“There’s no shame in saying you’ve lost a step. The only shame would be not admitting it until it’s too late.” –Gareth Mallory, Skyfall
Sachi Koyama is an first year high school student living in Iwaki. Ever since the Tohoku Earthquake in 2011, she’s become distant from those around her, but having played the violin as a child, she’s come to pride herself on being a proficient player. Each day after practise, she enjoys a quiet walk down to the bus station for the long ride back home, where she admires the quiet countryside and striking sunsets. Sachi comes to notice a quiet boy boarding the bus a few stations later, and one day, is surprised to see him at her bus stop. It turns out he is a student from another school, and that he’d come to find a fantastic landscape to sketch for his club activities. After their first encounter, the boy introduces himself as Yūsuke Kijinami. Despite her best efforts, Sachi cannot stop thinking about him, and takes up his invitation to help him find a scenic location to sketch. Sachi and Yūsuke exchange contact information and, little by little, the two become closer. Sachi later learns that Yūsuke had lived in the region afflicted by the Tohoku Earthquake in 2011 and was forced to evacuate. Over time, Yūsuke became separated from his first love, regretting that he never got to express his feelings to her. Worried about her own feelings, Sachi nonetheless attempts to invite him to her school’s string recital. Having put in an earnest effort in practising, Sachi and the strings club put on a moving performance. In the aftermath, Sachi and Yūsuke head to the roof for a private talk, where Yūsuke explains that he’s come to fall in love with Sachi. She is moved to tears and responds that she returns his feelings. Hakubo (薄暮, Twilight) is a film that dates back to June 2019. Dealing with adolescent love, Hakubo was produced by Yutaka Yamamoto, a rather controversial director who had worked on the Tohoku Trilogy (of which Wake Up, Girls! is a part of alongside the five minute short, Blossom), a charity programme for relief efforts following the Tohoku Earthquake. Yamamoto announced that this would be his final project in animation, and Hakubo brought back character designer Sunao Chikaoka, who’d previously worked on Wake Up, Girls!.
At its core, Habuko represents a fitting conclusion to the Tohoku Trilogy, which had been intended to raise awareness of the Tohoku region and the devastation that resulted from the 2011 earthquake. The love story between Sachi and Yūsuke represents optimism towards the future, that from the destruction and endings, comes rebirth and hope. Yūsuke’s story acts as a metaphor for the Tohoku region. The earthquake uprooted countless lives and forced residents to relocate, driving them apart. Yūsuke’s first love, then, is analogous to his original home: much as he still regrets not expressing his feelings for her then, Yūsuke retains a nostalgia for his old home. When he meets Sachi, he explains that his love of painting and photography comes from a desire to preserve memories of a place. However, over time, the present and future begin to overshadow the past; despite him and Sachi both hitting a rough spot, a new love begins to blossom. In accepting Sachi’s feelings, Yūsuke also implicitly accepts his new home, as well: much as he’s moving on from his first love and pursuing a new relationship with Sachi, he’s also embraced the beauty of his new home. Hakubo thus suggests that for Tohoku’s residents, they’ve also begun to acclimatise to their lives, finding new meaning and connections amongst their community in spite of their losses – speaking to the resilience of people, both Yūsuke and Tohoku’s residents have adapted and found a way to continue against adversity, discovering new joys in the process.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Right out of the gates, Hakubo creates a sense of longing and melancholy with its long stills of the sky at twilight (薄暮, Hepburn hakubo): Yamamoto uses the love story in Hakubo to serve as a metaphor for those who were displaced by the 2011 earthquake, and as such, feelings of yearning permeate the entire movie, which has a fifty minute runtime. Hakubo was originally announced in 2017 and set to release in 2018, but production delays pushed it back to June 2019. I’ve not heard much about the film, as excitement for it was scant, but nonetheless, the key visuals and premise caught my eye. For the remainder of this talk, I’ll refer to the film as Hakubo to avoid confusion with the English film series, Twilight.
