Despite what one might think when it comes to anime, the adventures aren’t just about super-powered beings fighting one another (My Hero Academia), gifted individuals trying to protect the world from curses (Jujutsu Kaisen), or maybe that time you came back as a non-Newtonian liquid (That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime). Sometimes they are stories of children trying to overcome their fears (Goodbye, Don Glees!), athletes trying vying for a championship (The First Slam Dunk), or, in the case of director Yuzuru Tachikawa’s (Mob Psycho 100) latest project BLUE GIANT, an adaptation of Shin’ichi Ishizuka’s graphic novel, Dai Miyamoto (voiced by Yuki Yamada) journeying to become the greatest jazz musician in the world. It’s a lofty goal and the script from first-time screenwriter and editor of the original manga, NUMBER 8, hits a lot of a the fan-favorite notes on the journey to get there, and, between the slowly-developed relationship of the central trio, the shifting visual language utilized throughout, and the music from Grammy winner Hiromi Uehara, one finds themselves swept away, carried off by the exquisite intensity of music-inspired emotion.
Dai Miyamoto has one dream, and it consumes him: to become the best jazz musician in all the world. It doesn’t matter that he comes from a small town in Japan or that he has no knowledge of the jazz scene in Tokyo when he moves there, he’s determined to push forward no matter what. Fate seems to be in his favor when an accidental stop-in at a jazz bar introduces Dai to pianist Yukinori Sawabe (voiced by Shotaro Mamiya), whom he convinces to start a band. One problem: they need a drummer. As luck would have it, Dai’s crashing with an old friend, Shunji Tamada (voiced by Amane Okayama), who’s not at all trained, but eager to keep the beat and stay within the sphere of these two incredible musicians. Setting a time limit of 18 months, Yukinori dictates the tempo of their progression and sets them a goal to reach before they move on: to play the stage at the high-end jazz club So Blue. Can the trio make it or are their dreams a moonshot?
Having not read either the original BLUE GIANT series that ran from May 2013 – August 2016 or the three series that followed, including BLUE GIANT Momentum which reportedly began in July of this year, this review will not speak to the adaptation process or identify which parts were taken from where. Everything that follows will strictly address the film itself.
Just as there are three characters the film zeroes in on, this review will explore the film through the three distinct visual approaches used to capture this story. The first lies in the traditional direction approach wherein things happen to the characters and we, as audience, are privy to even their most private moments. In these sequences, the 3D animation from Studio NUT only slightly hints at the hand-drawn origins of the series with the characters having visible etch marks in the shadows of their face and neck. Otherwise, the characters and the space around them are designed to look as three-dimensional as possible while achieving a clean traditional 2D look. It’s blended so beautifully that the wider establishing shots could be distributed as wall art in the way they capture, particularly at night, the colorful beauty of nighttime Tokyo. In these sequences, the audience may not notice anything particularly special, enabling them to give their attention to the vocal performances from the cast and allow themselves to give themselves to the illusion of reality required to make the later emotional moments resonate.
The second visual approach is small, but significant. Without warning, and only a handful of times, the viewing lens the audience sees the story through is changed to appear as if through a viewfinder for a camera as we are invited to listen to different people talk about the trio and their music. As a narrative tool, this tells us that something of import happens, instilling a mystery over the proceedings. Now, from the jump, Yukinori tells Dai that what separates jazz from, say, rock, is that bands that form don’t stay together, even going so far as to call Dai a “stepping stone.” This language is but a small part of the characterization of Yukinori, creating the sense that his musical journey will relate to humbling the artist who believes himself great. So does the shift in framing for the direction signify something positive or negative? What does what we learn mean for the part of the narrative we’re in and how does it color things going forward? In a sense, the shift toward documentary style filmmaking out of the *ahem* blue makes one wonder if we’re watching a story with an unpredictable ending or something that’s been locked by fate. Either way, it’s a mystery that the audience wants answered, whether they’re ready for it or not.
The third and most moving visual approach comes through the connection to the music. As mentioned, when one thinks of anime, there’s usually something supernatural or science-fiction about the tale. However, some of the best moments are usually a collaboration between narrative, visual design, and music. In the final confrontation between heroes and villains in the 2020 release My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising, protagonist Deku and classmate Bakugo face down the seemingly unstoppable Nine, resulting in the choice for Deku to share his abilities with Bakugo so that they’d have the strength necessary to defeat their foe and save the children that Nine seeks. In the subtitle-free clip linked in the previous sentence, the song Might*U by Makayla Phillips swells as the two unleash incredible power and fearlessly defeat Nine. Yes, the video clip is choppy, but you still get a sense, especially with the way the visuals shift to convey intensity of strikes or speed, just how ferocious the fight is. Studio Nine applies a similar thought process in the musical scenes here, wherein Dai, for instance, takes on a more mobile physical design, shifting, dancing, and swaying to his saxophone’s notes, the more traditional 2D look replaced with a 3D design so as to look more separate from the stage. Additionally, the art design changes, his white shirt given a sheen, the power of his sonic sound signified by hash marks that turn into yellow bolts, some of which begin to appear on the lens of bystanders and audience members. Even the shadows on his skin (at least in one scene) take on a blue-like hue, as if the intensity of his playing is transforming him. In this regard, each musical scene is like a battle, Dai giving it his all with each song, leaving the audience almost as exhausted as he by the end of each track. But it’s not just Dai who’s given this treatment, as Yukinori may go to play a note on the piano and it’s depicted as though a mighty figure is applying such massive force to the keys that the digit is enveloped in orange-red heat which, upon hitting the targeted key, all the color disburses from the frame, as if an explosion has occurred. With Uehara’s music hitting their ears and the narrative their hearts, this shift in visual approach by Studio NUT results in a tremendous sensory experience, enabling the musical sequences to dazzle in an unconventional way, impacting those who are invested in the journey of these musicians in surprisingly unexpected ways.
Considering the way this film surprised me, I’m not going to explore anything further until (fingers-crossed) the upcoming home release. For now, please allow me to leave you with my terrible frustration with this release and my hope: a U.S. release for Uehara’s score. As of now, you can either listen to it via Spotify (with an account) or purchase it on CD via Universal Japan. The music is absolutely extraordinary and the way it’s used in the film makes you forget that it’s all manufactured and following a script. It’s momentous, soulful, and inspired while coming off as entirely improvised. With luck, as with prior GKids Films release Promare (2019), a version of the physical with come with a CD because I want to listen to this while driving, cooking, cleaning, and writing. I want the sound to envelope me with all its joy and its sorrow. In concert with the animation, this music helps BLUE GIANT transcend to a cinematic experience.
If you feel comfortable in a theater, don’t miss it.
In theaters October 8th and 9th, 2023 only.
For more information, head to the official GKids Films Blue Giant webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.