Sunday, January 28, 2024

Hall of egress

aka Natsu e no Tonneru, Sayonara no Deguchi

2022 Japan/2023 USA
Written and directed by Tomohisa Taguchi (based on the novella and comic books by Mei Hachimoku, Kukka, and Koudon)

Spoilers: moderate

This is potentially speaking from a place of ignorance about Japanese pop culture, with just enough knowledge to be a danger to myself; and, as genre is genre, some similarity between works is no sin; but man, it is very hard to watch The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes and not have the one very obvious thought about it.  Before you've watched it, of course, that thought would probably be that anime needs better translations for its titles, because The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes is one of the wonkiest-sounding titles I've ever heard in English.  The fact is, however, that this appears to be 100% what the author of the light novel and comic book, Mei Hachimoku, meant to call itI recognize the gairaigo, "tonneru," but that's the almost-functional half of this titleand I probably simply need to accept that Japanese is an extremely different language that will naturally have different idioms and aesthetic priorties.  Nevertheless, it sounds like an intentional parody of the English translation of a Japanese film's name.*

Anyway, that's trivial.  Meanwhile, once you have watched The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyesor while you're in the middle of watching it, or, quite possibly, especially if you know its basic plot outline going in, while you're watching its very first scene, even the first-batch-of-shots first part of its first sceneyour thought will be, "Man, Makoto Shinkai has truly made it."  It is, to belabor it, not actually a Makoto Shinkai film; that's something that will be very apparent, also, from the first-batch-of-shots first part of the first scene, for while they feature both rain and ennui in a very Shinkai-like manner, you would presumably notice the lack of characteristic juice from Shinkai's CoMix Wave team (Tunnel of Summer was produced by Studio CLAP), and there's been no point in these last fifteen-or-so years where Shinkai would have signed off on the rain animation in any part of this film.

But it is a Makoto Shinkai rip-off, something I would have been cautious about claiminghypothetically, it's simply another animated sci-fantasy teen romance, which just sometimes happens to feature rain, and while Shinkai perfected those things, he did not actually invent them (though sometimes I'm not sure about rain)except it kind of openly wants you to notice that it's stealing.  Which I suppose I can respect, since it's stealing from the best, though it is so extraordinarily out-in-the-open, from the more generic elements of an animated sci-fantasy teen romance, to things that surely resemble Your Name but aren't exactly Your Name (time travel, a reliance upon Japanese folkore, a rural setting, a festival that puts the female lead in a yukata at roughly the same point in their stories, a divorcĂ© single dad, a girl more interesting than the boy), to things that are very specifically lifted from Your Name and, because until now Shinkai has done a champion job of cornering the Shinkai knock-off market all by himself, also his subsequent project Weathering With You (notably the third-act desperate run into infinity that involves the protagonists forgetting how to not trip over their own feet, or how to break their falls with something other than their faces, for added physical melodrama), and, for a bit of variety (and in a turn that indicates that the Japanese are unfamiliar with this thing you call "discourse"), a little Garden of Words flavor sprinkled in, somehow.  I would swear in open court that during that run into infinity, composer Harumi Fuuki is quoting the RADWIMPS score from the same spot in the narrative from Weathering With You.  (And to dispense with the historical question you might have regarding Tunnel to Summer, even the original light novel significantly post-dates Your Name; the anime wouldn't have even started production till after Weathering With You.)  And so you see what I mean: Shinkai has made it, and, despite having very little in common with the previous century's great man of Japanese animation besides "they both make cartoons," he has now become what he has been often hailed as over the past decade, "the next Miyazaki"that is to say, a source of direct inspiration to everyone else in his medium.  And I think that's swell.

I wish they would be equally inspired by his meticulous aesthetic, but we can tackle that later.  As for being a knock-off, well, I like "genre" as a rule, and I'm not sure Hachimoku or the feature adaptation's writer and director, Tomohisa Taguchi, could have found any quicker way to my heart than confirming "Shinkai movie" as a genre unto itself.  So: in an unspecified area of rural Japan (they may mention Kyushu) lives an unhappily-teenaged boy named Kaoru (Ouji Suzuka), whom we will learn over the first third of the film is dealing, not very successfully, with the triple tragedies of his life, a sister who died young, a mother who abandoned him and his father in the aftermath, and a father (Rikiya Koyama) whose grieving has curdled completely into alcoholism and bouts of abuse.  (Whether it's because the plot moves more frictionlessly without it, or because this omission was genuinely intended to reveal their characters, Kaoru has one of the worst dads you'll ever see, given that his son disappears without a word for seven full days at one point and, while he's happy when he comes back, he didn't notify any authorities, and was annoyed he even had to talk to Kaoru's school.)  When we meet Kaoru, however, it's in tandem with his first encounter with a new girl in town, Anzu (Marie Iitoyo), with whom he has an awkward conversation at a bus stop that goes mildly unsatisfactorily, but he does, chivalrously, manage to get her to take his umbrella to shield the package she keeps protectively clutching to her chest so it won't get rained on.  Unwilling to be in his debt, she insists they exchange numbers on their primitive flip phones so she can return this unsubtle token, but even though it turns out they're going to the same school, she never quite manages to give it back.