- The city of Iwaki, Fukushima, has a population of 337765 as of this April. With an economy rooted in agriculture, fishing and chemical engineering, the city is also a hotspot for tourists, who use the city as a hub for reaching some of Fukushima’s most scenic and beautiful spots. Hakubo lovingly presents the area to set the film’s mood as one of sentimentality, and throughout the remainder of Hakubo, the landscapes and scenery are of a consistently high quality.
- Indeed, the background artwork is the most remarkable aspect in Hakubo, being photo-realistic at times. There is a calm sense as one day draws to a close, as the sunlight recedes and the skies turn a shade of deepest blue. This is known as Blue Hour, when Chappuis absorption creates blue shades as a result of the sun’s position below the horizon. This time of day is immensely peaceful, and during the summer months, marks the point in time when things begin cooling off for the evening.
- Hakubo opens with Sachi (Hiyori Sakurada) narrating her life in Iwaki. She’d chosen her high school simply on the grounds that their uniform was appealing, and as a result, has a bit of a lengthy commute each day. While the background art in Hakubo is phenomenal, the characters themselves sport a much flatter, more rudimentary design. With Chikaoka helming the designs for characters, Sachi and the other characters have a striking similarity to their counterparts from Wake Up, Girls!, especially in their smiles.
- The viewers’ initial impressions of Sachi, are that she’s a quiet and observant individual, but also lacking confidence (she remarks that her appearance isn’t anything special) and reluctant to open up to those around her: Sakurada delivers Sachi’s narration with a hesitant inflection that brings to mind the likes of Hibike! Euphonium‘s Kumiko Oumae, whose narrations were similarly introspective and tentative. In Hibike! Euphonium, Kumiko does become more confident over time, and this inflection eventually dissipates.
- To the best of my knowledge, there are no satisfactory discussions of Hakubo on the internet: reviews of the movie are incomplete, knee-jerk reactions from viewers who’ve come to hate Yamamoto’s work on principle, or otherwise have missed the idea that the film is about discovering new love in the aftermath of a great disturbance. It is evident that the many reviewers out there, on places like MyAnimeList, have made no effort (or are simply unable) to understand Yamamoto’s intentions for the film. As such, it goes without saying that such poor reviews are not meritorious of consideration.
- Wake Up, Girls! had suffered a similar fate with regards to its reception; Yamamoto’s objectionable reputation often precede him, leading viewers to swiftly (and immaturely) dismiss his works when in reality, his works are by no means unpalatable. Like Wake Up, Girls!, I found Hakubo to have enough merits that outweigh the negatives. While Sachi may not be confident in her appearance or her ability to connect with those around her, she states that the violin is the one thing she takes great pride in. Originally, she’d picked up the instrument because she loved the dresses performers wore into concerts, but over time, would become skillful enough to take pride in what she does.
- While Sachi may not be the most open person in the world, she’s made a few friends with the strings club’s members: to the right is Hii-chan (Ayane Sakura), who has a spirited personality and laments being single, and center is Rina (Sora Amamiya), a quieter but friendly individual who looks out for both Hii-chan and Sachi. As they leave the school here, the conversation they share brings to mind a similar conversation between Kagami and Tsukasa from Lucky☆Star, which Yamamoto had directed four episodes of before being dismissed from the team for clashing with others.
- At a casual glance, the road that Sachi walks down appears to be a photo: Sachi’s school is located a ways into the countryside, and one of her favourite things to do is to enjoy the walk to the bus stop as the evening sun sets in. Rina asks Hii-chan not to disturb Sachi’s peace, since everyone has something that’s important to them. In portraying Sachi’s enjoyment of a sunset that, in her words, she has entirely to herself, Hakubo emphasises the joys that can be had in something as simple as watching the sky fill with colours as the day draws to a close.
