Reviewby Brian Ruh,
Happy-Go-Lucky Days presents three tales of young love in four distinct segments.
In "Happy" ("Ecchan and Aya-san"), a young woman attends the wedding of the first person she kissed back in high school, a girl named Yuri. She meets another woman there who says she is also in love with Yuri. A drunken evening turns into something more.
In "Go" ("Sawa-sensei and Yagasaki-kun"), a young male teacher at an all-boys high school receives a love confession from one of his former charges. Although pleased by this, he lets a year go by without doing anything about it. He runs into his sister working at a bar, and she introduces him to the man she is living with, who may bear a resemblance to his confessant.
In "Lucky" ("Shin-chan and Sayoko"), Sayoko is a college graduate who was kicked out of her house by her father after he discovered she was in an adult video. Shinichi is a fifth grader with a blossoming relationship with his friend and study partner Mika. Sayoko crashes with Shinichi's family and teases the young boy about his relationship with Mika and his incipient sexuality.
In "Days" ("Mika-chan and Shin-chan"), the final segment, Shinichi and Mika, now in junior high, further discover themselves as their relationship deepens.
Manga artist Takako Shimura has made a career of engrossing and sensitive portrayals of young angst. Unfortunately, she is one of those authors whose works have seen only limited official releases in English, in spite of her popularity online. Her most successful has probably been the yuri romance Sweet Blue Flowers (Aoi Hana), since Viz put out the whole run of the manga and Nozomi released the anime on home video. We've also gotten the transgender coming-of-age story Wandering Son from Fantagraphics, but the English release barely passed the halfway mark before it was cancelled and the anime adaptation has never received a physical release (although it is still available on streaming services).
Happy-Go-Lucky Days is another Takako Shimura title that was once released in English, but is now hard to come by. Digital Manga released it as an ebook back in 2013, but due to the nature of licensing it's no longer available, so it has vanished into the aether. (Luckily, another Shimura manga is on the horizon for an English-language release in 2021.) However, the world premiere of the anime film adaptation of Happy-Go-Lucky Days is now available to U.S. audiences, even before the Japanese release next month, through streaming at the Asian Pop-up Cinema from September 15-19.
Shimura's stories often involve some kind of boundary crossings, such as sex, gender, or even age. For example, at the beginning of Sweet Blue Flowers, Fumi is in love with her older female cousin Chizu, and they have even had sex. Fumi is just entering high school, and Chizu is of marriageable age, so this is obviously a relationship with an age and power imbalance. Things like this might be a sensitive issue for some readers and viewers, and is a caution to be heeded before delving into the anime adaptation of Happy-Go-Lucky Days as well, which includes a teacher who likes his students (although he never crosses any lines) as well as discussions of young sexuality. However, it's handled in a frank and honest manner that reflects the tumultuous nature of love without seeming prurient.
The film jumps right into a credit roll with a series of impressionistic stills in soft watercolor, echoing Shimura's aesthetic, while an acoustic guitar strums in the background and we catch fragments of city noises and background conversation. From there, we get a series of vignettes, which is appropriate since the original manga was a collection of chapters that only occasionally intersected. The stories originally appeared in the magazine Manga Erotics F (where Sweet Blue Flowers ran) as well as the BL magazine Reijin. The four stories adapted here were each a chapter from the manga, and watching the film you get the sense that a lot of emphasis was put on trying to match the feeling and pacing of the original stories.
The first story in the film is about two young women who find love with one another after meeting at the wedding of a mutual former flame. Ecchan even muses that it's like a joke that her first kiss was with a girl named Yuri. I'm glad that they began the film with a sweet yuri story, but it gives you an indication of the overall approach that the film takes to Shimura's material – polishing off the edges to make the end product more palatable to a wider audience. It's not a bad story in any way, but it's one of the happier ones from the Happy-Go-Lucky Days manga. The next story, about a young male teacher, seems like it may be more controversial, but it ends up being rather sweet as well. Sawa-sensei seems to think of the boys in his charge as reminders of his lost youth, reflecting the pressures of his chosen profession back to him. So when he says that he “likes high-schoolers”, that still leaves enough ambiguity that he may not mean it “in that way,” or that he likes them because he is sentimental for the nostalgic freedom they represent.
The final two stories of Happy-Go-Lucky Days are about the relationship of Shinichi and Mika, from fifth grade through junior high. When Shinichi's cousin Sayako stays with his family because she got kicked out of her house for being in an adult video, it causes obvious problems for the youngsters' relationship. Sayako causes as many problems for Shinichi as she can, teasing him about Mika, taunting him about his romantic life and his pubic hair, and sometimes seductively rubbing up against him. When Shinichi and Mika get their hands on Sayako's tape and decide to watch it, they get far more education than they bargained for. Thinking that Shinichi is falling for his cousin, Mika tries to seduce Shinichi, who thinks that it's still too early for them to have sex. When Sayako moves out, things eventually return to normal. A few years later, when they're in second year of junior high, Shinichi is still with Mika, although the spectre of Sayako and teenage hormones still seem to color everything they do.
Director Takuya Satō (Steins;Gate, Kase-san, Fragtime) does a solid job, but doesn't take many chances with the material. I can appreciate wanting to be faithful to the vision of the original author, but a film should try to bring something new, something that only it can do. The four stories in the film hit the exact same beats that the manga did, but they don't provide any additional insights into the characters or their situations. Shimura's spare style and transitions highlight the emotional nature of her works by showing you only what's important, and this effect would be difficult to replicate in anime. Consequently, an anime adaptation of stories like this needs to convey its own unique perspective, which Happy-Go-Lucky Days just doesn't do.
There are manga-esque elements, though, since for a feature film the animation is very limited. Television animation regularly features more fully-realized character movements than what we see here, and there are too many pauses where nothing occurs on screen, particularly given the film's running time of less than an hour. There's even a scene in the second story where the teacher enters the kitchen in a single held frame that I thought was my Internet connection buffering. I had to go back and watch the scene multiple times to verify what I was seeing. I certainly think that wonderful stories can be told with limited animation, but some of the choices of scene staging in Happy-Go-Lucky Days draw unneeded attention to the limits of what they were working with. Occasionally the character designs look rather generic as well, draining some of the life from Shimura's originals. However, obvious care was taken with many of the backgrounds, which gives a sense of place to the proceedings.
There is ten minutes of bonus material after the credits, specifically made for the U.S. viewers at Asian Pop-up Cinema. The VAs for the main characters of the film's last two segments – Ibuki Kido (Shinichi), Kaori Ishihara (Mika) and Ai Fairouz (Sayako) – discuss the "bittersweet love" portrayed in the film, and how its themes can be understood even outside of a Japanese context. They also go into detail about how they approached their characters and the preparation they went through for the roles. The bonus footage probably won't change your perception of the film, but it's nice to have, particularly given the film's short running time.
Happy-Go-Lucky Days isn't a bad way to spend an hour or the $5 that it currently costs to stream. Each of the four chapters is a short meditation on love and relationships, and what makes them work. However, by trying to adapt the source material too closely, it both misses the appeal of Takako Shimura's manga as well as the potential possibilities that animation could have brought to the stories.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : A-
Animation : C
Art : A
Music : B
+ Effectively conveys the pangs of adolescence and young love in a variety of forms
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