Japan (2019) Dir. Tomohiko Ito
We would all like to go back in time and change something in our pasts but we can’t, and even if we could, there are infinite possibilities to the scope of irreparable damage this could cause for us personally and the world around us. Yet, we never learn.
Koyoto 2027, and the city is now a standard-bearer for technological enhancements in daily life, yet some things never change. High school boy Naomi Katagaki is a loner who prefers books to people though he yearns to interact with others. A chance arrives when he is volunteered to join the book reading committee and talks to another book lover, taciturn and aloof Ruri Ichigyo.
One night, a bird steals his library book and when he gives chase, Naomi is confronted by a mysterious man in a white coat, claiming to be Naomi from ten years in the future. Adult Naomi explains to his younger self that his reality based on historical data stored in a system called Alltale and he has gained access from the real world to alter some data to prevent the death of his girlfriend – Ruri!
I don’t know what it is about Japanese sci-fi writers but they do like to overindulge in the complexities of messing about with science to the point the story becomes impenetrable. Hello World sounds straight forward enough in précis form but don’t be fooled by this – once the plot holes and paradoxes relating to time travel take hold, this film will leave your head spinning.
That most people won’t care and just want to enjoy 100-minutes of escapism allows creator to let their imaginations run wild as long is the finished product looks good, and this film certainly meets that criteria. However, it does at least offer some food for thought in attacking the well-trodden premise of changing the past for a proposed better future from an emotional standpoint.
Usually in these stories, it is someone with venal and pernicious motives hoping to remove an obstacle in the past to prevent it existing in the future (The Terminator) – in this instance, a lovelorn man wants his girlfriend to exist once more so they can enjoy a happy life together. This may sound sweet and well intended, but isn’t it also perhaps a little selfish? Maybe Ruri’s death, no matter how tragic, was meant to be, and allowed for another life to prosper elsewhere instead?
Admittedly, this is the ultimately wish fulfilment concept for lonely and awkward teenage boys, to learn they do actually find a girlfriend and with Naomi’s future self on hand with every bit of data to expediate the wooing process and which traps to avoid, makes it a less bumpy ride. Plus, Naomi is using himself to achieve this objective so who really gets hurt in all of this?
For the first half, this plays out as a fantasy rom-com in a world where technology is king but humanity isn’t completely AI integrated yet, so Naomi’s romantic journey remains relatable on that front. There is an early ironic joke in which our bookworm hero consults a self-help book to gain confidence in talking to people and fails miserably, which helps delineate his outlier life as one that isn’t a consequence of bullying.
Ruri on the other hand, is not quite tsundere but her steely glare and singular attitude is more than sufficient in letting people know she lives on her own terms. Her eventually softening towards Naomi is exponential rather than sudden, feeling more natural than in similar stories, helped by Naomi having the advantage of his future adult self directing the building of this relationship per Naomi’s diary.
Naomi is aided by the mysterious bird from earlier, a three-legged crow that transforms into God’s Hand, a special glove capable of creating anything of a physical and chemical base, giving him virtual superpowers. Remember, this world is a virtual one so anything can happen really, like strange lumbering creatures with fox masks which appear to fix any corrupt data – i.e. Naomi and his quest to change the current timeline.
So far, so compelling but it is all running too smoothly, so a mid-film twist is required and this is the point where logic – as such it is – start to collapse in on itself and the issue of someone occupying the same space and time as an alternate version of themselves exposes more problems within the story. I’m sure some out there will be able to follow this at every stage, but come the climax, much of it becomes rather convoluted and as trippy as the visuals.
Fair play to director Tomohiko Ito and writer Mado Nozaki for not succumbing to the temptation of being too predictable and staying with the singular narrative of the teen romance, it would have far too twee had it remained on that course. The virtual reality fantasy allows a lot of leeway in this and has been taken advantage of, but as ever the ending descends into “What the…?” typical of ambitious sci-fi anime.
But it is a fantastic looking film with a unique angle of its own – it is entirely 3D CGI yet looks just like 2D animation. Certainly, a few random moments expose this but overall I doubt most people would notice. Character designs are by KyoAni for added cuteness – a nice sight gag involving a school idol who literally sparkles is a nice Meta touch – and the artwork is sumptuous. The climax is a real head-trip of epic proportions – imagine Masaaki Yuasa directing Summer Wars!
Hello World is narratively simple to follow but the story suffers from trying to be too clever in predicting the science of the future and applying to it to a rom-com premise. That said, it is still thoroughly enjoyable and not at all po-faced, asking the right moral questions but providing no sufficient answers, but what fantasy ever does? Go for it, bookworms!
Currently streaming as part of the The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme Online Festival Feb 19th – Mar 7th