Hotarubi no mori e (The Light of a Firefly Forest)

Japan (2011) Dir. Takahiro Ômori

Six year-old Hotaru Takegawa is visiting her uncle in the countryside during the summer when she gets lost in a nearby enchanted forest. Luckily help is on hand in the form of Gin, a young lad a few years older hiding behind a novelty mask, who is actually a spirit of the forest. He escorts Hotaru to the exit and they agree to meet again, beginning a long lasting friendship. However Gin cannot be touched by a human otherwise he will disappear but a palpable bond still develops between the two.

Every once in a while we need a break from the norm, and in the case of anime that would be shonen fantasy adventures, fan service, mecha, moe, and existentialist sci-fi violence. Hotarubi no mori e is that break in the norm we’ve been waiting for. A simple and charming old fashioned romance story which has no agenda other to remind the viewer that even the simplest things in life can engender great happiness even if it does come at a price.

The relationship between Hotaru and Gin, even with the age difference since Gin is a spirit who will never get old, remains platonic on the purest level, spanning across many summers. There certainly isn’t any sign of romantic intent on either behalf, keeping the emphasis being on two young people enjoying each other’s company.

They are not entirely alone of course, as many other spirits roam the forested area but they pose little to no threat, aside from the odd reminder to Gin of the curse put on him by the Forest God. For Hotaru their time together is a gateway to wonder and excitement as if she were being taken to an amusement park. In the early scenes Hotaru’s overexcitement and childish verve earns her a few bops on the head with a stick for subconsciously trying to embrace Gin – a temptation she is quickly relieved of.   

Gin is initially something of an enigma in that he is human in form – even under mask – yet always refers to himself as a spirit. We learn the truth later on, which explains why he looks nothing like most of the oddities who roam the forest, but his ambiguous replies to Hotaru’s questions about his mask and the curse plant some seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind as to how genuine a spirit he really is. Hotaru seems oblivious to Gin’s otherworldliness and sees him as a friendly tour guide, until she gets older and her age closes in on Gin’s.

Soon though, it unsuspectingly encroaches on her daily life. In one scene where she is walking to school on a wintry day and the pavement is icy, Hotaru is offered a steady hand from a male classmate; the touching of his hand with hers serving as a painful reminder of what she is missing out on with Gin, exacerbating her keenness to see him again.

It is these little touches which add to the film’s charm, affirming the viewer’s unwitting investment in the plight of this mismatched couple. Its gentle mood is reflected in the emotive piano soundtrack and the bold pastoral colours of the artwork transports you deep into the heart of the forest, while the excitement of the mild summer night air during the spirit festival in the final act is equally palpable.

The influence of Studio Ghibli’s reflective films such as Only Yesterday and Whisper Of The Heart is present not just with the flashback narrative but the air of sentimentality created through Hotaru’s fond memories.

It is possible that some may find this film too short – clocking in at just under forty-five minutes – but with such an simple and uncomplicated premise the danger of diluting its effect is present when eking the story out beyond its natural point. Hotarubi no mori e is enchanting proof that less is more and keeping it simple pay dividends. A welcome summer treat for anime fans.


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