'Liz and the Blue Bird' ('Rizu to Aoi tori'): Film Review

Eleven Arts
An aesthetically impressive if dramatically understated animated tale.

The makers behind the Japanese anime hit 'A Silent Voice'' return with a new feature adapted from the popular YA novel and manga series.

A melancholic and sentimental coming-of-ager that may be too slight for its target audience, the anime drama Liz and the Blue Bird (Rizu to Aoi tori) follows two music-playing besties as they prepare to part ways in their final year of high school.

Directed by Naoko Yamada, whose 2016 teenage suicide tale A Silent Voice raked in a whopping $30 million in Japan, this less potent if beautifully rendered animated feature was just released in the U.S. by specialty distributor Eleven Arts. And while the company was able to gross over $300K with A Silent Voice, it’s hard to see it pulling in similar numbers with Blue Bird, even if the film has its artistic merits and could find a following on VOD.

Based on the YA novel series Sound! Euphonium by Ayano Takeda, the story, which was adapted to the screen by Reiko Yoshida, follows a pair of female musicians in the middle of senior year: the outgoing flute player Nozomi (voiced by Nao Toyama) and the introverted if highly talented oboist Mizore (Atsumi Tanezaki). Both girls play in the class orchestra, with most of the action set inside their high school’s band room.

Yet the narrative also splits into a second story — a sort of meta-fairy tale that resonates with the real-life drama taking place in class — about a girl named Liz (Miyu Honda) who lives by herself in the countryside in what looks like 17th century Holland. One day she meets the film’s titular blue bird, which transforms, or something like that, into a mysterious blue-haired girl (Miyu Honda) who becomes Liz’s friend and only companion, although their relationship is clearly a fleeting one.

The lessons of the fairy tale weigh heavily on Nozomi and Mizore’s friendship, which is one of subtle rivalry and platonic longing. Each girl wants to please the other but must also follow her own path — this especially holds true for the timid but gifted Mizore, who doesn’t dare to reveal her musical skills as the band rehearses a composition titled, yes, “Liz and the Blue Bird.” And if the parallels weren’t already clear enough, there’s also a book that the girls take out in the school library, Liz and the Blue Bird.

Despite the way Yamada keeps reiterating how delicate teenage relationships can be, and how easily they can slip away when you move on to the next stage of your life, the story’s limited setting and lack of overt drama makes her movie feel somewhat uneventful. It seems closer, at times, to an after-school special — or to an episode of Degrassi Junior High — than to a full-fledged feature, even if a late twist gives everything more gravitas.

Aesthetically speaking, there are nonetheless some beautiful moments scattered throughout the story, with the animation switching seamlessly between the detailed manga-style drawings of the classroom scenes and the more ephemeral watercolor renderings of the fairy tale sequences. Like in A Silent Voice, Yamada has a very keen eye for depicting adolescent malaise in visually evocative terms, and Liz and the Blue Bird could have benefited from even more flights of fancy than she allows for here.

A nonstop and rather cloying score by Kensuke Ushio can feel like overkill, although it also works itself into the narrative in clever ways, especially during the last act.

Production companies: Kyoto Animation, Sound! Production Committee
Distributor: Eleven Arts Anime Studio
Cast: Atsumi Tanezaki, Nao Toyama, Miyu Honda
Director: Naoko Yamada
Screenwriter: Reiko Yoshida, based on the novel ‘Sound! Euphonium’ by Ayano Takeda
Production designer: Mutsuo Shinohara
Composer: Kensuke Ushio, Akito Matsuda
Casting director: Stephanie Sheh
Character designer: Futoshi Nishiya
Color stylist: Naomi Ishida

In Japanese, 90 minutes