Hotarubi no Mori e is based on one of the earlier works of Midorikawa Yuki, a mangaka primarily known for her more recent Natsume Yuujinchou – a series that I often hold as an example of commercial success falling upon a work that wholly deserves it. Natsume Yuujinchou is part of a relatively rare breed in the world of televised anime – a series that can be enjoyed by any viewer of any age and communicates admirable messages about kindness, friendship, and various other facets of life in a simple but frequently beautiful way (while maintaining a factor of accessibility required for the audience for televised anime) . The Natsume formula is well-established at this point, and it is not particularly far-fetched to consider Hotarubi to be the precursor to Natsume, and Natsume to be a refinement and repackaging of Midorikawa’s earlier ideas (the original manga for Hotarubi was published in 2003).
The core idea of Hotarubi is a simple exploration of a possible relationship between a mortal human and a timeless spirit, and the overall effect of the film will be familiar to those who have followed the Natsume series, which I will use as a benchmark regularly from here on. The main character is a young girl, Hotaru, who recounts her first meeting with Gin, a spirit within the forest who guided her to safety when she was lost. As time goes on, she begins to realize the differences between her and Gin, such as the fact that she ages and grows old while Gin does not. Such ideas have been covered from several angles in the Natsume episodes, so if one was approaching this film with the hope of seeing a more crystallized or powerful delivery of the Natsume formula than what is provided by Natsume itself, they may be disappointed. The first reason is simply that the story is quite clearly an initial effort – we can recognize the beauty of the ideas Midorikawa presents, but they are presented in a rather direct and expected manner with slightly forced pacing, as opposed to the elegance and creativity of several of the Natsume collection of stories. The second is that the film does not particularly use its format to a greater advantage, as the story is a fairly concise one (roughly 40 minutes) preventing the substantial character development or story progression that a full length film can offer.
However, though the story itself may not exceed the best of it’s spiritual successor Natsume, for the film itself to be on par with an average episode of that series is itself a compliment towards the film, objectively speaking. Newcomers who are unfamiliar with Brains Base’s adaptations of Natsume will likely be equally captivated by the charming style they have adopted for Midorikawa’s stories, a style which I sometimes refer to as “fleeting sentimentality”. Sentiment is a double edged sword, particularly when it is exploited in such a manner than it becomes melodramatic. Brains Base have never disappointed in this regard, as they have developed a wonderfully sincere method of presenting the sentimentality of Midorikawa’s stories in a manner which never lingers past its welcome and fades quickly into the viewer’s memory, where the thought of it is often more potent and poignant than the continuing visual depiction would have been. For the most part, this is similarly done in Hotarubi. Expect this subject to be explored further in later articles on this site.
If the comparisons to Natsume until this point haven’t become tiresome, it is also worth mentioning that the composer for that series, Makoto Yoshimoro, also contributes his music to this film – which will be rewarding for followers of his Natsume scores, as the series has been reusing earlier compositions for some time, while this film (of course) has entirely new material. For the most part, his work is immediately recognizable with an organic sound which makes frequent use of piano, light strings, and woodwinds, although the score does not really exceed his previous work nor does it form a cohesive whole. The bonus here is that he has the opportunity to compose a vocal song for the songs credits, a relatively simple but emotional ballad for piano and vocals. Though it may not be among the greatest of anime themes, it is a gentle, enjoyable ode to the quietly bittersweet tone of the film.
Although most of the traits which make Hotarubi an enjoyable film are found in Natsume Yuujinchou with either equal or superior presentation, there is still value to be had in this film for both fans and newcomers to Midorikawa’s works. Newcomers may find it preferable to use this relatively short film to guage their interest in what is ostensibly the Natsume formula of storytelling – simple, poignant stories with bittersweet overtones and restrained sentimentality – though again, Hotarubi only provides a simplified version. Fans of Natsume, however, have likely already made their plans to view the film based solely on its similarities to their beloved show, and it is for those viewers that I advise some restraint in expectations. Remember that the story of Hotarubi was written nearly a decade ago, and though it lacks the polish or elegance of later stories within Natsume, it carries a similar sort of charm despite its shortcomings.
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