bit of Harmony starts out setting up a sort of classic sci-fi premise and then veering into said premise eventually leading to complete, embarrassing disaster, something that more stories like this probably ought to try. It eventually becomes a somewhat conventional young-adult-friendly anime, but earns a lot of good will from being occasionally unpredictable and is good enough to coast on that rather than squander it.

The high concept is that Hoshima Systems is planning to secretly place its latest Artificial Intelligence in a robot body and enroll it in Keibu High School, figuring that if it can pass for a couple of weeks, it will be an incredible victory. Project Shion was developed by Mitsuko Amano (voice of Sayaka Ohara) whose daughter Satomi (voice of Haruka Fukuhara) is a student there, along with childhood friend and computer prodigy Toma (voice of Asuka Kudo). The trouble is, "Shion Ashimori" (voice of Tao Tsuchiya) immediately comes off as a lunatic, interrupting her introduction to the class to ask Satomi if she is happy and then breaking into song. Her second musical number causes her to short-circuit completely in front of Satomi, Toma, confidence-lacking judo club member, "Thunder" (voice of Satoshi Hino) Toma's friend Goto (voice of Kazuyuki Okitsu), and Goto's girlfriend Aya (voice of Mikako Komatsu). Straight-laced Satomi, derisively known as "Princess Tattletale" by much of the student body, begs the other students not to tell what happened while Toma fixes Shion, lest it reflect badly on her mother in the patriarchal power structure of Hoshima.

It initially looks like someone at Hoshima has programmed Shion's neural net with nothing but high-school anime theme songs with the intent of sabotaging Mitsuko, and while Yoshiura doesn't exactly go that direction - it's a funny premise but one which would inevitably put the focus on the adults rather than the kids - he and co-writer Ichiro Okouchi spend a fair amount of time tapping into that screwball energy. As sci-fi, it's a clever and welcome inversion of tropes; Shion's alarming exuberance and cockeyed take on the world being what makes her strange rather than stilted delivery and excessive literalism is in many ways more believable these days when everybody has access to a pretty-good natural language processor with the occasional witty response in their pockets. It also proves to be a fertile set-up for comedy, as Shion comes off as something like Satomi's annoying little sister on the one hand and high-school romance clich├ęs from Aya thinking Goto is into the new girl or the weird "prince" fixation of shojo manga can suddenly go completely off the rails as Shion casually takes control of anything on the local network and generally makes no attempt to be inconspicuous whatsoever.

Eventually, a more conventional storyline finds its way to the fore, but it works in large part because Yoshiura and his team have actually been kind of clever with what they seed. Care is taken to make sure supporting characters like Aya are not silly one-note adversaries, for instance, and the tensions inside Mitsuko's workplace are all the more tense for not having her supervisors and rivals be obvious mustache-twirling villains, making the moments when she seems crushed all the more believably dark, despite the zaniness seen elsewhere. The filmmakers don't approach AI in a technophobic way, often making the way that Hoshima dominates Keibu as the largest employer with their AI and robotics saturating the landscape is well-observed. One could see a more adult-skewing story told in this world portraying it as more sinister, although it seems fairly normal for the teenage characters and mostly functional. The stakes are well short of Shion becoming Skynet, but there's tension at a level that works for a group of mostly-average teenagers.

Visually, the film is fairly grounded as well - there's an AI's-eye-view bit at the start and a couple of other points, but for the most part Yoshiura and company stay in a recognizable world, populating it with robots and other pieces of tech that seem to be a few baby steps ahead of what's out there now; the backgrounds are busy enough that a viewer will spend some time looking at them to figure out the world but not distracting. The character designs are standard - Satomi with the sensible haircut, Toma with the lines around his eyes to make him look constantly frazzled, Shion with the flowing-but-perfect mane, etc. - but they don't quite come across as placeholders, and the voice acting in at least the Japanese soundtrack is good. Tao Tsuchiya mostly walks a tricky line as Shioin, since she's got to be earnest but also deranged in a way that signals that she's inhumanly weird but not actually dangerous. The animation is smooth and active enough throughout that the musical numbers feel a piece with the rest even though things have been kicked up a notch. There's something not quite satiric, but poking around the edges, about how Satomi's favorite cartoon kind of looks like a latter-day Disney animated feature, almost smoother than the "real world" around it, slick and kind of juvenile.

I suspect that those more familiar with the genres at play here, the Japanese high school romantic comedy in particular, will find a lot of places where the filmmakers are poking at the sillier bits and finding ways to tweak them without alienating their audience. By chance or design, it hit theaters in North America about a week after Mamaru Hosoda's more-heralded Belle did (four months separated them in Japan), and while it's not so fancy a movie, it's solid and smart even if it's not quite such a departure from the norm as it initially seems to be.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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