In an earlier piece, I wrote: “seeing the work of Kyoto Animation, with its lovable characters and environments that practically glow with warm nostalgia, I couldn’t help but think, “this isn’t for me.” That’s well and good; we all have our tastes. But there’s a film produced by the studio that has been on my mind since re-watching it a few months ago, and that’s Liz and the Blue Bird. A movie that I quite liked the first time I saw it in theaters, and that socked me in the gut the second time. What is it about this film that separates it for me from other Naoko Yamada projects like K-ON!! or A Silent Voice? Or even the film’s predecessor, the fan favorite school drama Sound! Euphonium?
I appreciate those other works, understand. The first few episodes of K-ON!! convinced me that the series was bigger than the “cute girls eating cakes” show I had been warned about by angry folks on Colony Drop. A Silent Voice fell into the trap for me of being both too faithful and not faithful enough to the source material, but I respected the director for doing what could have been a straight melodrama as the anime equivalent of a Hirokazu Koreeda film. And the first season of Sound! Euphonium strikes a great balance between genuine drama and the warm slice-of-life antics Kyoto Animation is known for. But there’s always been a wall in my heart standing between respect and love for Yamada’s work. Liz and the Blue Bird punched through that wall. I couldn’t figure out why. Was it the film’s formal austerity? The claustrophobia engendered by its decision to set the whole story within one school building? The way it explores an unhealthy friendship (or something more) where both sides know they need to separate, but fear losing each other completely?
Last week, I brought the question up with my boss at Crunchyroll News. What do you think it is, I asked, that made Liz and the Blue Bird different for me? Why was this film my skeleton key to understanding Kyoto Animation? “Well,” she said, “it’s about pain.”
Pain runs through Liz and the Blue Bird like birdsong. The pain that comes with being misunderstood; with being out of tune with your best friend. The pain that comes with not knowing what the future looks like. The pain of being stuck in your school and not being able to leave. The pain of separation. The pain you can inflict on someone without ever knowing, or worse: the pain you inflict on someone knowingly but refuse to speak of. The pain of admitting to yourself that the friend you thought would always rely on you no longer needs to. The pain caused by love.
The pain of Liz and the Blue Bird is sublimated pain. If you are not watching the film closely enough, you can miss it completely. I know this because two people popped into the film from my remote anime club hoping to catch the last bit of the first movie of the night, Summer Wars. They left five minutes later. They preferred stuff that “wasn’t as lightweight,” they said. The tiny handful of folks who kept watching the film became quieter and quieter until the ending credits song played in absolute silence. Liz and the Blue Bird is not a difficult or challenging film to watch; it is not Inland Empire or Satantango or something. But you need to look carefully to see the ghost of the story under the linework. If this happens, if you fall victim, you can’t look away anymore.
But Liz and the Blue Bird is only partly a film about being trapped. It is also a film about escape. The scene in which Mizore and Nozomi play their final duet, where Mizore is transported through the music and Nozomi is so affected by what is happening that it takes everything she has to keep up, is a masterpiece. Not just for how it harnesses live performance within the medium of animation to tell a story, a feat that is notoriously challenging to pull off. But for how the claustrophobia of the film finally relents, and Mizore is finally given the chance to say what is on her mind through her music. Just like that, a human transforms into a bird. Pain is transformed into savage joy. Liz and the Blue Bird is not just about pain. It is a film about the catharsis that comes when two people finally communicate, and an unequal friendship becomes something else.
The turn from pain to catharsis is in Sound! Euponium, too. Who can forget the single most magical moment in the first season, when Kumiko runs through the night shouting, “I want to improve!” On a completely different note, it’s also the dramatic device that the work of Kunihiko Ikuhara is built around. Mawaru Penguindrum aggressively tortures its characters through the last few episodes of the show, only to bring them all back in a circle of painful but joyous self-sacrifice. Revolutionary Girl Utena plays the many crushing indignities suffered by Utena and Anthy over the course of the series against the moment in the very last episode where Utena pries open Anthy’s coffin with her bare hands. Yuri Bear Storm is built around scenes where the characters realize their love for others by destroying the self, swinging giddily from obliteration to transformation. And so on.
The anime club where I rewatched Liz and the Blue Bird just wrapped up Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight, a visually stunning series directed by Tomohiro Furukawa, an alumnus of the Ikuhara project school of hard knocks. Revue Starlight wraps up with visual metaphors worthy of any series produced by the director’s mentor: a tower of dug-up stars endlessly rebuilt by the lost and demolished by wrecking balls hung from the rafters, a dueling arena surrounded by sand, a massive Tokyo Tower that slams through two platforms to bridge lost hearts. But both my friend and I felt the same way once the last episode had ended—something was off. The story hit the right beats, the ideas were strong. We begin the final episode with the characters in out of sync, and by the end they are once again in tune. But the chemical alchemy that follows that process, the alchemy that gives Liz and the Blue Bird its strength, was missing for me.
Pain is cheap. Catharsis is cheap. It’s easy as a writer to make the heart of your reader race by putting a child in danger, then saving them at the last minute. It’s much harder to do so without abusing your reader’s trust. The moment the audience knows who are pulling their strings, or worse—loses track of the strings—the illusion is broken. The trick comes in selling the transformation of pain into joy. To crack the egg evenly, and then to catch the yolk in the bowl without spilling it.
Wonder Egg Priority, then. A series that within its realistic and carefully detailed setting, embraces the taboo with gusto more reminiscent of Mari Okada than Naoko Yamada. Every episode has at least one image that will stick with me and will undoubtedly scare others away. The foot of a rotting corpse. The giant floppy breasts of a teenage girl’s worst fear. The matter-of-fact flash to Rika’s self-harm scars as she relaxes in the tub, as we the viewers begin to understand the weight of what she is carrying.
Three episodes in, Wonder Egg Priority is not merely about pain. It is about brutality. As someone who likes when things are loud, weird or scary, I don’t mind brutality at all. I do wonder what might happen if the show’s tonal balance, which is just about perfect right now, goes out of whack. This isn’t a question of ideas, but authenticity. Can Wonder Egg Priority successfully juggle a dozen burning axes without one falling on its head? Can it do justice to the social issues that haunt its cast without trivializing the real folks who’ve died from them? Is Wonder Egg Priority hatching something new, or is it breaking a ton of eggs for the fun of it?
What makes Wonder Egg Priority work, for me, is the moments of catharsis, in the chemical change by which pain transforms into savage joy. You see it in episode one, where Ai defies her fears, jumps from a roof and bursts the shell of a curse like a pimple. You see it in episode two, where Ai completes her transformation from a reluctant follower into a fully committed protector. You see it in episode three, where Ai flies up the stairs and so thoroughly demolishes the hopping laughing curses that chase them that that even a girl as hardened and callous as Rika is shocked. Moments like these, as transcendent as the grace note by which Mizore takes flight, are why I watch anime to begin with. And just as Mizore finds herself waiting at the steps of her school every day for Nozomi to appear, I find myself tuning in to Wonder Egg Priority each week, waiting for them to come around again. Even when it hurts.
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