- The sights and sounds of the countryside, the satoyama surrounding Iwaki are beautifully rendered, comparable to Makoto Shinkai and Studio Ghibli’s landscape shots in terms of detail. These visuals remind me of Little Forest, a two-part film that was also set in the Tohoku region about a young woman who returns to her home in the countryside to pursue a pastoral lifestyle. While I live in an urban setting, I am fortunate in that my city was built with numerous parks, and earlier today, after a delicious dim sum lunch (dai Zigao, shumai, beef balls, Phoenix claw, crispy Taro puffs, deep fried shrimp dumplings, steamed pork buns, cheung fun, deep fried squid and fried noodles), I stepped out into the beautiful afternoon sun for a walk along a hillside path giving fantastic views of the city.
- While Sachi describes a green band as being the most thrilling part of a sunset to watch, green wavelengths not scattered as widely as blue light, and therefore, under most conditions, sunsets feature warmer reds, oranges, yellows, pinks and purple hues that rapidly give way to deep blue. The phenomenon as described in Hakubo would be uncommon: while green light is scattered in the atmosphere, fewer wavelengths actually hit our photoreceptors. There are some circumstances where greener sunsets can be seen, usually, in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, which fills the atmosphere with particles that can scatter green light.
- Hii-chan’s frequent and vociferous laments about being single are simultaneously pitiful and hilarious: the latter because Ayane Sakura does excellent voice work for tantrums, and pitiful because I completely empathise. While Hii-chan’s misfortunes in love seem tangential to Hakubo, and Sachi seems quite disinterested in romance, it does foreshadow what ends up happening to Sachi. Every day, Sachi notices a boy with a different uniform on the bus ride home.
- This is an unremarkable sight, but as time wears on, Sachi begins to think about him, wondering if he’ll show up and which school he’s from. As the boy wanders into her thoughts, Sachi is surprised that this is happening, embarrassed that her thoughts strayed towards a boy she barely knows at random. If this is love, it’s something I’m a little ashamed to say I haven’t experienced in a while: in my waking moments, I’m preoccupied with work, and it is usually during my weekends that I head out for walks to clear my mind.
- After a gruelling practise, Hii-chan complains about Matsumoto (Kana Hanazawa), their senior and speculates that her relationship going south might be the reason why she’s pushing them so hard. For Sachi, her mind is a parsec away from the gossip: she’s thinking about her playing and notes that she’s the most behind of everyone. Sachi’s narration is tumultuous and chaotic: despite being tangentially related to the overall story, they offer brief insights into her mind and give viewers a sense of what she’s feeling during trickier moments.
- One evening, while waiting at the bus stop, Sachi comes face to face with the boy on the bus in a surprise encounter: it turns out he’s here in search of a perfect landscape to paint, and asks Sachi for directions to the nearest forest. These regions of Japan are known as the satoyama (里山), where the flat plains give way to foothills. The interface between fields and hills creates an immensely beautiful landscape, one that Hayao Miyazaki recreates in great detail in his films. They represent the Japanese ability to coexist with natural areas, and over the centuries, satoyama have acted as refuges for biodiversity, where humanity and nature come together.
- Sachi learn that the boy’s name is Yūsuke, and while their initial conversations initially deal in art and music, things eventually open up as the two begin discussing other topics, both in the evenings as they head home together or via LINE, the Japanese instant messaging application. Watching Hakubo brought back memories of old: this was something I did during my time as a secondary and university student. Back in those days, I spent way too much time doing this, chatting with friends late into the night about topics of all manners. Some friendships did indeed progress in the way that Hakubo describes, although my ineptitude with recognising these sorts of things would cost me.
- While Sachi does not know of the area’s forests, her frequently stopping to see the sunset means that she is able to share with Yūsuke a sight that she had to herself previously. Yūsuke is moved and decides that this is what he wishes to paint. From what is seen in Hakubo, Yūsuke appears to be painting the colours of the landscape, rather than going for realism alone: such paintings typically have a very bold feel to them. To help motivate him, Yūsuke asks that Sachi plays a piece for him, and she obliges.
