Struggling with loss is never easy, though robot therapy could make it all easier to handle.
What They Say:
When death separates young lovers Kurumi and Hal, “robot Hal” arrives to cheer Kurumi up. As the new Hal begins to uncover the couple’s secret past, a reluctant Kurumi slowly warms up to him. This beautifully-animated feature film explores the connections and conundrums that make us human.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Original productions are projects that I always get a bit more excited about in general since they don’t conform to a structure that’s defined by print publication. And productions by a new studio even more so since they tend to be real passion projects that people come together to produce since they want to use that as their launch calling card as they begin other projects. Wit Studio kicked off in 2012 with their founding under IG Port and and Hal became their first public project that landed in the summer of 2013 and was quickly picked up by FUNimation. Wit then went on to their next big project, which turned out to be Attack on Titan, with a dose of Hozuki no Reitetsu as well. Suffice to say, their initial projects have caught a lot of attention in just a couple of years, but Hal was the hard one to narrow down because of it being a feature and with relatively limited availability compared to a TV series.
With Hal, we get a feature that takes place in a near future where the world is just a little bit different, mostly in the form that there are robots that exist here, though of a certain kind of limited means. They’re not part of everyday life and we don’t see them all over the place as we go through things. In fact, we really only see one robot as a bit of a bookend piece in a way and it has a kind of old school aspect to it where you can see a dash of Tezuka in the design. But that introduction is done well as it’s a curious robot, one that you get the sense that it truly wants to feel and have emotion, as we see the human element laid out clear in the form of a young couple going through tragedy. Introducing us the young man of Hal and his girlfriend Kurumi, we see the way that there’s a plane accident that leads to Hal’s death and the complete breakdown of Kurumi. And in the months that followed, the robot that we met wants to be able help Kurumi and there is a way to do it.
That way is to use robotic therapy where the robot is given a new skin that makes him look very, very close to Hal himself. While the robot has its own name, it takes on the name of Hal once it receives the skin and returns to where Kurumi lives in order to try and help her and draw her out. For Hal, he’s struggling with what it means to feel and to understand what Kurumi is going through and he wants to do what he can to help her. But he’s just so uncertain about it. There’s a child-like quality about him with all of this that’s nicely balanced by the reclusive nature of Kurumi for it since she’s stuck in her bedding closet and doesn’t come out much from there, though she does watch him and helps him a little bit here and there along the way. The two don’t have a lot of contact throughout the film, but enough to provide a growing bond, and the way that they interact has a certain sweetness to it. For Hal, it’s through a Rubik’s Cube that he has with all sorts of things that were written about him by Kurumi that when reworked and changed ends up revealing more about the relationship that Kurumi had with the real Hal.
And it’s through that device that we learn more about the real Hal through some well constructed flashbacks and a series of good interactions with others that live in the area that knew the pair and have their own connections with them. There is a certain sort of polite distance that’s kept from them as the two go through this period of healing and watching how they fuss and help but also just nod and let them go through it allows you to be drawn into the story more as it unfolds. Hal and Kurumi had an unusual relationship that starts to come out the more that the robot Hal learns of it and you really do get a good feeling for each of them, the kind of love that they had and that both were very flawed individuals with their own issues that found something in the other that, while important, couldn’t alter their fundamentals and change them. With the kind of blank slate we get from the robot Hal, it’s a canvas upon which the story can be told and it works with some really good execution, particularly as it hits a surprising twist in the third act that had me rewatching it right afterwards to make sure that I grasped the totality of what it really wanted to do.
One of the things that definitely helps to make this work on an emotional level, especially if you open yourself up to it and let it do what it wants to do, is the beautiful animation. Wit Studio has definitely proven themselves with Attack on Titan in making something striking, but it’s here that we see what they can come up with on their own. And it’s lavish in its own way, giving us a look at the town that these characters inhabit, the details to their lives and where they live. Residences and businesses alike feel like characters within the film as they have a presence of their own that comes alive because it feels lived in and a part of their lives. Not just backgrounds that they walk through while going through the story itself. And that blends very well with the character animation that has its own beauty to it with great detail and some wonderful designs across the board that makes everything distinctive but also familiar. There’s a whole lot to like here that an animation fan can spend hours just poring through and admiring on a technical level but also just the overall aesthetic beauty of it all.
One of the things that has alway drawn me to anime, particularly original projects like this, is that it can take chances and do new things. Hollywood has adapted a lot in the last few years in making things less safe for characters and that’s helped up the storytelling since you don’t feel like everything basically resets at the end. With Hal, we get that early on because it starts with a death and works through the healing process, the pain of it all and the discovery of what truly matters in life. With a reserved approach that’s focused on this kind of understanding, it takes a precise kind of pacing to it so that it teases out more of who these characters are and explores them so that they’re fully humanized, making you care. And Hal does make you care, both through the well done script and the beautiful animation that we get here. Wit Studio has a lot of potential to be a strong force and Hal is going to be one of those early crown jewels that shows that they really do understand how to make great anime. This is the film that you show people who say that anime is all the same and that there’s nothing worthwhile out there. This is worthwhile.
Content Grade: B+
Released By: FUNimation
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.