In the meantime, Kaoru accidentally falls off a railroad embankment and into the woods, where he discovers something amazing, something he would probably have kept to himself if he could'vethe Urashima Tunnel of urban legend ("Urashima" being a fairy tale reference, mind you, rather than anything like a geographical descriptor).  Entering the tunnel, this is when Kaoru loses those aforementioned seven days, though for him it's been only minutes.  In return, he acquires some impossible things, like a parakeet who ought to be dead and his late sister's shoe, which makes him eager to go back into the tunnel to see what else could be returned to him.  However, when he does, it turns out that Anzu has been stalking him, or something, and now she knows about the tunnel too (it's the moment where this film's incredibly tight 84 minute runtime is most keenly felt in a negative way, insofar as since the story needs Anzu to be here at this time, Kaoru doesn't even bother asking her why she would be).  The good news, though, is that she's exactly as eager to plunge into this mystic hole that the stories say can grant your dearest wish, even if it's at the cost of being thrown who-knows-how-far in time; but she does steer Kaoru toward testing the tunnel's properties, so they might know how high the price they'll be paying is.  That price, they determine, will be years, maybe even centuries.  But they decide to follow througheven if maybe they don't truly understand what they're dealing with at all.

The single biggest differentiating factor between this and a Shinkai movie, then, which I think is relatively clear from that summary, is that this is very clean and straightforward, in ways that even Shinkai's latest and most logical teen sci-fantasy romance, Suzume, only approaches.  This is a double-edged sword: it's "better," in that despite its magic concept's apparent obscurity (we thankfully never get a lore dump about the Urashima Tunnel), that concept is so logical in its underpinnings, so that I'd almost tell you it falls closer to the "soft sci-fi" side of the "sci-fantasy" basket (even the folkoric reference is metaphorical), and it gives the movie a nice (and distinctive!) "weird fiction" vibe that Your Name didn't have.  Likewise, at no point since watching it have I had to grapple with my conflicting impulses to go with its flow and nitpick it till it horribly died, like the months I spent before I finally surrendered to Your Name's irrational majesty; but the downside is that it's not going to be as baroque as Your Name, Weathering With You, or Suzume.  This tidiness comes in with that 84 minute runtime, too: it's simultaneously very pleasant to sit down with a modern movie this utterly direct, but it's also pretty ruthless about itself, virtually devoid of any secondary cast, with maybe three non-protagonists who get names (and possibly not a dozen lines apiece), though the girl-bully that Anzu sucker-punches is at least memorable for getting her nose broken.  It barely has space for its leads, though: Anzu, as mentioned, is much more interesting than Kaoru, not entirely by defaultthough she could be, because he's hitting bare minimum Male Anime Lead levels of individualitybut her secret wish is a whole lot more idiosyncratic and textured than his (it's more complicated than this, but she basically wishes to be a great manga artist), and if it threatens to be a little inside-basbeball and self-reflexive, it's obviously coming from a sincere place.  But it's probably a bigger problem than I'm acknowledging that they are both rather humorless broodersit's the kind of romance where the female lead explicitly notes that her could-be never laughs, but she's not what you'd call hilarious, eitherand the scene-setting first act can start spinning wheels even at only, like, sixteen or seventeen minutes.

Hey, check out this promotional image that pretends this movie has more than 1.5 characters!

It does have the space, however, to be very cool about the magic in its center, in ways that kind of top Shinkai in treating the conceit as a problem to be worked.  It's where that tightly-logical construction starts to shine as a point of recommendation in its own right, doing duty well beyond its plot function by delineating a personality for Anzu (as much as any of her expressed traits and backstory do) as she approaches the existence of a time-distorting wishing-cave with the most wonderful arch-rationalism, dragging flat ol' Kaoru behind her.  Thus a lot of the second act is montages of empirical measurement doubling as barely-encrypted dates, which gives way to what are easily-recognizable as actual dates, though since they're Japanese cartoon characters, they cannot confirm an attraction to one another without apocalypse or death prodding them into it.  The most Shinkai thing here, needless to say, is the insistence that going inside girls is better than going inside magic caves (it is, let's say, a noticeably yonic cave mouth), alongside the assumption that it takes the power of the supernatural to put two young people alone together long enough for them to figure this out.  But I can appreciate that Hachimoku and Taguchi have shaved off the Tohoku-derived world-ending stakes from their exercise in the Shinkai workbook.  This one has no stakes larger than the fate of two kids, and that gives it a somewhat different valence, with the tunnel representing something close to a barely-metaphorical suicide pact, on top of a metaphor for the perils of nostalgia and grief (and somehow also a metaphor for the distractions of modernity from the small-c conservative ethos the story bends towards, though in a way that it productively busts up in its denouement, for it's a movie that's really astonishingly good at having its cake and eating it too, simultaneously arguing that you must move on and that you must not, depending on what would be most emotionally effective in the moment, and these moments are somehow placed side-by-side; and whatever, it works).

