Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light (Hotarubi no Mori e) Anime Film Review

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I came across this short film a little while ago and it looked interesting enough to cover while waiting for the seasonal anime to finish up. The movie itself is about 45 minutes in length, good enough for a one-shot story with a fairly simple premise. Best known for her other work Natsume’s Book of Friends, it is thought that the mangaka Yuki Midorikawa took a lot of inspiration for that manga from this story which is fairly easy to see. I’m a huge fan of Natsume and could feel a lot of the same wonderment through her positive representation of the youkai characters throughout. However, I definitely think you can see a fairly big difference in experience and story-telling skill between this film and her later series. As much as I did like Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light, there are a few points of the plot and pacing that I think could have been handled differently.

Hotarubi no Mori e focuses on the relationship between a young girl named Hotaru who meets a strange man wearing a mask while lost in the forest when she is six years old. The man leads her out of the forest but warns her that if she touches him he will disappear. Every summer after that, Hotaru returns to that forest to visit the man named Gin. We follow their growing love as Hotaru gets older but Gin does not, ever limited in their relationship. The anime was adapted from its one-shot shoujo manga and picked up for production by studio Brain’s Base. It opened in Japan in 2011 and has since won the Jury Prize at the Scotland Loves Animation festival and the Animation Film Award at the 66th annual Mainichi Film Awards.

This review does contain some spoilers below, so if the movie sounds interesting, I’d recommend watching it first and then coming back for my analysis. Thanks!

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Studio Brain’s Base does a fairly solid job on the animation, though it definitely lacks in detail in some areas. The character designs and backgrounds are fairly simple, but still display a vibrant color palette. This kind of plays into the overall feel of the movie as being a basic paranormal love story and slice of life. It also lends somewhat to the feel of the setting as the film is set in rural Japan so we don’t really get exposed to any city environments that may need more specific details and stronger color palettes. I still do feel that there could have been more detail added, and the fact that I don’t have much to say about the animation kind of reinforces the fact that Into the Forest was pretty ordinary in its presentation. Perhaps this is also due to it being a small production, with the movie only being 45 minutes long as I mentioned before. It also could just be that I’ve been watching way too many new animes with awesome animation this season. If you noticed anything particularly interesting about the animation, feel free to let me know in the comments below.

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I was more interested in the story for the most part anyways. I’ve always loved plots that involve youkai and spirits as mythology in general has been an obsession of mine for a long time. Midorikawa has a way of humanizing and making her readers sympathize with youkai characters that we see throughout this and her other works. Even though Gin hints that Hotaru might be in danger if she follows him into the forest, we see pretty quickly that the other youkai are only concerned for Gin’s safety. In particular, a large wooden hand comes out of the tree to grab Gin. It alarms Hotaru, but it turns out that the tree spirit just wanted to make sure she didn’t touch Gin and make him disappear. We also learn that Gin’s origin is that he was left in the forest as a baby by his mother, and was then taken in by the youkai. The resident god cast a spell on him that would keep him alive but it also meant he couldn’t ever interact with humanity again. It becomes this weird mismatch of empathy and ironic fate as Gin, as a human in origin, longs to interact with humanity but is threatened by their proximity.

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Gin’s fate kind of reminds me of old celtic tales that involve a geis. This refers to a taboo or a curse placed on someone. We see it pop up in stories where a man will marry a beautiful woman and she will say whatever you do don’t come into my room this one night every month. The man becomes extremely curious and winds up breaking the taboo — often witnessing his wife transforming into some creature — and thus loses his wife in the process. In Gin’s case, his taboo is that he can’t be touched by a human, and it’s here that my problems with pacing and foreshadowing come into play. Throughout the movie, we a get a dozen warnings directed at Hotaru, we get Gin almost catching Hotaru as she falls out of a tree, and we get hints at their longing to touch one another. In all kinds of foreshadowing and taboo stories like this, you almost come to expect that one of them will do something to break this taboo, whether it be a life saving situation or a stupid mistake. What we get instead is Gin casually saving a kid from falling, not realizing he’s human, and the taboo is broken that way. For me, it created this weird sense of being let down or not feeling fulfilled. Perhaps the foreshadowed warnings were just too pointed and specific to Hotaru. Or perhaps I was expecting something more dramatic to happen instead of the relatively ordinary mistake that did end the movie.

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It took me a little while of mulling the plot over to figure out why exactly this movie left me wanting. Along with the issues with foreshadowing, I also thought that the pacing, especially in the beginning of the movie, was a little weird and slow. There’s this weirdly long pause in the beginning before the narration starts that halted my immersion a little bit and threw off the pacing for me. Throughout the movie we get this pretty calming and nostalgic atmosphere as Hotaru looks back on her memories of Gin, but not much else happens. I would say this movie is great for those who like slice-of-life with a touch of the supernatural, but I do think it needs a little bit more of something. A lot of the other criticism around this movie surrounds its length, and maybe it would help the pacing to add more time, but I’m not sure that’s the issue either. I might have liked to have seen more of a contrast between her regular life as a regular girl and her time with Gin. So far we only see one instance of her interacting with someone other than Gin and that is only to highlight her realization of her feelings for him. I think the contrast of the real world versus the spirit world would add another layer of interest to the story overall. In this same vein, seeing more interaction between her and the other youkai would be a good idea as well, especially if we get to meet the forest god.

Let me know what you thought of this movie in the comments below. I’d love to hear if anyone else had the same reaction I did or if you absolutely loved it. Also feel free to recommend other movies for me to watch and review. I’m always looking for new things!

~~Thanks for Reading!~~


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