The gnats are swarming, the fireworks are glowing, and it’s time to get the boys together for one last summer hurrah. A quintessential “last teen summer” story, the premise of Goodbye, Don Glees!, writer/director Atsuko Ishizuka’s first original feature, is a bit trite at first blush. But like the nectar of succulent flowers in full bloom, there is much to savor.
Teens Roma (Natsuki Hanae; Adam McArthur) and Toto (Yuki Kaji; Nick Wolfhard) are childhood friends united as outcasts in their rural mountainside village. Now high schoolers, the pair have begun to drift apart. With a sense of obligation masked as desire, Toto left their hometown to attend a high school in the city while Roma remained to help his family’s farm. Returning briefly for a summertime festival, Toto’s newfound sense of maturity and Roma’s unchanged wonder come to an impasse.
The duo, under the self-proclaimed banner of the “Don Glees,” is further altered by the presence of a new member: Drop. Drop (Ayumu Murase; Jonathan Leon) is the smallest boy of the group and the least restrained, a foil to the person Toto imagines himself becoming, and one who pushes Roma further from what Toto thinks he needs from his friend. But when the trio is blamed for a forest fire, they have to adventure into the wilderness that will, of course, push them apart before pulling them back together.
The broad outlines of the story are less fantastic than the functionally similar adventure behind the director’s serialized original debut, A Place Further than the Universe. But working within these YA tropes, Ishizuka and Madhouse capture the magic of the natural world. The care with which both the narrative and animation are crafted makes Goodbye, Don Glees! an ode to summertime day hikes, weekend camping trips, mountain valley bike rides and river playtimes.
From its technically impressive, sweeping 3-D landscapes to powerful orchestral themes, Goodbye, Don Glees! looks like an anime that could be narrated by David Attenborough. Ishizuka and art director Ayana Okamoto, one of many returning A Place Further than the Universe staff, recapture the series’ characteristic lighting and lensing that, coupled with changing color gradients, invoke the use of film. That sentiment is further carried by A Place Further than the Universe composer Yoshiaki Fujisawa’s soundtrack, which is paired with energizing alt-rock themes from YAMO that really brings home all the emotions of a YA indie flick.
Goodbye, Don Glees!’s other major juxtaposition to Ishizuka’s previous work comes from its cast and script. While Place Further than the Universe does much as a “cute girls doing cute things” anime, Goodbye, Don Glees! takes a similar approach to its depiction of boyhood. They are, simply, so sweet. They make jokes, often at each other’s expense, but aren’t weird about the women around them in the ways that I unfortunately expect young men in anime to behave. Don Glees! is one of far too few stellar examples of intimate platonic relationships between boys that feels genuinely important and moving.
With recurring themes and imagery already emerging after just a few projects, Don Glees! makes me want to see more of Ishizuka’s voice come through as her team at Madhouse further refines their production—and as Ishizuka works with more collaborators in future endeavors. With Goodbye, Don Glees!, she’s readily assumed the spotlight as a leader of animation. In capturing the ephemeral magic of childhood wonder and the natural world, and further depicting how our relationships—to each other and the land—change into adulthood, Goodbye, Don Glees! is a perfect way to ring in the changing of the seasons.
Director: Atsuko Ishizuka
Writer: Atsuko Ishizuka
Starring: Natsuki Hanae, Yuki Kaji, Ayumu Murase, Kana Hanazawa, Rino Sashihara, Atsushi Tamura
Release Date: September 14, 2022
Autumn Wright is a freelance games critic and anime journalist. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.