Cheerful, friendly, and athletic, Shion is a burst of energy when she transfers into Satomi’s class. But, something is a little off—she breaks out into song at inappropriate times, can hold her breath underwater for an eternity, and ejects her metallic innards when a mobile app turns her off. In other words, Shion isn’t actually a high school girl at all, but an advanced android who is acting the role of a student in a beta test to determine if she can advance robotics to a new stage of human / A.I. interaction.
Sing a Bit of Harmony, a J.C. Staff production directed by Yasuhiro Yoshiura (Time of Eve, Patema Inverted) and receiving a theatrical release by Funimation this weekend, is both a familiar story of an A.I. unit touching the lives of those around her and a unique and captivating tale in how it does it, not least of which is through being part of a most unique film category: sci-fi musical.
If that doesn’t pique your curiosity, you’re on the wrong blog.
At heart, though, this movie isn’t about the music—it’s about heart, and focuses heavily on the human characters, especially on the kind and responsible Satomi, who is nonetheless a loner, exiled by her classmates for some incident for which she’s now branded as “Princess Tattletale.” But Shion, the excitable new transfer student, quickly gravitates towards her. Satomi immediately recognizes her as an A.I. unit, having earlier discovered that her mother is working long hours to complete a project by the same name.
When some irregularities reveal Shion’s identity to a group of her classmates, Satomi begs them to keep their discovery a secret so that her mom, who through innovation and diligence has risen through the ranks despite a heavy patriarchy in place at her company, won’t fail. The group includes her childhood friend, the brilliant and meek Toma; “Thunder,” an earnest judo club practitioner who is never able to win when it counts; the cool but surprisingly insecure Gotchan; and his maybe-girlfriend, Aya, who is perhaps the biggest bully in Satomi’s life and initially wants no part of the cover-up.
In the tradition of tearjerker robot films, the ragtag group coalesces around the irrepressible Shion before the authorities close in and things go south, but this movie is only decorated as a wondrous tale about a lovable android who doesn’t quite fit in (she lacks the usual self-consciousness found in teenagers and doesn’t worry about what others think of her, in essence representing a pure version of what her new friends could be). Sing a Bit of Harmony is fundamentally a coming of age story, most emphatically seen through Satomi, who feels the heavy burden of public perception and caring for her family, all the while trying to do what’s right.
There’s not enough time to dig as deeply into Toma, Gotchan, Aya, and Thunder, but the English language voice performances, capably directed by Caitlin Glass, are lively and complex, helping to bring the characters alive. Thunder is already a highly likeable character, but is further realized by the sincerity in Kamen Casey’s performance, while Alexis Tipton, voicing my favorite, Aya, expresses at different times ridicule, strength, and tenderness to lead her character to believable and profound transformation. Aya pairs with Gotchan in his journey, and Ian Sinclair adds complexity to that role despite quiet and minimal dialogue. And Jordan Dash Cruz—what an exciting young talent he is! He absolutely nails Toma’s nerdy, shy vibes, and hits the humorous dialogue perfectly, including a portion where he sings (very) badly to good effect.
However, it’s Risa Mei who does the heaviest lifting by voicing Satomi, a relatively complicated character who is shaped by hurts both recent and from long ago. Mei brings a realism in conveying the necessary range of emotions, and I particularly love her interactions with Laila Berzins, who voices Mitsuko, Satomi’s mom. Theirs is the most critical relationship in the movie, and feeds an underlying theme of the sacrifice single mothers need to make in a profession (society?) dominated by men, as well as the sacrifice that daughters make in these families, too. Thus the success or failure of Shion’s A.I. test represents something more vital than one woman’s career arc, and Satomi’s coming of age story is likewise connected to the challenges and triumphs for mothers and daughters in single-parent households. I have a feeling that Sing a Bit of Harmony will be a very personal journey for many who grew up in such families.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also praise Megan Shipman’s energetic and vibrant portrayal of Shion, and particularly how stunning her singing is. The songs themselves are seamlessly adapted, too, though it’s admittedly awkward each time Shion breaks into song. This isn’t a standard musical; when Shion begins to sing, the other characters find it strange. That’s supposed to help the viewers accept the singing as part of the story, but the musical numbers are still a little more disconcerting than I think was intended
Still, those distractions are minimal. Instead, what the film conveys through and through is warmth, hope, beautiful imagery (particularly this great “confession” scene in the middle of a field, as well as its fallout), and a lovely ending that hits all the right notes. Sing a Bit of Harmony is an absolute joy, an ode to unlikely friendships and the bonds between mothers and daughters—the kind of optimistic film we need right about now, and one you won’t want to miss.
Sing a Bit of Harmony plays in select theaters from January 23rd-26th.