When we’re children, the world appears small. It’s filled with the things that we can perceive and, often, little else. This means that what stresses us out, what keeps us up at night, seem huge because we lack the perspective to understand that our existence is tiny compared to the vast possibilities of what lies beyond our horizon. Mixing adolescent exuberance with social awkwardness, writer/director Atsuko Ishizuka’s (A Place Further Than the Universe (2018)) Goodbye, Don Glees! (グッバイ、ドン・グリーズ！) often feels like a coming home for those of us whose childhoods were subject to a certain dissatisfaction, either through their own lack of confidence or social rejection. Adding a layer of magic and adolescent desire, Ishizuka challenges the audience to consider if they, themselves, aren’t small, but merely their view of the world is which needs to grow, scary as that may seem. After a limited theatrical run in September of 2022, the GKids Films-distributed Goodbye, Don Glees! comes home in both digital and physical formats via Shout! Factory.
Best friends Roma (voiced by Natsuki Hanae/Adam McArthur) and Toto (voiced by Yuki Kaji/Nick Wolfhard) gather together for the first time since Toto left for Tokyo to go to high school while Roma stayed home. Despite their brief estrangement, Roma is excited to begin their annual ritual of setting off fireworks in the forest while the rest of the town gathers elsewhere to watch a much larger firework presentation. Toto is not as excited, especially with the addition of Drop (voiced by Ayumu Murase/Jonathan Leon), a boy younger than them and relatively new to town. With little feeling natural between the trio, it makes sense that their attempts at a good time go badly, but none would guess that they’d wake the next morning to learn they are being blamed for a terrible fire raging in the forest. Terrified that these already-viewed-as-social outcasts kids would always stay that way, they head into the forest to look for evidence that might clear their names, not realizing that it would be an adventure that would shift their perspective on themselves, their town, and the world in the process.
If you’re interested in learning about Goodbye, Don Glees! in a spoiler-free context, I recommend heading over to the spoiler-free initial theatrical release review. Moving forward, there will be detail-specific aspects discussed.
Before Ishizuka properly introduces the characters, she sets the stage first as a voiceover mixed with location-setting images play before the audience. In this intro, the audience is told how the character speaking once believed their world to be small, but through one fate-filled journey, came to realize just how big and wonderful it all is. It’s an optimistic opening that implies a certain search for wonder or magic, a shift in perspective, so that when we actually do meet Roma and Toto, the audience knows that what follows will be a tale of metamorphosis. Though it takes a while to get there, Don Glees! reveals itself as not merely a Stand by Me (1986) or The Goonies (1985) rip-off with children going on an adventure that will leave them irreparably changed, but as a story evoking growth through loss, the kind of loss that becomes a spark in someone else’s life, helping them become something stronger and new. It’s clear that Don Glees! is about Roma and Toto’s relationship, as well as their internal struggles — Roma caught between staying home to help out and the girl he likes, Tivoli (voiced by Kana Hanazawa/Victoria Grace) and Toto a victim of his own social responsibilities — so the inclusion of a “new guy” like Drop in the story immediately implies a significance and, perhaps, a misdirect as to whom the story is about. That is, until we realize two things: that Drop is dying, expected not to survive another year, and that all he ever wanted was true friendship. Though I hate to drop an MCU quote in here, the character Vision (Paul Bettany) points out in Age of Ultron (2015) that “… a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts …” and that’s an undercurrent theme in Don Glees!, an implication that waiting for something to happen, for the world to change for you, is little more than prescribing one’s self a poison pill. This makes the Drop storyline a necessity, so that the adventure the kids go on, one which ends up being entirely unnecessary to clear their names, becomes about how to repair the fracture between Roma and Toto while giving them the perspective shake-up they needed to get out of their own way.
Granted, it’s a little trite to use a death as motivation, yet Ishizuka manages to wield the trope in such a way that never feels reductive to the whole. In fact, she manages, to great surprise, to maintain the positive, affirmative energy from which the film begins. Part of this is due to the flashback toward the end which connects the moment in the film in which Roma, egged on by Toto, tries to call Tivoli while she’s traveling internationally in Iceland, only to hang-up before she answers. What we discover is in the flashback is that Roma had misdialed and had called a remote phone booth, a phone booth that Drop was near, having trekked to that location in order to make a wish. His wish was to make friends, real friends, and it’s about this moment in the film that we, the audience, as well as Roma and Toto realize that it was with a bit of magic that the trio came to be friends, magic that shouldn’t be wasted on sorrow when they could try to match Drop’s exuberance toward life and go exploring themselves. Sometimes friendships are meant to only last a finite time. They may end through time, distance, or natural causes, but in that time they tend to leave an impression. In my case, I can think of someone who was like Drop to me, who arrived to my school in seventh grade and changed my life due to her energy and perception. Rather than focus on the absence of her, I focus on how she made my life better, finding ways to honor her now that she’s gone. I couldn’t help but think of this as Roma and Toto, in the travel montage at the end of Don Glees!, go to the hidden waterfall in Iceland where the phone booth resides, standing in the very place Drop did before they met. Though he’s no longer with them, in that place where their friendship began, they can share one more moment with Drop. It’s beautiful, it’s heartfelt, and entirely human in the expression of seeking connection.
Fans of Don Glees!, I have a rather mixed response regarding the bonus materials to offer. There are two (!?) on-disc and they are an interview with writer/director Atsuko Ishizuka and over seven minutes of trailers. That’s it. Nothing on the music, the location setting, or even the English dub (something which often gets its own focus on these releases). It’s, admittedly, a bummer that so little is provided to extend the cinematic experience; however, the interview with Ishizuka provides enough insight into the process of making the film from an ideation and concept perspective that one won’t feel robbed by what’s missing. For instance, she discusses the specific choice to make all three leads males, citing pride as something more likely within young boys that provides an opportunity for foolishness or recklessness. This dovetails nicely into the decision to make all three around the age of 15, so that they are still children in the eyes of adults, but on the cusp of adulthood in their minds. She talks about how they weren’t able to scout on-location in Iceland, but this pivot to online searching for images and information led to finding a photo with a phone booth located in a space that she likely wouldn’t have seen on-foot. This serendipity lead to one of the most magical aspects of Don Glees!, oddly, a piece of trivia that fits in nicely within the scope of the film itself. She also discusses the characters she feels she most identifies with, as well as how she, herself, realized that the world was larger than she comprehended. There’s a lot of interesting answers that provide fascinating color to both the making of the film and its narrative themes, making the singular special feature something to rejoice in having at all.
Goodbye, Don Glees! may lack the full range of magical realism of Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (2022) or the music of BELLE (2021), but it possesses all the heart of both. Atsuko Ishizuka’s story doesn’t wallow in self-pity, reduce its characters for our amusement, or empower reductive ideas; rather, Don Glees! conveys a message of finding one’s tribe and using that as a springboard to expand one’s self beyond the horizon. To push yourself past the edge of your yard, the end of the block, the border of your county or state, and see what’s out there. To realize that the things we fear as children are smaller than we can possibly know and we shouldn’t hold ourselves back because of it. Personally, that’s a message we could do with more of; especially when it comes to realizing that the world we think we know if far more amazing if we’d just open ourselves up to it.
Goodbye, Don Glees! Special Features:
- Interview with director Atsuko Ishizuka (10:34)
- Trailers (7:09)
Available on digital December 13th, 2022.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout! Factory December 27th, 2022.