Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Liz and the Blue Bird
Back in middle school, Nozomi Kasaki came up to the shy Mizore Yoroizuka with an unexpected question: “would you like to join the concert band?” That idle question led to Mizore's first experience of true happiness, as Nozomi became her first and dearest friend. But after Nozomi abandoned her during her first year at Kitauji High School, Mizore fell into depression, only regaining her spirit when her friend returned many months later. Now in their final year of high school, Mizore will have to come to terms with the end of high school, as she and Nozomi perform “Liz and the Blue Bird” together. Mizore is far from ready to say goodbye, but just as Liz herself came to realize, you must set the caged bird free.
Liz and the Blue Bird is a film centered around two stories: the actual fable of Liz and the Blue Bird, and the story of two girls assigned as its soloists for the Kitauji Concert Band. These girls, Mizore and Nozomi, featured prominently in the first half of Sound! Euphonium's second season. That half essentially centered on Nozomi's desire to return to concert band after a year away, and how her potential turn prompted a great deal of emotional trauma for Mizore. Here, a year after the events of Euphonium 2, the melodramatic stakes of the series proper are all but forgotten. Our heroes are a year older and a year wiser, but more than that, this is a film from Mizore's own perspective. And Mizore's mind is a quiet, anxious, and profoundly delicate place.
Liz director Naoko Yamada has built a career defined by delicacy, from her breakout hit K-ON! through her recent transition into feature films. Across films like Tamako Love Story and A Silent Voice, she has defined a clear and consistent vocabulary of drama, always focusing on the quiet, the unseen, the little movements and subtle expression shifts that reveal all that our words can't express. Yamada has frankly been a master dramatist ever since her first feature, and in Liz and the Blue Bird, she may well have reached a new peak. I can confidently say that Liz is one of the most beautiful works of art I've experienced in years, and a film I will be returning to for many years to come.
Liz's two narratives parallel each other completely, but the actual Blue Bird fable is the film's framing device. In that story, a girl named Liz lives alone in the forest, where she tends to animals and enjoys a peaceful but lonely life. One day, a strange girl dressed all in blue appears, bringing love and light to Liz's quiet world. But as time goes on, Liz realizes that this girl is actually a blue bird, and though she yearns to hold on to her, she knows her friend deserves to be free. And so Liz releases the bird from its cage, sacrificing her own happiness to ensure her friend can fly.
The parallels between the Blue Bird narrative and Mizore's own story are clear from early on in the film, but are revealed more through narratives of personal space and perspective than overt dramatic beats. The story opens with a statement of purpose that seems to embody Yamada's career in miniature, as we follow Mizore on her way to school. Stopping outside the gate, Mizore hesitates, and the film pauses with her. A quiet tinkling of piano keys and dashes of percussion trail off in the background, like a band tuning before play. Mizore sits on the steps, waiting for something we can't see. Then, as the piano melody snaps into sync with emerging footsteps, Mizore turns, and sees Nozomi approaching. Matching Mizore's tight-fisted shuffle, we follow Mizore and Nozomi through a nigh-wordless ten minute sequence, as her feelings bloom through their quiet walk to the practice hall.
All of Liz's manifold strengths are clear in that opening sequence, Mizore's emotions coming through clearly even though she barely speaks a word. Part of this comes down to the film's incredibly careful animation, and soft, expressive character designs. The thick linework and exaggerated hair styles of Euphonium are gone here - instead, the film is expressed through delicate lines echoing designer Futoshi Nishiya's prior collaboration on A Silent Voice, and character art that impresses not through its eye-catching profiles, but its subtly of form. This linework is beautiful in Liz's real-world segments, but even more necessary for the segments that dip into the Blue Bird fantasy. There, Mizore's feelings are expressed through gorgeous watercolors and soft pastels that echo Violet Evergarden, Ghibli vistas, and humble works of impressionism. Mizore may be a quiet and shy person, but our journey into her head perfectly captures her creativity and passion, the vitality of her personal world.
