Atsuko Ishizuka’s anime film Goodbye Don Glees! is a familiar coming-of-age story that succeeds best in its authentic moments.
The one universal truth of being young is that the moments that feel like everything will almost always fade away to nothing. There are simply too many days in one’s life for every event to be held forever. And yet, that doesn’t stop childhood from feeling like an adventure. As healthy and adventurous as my youth was, I only remember the big moments that have seared themselves into my psyche, along with an assortment of flashes and snippets that pop up occasionally at random moments. Goodbye Don Glees! (グッバイ、ドン・グリーズ!), writer/director Atsuko Ishizuka’s second feature film, is a disarmingly sweet and somewhat derivative look back at that period of time on the cusp of adulthood. It has as big a heart on it as any movie I’ve seen this year and multiple moments of stunning animation, both on a grandiose and granular scale.
The story begins in disjointed flashforward. Our main characters Rōma (Natsuki Hanae) and Toto (Yuki Kaji) stand in front of a small fire where assorted memorabilia burns, before a smash cut takes us to them on the top of a hill, overlooking a plane taking off. These two seemingly unrelated events are brought together by Rōma’s nostalgic monologue, which reflects on the events of the past few days and lets us know that someone is going to die. Ishizuka’s vision of what she wants the film to be in this flash-forward is clear and does a very good job at setting up the tone for the rest of the movie, a nostalgic longing for a simpler time. The soundscape (populated mostly by ambient small-town noises and plenty of cicadas) and the score by Yoshiki Fujisawa work so well together that I found myself missing a time that I had never lived through. And while the rest of the film has varying levels of success in recapturing that feeling of wistfulness, it is extremely powerful in the moment.
The prologue now over, we flash backwards to a few days prior and begin the meat of Goodbye Don Glees!. We learn that Rōma and Toto are childhood friends that have been separated for the last few months due to Toto’s attending school in Tokyo, his return is both a cause for celebration and the catalyst for more than a few awkward interactions. It becomes clear within a few scenes that the duo’s personalities have begun to diverge in ways that are both small and glaring.
Toto has begun to grow up: he has brought textbooks on vacation and plans to spend time studying so as to pass an exam that will help him get into medical school. Meanwhile, Rōma is determined to make the most of his youth while he has it: he blows all his money on fireworks for his own personal show and upon the urging of his new friend Drop (whose presence causes its own issues between the two friends) spends most of his savings on a drone to capture the fireworks show. These scenes walk a fine line between a happy reunion and a dark omen for the future of Toto and Rōma’s relationship while never feeling too melodramatic, and anyone who has attempted to reconnect with an old friend will certainly relate to the terminal awkwardness that comes with having to redefine the terms of a friendship once considered sacred.
Without giving too much away, the remainder of Goodbye Don Glees! morphs from a simple hangout movie into more of a road narrative once Rōma’s drone gets lost in the wilderness and the group decides to take an extended hike to retrieve it. Ishizuka takes her time in exploring the dynamics between the three travelers, probing into each of their insecurities and aspirations to help discover what makes them tick. It’s here that the film begins to waver: some of the plot points come off as painfully juvenile (especially one involving a one-sided childhood crush) while others feel too mature to only be handled with a handful of scenes.
It’s a mixed bag that ultimately leans more positive than negative, thanks in part to a plot development in the last twenty minutes that allows Ishizuka to wrap up some character arcs while showcasing some gorgeous animation, and that earnest, unabashedly hopeful tone that I found myself too enamored with to hate. Goodbye Don Glees! does well in recognizing that growing up is often messy and sometimes a little bit cringy for those around you, and for that I cannot fault it. It is not a perfect movie, but it does speak to a very specific moment in one’s life, and for that it should be praised.
Goodbye, Don Glees! will be released exclusively in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from 30th November 2022.