A contradictory scene in rural Japan: by the bank of a river, a master and his apprentices dye traditional Japanese fabric by hand, the way it’s been done for hundreds of years. In the river, a human-shaped robot plays in the water, trying to catch fish by hand. No one bats an eye; this is the world of the near-future, after all.
Both the old master and the robot pause to look at an airplane flying overhead, and both react in shock when the plane suddenly explodes.
That’s the inciting incident at the heart of Hal, a new film from animation studios Production IG (Ghost in the Shell, Letter to Momo) and the new Wit Studio, best known so far for Attack on Titan. It’s directed by first-timer Ryotaro Makihara, who previously worked as a key animator on films like Summer Wars and Tekkonkinkreet. The screenwriter is Izumi Kizara, the pen name for a writing duo who have written Japanese drama series but come to anime for the first time here.
A new studio, first-time director and anime writer(s), and, to top it off, an original property not based on a manga series or light novel: in today’s anime industry, this is a rare case indeed, and a risky proposition for producers. While they can get lucky and score a hit, like with last year’s Wolf Children, they can also see years of hard work fail miserably at the box office, like 2010’s Redline.
While we won’t know for a while how Hal fares at the ol’ B.O., from my vantage point, Hal is a success. While flawed in places and too slight, both in terms of running time and impact, Hal is nonetheless is an impressive work, especially for such a young team.
Back to the film: one of the passengers aboard the crashed plane is a young man named Hal. His girlfriend, Kurumi, becomes inconsolable, shutting herself indoors and refusing to eat or sleep. To help her through her grief, Kurumi’s grandfather modifies his personal robot to look and sound like Hal and sends him to Kurumi’s home.
As you might imagine, her initial reaction to the appearance of a robot who looks like her dead boyfriend is not welcoming. Over time, though, Robo-Hal makes small dents in Kurumi’s armor, all while learning what it is to be human and uncovering secrets about Hal’s past.
The film takes place in Kyoto, a city known for its historical temples, shrines and small, winding roads. Hal portrays Kyoto well, with a vibrant color palette and lots of detailed backgrounds. Despite being set in the future, it sticks largely with the “historical Japan” motif, which makes sense: if Kyoto hasn’t changed much in a few hundred years, why would it look much different in another fifty?
The filmmakers also do a good job of keeping the science fiction elements from obscuring the central plot. While the initial premise wouldn’t really work without the robot factor, the tech ultimately takes a back seat to the human story, which is the case with most good sci-fi.
Hal is at its best when it’s a quiet story between the two main characters. Occasionally, Hal falls a bit short when it pivots from that central point, as when it tries to wedge in a few action sequences. They feel abrupt and out of place in what is an otherwise heartfelt, quiet story.
That quibble, plus an unnecessary and cheap twist ending prevent me from giving Hal full marks, as does the runtime – at about 70 minutes, it feels slight – there are definitely enough secondary characters here to fill it out a bit more and give it some breathing room.
But Hal is definitely a success, if a qualified one, and it’s exciting to see original properties from up-and-coming creators out there.