- As Yūsuke paints out his work, Sachi performs, creating an immensely majestic and peaceful setting. This was the magic moment in Hakubo, where the composition provides a unique experience from both a visual and aural perspective. As the evening light casts the land in a warm glow and accentuates the bright yellows of the grasses, Sachi’s violin adds an inviting sense to the whole moment. This is the moment that was used in the poster artwork, and the fact that Sachi’s playing and Yūsuke’s artwork complement one another so nicely suggests that the two’s friendship is progressing quickly towards the next level.
- The vivid yellow of the fields under a swift sunset brings to mind the scenery of southern Alberta, where endless fields of canola dominate the landscape. Prior to World War Two, Japan produced its own canola, which was used in a culinary capacity, but since the war, importing Canadian and Australian canola meant that domestic production dropped sharply. However, there are still some fields around, and so, it is not so difficult to suppose that a few fields could exist near Iwaki.
- If we suppose that Hii-chan and Rina’s definitions are commonplace, then yes, I’ve had my share of experiences in this particular arena. That’s a bit of a discouraging topic, so I’ll return focus to Hakubo: Hii-chan’s reaction to the idea of Sachi being in a relationship is hilarious, and hearing Ayane Sakura deliver her lines means hearing Cocoa complaining vehemently about being single, with the corresponding funny face to match. The character designs of Hakubo, although rudimentary, still have a unique charm to them, and it was a bit of a trip down memory lane to see smiles like those of Wake Up, Girls! again.
- I relate to Yūsuke’s, having gone through similar experiences back in the day: there have only been a few cases where I was interested in someone, and despite my efforts, circumstances drove a wedge in those plans to move the needle. It is understandable that at this point, Yūsuke is feeling a little conflicted: he’s still got lingering feelings for his first love, but meeting Sachi changes things somewhat. I felt that Sachi could’ve probably handled things things with a bit more tact, but this is perhaps deliberate, indicating that she’s never dealt with falling in love before. That evening, when she gets home, she inexplicably strips down before trying to get some sleep.
- In Sachi’s dream, the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station can be seen as Yūsuke’s bike rises above the ground, symbolising his desire to be anywhere else. For Sachi, she worries about her seeming inability to offer what he seeks. The Fukushima Disaster resulted directly from the tsunami, which knocked out power to the diesel generators that would pump water into the reactor core to cool it off. The first reactor ended up melting down, releasing radioactive material into the ocean and air in a disaster as severe as Chernobyl, forcing thousands to evacuate. Yūsuke was one of the evacuees, and his life hasn’t been the same since. While a calamity, the efforts of plant workers and emergency staff prevented Fukushima from becoming a worse disaster.
- I do have plans to watch Fukushima 50 as soon as that becomes available, and back in Hakubo, after a practise concludes, Sachi, spurred on by her feelings and the knowledge that Yūsuke will be coming to watch, decides to push herself a little harder to put on a better showing. Rehearsal goes smoothly, and Sakamoto ends up feeling they’re ready to roll on the day of the culture festival: the club has evidently improved, having practised long hours to ensure their performance is top-tier. Hakubo does have a captivating soundtrack dominated by strings, and an image album was released back in January 2019, a full five months ahead of its theatrical première.
- Perhaps because of Yamamoto’s previous involvement with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Kyoto Animation, Mikuru, Tsuruya, Haruhi, Yuki and Kyon are visible at the culture festival, and Kumiko can be seen walking the hallways, as well. It was a clever cameo that occupies a grand total of two seconds of Hakubo‘s runtime, and I’m rather surprised that no one’s mentioned this: perhaps in their haste to tear down Yamamoto and his work, the most vocal of critics forget what they’ve watched.
- While nowhere near as intricate or detailed as Kyoto Animation’s presentation of concerts, Hakubo nonetheless does an admirable job of showing the results of the string club’s efforts. As the girls play, their performance is punctuated by stills of the nearby scenery and of Beethoven himself: the painting seen in Hakubo is a reproduction of Joseph Karl Stieler’s portrait, which was done in 1820 and is one of the best-known images of Beethoven.
