Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Doukyusei -Classmates- Blu-Ray
Hikaru Kusakabe makes overachieving look effortless. He's tall, blond, and unbelievably talented at music, drawing friends and admirers to him without even trying. Rihito Sajo, on the other hand, melts into a puddle of doubt and fear at the faintest suggestion of a challenge. Even through a thick pair of glasses, he can't see the blackboard from the back of the class, but he's too intimidated by his handsome teacher to even ask for a closer desk. But in a twist of fate, Sajo finds out his seat was already in the perfect place, when Kusakabe sees him struggling silently during choir practice and offers to help him learn the music he isn't able to read. For both of these young men, their time in high school is almost at an end, but now that they've started becoming close, everything they expected from the future is about to change.
When I first heard Aniplex was going to start screening a critically and financially successful boys' love movie produced by A-1 Pictures in theaters, I was pretty puzzled. Boys' love, shonen-ai, yaoi, however you want to slice it, is not a genre people tend to associate with prestige projects in anime, but between this movie and the haltingly beautiful and thoughtful Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū earlier this year, 2016 might be turning things around for Japan's long history of women telling stories about men who love men. I settle for calling this movie boys' love and not yaoi purely because the line between the two is often drawn at sexually explicit content, which Doukyusei does not have. But honestly, calling this movie boys' love also feels disingenuous for drawing assumptions too far in the other direction. Boys' love calls to mind anime full of subtextual glances and open-ended friendliness that deliberately leave the maybes big enough to attract a wider audience. Doukyusei dives right into the love confessions and intimacy right away and never turns back.
In fact, capturing both physical and emotional capital-I Intimacy is the focus of this movie from start to finish, but not in the voyeuristic kind of way you might expect. While A-1 Pictures is a monolithic production-heavy studio with its fingers in a dozen different pies at any given time, Doukyusei is so meticulous, careful, and almost painfully sensitive in its matchless character animation that it feels like a movie that one person somehow animated all by themselves. Each character has a sense of expression and individuality to their every line and action that makes them feel like real people you could reach out and touch, even though their movements are highly stylized and dreamlike rather than imitations of reality. Anime fans may be used to only paying attention to the "focus character" in any given shot of even very well-animated productions, but Doukyusei seeks to always fill in those gaps with more immersive reactions from the character who watches and listens. Kusakabe and Sajo react to each other in a way that draws you not only into the chemistry between them, but the way the environment around them might feel, whether it's a kiddie sandbox in the cool nighttime air or a music venue thick with the heat of strangers' bodies.
This animation-student's-hour-long-magnum-opus feeling is enhanced by the intentionally minimalistic production values. Scenes thrive on precise storyboarding of stripped-down, stage-like settings with extremely rare accents of music to avoid distracting from the actors' naturalistic performances. The whole movie has only four named characters, and while the cast are all seasoned seiyuu, they play their roles like completely ordinary-sounding people rather than anime characters, especially the cartoonish archetypes usually associated with yaoi. (This unusual choice is addressed in an interview with the original manga's author on the Blu-Ray release, who commented that she wasn't fond of anime-style voice acting and insisted on the more down-to-earth cast from the story's drama CD instead.) The film's direction is so meticulous and controlled, and the resulting experience is so homey, you'd swear it felt crafted by a single person. On further inspection, Doukyusei seems to be the passion project of two women who have worked together on several projects like Gurren Lagann and Mawaru Penguindrum over the years before pouring all their efforts into this unique creation. Director Shouko Nakamura brings her experience with precision storyboarding from a long history at Gainax, while animation director Akemi Hayashi brings her sensuous and tactile style of character animation to the project.
So the main reason to see this movie is the artistry above all else. These extremely talented women have done things with character animation I'm not sure I've ever seen in an anime before, and even if the story completely dropped the ball, it would still be hard not to feel something for characters this refreshingly tangible. Thankfully, the story of Doukyusei is heartwarming and fulfilling, even if its substance isn't one drop as unique as the movie's style. Boys' love veterans (and even general romance anime fans) have seen all these story beats and character arcs done before, so Doukyusei surprisingly turns out better for the things it chooses not to do. Yaoi manga doesn't really have a reputation for being tasteful, but Doukyusei forgoes all its genre's worst habits without neutering the honesty of the boys' feelings for one another.
Kusakabe and Sajo's relationship doesn't operate under heteronormative seme/uke rules, but treats them both like men with their own emotional strengths and weaknesses. (They're still pretty adorable for horny teenage boys, but not unrealistically so, and the overall gentler world around them makes their sweetness feel natural.) There's no sexual assault or intrusive fetishistic gaze even during the movie's "sexiest" moments, as the film opts to humanize instead of sexualize the love between them even when they're playing tonsil hockey. When women do (very briefly) appear in the movie, they're not treated poorly or slotted into virgin/bitch/mentor archetypes. It may not seem like much, but these are all good choices in a yaoi landscape peppered with bad habits. Doukyusei's story is equally friendly and welcoming for fujoshi and LGBT audiences alike, playing things safe in a thoughtful way instead of a forgettable one.
But does this movie invite audiences interested in something more than a fluffy gay love story to the party? No, and that's perfectly okay. Doukyusei embraces its niche and gives it the respect and beauty the genre is so often denied. If its unexpected success might be a sign of things to come for boys' love in anime, I'm definitely excited for the future.
Aniplex's Blu-Ray release of the film comes in a resilient yet soft package (kinda like Kusakabe!) with a handful of postcards featuring promotional art for the movie, several PVs, CMs, and trailers on-disc, and a special edition booklet full of production art from various stages of the film, an interview with the author of the original manga on which the film was based, and a special bonus manga chapter she created just for the movie. (The interview with her was conducted after the movie's release, so the mangaka is able to address the unusually high box office reception for the movie, which she coyly attributes to the numerous reports of repeat viewings from fans. The movie sold really well on Blu-Ray in Japan too, so I hope we get more projects like it!) It's a lovely wealth of extras for a short and sweet film. Short of getting a dub, I can't imagine a nicer release for Doukyusei, so if you missed its brief run in theaters and can weather Aniplex's price points, this Blu-Ray is well worth picking up.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Sensuous artistry and animation that feels completely unique amongst anime films, naturalistic voice acting, story avoids all the worst yaoi pitfalls to share a sweet and simple romance with a lovable couple at its heart
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