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Buried Treasure
Hotori ~The Simple Hope For Joy~

by Justin Sevakis,

On occasion, I try to brainstorm what would be the most disturbing image that one could portray in a film or animation. Having lived in a world where the internet has often brought us instant access to more horrors and depravity than the vast majority of previous generations would ever see in their lifetimes, this list is surprisingly short. Having been thoroughly desensitized during my previous jobs, I often simply couldn't think of anything. The one item that I kept coming back to was "children committing suicide."

While it apparently does happen (often for the same reasons as adults), the idea of children trying to off themselves is especially disturbing because until puberty and its ensuing angst set in, most children's minds simply don't work that way. Being a child, full of the age's natural vigor and zest, one simply doesn't think about giving up that early. There's also the unthinkable question of why; what horrors the child must have endured in order to get into that headspace.

To my surprise, Hotori doesn't milk this delicate subject matter for pathos, nor does it treat lightly the problems that lead to this point. It's a delicate story that could almost be called a flight of fancy, but is remarkably grounded and mature in how it approaches a number of sensitive issues. Despite its short running time (only about 40 minutes) it's moderately paced and thought provoking. It's also not nearly as depressing as it sounds.

Hotori ~The Simple Hope for Joy~
(Hotori ~Tada Saiwai wo Koinegau~)

It's with this imagery, bearing those questions that Hotori ~The Simple Hope For Joy~ starts. We see a boy reluctantly aiming a gun at a little girl as she sits on her bed, fireworks crackling in the background. She beckons him to continue. Then he pulls the trigger.

Obviously anything this provocative must explain itself, so we jump back in time to see what lead to all this. We start with the boy, Suzu, who we learn is actually a humanoid robot. His actual name is Ryou (his nickname comes from an alternate reading of the kanji), and he's being prepared as a replacement for the parents of the actual Ryou, who are still distraught over the passing of their son. Luckily, his memories were backed up, and Suzu is slowly having them implanted. His nurse supervises and keeps track of him as he begins to "remember" things like how to interpret a laugh, and the various other complexities of human interaction. He's come pretty far, but he's still a work-in-progress.

One day Suzu is playing ball, killing time while waiting for an appointment with the doctor. He chases a stray ball into a corridor he never noticed, and, wandering in, he finds a girl in a bedroom named Hotori. Hotori is Suzu's opposite: she's a Real Girl who has a medical condition that's slowly causing her to losing her memories. (This disease seems like Alzheimer's Disease or some related dementia, but is never named.)

The two become friends. Hotori puts on a strong face for her family, but quietly vents her depression and fear of her sitation to Suzu. She's quite aware that people are the product of their experiences, and she's terrified of forgetting what's been important in her life. Her father also happens to be Suzu's doctor (hence, her close proximity), but he can't bring himself to make a back-up of her, knowing that the resulting girl will be a doll, and not the real thing.

For Suzu, this is an invaluable experience to learn the intricacies of the human heart. He listens quietly to her, musing to himself as he tries to learn from both of their experiences. He's grappling with meeting his "new parents," and doesn't really know what to make of them. He's starting to reject the persona that's being forced on him. Befriending the critically ill has its share of scary moments too, as Suzu learns when Hotori disappears unexpectedly. He finds her, unresponsive, standing on a roof and precariously close to the edge.

Suzu saves her, but later Hotori talks to him. She has decided that she can't let herself get to a point where she can't remember the important people in her life. She's found a gun in the abandoned greenhouse she spends her time in, and begs Suzu to kill her. Not really understanding what this entails, he accepts.

What happens next I'll leave to you to discover, and while it's not an altogether unexpected conclusion to the story, it's an interesting way to conclude things on an upbeat note. The story was in danger of becoming desperately sad, and luckily this is avoided without having to resort to either mawkish sentimentality or a deus ex machina.

Hotori was the third winner of the Animax Grand Prix, an annual contest held since 2002 by the Japanese cable channel to find stories particularly suited for animation. I can't find much (any) information about the original story (other than that the author uses a pseudonym that I'm guessing is romanized as "Hitou" not using the kanji for "person" but rather "fire" and "winter"). The existential crises of artificial life forms is nothing new to anime, having been explored in everything from Ghost in the Shell to Astro Boy, but Hotori comes from a quieter, more observant place. Having Hotori to contrast what Suzu goes through serves to emphasize the importance of memories in the human experience.

The piece was animated by Sunrise and directed by Takashi Anno, a man who has spent his career specializing in "daily life" sort of anime such as Maison Ikkoku, Miracle Girls and Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. It's well-done, though it occasionally exposes its low budget with minor continuity slip-ups and short-cuts. The color palate is a little too flatly bright and vivid, reminding me of some of the other direct-to-Animax anime I've seen, such as Whistle!. The screenplay by Tomoko Konparu is gentle and well-paced without being audacious, reminding me of some of her earlier work adapting Rumiko Takahashi stories. Supervising as a producer is none other than Ryosuke Takahashi (Votoms, Flag, Gasaraki), who clearly understands human drama as well as he understands mecha.

The production is made immediately heartwarming by the performance of Ayako Kawasumi as Hotori, playing what could have been a whiny and annoying role as restrained and contemplative. One can almost hear the weight of the disease in her voice, as if the struggles have taken their emotional toll and forced soul-searching beyond her years. Ryoko Shiraishi is also quite memorable as the earnest Suzu.

Hotori ~The Simple Hope for Joy~ is a pensive little jewel that reminds us of the joys of simply living, of accumulating memories. It walks a delicate line, maintaining a solid balance between the joy and the sad in life. It's quietly unforgettable.

As a footnote, I couldn't help but notice that despite the story taking place in Japan, one shot, held at the title screen, looks an awful lot like the Brooklyn Heights Promenade in New York City. Having lived in Brooklyn Heights for my first couple of years in the city I would recognize it anywhere. The warehouse piers you see at the bottom will soon be demolished and turned into a park, and while that's unmistakably an improvement, I'll miss the view, which brings back a lot of important memories. I sure would hate to lose them.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How To Get It: As if teasing us with becoming just a memory in and of itself, Hotori has never been released on home video (nor has any of the other Animax Grand Prix shows). I'm sure it's rerun on the channel itself occasionally, but if you don't get the channel you're out of luck. A fansub does exist, but is getting very hard to find these days.

Screenshots ©2005 Hito/Sunrise • Animax Grand Prix. All rights reserved.

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