Liz and the Blue Bird is 30 minutes longer than it needs to be. Despite the smooth animation, crisp visual style and well written comfy soundtrack, this movie is a drag to watch.
The story is unfortunately basic. Two friends are playing important parts in a concert band piece and relate themselves to the story behind the piece. They have a very gay scene at the end where they hug and say what they love about each other. In the end, they become closer friends because they understand each other more. There is not enough content to stretch the movie out to 90 minutes with. The first scene is seven and a half minutes and literally nothing happens.
The movie takes place in two locations. The first is the school, which consists of a couple generic highschool rooms. The second is the world of the music piece, which uses a different art style to differentiate it from the real world. When the movie is in the real world, the style looks like that of A Silent Voice. When it’s in the music piece, it looks somewhat like a picture book and uses the style of Baja’s Studio.
The soundtrack is the most important part of the movie. The titular piece, Liz and the Blue Bird, was made specifically for the movie. We don’t hear much of it, just the 3rd movement. The piece was made to reflect the contrasting personalities of the two main characters. The rest of the soundtrack is relaxing and subdued pieces that are intended to evoke a dreamlike feeling, and succeed in doing so.
The story was not one worth telling. While it’s an improvement upon Hibike Euphonium Season 2’s arc revolving around the two leads, spending 90 minutes watching two girls walk around some halls, talk to each other and play instruments is not engaging. The visuals of A Silent Voice were more consistent and more impressive due to the many different locations and plot events that allowed for lots of animation. The style of Baja’s studio is too cutesy and childish, but it isn’t used enough to be a large problem. The soundtrack is the major reason to watch the movie. It wouldn’t have as much significance if you listened to it by itself since it needs the context of the movie. Even so, Liz and the Blue Bird is too boring to be worth your time.
"Liz to Aoi Tori" is essentially a side story to the "Hibike Euphonium" series, and from the very start, it fully embraces that role. Fans of the TV anime will likely find themselves despairing over the limited screen-time of their favorite cast members, inching forward in their seats as Kumiko, Reina, and the rest of the now-second-year ensemble teasingly jump in and out of picture for only moments at a time. This minor frustration will only be temporary, however, as we're forced out of that frame of mind, into the soft, melancholic lens of our focal point in this movie: Mizore. Although this story exists in the same music room we've all come to know, it takes on a different hue. Owing in large part to the incredible soundtrack and fresh character designs and art direction, the tone of the movie shifts entirely, transitioning from an inspirational story of motivation and hard work into a deeply somber and introspective world.
The story itself is very simple, examining the relationship of Nozomi and Mizore in their final year in high school. It openly compares the feelings of the two characters with the piece they play, the namesake of the film, and the folktale it was based on. I was originally concerned that the comparison would end up overplayed and come off as forced, but I left pleasantly surprised. The film acknowledges the simplicity and straight-forwardness of the story, but instead of allowing itself to be confined to that, it achieves a level of technical mastery that managed to blow me away, even though I was already plenty used to the historically superb Kyoto Animation and the other wonderful works by director Naoko Yamada before watching it.
The film succeeds on such a level because it allows itself to be a single vignette in the "Hibike" storyline. It's not a story of hard work, a story of competition, or even a story of music. It's a simple story of two characters, and it's precisely because this aspect of it was so intimately understood by the production crew at KyoAni that such a story was allowed to flourish. There is no excess. The film brazenly jumps through time, refusing to linger on anything unnecessary while still allowing the events that clearly happen off-screen to create meaningful depth in the story. We don't focus on what practicing is like. We don't see what the characters do on their weekends. We don't listen to the girls ruminating on their feelings in the comfort of their beds. From the moment we as an audience walk with Mizore onto campus at the beginning to when we exit it at the end, all we see is what's limited to the confines of the school, to the band room and to our two leads, and everything else is left to become a sort of wistful ether that exists on the fringes of our minds. Because what was shown was clearly so carefully chosen, we come to viscerally understand the weight behind every lingering shot. It's an incredibly delicate experience, and one that could've only been realized with production quality of this caliber.
Yamada's quirks as a director have often been the subject of conversation in the anime community, but I believe that this film has been one of the best applications of those idiosyncrasies to date. Her approach to the art of unspoken communication paralleled the film's focus on Mizore, a girl unable to truly express, and at moments even understand, her own feelings. Subtle gestures such as Mizore stroking her hair not only serve to silently convey the cast's thoughts, but end up feeling as if they were sewn into the very plot itself due to how integral of a role they play. The consistent focus on the characters' legs—a mainstay in Yamada's works—mirrors Mizore's own downcast eyes, and the other camera shots always seem to look off to the side, as if shyly avoiding the characters around her. Add to this the introduction of a softer pastel art style, and we see the world brilliantly through the lens of our main characters, creating something amazingly intimate.
The soundtrack and sound direction are, hands down, the shining star of the film. It combines composer Kensuke Ushio's fragmented, minimal approach also found on his work in Yamada's previous film, "Koe no Katachi," with the expertly realized orchestral arrangements that the series is known for. However, gone are the sweeping brass-heavy pieces that complimented Kumiko's role as a main character in the original series. The introduction of the new piece instead turns the focus to the woodwinds. Brass now supports from the background, and the airy voices of woodwind instruments paint the entirety of the film with a wonderful warmth that sets it apart from the main franchise. The parallel stories of Mizore and Nozomi and the girls from the folktale blend masterfully into each other because of this—from the gorgeous bass clarinet adding a sense of comforting security to the cold isolation of a "Koe no Katachi"-styled piano piece casting an ominous tone over the characters—yet the well-timed use of other instruments such as the bassoon add the perfect amount of levity when necessary (the bassoon in particular being used wonderfully to comedic effect when the bassoonists themselves are relevant to the scene), while still staying in line with the overarching thematic style.
That's why this film works. Every aspect of it is fine-tuned to near-uncanny perfection. The psyches of each character are silently brought to the surface through each deliberate animation choice, from Nozomi's eyes darting around the room to Mizore's subconscious trembling. The soundtrack compliments each and every emotional swell—synchronized musical flourishes match footsteps and impeccably timed silences pull us devastatingly close to the most minute of actions. Each background track cuts to the core, yet never accidentally overpowers the gentle art and soft color scheme. Because of this masterful balance, all of the reactions are almost unnaturally natural, seemingly larger than life because of how lifelike they are. This kind of exaggerated humanity is an achievement only possible through the medium of animation, and even then, I have never seen it done quite like this. Although giving a full score seems like it could be a provocative statement for a film focused simply on the minutia of a measly two characters, if this movie isn't considered among the best for the sheer level of craftsmanship that it exhibits, then I really don't know what other film deserves to be.