One of the greater mysteries in life is whether or not there’s something after the living world. It’s a question that’s been explored through faith, philosophy, and art. Depending on the community or culture you come up within, the afterlife can be a place of peace or torment, something to fear or something to accept as another stage. Many of the American-based supernatural tales involving spirits or specters finds them portrayed as either cuddly-cute (Casper (1995)) or horrifying (the Conjuring Universe (2013-TBD)), with few in between. Japanese culture, however, has a different relationship with spirits, honoring ancestors in a manner that keeps them connected. As his feature debut, illustrator loundraw (Josee, the Tiger and the Fish) decided to take a drawing of his own and build a story around it, exploring the fragility of life and the significance of not taking your opportunities where you find them via a tale he called Summer Ghost. After several festival releases, Shout! Factory and GKids Films bring Summer Ghost to home viewing audiences in both Blu-ray and digital formats, each with a few special features to expand the cinematic experience.
Three teenage strangers, Tomoya, Ryō, and Aoi (Chiaki Kobayashi/David Errigo Jr; Nobunaga Shimazaki/Clifford Chapin, and Miyuri Shimabukuro/Kyla Carter, respectively), come together over a shared interest in whether or not ghosts are real, specifically the urban legend of a girl that appears before people at a specific spot only in summertime after the use of fireworks. With each of them possessing their own selfish reasons for looking beyond the veil, they set out to make contact with the spirit known as the Summer Ghost. They successfully make contact, learning her name is Ayane (Rina Kawaei/Megan Harvey), and embark on an adventure that does more than answer their questions, it offers a surprising sense of clarity and perspective.
Summer Ghost is the type of film that sneaks up on you even when you know exactly what it’s about. It’s not that Hirotaka Adachi’s script isn’t original (there are quite a few clever approaches to the four central characters of the story), it’s that Ghost doesn’t mince words regarding its meaning. There’s zero subtext and, while that might seem to be a negative, there’s something so entirely pure about the presentation, from the beautiful production and art design, the smooth animation, and the score, that audiences will find themselves swept up quickly. So what does it mean that everything is up front? Soon after a prologue of sorts where we meet the three teens, we jump back roughly a year where Tomoya introduces us to them and to their plan, and then we meet the Summer Ghost. As the film is only 40 minutes, there’s no time whatsoever to dawdle, therefore the audience knows exactly what these three kids and, therefore the film, is all about: they each find themselves close to death and that’s why (a) they want to try communing with the Summer Ghost and (b) why they can see her. These rules and the physical presentation of their interactions take full advantage of the medium, enabling Ghost to spin, swirl, and fly in a variety of directions literally and figuratively that capture our imagination. Like with the prologue and the time jump, Ghost will do this time and again with each of the central characters at one point or another, only then revealing their stories and the resonate theme seeking to affirm not only the lives of the characters, but those of the viewing audience, as well. In recent films like Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) which kept jumping perspective and time, often in a clunky manner, none of the shifts in perspective or time feel out of place or awkward, each one flowing from one to the next without jarring the central one-year-ago story.
Now, maybe it’s because I had a childhood like Aoi’s or felt misunderstood like Tomoya, but Ghosts felt authentic in its presentation of people who struggle to find meaning in life. Because of this, given that I was raised in Virginia, born at the end of 1980, and these characters are (one can presume) present day Japan high schoolers, a certain universality about what Ghosts explores presents itself. One doesn’t need to be from Japan or to live as they do to understand the struggle of living, something which the vocal cast and script anchor wonderfully. As for coming to understand or know not to fear the Summer Ghost, the film is able to present arguments for and against living by using Ayane as a sort of guide for the afterlife. It also allows the film to explore the narrowmindedness that comes from feeling small or out of options, whether one is cornered by outside influence or internal ailments. While one may expect the film to be life affirming in a sort of “all life is worth living” generic narrative, because of the relationship between Japanese individuals and the afterlife, the audience is never coerced or preached to regarding what’s proper: living or not. In its place is an exploration of limitations (what one can do as a spirit versus alive) and what those limitations mean for an existence in the moment of questioning. As mentioned before, Ghosts sneaks up on its audience, the ideas within presented in such a manner that I couldn’t help but find myself caught up in the debate, emotions welling up from within that I personally felt long buried.
The bonus features for Summer Ghost are at once minimal and extensive. There’re only three on-disc materials total and each one provides insight into the film in a very different way. The briefest is a 13 minute one-on-one with loundraw where he answers different questions from what his pseudonym means, the perception of spirits within Japanese culture, what FLAT STUDIO represents as both a platform for art and as something he runs, the individual characters, and more. Even though it’s listed third on the bonus features, this is the place to start before looking at anything else as the interview allows for the home audience to gain a perspective on the creative process that will be presented differently in the documentary. The second longest is the feature animatic, which is exactly as it sounds: Summer Ghost but in the incomplete animatic form with what appear to be scratch voices. It’s shorter than the feature, likely due to the incomplete graphics and animations. The longest special feature is the feature-length documentary To You Before Dawn which throws the home audience straight into a production meeting where members of FLAT are discussing a scene. Identification material is minimal, so it’s difficult to discern at first who is attending this initially shown meeting, but what they’re discussing ranges from performance to content. The rest of the documentary follows a similar pattern of not transitioning smoothly as the audience gets one-on-one time with various members of the production team, cast, and crew, whether it’s learning about the specifics of the animation process, the story, or how it differs from the manga that loundraw developed with Yoshi Inomi after the debut of the film versus the script written by Adachi based on loundraw’s story. Between the 13-minute loundraw interview and To You Before Dawn, the home viewing experience is giving a comprehensive insiders look at the film.
In the solo interview, loundraw does discuss making a short film versus a feature and what he’s learned. As someone who prescribes to the notion that no story should be longer than it actually needs to be, loundraw was smart to make Summer Ghost as a short film: it keeps the pressure on for every frame, every character decision, every piece of dialogue to be specific and intentional. Whether this continued to be his method of making films or if he choose to expand into a traditional feature, Summer Ghost is a solid work that will encourage audiences to check out whatever the illustrator-turned-director does next….in whatever season he releases it in.
Summer Ghost Special Features:
- To You Before Dawn Documentary (1:18:54)
- Feature Animatic (37:12)
- Interview with loundraw (13:37)
Available on Blu-ray and digital from Shout! Factory November 1st, 2022.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
Categories: Films To Watch, Home Release, Home Video, Recommendation, Reviews
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