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)

Genocidal Organ (虐殺器官, Shuko Murase, 2017)

genocidal organHistory books make for the grimmest reading, subjective as they often are. Science fiction can rarely improve upon the already existing evidence of humanity’s dark side, but Genocidal Organ (虐殺器官, Gyakusatsu Kikan) has good go anyway, extrapolating a long line of political manipulations into the near future which neatly straddles a utopian/dystopian divide. Plagued by production delays and studio bankruptcy, Genocidal Organ is the third of three films adapted from the novels of late sci-fi author Project Itoh, arriving nearly two years after previous instalments Harmony and Empire of Corpses. Sadly, its message has only become more timely as the world finds itself on the brink of a geo-political recalibration where fear and division rule the roost.

Set in 2022, the world of Genocidal Organ is one of intense “security”. Following the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Sarajevo in 2017, developed nations have once again become jumpy. As the world weary narrative voice over informs us, Americans have sacrificed their freedoms for an illusion of safety which decreases the burden of living under the threat of terrorism. This brave new world is a surveillance state where citizens are chipped and monitored, even the simple act of buying pizza requires an identity check.

Less developed nations, however, have descended into a hellish cycle of internecine wars and large scale atrocities. American special forces have identified a pattern which puts one of their own, mysterious linguistics professor John Paul (Takahiro Sakurai), at the centre of a vast conspiracy. Army Intelligence officer Clavis Shepherd (Yuichi Nakamura) is despatched to track the master criminal down through his sometime girlfriend Lucia (Sanae Kobayashi), a Czech national and former MIT linguistics researcher now teaching Czech to foreigners in Prague.

Clavis, like the best film noir heroes, finds himself falling down a rabbit hole into an increasingly uncertain world. A top soldier, he has been “engineered” to decrease emotionality and limit pain response to make him a “better” soldier. His world is first shaken when one of his comrades goes rogue, kills a valuable mark, and then turns a gun on him. The top brass blame PTSD but not only that, PTSD that was in fact induced by the very processes the soldiers undergo to ensure than PTSD is impossible. He has always believed that his actions, and those of his superiors have been for the greater good, but he has rarely stopped to think what that greater good may be.

Clavis’ missions see him jumping into a coffin-like landing pod and parachuting into street battles in which many of the combatants are children who have been drugged “to make them better soldiers”. Just as you’re starting to wonder who exactly is perpetrating the genocide, Clavis is asked the relevant question by a captive John. He replies that it’s just his job. John reminds Clavis that that particular justification has a long and terrifying history and so perhaps he ought to ask himself why he chooses to do this particular job and do it so blindly.

John’s big theory is that violence has its own grammar, a secret code buried in language which can be engineered to provoke political instability but then conveniently contained within its own language group. Essentially, he posits the idea of sicking the “terrorists” onto each other and letting them fight it out amongst themselves in those far off places which no one really cares about. The citizens of the developed world might frown at their morning papers, but they’ll soon file it under “terrible things happening far away” and go back to enjoying their lives of peace and security. John’s plan, he claims, is the opposite of vengeance, a means of keeping his side safe by ensuring that the terrible things stay far away, contained.

The “genocidal organ” is the heart hardened towards the suffering of others. John has some grand theories about this, about the survival instinct, fear, suspicion and desperation, but he also has a few on the trade offs between freedom and security. Itoh’s vision is bleak, and the prognosis bleaker but its logic cannot be denied, even if its execution is occasionally imperfect.


Currently on limited theatrical release throughout the UK courtesy of All the Anime.

Original trailer (English subtitles)