This is somewhat consistently let-down by a production that is... fine, and in some respects visibly cheap.  (I'm not familiar with relative newcomer CLAP, but their rough peer would be, I think, Studio Colorido.)  There is a certain underdetailed slackness to its depictions of the spaces its characters occupy; this is unfairer than any comparison to Shinkai in its story, because Shinkai is the best in the world at what I'm describing, but if you're gonna do it, you're gonna be judged on it, and this is a bunch of digitally-painted photographs and/or CGI with cartoon characters composited into them, that didn't have anybody involved who saw these digitally-painted photographs and/or CGI as ends in their own right.  Makoto Shinkai loves his settings, and that feeling is palpable; Tunnel to Summer does not.  Lighting and effects animation come off largely similarly; it also has a problem with playing around too much with "shallow focus," in this object made of layers of drawings, though arguably this is as much my problem as the film's; but while I mentioned rain animation that Shinkai wouldn't sign off on, there's some computer-assisted multiplane that I'm not sure Walt Disney would've signed off on, in 1933, when he barely knew what multiplane was yet.  (ETA 2/1/2024: okay, the latter was always hyperbole, but even if the former wasn't when I wrote it, I will admit that Shinkai would sign off on some of the rain animation in the movie, at least two of the sixty or seventy "rain animation" shots are lovely.)  It gives it an unfortunate quality of hollow pastiche sometimes, probably most saliently when they use just straight-up filmed footage to do "fireworks" and make the further unforced error of compositing Anzu and Kaoru into a wide establishing shot with these photographed fireworks.  That this is still one of the best scenes in the movie does, however, indicate how little that that "hollow pastiche" sensation matters, if the story's there and if the animation can satisfy the core mission well enough.

And it does: the central imagery of the endless hall of glowing magic maple trees in the flooded, otherwise-pitch-black void of the tunnel is simple but very effective in its weirdness and its counter-intuitively technological, "why TRON?" feel; and, for the record, there's some downright gorgeous animation of shed maple leaves in the stagnant water, that demonstrates that Taguchi was discerning enough to direct his limited resources to the most crucial places.  (And on rare, happy occasions, when it isn't so crucial to the emotional impact of a scene: there's a reflection on a turned-off TV screen in a room barely lit by exterior gray skies that, perhaps unaccountably, did impress me.  Or maybe it was more "crucial" than it seemed.)  The character animation is pretty good, though obviously I'm mainly talking about Anzu, who could be the more interesting lead on the basis of her design alone; Kaoru is at his most indifferently standard in his construction, but just as a baseline, they give Anzu very sharp eyes, and a sort of borderline-sinister quality, that comes out with a certain self-gratification in her angershe's stereotypical but not the "right" stereotype, and even then there's some real specificities, like the way her hair is animated a little more stringily than you'd expect, suggesting with a little intimation of turn-of-the-century J-horror that this depressed girl doesn't wash it as much as she maybe ought.  She has so much larger an emotional repertoire (and, hell, costume repertoire) over the course of the movie it was probably inevitable that she'd be the standout piece of animation here.  (The indeterminancy of our couple's eye colors, on the other hand, is low-key fucking aggravating.  I don't think this is useful.  I'm not sure purple eyes are ever useful.)

But it's strong on animation and design when it really counts, and it counts the most in its "okay, you are transparently thieving" climax, and I don't know what to tell you except to say Taguchi handles it altogether correctly, with blunt but well-deployed symbolism (this movie uses cellphones terrifically), and even exploiting the "logic" thing for emotive power, letting you get ahead of his movie at precisely the right time to know what's coming, which makes it hit harder (I'm not sure when exactly it becomes explicitly clear it's 2005, so alternatively I'm stupid not to have noticed it until very late, because that so gives the game away).  The movie's weaknesses are clear enoughit's such a streamlined version of its influence that the streamlining is a problembut damn it if it doesn't satisfy its formula, even to the extent that I might hesitantly forward that, in a year that had a real Shinkai movie and saw him maybe fiddling too much with that formula, it could be the more successful exercise in it.

Score: 9/10

*Yet there is another project worked on by this film's female lead VA whose name caught my eye, and I submit to you Zyuden Sentai Kyoruger vs. Go-Busters: The Great Dinosaur Battle! Farewell, Our Eternal Friends, which I recommend we humble ourselves before, while contemplating how perfect it is in every way.

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