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.
The audio presentation for this release is pretty straightforward as we get the original Japanese language track in stereo as well as the new English language mix, both of which are encoded using the Dolby TrueHD lossless codec. It’s still a little surprising to see that the English mix didn’t get bumped to 5.1, but it’s not a mix that would really gain a whole lot from it. The feature is pretty much dialogue based for the majority of it with a few areas where there’s a bit more action, but it’s the swell of the music that really highlights it more than anything else. The dialogue side of it is really nicely done though as there’s a lot going on between the two main characters and how they move through the story and it’s conveyed well in both the quieter scenes and the more angstful ones. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and we didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.
Originally released in the summer of 2013, the transfer for this film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. The feature isn’t a long one, clocking in at just about an hour exactly, but with animation by Wit Studio, it looks damn fine. The quality of the animation and colors here is one that really does beg the whole high definition presentation on a big screen even if it is a more personal story because of the framing of it and the way we get the whole fluidity of so many scenes. Colors have a whole lot of pop and vibrancy here and there’s some great detail to be had throughout. The backgrounds are no slouch here either as there’s a lot of great detail to be had with so much of it really adding to the overall atmosphere of it. With a real world design with just a couple of quirks, it’s definitely a beautiful presentation.
The packaging for this release is a slight step above just a standard Blu-ray case as we get the case inside a nice slipcase, albeit one of the thin ones that’s a bit thicker than the o-cards that some releases get. The slipcase uses the same artwork as the case itself, but there’s a real difference in vibrancy here as the slipcase is made of better material and it just leaps off more, especially with the logo. The front cover is definitely nice as we get Hal and Kurumi together from the one-sheet that was used heavily. The countryside background looks good and giving half of it over to the cloudy sky background works well since it has the very colorful logo on top of it. The back cover has some softer material with the pair that works well while also having a nicely colorful image of the giraffe from the feature. The premise is well covered and we get a few nice shots from the show as well. The technical grid covers everything well, though it and the production grid really need a solid background so that it’s more legible across the board. With the case being the same as the slipcase, the only difference we get is that there’s a great two panel piece of artwork on the reverse side that does an illustration style look at the lead two characters.
The menu design for this release works well enough, though it’s a bit more simple than I might have cared for in a certain regard. The main aspect of it is that it’s a clip menu, which means we get some decent pieces with colored filters over them that sets the tone well enough. The menu navigation is kept along the left with a slightly transparent white block that has the navigation laid out vertically that is straightforward and easy to use. What gives it some pop is that the logo is above it and it really stands out well. Sadly, that’s not used during playback with the pop-up menu, which makes it feel all the more stark and simple. All of it works well though with easy navigation and accessibility.
The extras for this release are pretty nicely done as we get some decent stuff for both sides of the language fans. For the English language fans, there’s a feature length commentary track with the cast and staff of the film that has some good fun with it. For the Japanese language fans, or those that like seeing pieces of how films are made, there’s two making of pieces that clocks in at 17 minutes. There’s a six minute piece looking at the animatics of the feature while the eleven minute piece focuses on the making of in general, though mostly just showing the evolution of the pieces. We also get the always welcome closing sequence in clean form.
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.
Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Actor Commentary, Making Of: Production Process, Making Of: Animatics & Scratch Tracks, Textless Closing Song
Content Grade: A-
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: A
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B
Released By: FUNimation
Release Date: September 2nd, 2014
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen
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.