Review for Liz and the Blue Bird - Collector's Edition
I love the shows that come from Kyoto Animation; the quality of the anime, the level of storytelling, the characters, and the attention to detail means that regardless of genre, or story, the anime will always be worth watching. Some Kyoto Animation shows are among my favourite anime of all. That makes what happened to Sound Euphonium in the UK all that more disappointing. All the Anime released the first season here on Blu-ray, but that was as far as it got. It seems UK fans weren’t as enamoured as I of a show about a high school concert orchestra, and the personalities therein. I like shows about after school clubs (K-On is one of those KyoAni favourites I was referring to), and Sound Euphonium’s approach was a fair bit more dramatic and effectively so. I wound up importing the second season from the US, which came out there from Pony Canyon. At which point I learned that the US releases had a far better transfer than that given Season 1 by All the Anime, but it came too late for me to double dip on that first season release, which at this point was out of print, the remaining copies marked up at extortionate prices.
But, while All the Anime still hasn’t seen fit to release the second season, they have released the spin-off movie Liz and the Blue Bird, not to be confused with the Sound Euphonium compilation films. Incidentally there’s also a third original film that came out in 2019, and an OVA series due later this year and a third TV series in production. So there is a lot we’re missing out on when it comes to this delightful anime franchise. Thankfully Liz and the Blue Bird works perfectly as a standalone feature, and while it is set in the Kitauji High School band, and has some familiar characters in the story, you don’t have to watch the series to enjoy this film.
The Kitauji High School Band is preparing for another competition, and this time the piece that they will perform is based on the Liz and the Blue Bird fairy tale, the story of a lonely girl who befriends a bird that takes human form. For oboe player Mizore, and flautist Nozomi, the story has something of a personal meaning, reflecting their friendship. Mizore is an introvert who finds it difficult to socialise but relies on the connection she has with Nozomi. Nozomi on the other hand is a gregarious extrovert who makes friends easily. On top of that, they are the soloists who will have to be perfectly in sync to make the piece work in competition. But graduation looms, and their time in the concert band, and in school is coming to a close, forcing them to evaluate their friendship and its impermanence.
Liz and the Blue Bird was released in the US by Shout Factory, and it seems that All the Anime are merely using those assets for the UK Blu-ray disc (The US had a DVD release too if you’re looking for that format) The film gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc with the choice between DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English and Japanese, with translated English subtitles, a hard of hearing English dubtitle track, and a signs only track unlocked during playback. Stylistically, this is two films in one, with the concert club sequences following the same realism aesthetic as the TV series, albeit given a theatrical quality uplift, while the fairy tale story that unfolds alongside the main story has a more stylised, watercolour feel. It’s all clear and sharp, with rich consistent colours, and smooth effective animation. I was happy with the Japanese audio that I listened to, and the subtitles are accurately timed and free of typos. This is one of those releases that can’t show dialogue subtitles and text captions simultaneously, instead alternating them, but unlike the Season 1 UK Sound Euphonium release, this doesn’t happen often enough for it to be an issue. The audio is everything you would want from this film; rich and immersive, and making the most of some wonderful orchestral music.
You get one disc in a BD Amaray case. There is some nice inner sleeve art and the disc boots to a static menu. There are no extras on the disc.
The Amaray case slips inside a thick card slipcase with more art to appreciate. The blurb sheet within the cellophane wrapping can be stored inside the slipcase where you’ll find a foldout poster, and more importantly a 32-page booklet.
Unlike several such booklets which only offer artwork and nothing else, there is text content here which looks at the story, the characters, offers interviews with the director and the screenwriter, storyboards and more.
Sometimes the simplest stories are the best. Liz and the Blue Bird’s tale of teenage friendship in high school is the most basic story of them all. It’s a love story, although whether platonic love or otherwise is all in the eye of the beholder. But it is so effectively done, combining magical animation and deft direction with excellent and heartfelt voice actor performances to craft what might just be a perfect 90 minutes of animation. Liz and the Blue Bird squeezes in with all the other favourite movies of mine and will be another Blu-ray I’ll quickly turn to when I need a feel-good experience.
High school graduation is always a bittersweet time. The triumph of completing what is effectively a rite of passage has to be balanced with the inevitability of relationships between friends changing as college life, or working life beckons. The friendship between Mizore and Nozomi is a case in point, a typical relationship between an introvert and an extrovert. Nozomi is bubbly and outgoing and very charismatic. She’s always surrounded by friends. Mizore on the other hand is a typical introvert, the kind of person who is awkward in social situations, has to work at relationships, and can really only do friendships one at a time. She’s made a fast friend in Nozomi from childhood, and doesn’t want to lose her. With graduation coming up, their lives about to change, the friendship they currently have will be lost, and uncertainty remains over what their relationship will become.
It’s easy to draw the parallel between their relationship and the story of Liz and the Blue Bird, where a lonely girl befriends a bird that takes on human form. At first glance it’s easy to see that Mizore is Liz, and Nozomi the bird, but that isn’t quite the way things are. The need to resolve their dilemma becomes apparent with the piece that they have to perform with the orchestra, the key passage of music the ‘duet’ between Mizore’s oboe and Nozomi’s flute. They have to be in balance, and in sync for the piece to work, but despite being close friends, they can’t find that balance. It gets to the point where it actually jeopardises their relationship.
They key to Liz and the Blue Bird is subtlety and understatement. In a medium that is usually ‘big’ we have voice actor performances, and more importantly character animation that underplays and sub-textualises emotion to the point that the audience starts to invest in the characters and read their feelings through the performances. It’s easy to do in live action, nigh on impossible in animation, but Liz and the Blue Bird nails it. You get so drawn into the characters and their inner lives that you simply wind up rooting for their friendship, hoping that they work things out. Most anime aren’t subtle when it comes to emotional manipulation of audiences, wearing their hearts on their sleeves. That Liz and the Blue Bird elicits tears isn’t surprising given the subject matter, but how it does it is a surprise, with the emotional catharsis sneaking up on you.
It is a Kyoto Animation film, wonderfully animated and full of deft touches. It doesn’t need the link to Sound Euphonium, but for fans of the franchise it is a treat to see those characters again, and they are effectively used to support and help tell the story. Kumiko and Reina playing Nozomi and Mizore’s piece on trumpet and euphonium is a key moment in how the story develops, and it’s a fun call-back too. And the animation is sublime, with birds an obvious, but well used motif in the film. There’s also a delightful character moment with reflected sunbeams that is simply beautiful.
Liz and the Blue Bird is an astounding piece of work. It’s a simple story, perfectly told, and anyone can enjoy it. While it is set in the world of Sound Euphonium, you don’t need to see the series at all to get the most from this film. And for fans of Sound Euphonium, it is still a treat to see those familiar characters and settings. The disc is light, but the physical extras, especially the booklet make up for that. Very much recommended.
The Liz and the Blue Bird Collector’s Edition Blu-ray is available direct from Anime Limited, from Anime Online, United Publications and all the usual mainstream retailers. A standard edition release is also now available.