Sometimes you just have really strong years for movies, and 2012 certainly was a really good example of that in terms of anime movies. There were Tibetan Dog, the first two Berserk: The Golden Age Arc movies, the Strike Witches movie, the first three Space Battleship Yamato 2199 compilation movies, Blood-C: The Last Dark, 009 Re:Cyborg, the first two Madoka Magica movies, the first Tiger & Bunny movie... Oh, and a couple of movies titled Wolf Children & Evangelion 3.0: You Can [Not] Redo. Therefore, it's only natural that a couple of Toei movies were completely ignored. Hell, Toei themselves were guilty of this lack of promotion, what with 2012 also being the year of the excellent One Piece Film Z, which was hyped & promoted like crazy. Still, I'm curious about these two ignored movies: Niji-Iro Hotaru ~Eien no Natsu Yasumi~/Rainbow Fireflies ~The Eternal Summer Vacation~ & Asura. Based on a 2007 novel by Masayuki Kawaguchi, no realtion to the anime director of photography of the same name (once again, a single kanji makes the difference), Niji-Iro Hotaru was a theatrical anime adaptation that debuted on May 19, 2012. From first look, the movie might seem more like a Ghibli production than from Toei, but is that, & an interesting animation style, enough to make this a forgotten gem from last year, or was it rightfully ignored?
Yuuta visits the Hotarugaoka Dam during his summer vacation, because he once visited the area with his father when he was a kid to catch beetles. His father had visited the area back in the 70s, when a village resided where the dam is presently located ,& loved the "ocean of fireflies" he saw; unfortunately, Yuuta's father died in a motorcycle accident in the same area not long ago. After getting stuck during a flash flood, when no rain was predicted, Yuuta ends up slipping & falling down a cliff. Luckily, he's saved by a mysterious old man, who he had given some water to earlier in the day, who magically transports Yuuta to safety. After meeting a girl named Saeko Yuuta, he notices something odd about the area: The dam is gone & there's a village in its place. Indeed, Yuuta has been transported to the year 1977, one month before the village is abandoned due to the construction of the dam. In this one month, Yuuta will learn about how life was in the village, what Saeko's mysterious past is, and how it relates to him.
If there's one thing Niji-Iro Hotaru definitely does amazingly, it's make the viewer really become attached to the village & the simple life that the people inside live. A large portion of the movie is based around the village life & how Yuuta interacts with the villagers, specifically Saeko & Kenzo, a boy he quickly befriends. In a neat twist, Yuuta isn't an outsider in any way, but instead is recognized by everyone as Saeko's cousin. The old man explains that Yuuta is taking the place of someone else in the time slip, so it's as if he was meant to be there in the first place. You see the trio get ready for the upcoming summer festival, the last one to happen in the village, go swimming, play around, & (naturally) see the fireflies at night, with Yuuta seeing firsthand what his father once saw. There isn't really any conflict to the movie, i.e. the plot isn't about stopping the dam from being made, so you simply get absorbed into the world the movie creates. You get a real feeling that this village was simply a victim of industrialization, and when Yuuta leaves it at the end you feel like you're going to miss it yourself.
That said, there is a bit of an overarching plot to the movie. Halfway through, the story puts more focus on Saeko, explaining how she relates to Yuuta & the old man. I really don't want to spoil anything, but it is a nicely done element that gives Yuuta something to aim for other than simply waiting for his time to leave, as the old man explains that returning takes time (one month to be exact), & he'll return right where he left off. It helps give development for Saeko, who up until then wasn't given too much, and this is where the movie gives off that Ghibli vibe slightly, showcasing a journey that two young kids go through in order to mature & learn new life lessons. This is a movie that's all about family, learning to let go, & never forgetting the bonds you've made in the past, no matter how impossible that may become.
