11 Dec 2014
Grief is something that we all have to deal with at some point in our lives - whether it's the loss of family, friends, pets or even properties, it is perhaps the cruellest and most raw of human emotions. It's also the core behind Hal, an original short film from Studio Wit, the former Production I.G studio currently best known for their work on the anime adaptation of Attack on Titan.
The film begins as we bear witness to a disaster in the skies, as a robot with a childlike fascination towards the world named Kyuichi sees a passenger aircraft explode in a fireball above him - a single moment set to cause untold grief to an unimaginable number of people. These aren't all faceless individuals for long however, as this disaster gives Kyuichi a unique role and purpose in its aftermath - to take on the physical characteristics of one of the disaster's victims to pull their inconsolable partner out of the seemingly infinite sea of grief in which they are currently mired.
So it goes that our titular protagonist, Hal, is sent to the home of Kurumi, the young woman who loved Hal with all of her heart yet has lost him forever. Initially, Kurumi continues to shut herself away from both the world and Hal, refusing to have anything to do with him - however, Hal persists in trying to help her, aided by the discovery of Rubik's Cubes upon which are scrawled the dreams and wishes that the couple wished to enjoy together which offers him an insight into the life he is aiding in rebuilding. However, just as Kurumi and Hal's relationship becomes close thanks to the latter's perseverance, so Hal's past comes back to haunt him, in more ways than one...
On the surface, Hal has all sorts of potential to be a thoughtful and fascinating film - the concept of pitching together humans and robots to explore humanity is ripe with opportunity (as we've seen from Time of Eve in recent years), and the particulars of using this to explore the process of grieving for the loss of a loved one is decidedly unique, even if the idea of creating a robotic replica of a deceased partner seems like the worst possible idea to try and deal with that grief, relying on some significant suspension of disbelief from the outset as a result.
Given all that, it's telling that the first thought you have when the end credits roll is "how did Hal get it so wrong?" The film has the confidence to clearly telegraph the twist in its tale half-way through the film (and in a number of more subtle ways throughout), yet its confidence is entirely misguided - its denouement elicits virtually none of the emotional impact it clearly intends to, beyond a mere "Ha! I thought so" from the viewer, due largely to the rushed and less than satisfying way in which that big reveal is rolled out.
This supposedly grand flourish also makes you realise something else - that the film has never succeeded in building up either of its leading characters in a way that made you care about them. One suspects that Hal's script is such a slave to its core premise of robots set alongside humans that it didn't dare delve too deep into its two main characters lest the magic be ruined; unfortunately this merely means that we know nothing of either Hal or Kurumi beyond some flashbacks and what we're told by others, and we never get to really see who these people are and why they might have come to care for one another for ourselves. This leaves their relationship feeling perfunctory as a result, and the whole pack of cards comes crashing down in short order in the wake of this major issue. With nothing much to say about its core premise, and without characters in the truest sense of the word to push the plot forward, you're left with some good ideas crammed all-too tightly into a half-baked story.
This is a real shame, because the rest of Hal is quite appealing - we've already mentioned how hopeful we were for its premise, and the film's visuals are at worst accomplished and occasionally great, with a handful of scenes beautifully realised and packed with detail in such a way that they would have stood out as masterful shots in a better film. Character designs are also excellent across the board, and Hal's use of colour alongside that aforementioned detail makes this another good advertisement for watching your anime on Blu-ray. Throw in a decent English dub and decent Japanese voice performance, and in terms of presentation there's nothing to criticise here.
This also extends to Anime Limited's Limited Edition packaging for the release - the artwork and overall feel of its DVD and Blu-ray combo pack with cardboard slip cover is faultless, and the enclosed book within packs some fascinating material into its pages including an essay by the film's script writer and a question and answer session with some of Studio Wit's staff who worked on the project. Even in the face of what is ultimately a disappointing film, delving into the thought processes behind it is invaluable and interesting, and when coupled with some on-disc making of extras featuring the Japanese staff you can easily gain a feel for what the film set out to achieve even if it didn't entirely succeed.
Ultimately then, this release of Hal is certainly another quality one from Anime Limited - nice packaging, excellent bonus content both on the disc and in physical form, and flawless in its overall presentation. This makes it a shame that we can't say the same about the film itself, as Hal never lives up to the goals it sets itself in its opening minutes and flounders badly at almost everything it attempts. If you do happen to be a fan of the film then this is an excellent Limited Edition, but in a world where the likes of Time of Eve exists and achieves more in less than twenty minutes than Hal does in an hour, it's difficult to recommend this movie as anything more than a well-presented curiosity and a lesson in wasted potential.