Produced by Madhouse, the studio behind Satoshi Kon’s masterpiece Perfect Blue and Death Note, and directed by Atsuko Ishizuka, acclaimed for another coming-of-age drama, 2018’s A Place Further Than the Universe, Goodbye, Don Glees! reached U.S. cinemas in September and was finally released in the UK on November 30. Beautifully animated and full of heart, the film earnestly explores teenage friendship as well as loss, grief and loneliness, in an honest tale about the growth and change of adolescence.
As straightforward as it is, the story still holds value in the detail devoted to the portrayal of each character’s quirks and the amusing shenanigans that arguably solidify teenage friendships. Nevertheless, the predictability of the plot’s central twist and the derivative nature of the narrative take away from the enjoyment of what is, in fact, a delightful and charming film.
Goodbye, Don Glees!’s Poignant Coming-of-Age Story
Best friends Roma and Toto, the 'Don Glees,' have just started high school when they reunite for yet another summer in their remote country town. Roma is excited to get their pair back together for new adventures, while Toto, now a student in Tokyo, has apparently outgrown their childhood games. Something else has also changed -- the Don Glees have a new member: scrawny 15-year-old Drop, who has recently befriended Roma. When the trio inadvertently gets entangled in a potential arson charge, they set off in search of an alibi that will prove their innocence, stumbling upon a life-changing adventure on the way.
As they walk along a thinly marked trail, Roma, Toto and Drop forge a new bond as they inevitably grow closer. Some of their exploits (even before they leave) are delightfully laugh-out-loud, such as when they dress in women’s clothes to exact their revenge on a group of bullies, or when their terrifying encounter with a bear leaves them with their eyes stinging and their hair sticking up from the hairspray used to defend themselves. They are goofy and childish, and the audience is drawn into their world by the innocent enjoyment exquisitely depicted by both the writing and the animation. Roma and Toto’s friendship, which ends up including Drop too, is depicted as an invaluable weapon against the loneliness and alienation that so often seem to accompany teenage years.
The film features as much a metaphorical journey as it does a literal one; Roma, Toto and Drop venture into the woods with their backpacks and a map, utterly unprepared both for the physical feat and the psychological strain the trip will place them under. As the obstacles start to outweigh the thrills, arguments erupt, mainly caused by the delicate balance between conflicting personalities that is suddenly disturbed. Their journey, then, becomes a chance to grow -- while Toto learns to question his choices as well as the path that has been laid out for him, Roma breaks out of his childishness and insecurity to finally take some risks. Drop, as much as going through a transformation himself, acts as the catalyst for his friends’ awakenings.
It’s Drop who perhaps learns the most from the journey into the woods. Looking for what is essentially a way to give his life meaning, he eventually finds it in friendship itself. The revelation of his unexpected imminent death shakes Roma and Toto out of the final dregs of their childhood. As often happens, grief becomes a powerful tool for change -- one that pushes Roma to follow old feelings he brushed aside, Toto to embrace the path he chose for himself and Drop to finally stop running.
Lack of Refinement Prevents Goodbye, Don Glees! From Being Truly Great
While it is inevitable for coming-of-age stories to closely resemble one another, as growth often entails the same instances of death, loss and violence, Goodbye Don Glees! seems to draw heavily on earlier works. Almost a Japanese re-imagining of 1986’s Stand By Me, the film is reminiscent of other childhood dramas, such as Bridge to Terabithia or even Stranger Things, which is openly derivative. The similarities wouldn’t be an issue per se if the film managed to elevate the genre or explore new avenues. Instead, these references -- tropes, even -- are sometimes handled roughly or clash with jarring musical scenes. For instance, a heart-warming moment of self-revelation is suddenly interrupted by a loud rendition of 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,' whose suitability might have been lost in translation, but which leaves the audience laughing for all the wrong reasons.
Another familiar element, the tragic death of one of the protagonists, is regrettably obvious. The film refuses to trust its audience, when after dropping hints about 'hospitals' and 'wigs,' it decides to have Drop say that this is his "last adventure." Only a very distracted -- or very young -- viewer would miss such heavy-handed foreshadowing. One could certainly claim that the twist isn’t the point of the story, but its predictability prevents the audience from identifying with the characters’ journey completely, robbing them of their deserved catharsis.
The ending, which drags way past the point where the film could have been brought to a close, also challenges the viewers’ patience and commitment to the story. After Drop’s death, Roma and Toto find a treasure map left by him that invites them to find the 'golden waterfall.' When they get to it, a final twist reveals that Drop, Roma and Toto had actually come in contact months before they met. It is unclear whether the film wants the audience to believe in the reality of this coincidence, but it is so preposterous that it hinders any potential emotional response.
Nevertheless, Goodbye, Don Glees! makes for a delightful watch -- if not for its ingenuity, then certainly for its animation, character development and general charm of its insights into the troubles of adolescence. As the audience follows Roma, Toto and Drop’s painfully relatable journey, it seems that the film asks them to return to their childhood, questioning decisions made, paths taken and even their preconceptions on what makes life worth living. The film stays with the viewer long after the watch when, irksome details forgotten, the tenderness of teenage friendship and shared growth is all that remains.