Who would have thought an animated Japanese drama would emerge as one of the best films of 2022’s Fantasia International Film Festival? Goodbye, Don Glees! is made in an anime-style, coupled with photo-realistic moments of beauty. Written and directed by Atsuko Ishizuka, I could barely comprehend the level of tearjerking, life-affirming heights that the film would eventually ascend towards. I cannot recall the last time a movie of platonic friendship between three pals has hit me this hard. With similar vibes to movies like Kings of Summer and Stand By Me, Goodbye, Don Glees! takes an exciting stance about living one’s life to the fullest, and making every moment count.
Narrated by Roma, this animated gem recounts his first summer as a high school student. For years, every summer Roma got together with his best friend Toto to hang out in their fort and embark on hijinks they called “Don Glees.” This summer is different. Toto is returning from class in Tokyo—medical school is firmly in his crosshairs. His hair is stylized, and Toto’s attitude seems to have matured significantly. Meanwhile, Roma is still working on his uncle’s farm, and getting snide remarks from the locals about working with manure. His aunt and uncle want Roma to help name a new breed of spinach that could put them on the map. Roma revisits the fort he has created with Toto, then introduces Toto to the newest member of the “Don Glees,” a spunky 15 year-old boy named Drop.
Right off the bat, in a lesser movie, one would anticipate tension between Drop and Toto for being the center of Roma’s attentions. Thankfully, Goodbye, Don Glees! does not take this route. There is an immediate sense of camaraderie as the boys prepare for the upcoming Fireworks Festival to leave their mark. Toto and Roma have never been invited to party with the other kids around town, seen as rejects. This could be their big chance to forge a fireworks display of their own. Roma has even invested all of his life savings into securing an illegal drone so they can record the action from any vantage point.
The night of the festival, their fun takes a turn for the worst when their fireworks refuse to light due to the weather (and the potential cheapness of the lighter Roma has secured from a local shop). A dangerous wildfire breaks out from miles away, and having all the necessary ingredients in place, everyone blames the Don Glees for starting it. In order to prove their innocence, they must flee and track down their drone. The footage it contains may hold the key to their alibi, the one and only solid proof of their innocence. Branded as criminals, Toto, Roma, and Drop set off on their bikes and ride beyond the tunnel deep into the woods.
Goodbye, Don Glees! wisely emphasizes character-work above all else, forming three wholly satisfying storylines. The smallest moments feel the most special, like gazing up at shooting stars together before breaking into an elaborate song-and-dance set to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” or swimming in a waterfall. Well before delving into the sorrow of the final act, Atsuko Ishizuka lays the groundwork for a meaningful exploration on loss, grief, and the bonds that tether us to each other. Goodbye, Don Glees! warns viewers early on about the imminence of death, as well as the importance of a mysterious red phone booth under a golden waterfall in Iceland, but nothing can prepare you for how spectacularly it all comes together. Try not to shed a tear in the powerful concluding moments.
Goodbye, Don Glees! screened at 2022’s Fantasia International Film Festival.