Finally, an anime movie from this year that isn’t part of some established franchise.
Oh goody, another Mari Okada teen drama. I’m not sure when my mind has started seeing these things as commonplace, but it was probably around the moment when people started saying to me with a straight face that “no really, Wixoss is totally a touching psychological character drama. Especially regarding that one girl whose main wish is to fuck her brother.” Nevertheless, I was kind of looking forward to seeing Anthem of the Heart. Anime dramas tend to be more tolerable when they’re only given a limited amount of time to tell their stories, plus if I’m not mistaken, this is the Anohana team’s first original film. So even if I didn’t like it, it’d at least be worth talking about. I’d say this review alone justifies the fifteen dollar price.
So the film starts with a little girl named Jun Naruse indulging in her Utena-like fantasies regarding a prince finding a princess when she sees her father leaving a castle-like love hotel with another woman. Not understanding what it means, she tells her mother about the incident and her father is soon given the boot, but not before reassuring her that his leaving was completely Jun’s fault. Fucking jackass. But since Jun is a kid, she sincerely believes it’s her fault to the point that she imagines a strange egg-shaped creature who tells her that her talkative personality needs to go if she wants to stop hurting people. Thus, Jun ends up getting the reputation of the girl who never talks by the time she enters high school and we get a promising setup about a girl having to face her inner demons in order to live a normal boring life.
After the timeskip, the film kickstarts by having the head teacher randomly choose four people to serve on the class council, and for good measure, he decides that they should be in charge of having the class put on a musical for the school festival because he’s just that much of a carefree jackass. Why? Because all good dramas have musical events in them and we needed a reason to get our outcast leads to participate in it no matter how contrived, let alone a reason to meet each other in the first place. So in addition to Jun and her personal problems, we get three other characters thrown in the equation, each with their own issues and romantic preferences between each other. I won’t spoil who’s hot for who, but the additional cast members are a nice boy who has no hobbies of his own, a gruff big dude who used to be the school’s top baseball player, and a cheerleader who puts on a confident facade to hide the fact that she had personal experiences with the nice boy in middle school. Think back to Anohana with these character types in mind, and you should be able to figure it out. Then become frustrated as the movie seems to change these preferences whenever the plot demands it.
Like most Mari Okada works, the film loses its way a short ways in in regards to discovering the best way to tell this story, because it keeps glancing at the “how to write drama” handbook whenever it’s confused on how to progress things and grabbing something from a really successful work without understanding why it worked when it did it. So what we end up with is a bloated mish-mash of underdeveloped tropes that tend to get in each other’s way rather than do any complementing. Most of the story is told in a rather dry manner where the characters just go through the motions and hang out with each other in order to establish that the little girl might like the shorter of the two males and that he might be the prince that will allow her to talk. But then she starts to speak up for herself because she wants to participate in the music club’s activities because for some reason, she really wants to sing despite never showing any interest in it before. And then people are surprised she can talk. Then they aren’t. I kept on feeling like I missed a post-it note explaining these transitions somewhere down the road.
And despite the story pushing Jun’s problems, it never takes center-stage as much as it should, mostly due to the fact that it never feels like her inability to talk meshes well with any of the romantic entanglements or personal issues the other characters face. At times, it feels like Jun’s inability to talk is just a vehicle to make her fall in love and deal with the consequences. I find that disappointing, because romance holds up about as well as action in standing on its own aka not well at all. It also doesn’t help that good chunk of the subplots have that usual “came up with the set pieces first” problem you’d expect to see in a visual novel anime. The big gruff dude of the main cast is tangled in a conflict regarding his team and pushing them to the nationals that adds fuck all to the plot and only exists so that he’d have something to do, with said conflict getting swept under the rug after a few scenes and said guy losing any sense of importance throughout the story afterwards.
Also, as much as we see him, the main male lead never acts as anything more than an arbiter for events rather than a fleshed-out character with his own motivations. Any problem he experiences is always tied to one of the female characters, and it generally tends to circle back so that their problems are rooted in their relationship with him and nothing else besides vague motivations we never get to truly understand. I’ll admit that where it finally ends up did stick in my mind, although it’s a pity that the scenes preceding it were a real chore. I really wish Okada would stop it with conclusions where the characters cry and yell out all the frustrations that have been boiling up over time like it’s some form of triumph. That’s only true if the revelation lives up to the magnitude caused by the character’s overacting, and Jun overcoming her ability to stop acting like a spoiled brat isn’t exactly something worthy of a Lifetime achievement award. Especially since that problem was pretty much inserted in at the last minute due to that classic and incredibly tired “I heard something I shouldn’t have” plot element that I thought we were over by now. There should be a rule in that drama handbook with the statement “don’t do this crap!”
Buried somewhere underneath all the slipshodness, there’s potential for an interesting story regarding personal problems and overcoming them, but in this team’s hands, it’s like trying to wring out noise from a giraffe. All the characters act dramatic whenever it’s convenient for them after overly long periods of slow boils that can’t stay focused long enough to develop into anything noteworthy, and the connection between their problems is thinner than a woman’s spread legs when you start bringing up your opinion on right-wing policies. At its best Anthem of the Heart can most accurately be described as the quintessential example of a teenage anime drama, and I don’t mean that in a good way. It has all the elements you’d expect of its genre, but the way they’re executed is so wide-spread and bland that I grew bored and stopped caring about the characters thirty minutes in, then groaned when I realized that the movie was two hours long rather than the ninety minutes I initially thought. And it was really wearing on my patience during the ninety-minute mark, let me tell you that.
The film does sort of come into its own by the end, but it’s not worth the long stretch of muddled subplots and dry buildup to get to that point. And all the ending really did at the end of the day was remind me of the vastly superior The Girl Who Leapt Through Time as well as the also superior Sound Euphonium. If you have the opportunity to go see Anthem of the Heart, I’d recommend watching those anime instead and simulating the experience by pretending the characters are all Final Fantasy archetypes by way of a Hot Topic filter. In other words, the emo whiners from Kingdom Hearts.