- Once the performance ends, Rina and Hii-chan are overjoyed at how smoothly everything went. While they’d intended to celebrate earlier, Hii-chan and Rina also realise that Sachi’s got a special opportunity here to take one giant leap forwards. Rina encourages Sachi to have faith in her heart: hesitating now might mean that Yūsuke may lose interest, and so, Sachi heads off to the school rooftop to affirm Yūsuke’s feelings. She deliberately chooses this location so if things should go south, at least her bus stop and the beautiful fields are not associated with rejection.
- It’s a bit of a tense moment as Sachi and Yūsuke summon up the courage to make their feelings known – Yūsuke’s sketch of Sachi and her violin speaks volumes about where his heart is now. He’s moved on, and can also be said to have accepted his life following the earthquake. Sachi tears up, understanding how much she means to Yūsuke, and in the end, both Yūsuke and Sachi reciprocate the other’s feelings.
- For Sachi, it’s still a little to be reaching for first base, as they say, and she declares that she’d like to get to know Yūsuke better before they kiss. This brings Hakubo to an end, and quite honestly, against the reception out there, I enjoyed this movie. The page quote, sourced from Skyfall, deals with Yukata Yamamoto’s declaration that he’ll never work in animation again after Hakubo. From my perspective, if this is indeed where Yamamoto decides to retire, there’s no shame in doing so: I believe Hakubo was a box office failure (the estimated gross was 1.4 million yen against a budget of five million yen), but the film succeeded in conveying a theme surrounding the Tohoku Earthquake, as well as the beauty of the Iwaki region and the importance of moving ahead. From a narrative standpoint, Hakubo has done its job, and this is why I am happy to give it a passing grade.
- Altogether, I find Hakubo to be a worthwhile experience, one that merits an B+ (3.3 of 4, or 8.0 of 10): the film might have its flaws with respect to pacing and cohesion, but ultimately, the message is sincere and honest. This is Yutaka Yamamoto’s style; rough around the edges and unpolished, but also truthful. I believe that with this, I’ve got the internet’s first and only collection of screenshots for Hakubo, which showcases the level of artwork in the film. With this being said, I am by no means the first to have a positive review for Hakubo: Irina of Drunken Anime Blog has an insightful perspective on how the film’s therapeutic nature makes it worthwhile and charming, for those seeking a gentle, nostalgic love story.
Hakubo bears the characteristics of a work with Yamamoto’s involvement: like Wake Up, Girls!, it is rough around the edges and unpolished, but also sincere and direct with its messages and ideas. Wake Up, Girls! had inconsistent artwork and animation, but its characters were genuine and honest, striving towards a goal that viewers could root for. Here in Hakubo, the film has similar inconsistencies: there are stunning scenery stills that are breathtaking, and the colours in the movie are vivid. However, Sachi, her classmates and Yūsuke are somewhat uneven in animation and design. Further to this, there are a few moments where Yūsuke’s voice tears, breaking the immersion. Hakubo has its ups and downs, but ultimately, I count it to have succeeded for its simple but moving message. This film can therefore be thought of as a spiritual successor to Wake Up, Girls!; if the latter was a story of persistence and resilience in the people of Sendai to survive in the moment, then Hakubo shows the process by which people can come across new experiences that lead them to not only accept, but also embrace their present. For Yūsuke, he is ultimately able to let go of his first love and direct all of his focus on Sachi, mirroring how he’s managed to find new beauty and wonder in the world after the earthquake. If Yamamoto intends to retire from animation with the completion of Hakubo, this is a reasonable place to call it quits: Hakubo decisively wraps up the Tohoku Trilogy with a heartfelt conclusion, that out of the old, comes the new. For this reason, I found Hakubo to be a reasonably enjoyable film the same way Wake Up, Girls! was moving to me.