If the world ended tomorrow, would you have any regrets?
Well, yes, plenty—so thinks Roma, a shy, farmer’s son who let the girl of his dreams slip away. His best friend, Toto, seems to feel the same way despite moving to the big city for school and attaining high achievements. The one asking the question is Drop, the newest and youngest member of “Don Glees”, as they call their group of misfits. You see, Drop is seeking a treasure—”something irreplaceable that will give your life a happy ending.”
A group of unlikely friends becoming heroes or finding “treasure” isn’t at all unusual in anime, but there’s something unique about Goodbye, Don Glees, the latest Madhouse production to be released in the U.S. by GKIDS. What makes it more than just another boy’s adventure story is how unusual, winding, and thoughtful their journey is, at once loud and full of sentiment, and yet often quiet, exuding an authenticity that is recognizable to anyone who has come of age, while speaking particularly to the adventurous and tender hearts of adolescent boys.
Another distinctive feature of the film is that it begins after the boys’ club has basically fallen apart. Toto returns for the summer after a year away, during which he has seemingly matured beyond Don Glees. Meanwhile, Roma’s love interest has moved away and he’s faced an entire year of ridicule from classmates without his ally Toto. Drop is a brand-new addition, and quickly becomes the subject of Toto’s scorn.
Things get worse when the boys are blamed for a forest fire that erupts during a fireworks celebration. To clear their names, they go on an expedition to find a drone that filmed the fireworks and presumably shows that they weren’t involved in the fire. And thus begins the trio’s adventure, one that certainly challenges the boys physically, but more significantly, leads them to face the reality that they are growing up—and that they may have to say goodbye to Don Glees, in whatever ways that may mean.
Director Atsuko Ishizuka’s first original feature film shares core themes and a great many other qualities with her acclaimed series, A Place Further Than the Universe. While the film inverts the series in some ways, with boys instead of girls and journeys in the northern hemisphere rather than the southern, the two works feature the same mix of loud and humorous energy with moments of contemplative quietness, and a character whose secretive nature isn’t fully revealed until near the end.
These similarities are mostly a good thing. Ishizuka imbues her characters with youthful and even obnoxious energy and quirkiness, but also shows them often worrying; they are between worlds, no longer children but not yet adults. Through this journey, Roma, Toto, and Drop are learning about themselves while revealing sometimes uneasy truths to one another.
Unfortunately, Ishizuka doesn’t have a full season to develop her characters and their relationships. We as viewers are asked to buy into their bond in just an hour or so of the 90-minute film’s screentime; indeed we must if we’re to be fully invested in a powerful ending. However, the scenes move a bit too fast, often feeling like they’re cobbled together rather than flowing naturally.
Even so, although it is a bit clunky, the film reminded me of taking similar (albeit shorter) journeys as a teenager, exploring my world like Don Glees and even getting lost while searching for a waterfall! And in recalling these trips, I remembered that it doesn’t take much time for young men to bond during a physically demanding and emotional excursion, especially at that age.
I’m less likely, though, to give a pass to the magic realism of the film. Dream-like fantasy sequences are inserted into the story and play a major role in the movie’s resolution, but they ultimately feel out of place. I wanted to be convinced by what these elements represent by the end of the journey, but it didn’t happen. If there’s one thing I can criticize A Place Further Than the Universe about, it’s that Ishizuka goes for an emotional ending and doesn’t quite stick it, and it’s the same with Goodbye, Don Glees.
I was also taken out of the moment time and time again by the film’s music. Taking a cue from Makoto Shinkai’s partnership with Radwimps, this film—like so many other recent ones—features similar smooth, pleading anthems, which I typically enjoy, but Goodbye, Don Glees does something unexpected with the music by employing English lyrics. Though not inherently a problem, these specific lyrics are too simple and obvious, almost acting as a narration of exactly what’s happening on screen. They come across as elementary for English audiences.
The animation, too, is sometimes distracting. While Madhouse animates the film gorgeously, particularly when showing depth in the scenery, there’s a weird juxtaposition that happens as the movie flips back and forth between CGI and 2D animation, especially near the conclusion. Like the music and use of fantastical elements, this choice throws off the very scenes in the film that would otherwise be most powerful.
Despite these stumbles, Goodbye, Don Glees still presents a meaningful story through the eyes of its characters, particularly Roma. He (and all three boys) have more depth and authenticity to them than the typical “normal” or misfit kids of anime—their faults feel real, their growth is painful, and the results don’t come easy. They are seeking “treasure,” and yet they need plenty of help to recognize what that treasure is and how to find it.
In other words, Roma, Toto, and Drop are like all of us. The way they struggle to navigate the central question of the film rings true. And as a result, Goodbye, Don Glees ultimately succeeds in engaging us as viewers in that question too: If the world ended tomorrow, would you have any regrets?
A profound question to consider for just another boy’s adventure movie.
Goodbye Don Glees is being shown theatrically on September 14th, 18th, and 20th. The film is released by GKIDS.