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‘Liz and the Blue Bird’: A brilliantly executed return to an anime favorite

by Matt Schley

Contributing Writer

At my high school in the U.S., it was said that while the athletes were the talk of the school, it was actually the band kids who were embroiled in the juiciest drama.

If “Sound! Euphonium” is any indication, that trait is international. The anime series, which ran for two seasons between 2015 and 2016, traced the interpersonal conflicts of the members of the brass band at the fictional Kitauji High School in Kyoto. Now Kyoto Animation, the studio behind that series, has revisited Kitauji and its band with the film “Liz and the Blue Bird.”

Liz and the Blue Bird (Liz to Aoi Tori)
Rating
Run Time 90 mins
Language JAPANESE

This feature-length animation, which might be considered a “sidequel” to that series, centers on the relationship between Mizore Yoroizuka (Atsumi Tanezaki) and Nozomi Kasaki (Nao Toyama), two third-year students who have been best friends since middle school. Mizore, who plays the oboe, is shy and soft-spoken, dependent on the outgoing Nozomi, who plays flute. As the band prepares for nationals (and the pair prepare to graduate), Mizore grows depressed as her separation from Nozomi draws near. Meanwhile, the band is assigned to play a piece based on a German fairy tale called “Liz and the Blue Bird,” another story in which two friends must bid each other farewell.

The “Sound! Euphonium” series was helmed by Tatsuya Ishihara, but “Liz” hands off directorial duties to Kyoto Animation wunderkind Naoko Yamada. Yamada, who last directed the 2016 hit “A Silent Voice,” is in top form again here. Beautiful, fluid animation is practically a given from this Kyoto studio, but Yamada in particular is a master in the study of human observation. This film may be the first time many viewers will have been exposed to these characters, but from the way Yamada directs the largely dialogue-free opening sequence — the way Mizore waits for Nozomi at the school gate, then follows a few steps behind; the way she briefly grips a wall, as if for emotional reassurance — we learn everything we need to know about the relationship between the pair.

As the drama plays out between the two, the tale of “Liz and the Blue Bird” is shown in parallel. These fantasy scenes are animated in rich watercolor style, and give the Kyoto Animation team the chance to show off their stuff — but they also serve an important narrative function, letting us in on the inner thoughts of the reticent Mizore. In the fairy tale, Liz realizes the Blue Bird will never be truly happy confined to the human world, and allows it to fly free. The drama at the heart of the film is whether Mizore will be able to do the same.

It’s a relatively straightforward story, and it gives Yamada room to breathe. Her camera lingers on band members as they gossip, tune their instruments and try to navigate the complex relationships between senior and junior members. Fantasy sequences aside, “Liz” takes place entirely on the grounds of Kitauji High School, and while the film’s melody is the tale of Mizore and Nozomi, the day-to-day activities of the band serve as its rhythm.

Not everyone has been in a brass band, but there are few among us who have never had to say goodbye to a friend. For “Sound! Euphonium” fans, “Liz” will be a welcome trip back into its world, but this film will resonate just as strongly with anyone who’s ever been through the emotional roller coaster known as high school.