Anime Secret Santa time! For this joyous and festive occasion, I chose to watch… a downbeat film about a grieving girl who struggles to deal with the death of her boyfriend. Yeah. Also, some robotic shenanigan.
For the second year in row, I joined the secret santa program hosted by the fine fellows at Reverse Thieves (for the uninitiated: it’s an annual event where you exchange anime recommendations between fellow bloggers, and post about a show/film recommended to you by Christmas). Last year, I wrote about Katsuhiro Ootomo’s sci-fi anthology film Memories, and this time… I’m doing another sci-fi film. HAL was recommended to me on the basis that I listed Time of Eve as one of my personal favorites, and I can see the similarity: they’re both sci-fi story that’s more grounded than fantastical, dealing primarily with human condition through the lens of a futuristic world.
HAL is produced by Wit Studio, a recently established anime studio and subsidiary of IG Port. They’ve already earned relative success during its young existence, debuting with pop culture juggernaut Attack on Titan. Ryoutarou Makihara, HAL’s director, also helmed another Wit Studio-produced film in The Empire of Corpses and started his career doing animation for some notable TV series. The film’s screenplay is written by Izumi Kihara (apparently a pseudonym).
(‘HAL’ is spoken like the Japanese word ‘spring’, and a likely reference to the rogue AI in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, though the robot character here is nowhere like that terrifying creature)
The film starts with our adorable Q01, some type of a helper robot, witnessing a plane explosion. The incident then becomes a catalyst for the robot’s next assignment, which… doesn’t make much sense to me, honestly. So, there is this girl Kurumi who become depressed (this is information you could infer from the opening scenes) because she lost her boyfriend Hal from the explosion, and thus:
Step 1: Q01 is sent to help Kurumi…. by assuming the appearances of of her beloved HAL
Step 2: ???
Step 3: Kurumi is saved!
Granted, I don’t exactly have a Doctorate in Psychoteraphy, but that feels kind of messed up. There’s no explanation on why this is considered a good idea, and the next thing we see is the robot doing household chores in the girl’s house, while being the perfect duplicate appearance-wise to her late boyfriend. Anyway, Kurumi eventually warms up to Robot Hal, leading to some whimsical moments (like Robot-Hal trying to secure a pet giraffe for her) and bittersweet remembrances of happier days when Kurumi and Human-Hal were together.
This is a film centered around the theme of ‘healing’, as reflected by its visual tone and choices of framing. Water is a big recurring element; the first shot is an underwater shot, the climactic scene is a rainy and extended underwater sequence, and there are many interspersed shots of river bank and general flow of water throughout. The color palette is vivid, with the tone getting brighter as Kurumi’s process of healing progresses. This complemented the character design by Io Sakisaka (the most recognizable name in the staff to me, due to her popular shoujo manga Strobe Edge and Blue Spring Ride), who has a knack for drawing appealing faces with lively eyes. As the numerous close-ups emphasize, Hal and Kurumi are indeed very easy on the eyes, without veering to the uniform saccharine look that defines many anime characters.
The visual creates a gentle mood with undercurrent of sorrow, while everything else are similarly understated. The score is so soft I barely noticed it most of the time, dialogue is sparse, and there is general sense of vagueness all around. Now, I tend to use ‘understated’ as a positive term, but the atmosphere alone can’t always carry the film. The narrative relies too much on a couple of gimmicks, the first being the ever present Rubix Cube (used to highlight Kurumi’s wishes for Hal), and the bigger one ends up being the film’s defining feature.
(spoiler in the next section)
HAL is a film with plot twist. Not just a regular twist, but the kind of Plot Twist that an entire film is built around.
Is it a good one? If we assess twist purely based on its shock value, then the answer is affirmative. The film does a great job concealing the truth, which necessitates tricking the viewers and withholding some key information. Thing is, I don’t think it’s a better film with the twist. I don’t think the surprise and dramatic pay-off are worth hamstringing character development and general screenplay up to the revelation. It doesn’t cause the narrative to make more sense either; I question the common sense in the plot before the twist, and I still do the same even with the new knowledge…. just in a different way.
In the end, I feel I would’ve liked HAL better in short story format. It’s not a bad film and certainly worth watching if you have a taste for slow burn sci-fi drama with solid aesthetic, but I can’t help feeling that its key narrative feature, while clever and competently executed, also diminishes potential for character nuances that the film could have.
HAL can be watched on Funimation site, among others. There’s also a manga version beautifully illustrated by Umi Ayase.
Merry Chrismas and Happy New Year to all who celebrate!