Liz and the Blue Bird (リズと青い鳥, Naoko Yamada, 2018)

Liz and the Blue Bird poster 1If you love it, set it free. For most accepted wisdom, but hard to practice. The heroine of Liz and the Blue Bird (リズと青い鳥, Liz to Aoi Tori) finds herself facing this exact dilemma as she puts off facing the inevitable changes in a childhood friendship with adulthood lingering on the horizon. A Silent Voice’s Naoko Yamada returns with another delicate examination of teenage relationships, this time a spin-off to the popular Sound! Euphonium franchise, in which her fragile heroines struggle to address their true feelings as they subsume themselves into the titular piece of music but fail to master it even as it strikes far too close to home.

Our heroine, Mizore (Atsumi Tanezaki), nervously waits outside the school as if too shy to head in alone, eventually trailing along behind the comparatively more extroverted Nozomi (Nao Toyama). The two girls have been tasked with playing a movement known as Liz and the Blue Bird, inspired by a storybook of which Nozomi is particularly fond. Liz, a lonely young woman living alone in the forest, bonds with a mysterious girl who arrives one day and seems to be the human incarnation of the blue bird she longingly gazed at in the sky. Though the two women bond and live together in blissful happiness, Liz begins to feel guilty that her love has trapped the blue bird on the ground and forces it away to fulfil itself in the sky.

To begin with, it’s difficult to tell if Mizore and Nozomi are really friends at all or if Mizore’s painfully obvious longing is a completely one-sided affair. Mizore herself remains hard to read, either intensely shy and anxiously self-conscious or wilfully aloof as she rejects overtures of friendship from some of the other girls and devotes herself to Nozomi alone. Nozomi, meanwhile, is outgoing and gregarious, a natural leader well liked by the other band members and with plenty of (superficial at least) friends though perhaps lonely and confused in her own way. There is a kind of awkwardness between them, a tension neither seems quite able to address, which finds expression in the failure of their musical performance as it continually fails to find its proper harmony.

The story of the blue bird takes on extra significance for each as they cast themselves, perhaps mistakenly, in their respective roles from the fairytale. Talking things over with a sympathetic teacher concerned that she hasn’t turned in her career survey, Mizore declares herself unable to understand the story, not comprehending how Liz could have brought herself to release the blue bird rather than cage it to ensure it would be hers, and hers alone, forever. Fearful that Nozomi will fly away, she wants to tether her close but again does not quite know how. Nozomi, meanwhile, is conflicted. She feels a responsibility towards her friend’s feelings, but is insecure in her own talents and unsure she could follow Mizore on her chosen path even if that was her independent will. In fear of disappointing each other, they begin to pull away rather than face the inevitable end of their peaceful high school days.

Yamada’s camera is painstakingly astute in capturing the awkwardness of adolescent interaction from the slight tension in Mizore’s shoulders as Nozomi draws too close to the way she plays with her hair when nervous, glancing plaintively at hands and calves or the swishing motion of Nozomi’s ponytail, but always hanging back. Unlike Mizore, Nozomi understands the moral of the story but feels the ending is too sad, convincing herself that if the blue bird is free to fly then it’s also free to return. Having been forced to confront their individual troubles, the girls are better placed to see themselves in relation to each other, breaking the tension but perhaps with melancholy resignation as they commit to enjoying their remaining time together in the realisation that they may soon part. A beautifully observed portrait of teenage friendship and awkward adolescent attraction, Liz and the Blue Bird is an infinitely subtle exercise in emotional intensity as its heroines find the strength to accept themselves and each other in acknowledging that they were each made to fly through perhaps not quite yet.


Liz and the Blue Bird was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

US trailer (Japanese with English subtitles)

Empire of Corpses (屍者の帝国, Ryoutarou Makihara, 2015)

empire of corpses posterEmpire of Corpses (屍者の帝国, Shisha no Teikoku) is what would happen if someone’s vast library of Victorian literature was destroyed in a fire and then someone tried to put all the not too singed pages back together based on their knowledge of international pop culture. Inspired by Project Itoh’s novel of the same name and the first of three planned adaptations of his works, Empire of Corpses is a very specific kind of absurd, boys own action adventure based around the idea of empire supported by a zombified proletariat.

Beginning in London in 1878, this is steampunk paradise only steam power is quickly becoming old hat as the greatest discovery of the age turns out to be the city’s largest untapped resource – its dead. Reanimated corpses can be trained to fight wars, wait tables, or work as servants but they’re tools now – not people, they may be able to follow an order but they have no mind to act with. Corpse Engineer John Watson has unwisely reanimated his friend Friday, but is distressed not to be able to restore his friend’s soul along with his body.

Watson ends up being dispatched on a secret mission by Her Majesty’s government to reclaim the notes made by the famous Dr. Frankenstein who has succeeded in creating a sentient creature known as The One. The notes are apparently in the possession of Russian scientist Karamazov. Watson travels to India with Burnaby, a mercenary bodyguard, and Friday where he also teams up with a mysterious flame thrower wielding busty blonde, Hadaly.

Empire of Corpses touches on some interesting philosophical questions such as the nature of the soul, the border lines between death and life, and the repurposing of a body as a fleshy tool. Though it stops short of delving into what the British Empire was really based on, the idea is very much that using reanimated corpses to fight your wars remotely is an absurd solution to an unnecessary problem.

That said, these “zombies” are a well trained and docile bunch. Until of course, they aren’t. Certain forces have planned to harness the zombie hordes for their own ends to create mass panic and wholesale destruction across the world. This might be the first mission the later famous John Watson will tackle, but he’s about to realise that there’s a lot more going on here than a set of secret documents no one wants to fall into the “wrong” hands.

Empire of Corpses remained unfinished when Project Itoh unfortunately died at a relatively young age. The concept is filled with extremely interesting ideas which are only ever dealt with in a superficial sense, though one wonders if the novel he might eventually have completed would have progressed so far down the ridiculous fantasy historical epic route. Very clearly channelling ‘30s style, post-penny dreadful tales of derring do starring familiar names, Empire of Corpses steals a host of famous literary characters from across the international canon as well as a number of historical personages, though only really borrows their names or perhaps a few other minor details. After raising such interesting ideas, the film quickly reverts to riduclous B-movie genre tropes as the gang get caught up in a zombie apocalypse with flashing mystical lights and the transmigration of souls thrown in for good measure.

No, it doesn’t make any sense though it isn’t really supposed to. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a post credits sequence shining a little more light but just as much bafflement onto the characters and their possible futures, though the intention is clearly just to raise a knowing wink from the well read members of the audience. By the time it all turns into The Wizard of Oz, some will undoubtedly have followed the yellow brick road out of the cinema but it is worth sticking around to see the final coda.

What Empire of Corpses has going for it is the extremely impressive visuals. Backgrounds in particular are gorgeously drawn making for an always interesting spectacle even if other aspects of direction can seem a little uninspired. Clumsily plotted and often incoherent, Empire of Corpses has its fair share of problems even aside from the inherent absurdity of its original premise, yet it isn’t completely unsalvageable and those who come expecting a B-movie style slice of incomprehensible hokum might well find much to enjoy.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Empire of Corpses has also been licensed for UK distribution by All the Anime (and Funimation in the US).

Unsubtitled trailer: