“I didn’t know back then how easy it was for someone to die.”
This provocative opening line sets the stage for Atsuko Ishizuka and Madhouse’s coming-of-age, adventure film Goodbye Don Glees, a movie about a weekend that changes the lives of three teenage boys. Ishizuka, known for 2018 critically acclaimed A Place Further than the Universe (Yorimoi), takes us from the forests of Japan to the waterfalls of Iceland with Roma, Toto, and Drop, three friends connected by more than just friendship in their small, farming town.
Even with its ominous opener, Don Glees truly has a quirky premise. Set in a rural Japanese town, three high school outcasts (who call their misfit group Don Glees) hold a personal firework festival when they are not invited to the one in their town. When a wildfire destroys the forest near their secret base and students begin to blame the boys for the damage, they set out into the mountains to search for a missing drone that they believe has video footage to prove their innocence.
The Don Glees themselves are fun characters; Roma– the farmer’s son wanting for more, Toto– the Tokyo runaway trying to find purpose, and Drop– the insightful newcomer with a scooter and a dream. The dialogue between these three is where the movie truly shines; their interactions are natural and contagious, their struggles and strategies to avoid arrest all too bombastic and age-appropriate. The movie is at its best when the Don Glees share the screen together. Ishizuka breathes life into their adolescent friendship, making it all the more troubling when one of those lives gets snuffed out, leaving the remaining two boys searching for questions with difficult answers.
Madhouse does a wonderful job on the production of this film. Its landscapes are beautiful and its combination of 3D in its cinematography is extremely smooth; action scenes are exciting and a marvel on the big screen. In my opinion, the soundtrack left much to be desired. The “engrish” of the insert songs were awkward and cheesy, draining the emotional impact of the film’s most pivotal scenes. This possibly didn’t affect the Japanese audience, but it left my husband and I giggling and fidgeting in our seats instead of being in awe at the scenery or emotionally invested in a character interaction.
Goodbye Don Glees is a fun film that is definitely worth watching, but it doesn’t do anything new or surprising enough to make it stand out from the rest. The last twenty minutes, in my opinion, were absolutely stunning but did not do enough to lift up the rest of the movie. At an hour and a half, it is nowhere near a slog to watch, but when the final act is so strong in comparison to the first two, it highlights Don Glee’s flaws more than it showcases the perfection of its conclusion.
My reflection of this film brings me back to its opening line. Would the film have been more impactful without the dramatic irony? What if we discovered the demise of one of its core characters with the rest of the cast, instead of knowing it from the very start? How would the lack of knowledge change the way we experienced the story? Unfortunately, I will never have an answer to that question, but I am still happy that I watched Don Glees and would recommend it. It won’t change your life, but it’s a thoughtful story that covers some well-trod but important themes. It's a wild ride that will have you smiling from beginning to end.