Welcome back everyone, to the second week of the newly reborn Animation Night!

Last week we experienced The First Slam Dunk, a masterpiece of both 2D and 3DCG animation that Toei cooked for years and years. A film that surely represents the cutting edge of animation technique. This week, we’ll visit another Toei passion project: the one-of-a-kind celebration of the study’s long history of traditional animation, 虹色ほたる~永遠の夏休み~ (Nijiiro Hotaru: Eien no Natsu Yasumi)—in English, Rainbow Fireflies: The Eternal Summer Vacation.

My research for this one largely comes, as is so often the case, from an article by kViN of Sakugablog. It’s a fascinating and thoroughly researched article as ever, if maybe a little dense with names. Fittingly, though! “lots of “sakuga” in this movie.” is how one fansubber summarised it. So yeah, on some level, this is one for the butas—if you’re someone like me, ‘four minutes of Shinya Ohira animation’ is enough to already have you running over to nyaa to grab the movie. It is a movie that allows some of the industry’s best animators to cut loose and draw in their preferred styles, with deliberately rougher lines and unshaded characters allowing for all the more expressive linework and motion.

Clip from Nijiiro Hotaru, KA Shinya Ohira [Sakugabooru].

But what’s it like, actually about?

On a literal level it is a time travel movie. A boy named Yūta returns to the place where his father died a year ago, out in the Japanese countryside, to go on a nostalgic visit to a dam where he and his dad used to catch beetles. He meets an old man, and lends him a hand, but thinks nothing of it. As he walks on the dam, the weather turns, and Yūta takes a tumble—only to be rescued by the old man, and find himself waking up 30 years in the past, just a month before the completion of the dam, in a village that in his time has long since flooded.

Stuck in the past, Yūta meets a girl named Saeko, a passionate lover of fireflies, and finds that he has an opportunity to experience a summer of 30 years ago in a place now gone. Ah, perhaps you see where this is going. Yeah, this is one of them mono no aware movies, about the beauty of transient things, and living in the moment.

The villagers face the loss of their home with a variety of attitudes. kViN writes:

What completes the movie thematically is its confidence in new generations, which turns what could have been a bit of a downer into a very uplifting tale. Having taken notice of similar events in real life and knowing of their complexity, Uda avoided taking a side in the matter of the dam through a definitive authorial voice; it’s clear that the adults living in the village feel a certain way, but they’re presented as more passive and accepting of the inevitable. That is not the case for the kids, who openly voice their disagreement in a movie that is committed to letting them speak for themselves, even if it’s ultimately not within their power to revert those circumstances. It’s them that the future belongs to, and their criticism of the decisions adults take that threaten their world is held with as much respect as their ability to bounce back. After using the phrase “even so, children still live in the present” as the tagline to promote the movie, the final scene adds “and head towards the future” after showing that they’ve all stood up and found new ways forward. Nijiiro Hotaru has aged like fine wine, and the aspect is now more encouraging than ever.

I hope he turns out to be right about this, and the kids can find their way out of the mess we’ve left them. Poor bastards.

Clip from Nijiiro Hotaru, KA Tatsuzou Nishita [Sakugabooru].

Nijiiro Hotaru adapts a book by Masayuki Kawaguchi, who is actually not a stranger to anime, directing photography (compositing) on a number of productions from Fruits Basket to Higurashi. Besides this, I can find out relatively little about him in English. The book caught the eye of Toei producer Atsutoshi Umezawa in 2007, and he approached director Konosuke Uda, pitching the film to the higherups as a timely celebration of Toei’s long, looong history.

Then they spent years cooking the thing, trying out different techniques to get the perfect look. 3DCG? Right out. Compositing? Digital, but make sure to do it in an analogue style.

Hisashi Mori was in charge of the character designs, who kViN describes a Kanada disciple who got estabished in the 90s on works like Giant Robo who later turned to a more realist style in the vein of Iso “but never lost his sharpness and geometrical forms, doubling down on the bold lineart henceforth”. This lineart proved to be a bit of a problem, solved by inserting little gaps here and there—the kind of minute adjustment that speaks to the long process of iteration. You can read more of the ins and outs of it in kVin’s article.

Clip from Nijiiro Hotaru, KA Tatsuzou Nishita [Sakugabooru].

The result, for all that it’s a film created to honour the analogue history of Toei—which it does with high drawing counts and gorgeous backgrounds—is actually a movie that feels distinct from almost anything. The character designs are loose and minimalist, moving with an incredible liveliness, which ends up proving a perfect fit for expressionists like Ohira. It’s full of quirky movements, creative smears, and weird creative layouts—the last the fruit of Takaaki Yamashita, an esteemed animator on Spirited Away as well as quirky works like Toujin Kit and the Kill Bill anime inserts—also the guy who drew that one time Goemon fought a shark.

It is, truly, a celebration of movement, and the particular possibilities of drawings in motion.

Watch any clip of the film and you’ll get this feeling: it’s a distinctly anime way of moving, shot 2s and 3s and stylised in that particular late-90s early-00s way, and yet it’s an incredibly lively approach to that, a world of characters in constant expressive motion. No surprise, then, that the movie took 3.5 years to put together, and could have taken longer if the higher-ups at Toei hadn’t put their foot down.

Clip from Nijiiro Hotaru, KA Ryo Onishi [Sakugabooru].

Given all the hype, I’m pretty excited for this one—hope you are too! This should be a sakuga feast for the ages, and likely a very moving film as well.

Animation Night begins at 8pm UK time (about an hour) at the usual place. Would love to see ya there!


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