To be fair, though, the movie does have it's slight flaws. It is a slow movie with very little plot advancement happening at once; like I said, it's more about seeing life in the village than advancing the story, per se. Yuuta ends up integrating with the village. The "grandma" he lives with becomes his own, Kenzo becomes his best friend, Saeko a sister-like cousin, & Tatsu, a.k.a. "Blue Tengu" (the priest of the local shrine), becomes a reliable voice of wisdom for him. How much you can accept the "simple life" style it goes for really depends on how immersed you become with the world & its characters. Another flaw is the direct ending of the movie. I think it goes without saying that, in the end, Yuuta does get back to the present day, & the final act shows him as a young adult. Without going into spoilers again, all I'll say is that the act itself isn't problematic, but a specific thing that happens at the very end comes off a little too "Disney Happy Ending"-ish. Considering how relatively normal the movie handles itself, aside from the time slipping, having everything end up so "ideal" comes off as a little contrived; if that one specific thing didn't happen I would have been perfectly fine with the ending. It makes me wonder if Kawaguchi had this final bit in his novel, or if Toei added it for their own reasons.
Honestly, though, the part of the movie that's most noticeable is the animation itself. Instead of being done traditionally, the movie instead utilizes a style I have never seen done in an entire production before. Really, the best I can explain it is by calling it an "animated sketchbook". The backgrounds are traditonally painted, but the characters & all of the items they interact with have this purposefully rough look to them, almost as if they barely made it past the initial sketchbook phase before getting colored. It's definitely a one-of-a-kind look that really makes the movie identifiable just by its visuals. In terms of execution, it honestly works well for the most part. Far away shots might look a little simplistic & rough, but in every other shot it's actually really cool, if a little awkward at first; you really do get used to it after a few minutes. This sketchbook look, though, actually results in some very fluid animation, sometimes even surpassing that of traditional animation. It's obviously not rotoscoped, because the characters don't look "realistic" enough, but it's obviously not done in the way most anime is made. Some might never get used to it, but those who do will find an interesting experiment that does succeed overall.
Niji-Iro Hotaru is directed by Konosuke Uda (Lovely Complex, One Piece), & he really knows how to tell a movie about realistic people & the lives they live, making the viewer feel like they are a part of that world. The character designs by animation director Hisashi Mori, traditionally a key animator, are simple but effective, working perfectly with the sketchbook style. The music by Masataka Matsutouya is used sparingly at times but fits every time it's used, delivering a range from simple to downright majestic. The ending theme, "Ai to Tooi Hi no Mirai he" by Yumi Matsutoya, also fits perfectly, with its simple verses & emotional chorus that really helps deliver the sense of somber happiness that the end of the village gives off. During the climax of the village portion of the movie, there's also an insert song, "Mizu no Kage" by Mia Inoue, that fits the scene excellently, though the animation there also becomes more experimental & rotoscope-like. The main cast is small, lead by Akashi Takei & Ayumi Kimura, both newcomers to anime, as Yuuta & Saeko, respectively. This is likely a case of hiring live-action actors for the role, but both do great jobs with their characters & make it easy to relate to them; the same is true for Osamu Shinden's Kenzo. The only other important characters of note are the Grandmother (Ikuko Tani), the old man (Taro Ishida), & Blue Tengu (Chikao Ohtsuka), all of which are voiced by traditional seiyuu & also deliver great performances.
Niji-Iro Hotaru ~Eien no Natsu Yasumi~ is an interesting family movie that aims more for immersion & the promise of a simpler life, but combined with an experimental animation style that really isn't like anything else out there. It kind of feels like Toei was trying to go for a more Ghibli-esque movie, and while it doesn't exactly make it to that level of general quality, it also didn't deserve to be absolutely ignored last year. Yes, the competition was strong, almost absurdly so, but it's not like this was a bad effort by Toei at trying something different. Who knows... Maybe a company will give this movie a try soon, but at the very least it shouldn't be ignored & forgotten, because it's definitely a quality work with a unique look.