***This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 323)***
“I wanted to create an original story that would be seen by a wider audience,” says Atsuko Ishizuka, the writer-director of the feature Goodbye, Don Glees!, which GKIDS will release theatrically in the U.S. this month. “There is a limited audience for broadcast works. A movie release would attract a separate audience.”
With animation produced by Madhouse, the film was originally released in Japan in February and was one of the features competing at the Annecy Festival. Although she’s worked as a director and storyboard artist on several TV series, Ishizuka is probably best known for her direction of the popular show A Place Further than the Universe (2018). Don Glees marks her debut as both a director of theatrical features and a screenwriter. She spoke in a recent interview translated by Ken Endo.
“A Place Further than the Universe is broadcast to people who have been supporting us for a long time,” she continues. “Goodbye, Don Glees! is a movie: viewers have to go to the theater on their own. Even if the film portrays young characters in a similar manner, I thought the audience would change significantly. I never wanted to betray the people who have supported A Place Further than the Universe, but I wanted to try new ways of telling a story, hence an original theatrical feature. In the future, I’d like to try my hand at a new medium.”
Solving the Puzzle
As the story took shape, Ishizuka discovered that writing a script posed very different challenges than directing a screenplay someone else had written. “When writing a script, you have to create a firm sense of tempo,” she notes. “Until now, I’d leave that to a professional screenwriter. But this time I decided to challenge myself. The director specializes in assembling a puzzle in a fun and entertaining way. But the script writer has to create that puzzle, which requires using the opposite side of the brain.”
The story she constructed centers on the summer adventure of three high school boys in a flyspeck agricultural town in a mountainous region of Japan. Hokuto “Toto” Mitarai (voiced in the new English dub by Nick Wolfhard) and Roma Kamogawa (Adam McArthur) grew up as outcasts there, rejected by their classmates. They founded the club Don Glees, third-grader Toto’s attempt to say “don’t celebrate” in English (he’s subsequently learned “don’t glee” isn’t grammatical).
Toto transferred to a high school in Tokyo the previous year. It wasn’t his choice: His family has decreed he will go to med school and take over his father’s practice. But he wears his thin veneer of urban sophistication as awkwardly as his trendy haircut. Roma stayed in the village and remained a loner, working on his family’s vegetable farm. The other boys at school scoffingly refer to him as “cow dung guy.”
But while Toto’s been away, Roma’s made a new friend: the energetic Shizuku “Drop” Sakuma (Jonathan Leon), who sports a hoodie that looks like a dinosaur’s crest. Drop stages an outrageous stunt to make Roma look cool to his classmates. The scheme works — everyone’s stunned by the suddenly hip Roma and the glamorous “girls” who accompany him. But the plan backfires when the trio is falsely accused of starting a small forest fire during a local festival. The three boys set out to find their lost drone: It contains photos that will prove their innocence.
“From the beginning, I was thinking about empathy and life-sized feelings. I initially thought of ‘fighting evil’ as a theme that would be entertaining,” Ishizuka explains. “However, as I approached the story from various angles, I wondered if that was really a plot that expands the stories of these kids.”
“In depicting the growth of a boy, I was most concerned with what to set as a goal,” she continues. “In modern society, I wondered, what is a dream, what is something everyone longs for? When values are so diversified, what is something everyone would be happy to get? If the main characters are real boys, I think to become a hero to your favorite girl, to be the cool guy, is what they long for.”
Roma’s village is so isolated, there’s no reliable train or bus service; even the roads are in bad repair. The guys set off into the forest inadequately prepared and promptly get lost. Caves, ravines, rivers, a bear — and the lack of cell service — impede their progress. Over a bonfire stoked with pages of the textbook Toto brought along, the three friends bond. As they learn about each other and themselves, Ishizuka expands the story both internally and externally. Roma and Toto discover the affection that unites the trio when Drop reveals he’s suffering from a fatal disease. This wrenching knowledge compels them to leave their “hick town” for Iceland, where Drop once lived.
Traveling via Imagination
“Originally, I thought Iceland would be a nice place to have the boys face their lives and depict the moment they recapture the world in which they live. Isn’t this a place where we can go to give the characters a goal to strive for? That was the beginning of the plot of Goodbye, Don Glees!” Ishizuka adds.
“When working on a project I’ve learned it’s necessary to expand your characters’ field of view and show the learning and growth that come from it. There are always scenes where a character is being taught something or is actively learning and growing. The character grasps a concept like, ‘if you go to the ends of the Earth, you discover that there is even more left unexplored’ or ‘when your viewpoint is changed, you realize just how tiny your hometown actually is.’”
Ishizuka’s intrepid trio succeed in reaching a dramatically rendered version of Iceland: They stand beside thunderous waterfalls and look in awe at the lava seething in volcanic caldera. But Ishizuka and her artists had to imagine these settings. “Unfortunately, the COVID epidemic hit, so I couldn’t go location scouting. We had to create the Iceland that appears in the work. If it looks believable, it’s a tribute to my imagination,” she concludes with a laugh.
GKIDS and Fathom Events will present special preview nights for Goodbye, Don Glees! in select theaters on Sept. 14 (Japanese language) and Sept. 15 (English language dub), followed by a limited nationwide release by GKIDS starting Sept. 16.
Charles Solomon’s latest book The Man Who Leapt through Film: The Art of Mamoru Hosoda (Abrams) is available now. You can order your own copy at abramsbooks.com.