It's not just the visual design that makes this segment sing, though. As the two girls march one after the other through the school, Mizore's feelings are also captured in Liz's sound design, gentle crests and falls of piano matching her preoccupation with Nozomi's figure. As her eyes catch on Nozomi's lightly bouncing ponytail and confidently swinging arms, the piano shifts to match the tempo of Nozomi's movements. Mizore's memories of walking this same route as an adolescent are buoyed by somber strings, and when they reach the practice room, piano dissolves into a patter of percussion, as if Mizore is actively working to suppress her feelings. We don't need to be told Mizore loves Nozomi; why else would the melody of her life sync to Nozomi's footsteps, the tempo of her day fit the rise and fall of Nozomi's presence? The desperate passion Mizore feels for her friend is made more clear in those first ten, nearly wordless moments than some romances manage in their entire running time.
As I've described it, that opening sequence might sound like some unique tour-de-force of environmental storytelling, but Liz maintains that level of subtlety and emotive delivery across its every twist and turn. It's become a bit of a cliche to mention Yamada's preoccupation with hands and feet, but those priorities aren't just a “style quirk.” Across delicate shots of partial bodies and scenes framed to leave enough space for both characters and their thoughts, Yamada conveys the lived experience of anxiety, desperate love, and sorrow through terms far more universal than words. There are scenes in this film that felt as paralyzingly tense as a horror film, Yamada's mastery of tone conjuring moments of anxiety and self-loathing almost too sharp to bear. The hollow halls of Kitauji and quiet spaces Mizore finds for herself speak volumes; her half-glances, consistent tugging at her hair, and subtle shifts of posture reveal all the vibrant colors of her love.
The overt narrative of Liz and the Blue Bird is fairly minimalist, leaving as much room as possible for Yamada's delicate exploration of key emotional moments. In the midst of their final year, Mizore and Nozomi are both practicing for an upcoming performance, where they'll actually be performing Liz as the flute and oboe soloists. Unfortunately, their practices find them consistently out of sync, and Mizore blames herself for this. Terrified of the end of high school, and of seeing her one precious friend abandon her, Mizore identifies deeply with Liz's character, but could never imagine actually setting the blue bird free. Without Nozomi, she is nothing - and in her desperation to hold onto Nozomi, she is unable to either engage with her future or truly communicate with her friend.
Mizore is the perfect heroine for a Yamada film, so preoccupied with the past, so unable to convey her feelings in any way but physically. Her worldview allows us to peer into a Kitauji utterly unlike the world of Sound! Euphonium, where the awkward fumblings of Kumiko and the dynamics of the group as a whole just sort of fade into the distance. Mizore's life is defined by Nozomi's movements, a fact that stands at the heart of Liz's drama, and also defines its aesthetic scope. Flutes and pianos soar in momentary triumph when Nozomi enters her view; when she leaves, violins signal doubt and fatigue, fingers clenching in buried grief.
Ultimately, Liz and the Blue Bird's focus expands to encompass Nozomi's worldview as well, leading into a final act where their various misunderstandings end up speaking to their mutual concern. While Mizore remains painfully shy, Nozomi's brightness is eventually shown to be its own mask, and Liz succeeds just as well in conveying idle yet barbed dialogue as it does in capturing wordless emotions. In the end, simply talking through their feelings with trusted friends helps each of them come to a happier relationship with the Blue Bird narrative, leading to a triumphant performance that rings out with all the vitality Mizore had locked inside. When the bird is set free, it dances in flight with such beauty that I couldn't choose whether to marvel at KyoAni's beautiful animation, or close my eyes entirely and let the music take hold. Liz isn't a work of pure nostalgic longing; it is simultaneously a paean to our past selves and a celebration of all we might become, a work that tempers the pain of youth with assurance that though change will come, true feelings endure.
If you're expecting a conventional sequel to the Sound! Euphonium television series, you won't find it in Liz and the Blue Bird. This is a very different kind of story, few of the Euphonium stars have particularly prominent roles, and Yamada was clearly more concerned with making a highly personal tone piece than an ensemble drama. But if you have any appreciation for Yamada's work, or for slow, quiet, and heartfelt stories in general, I strongly urge you to give this film a shot. From its gorgeously painted fantasy vignettes to its subtly devastating personal moments, from its utterly cohesive visual aesthetic to its rich and ever-fitting sound design, Liz and the Blue Bird is an absolute triumph. Yamada has created a masterpiece. We are so very lucky to receive it.
Overall : A+
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A++
+ An indescribably beautiful and perfectly cohesive drama about the difficulty of love, change, and communication. Features the best sound design of any property I've seen in years.
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