A canopy of trees glimpsed through a blue-tinged mist, the quiet sounds of early birds, a dew-soaked spider web nestled among still leaves, the winding mossy stone steps of an outside shrine, the hazy surface of a flower-strewn lake, and a silent masked man seated on a rock in the middle of it. The opening sequence of Hotarubi no Mori e (‘To the Forrest of Firefly Lights’), with its pale-hued, dreamy dawn setting, feels like an awakening, in more than one sense. As the scene switches to a teenage girl hurriedly saying goodbye to her mother before setting off to her uncle’s place for the summer, a story about growing up, friendship, love, loss and hope emerges. And if any of those ideas (along with the art style in the image above) feel familiar, then I’ll now say that this is a short film based on a one-shot manga by Yuki Midorikawa, the author of Natsume’s Book of Friends. In spite of its brief running time of forty-five minutes, the film is successful at completely drawing you into Hotaru and Gin’s world and making you feel every lingering feeling in all its quiet intensity, and it is this expression of an overall sense of awakening and longing – feeling – at which the film excels. In particular, the way that feelings and the act of feeling are presented through the imagery of touch and time, is a collective strength. (Warning: contains light spoilers.)
With only two main characters whose appearances dominate the brief running time, the film has been understandably compared to a fable or fairytale. Indeed, the plot, about a young girl who befriends a ‘spirit’ who lives in the forest of a mountain god and how both develop feelings for each other over the course of several summers, but all the while aware of a spell that prevents them from getting too close, is certainly reminiscent of many cautionary tales and myths, not least of all (in part) the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Despite the inevitable conclusion, I’d say that Hotaru and Gin’s story is a positive one overall, and their youthful excitement and budding passion are aided by some striking images and motifs. In particular, the imagery of hand-holding dominates the film, both literally and via symbolic substitutes. Within moments of meeting the six year old Hotaru who is lost in the enchantedly labyrinthine spirits’ forest, Gin tells her that if a human ever touches him, he’ll disappear, and eventually leads her out of the forest after suggesting that they both hold onto the ends of a short tree branch. This also feels ‘like a date’ to the young joking Hotaru, though Gin adds cynically that it’s not a very romantic one. Later, as the summers pass and Hotaru grows into a young woman, this recurring image of simultaneous connection and separation becomes more and more potent, especially in comparison to the ease with which Hotaru is able to hold hands with other humans, such as her uncle and a fellow classmate.
One of the most striking symbols of this simultaneous connection and separation, though, is the ribbon that Gin and Hotaru each tie to one of their wrists, so that they don’t get lost during the spirits’ summer festival, to which Gin invites her in the latter part of the film. Again, (the now High School aged) Hotaru jokes that it looks like a date and, this time, Gin insists that it is.
As well as the (lack of) hand-holding, Gin’s mask is another important symbol that is used to convey both of their sets of feelings. A constant reminder of Gin’s difference to normal humans and the need for them to keep their distance, it is a feline looking, solid mask that covers his entire face, which he rarely removes because, without it, he would look like an ordinary human being (albeit a bishielicous one). Thus, when the mask is taken off for a prolonged period in a key scene near the climax of the film, it is not only an intensely romantic moment, but even more so because it is such a personal item, with the added tension of the ‘covering’/ ‘hiding’ quality that it still possesses with regards to the way it hides someone(else)’s face and facial expression.
In addition to images to do with touch, the imagery of time is also used very well to convey feeling(s). From her mother’s warning about getting heatstroke, to the series of summer days that Hotaru spends with Gin every year, to other moments where Hotaru is simply lying on a floor fanning herself, or looking at lights playing on ceilings or at overhead A.C. units, to eating watermelon on an outside porch, the collective impressions of heat build up the warmth of Hotaru and Gin’s growing feelings. Not that the connection between summer and romance is new, but the juxtaposition of those warm days with the freezing winter during which Hotaru realises her true feelings for Gin are some of the most beautiful ‘seasonal-changes’ images in the film, especially due to the use of colour, space and movement.
Here, shots such as the blood red fallen flowers against the pure white mantle of snow are representative of Hotaru’s romantic/ sexual awakening, and the solitary Gin looking skyward while wearing Hotaru’s scarf mirrors the same obliviousness to one’s surroundings, conveying the similar feelings that Gin has for Hotaru.
As well as ‘seasonal-time’, the passage of ‘clock-time’ is also emphasized by other symbols such as Hotaru’s changing clothing, which contrast with Gin’s unchanging attire. The young Hotaru’s casual dresses start off in baby pinks and blues and bright yellows, soon changing to more secondary and tertiary shades such as oranges and lavenders as she grows older. Aside from the colours, the biggest indicator of change in Hotaru’s age and maturity levels is evident in her changing school uniform. She takes great joy in showing off her uniform to Gin whenever she gets a new one, which eventually leads Gin and Hotaru to realise, respectively, that she is becoming more like a young woman, and that she will soon be the same age as Gin.
Clearly, these changes are positive in that the two figures seem to be becoming more like equals, as is supported by how well they have gotten to know each other. However, these changes also mean, of course, that Hotaru will one day grow even older than Gin and eventually leave him behind when she passes away (also, c.f. the story of the Dew God and Hana in episode two of Natsume Yuujinchou ). It’s a sobering thought, and one that is not acknowledged aloud by Hotaru (she simply comments to herself that they are growing closer in age), but we, the audience, become painfully aware of this possibility, as does Gin, as we see when he decides to tell his story to Hotaru and when he comments later that Hotaru should keep his mask…
In many ways, Gin and Hotaru’s interactions are like those of a child and his/ her imaginary friend; secretive and sweet, but not meant to last. In other ways, the development of their relationship is like that of a first love, with all its dizzying excitement and pain. And, no doubt, there are many other readings and meanings we can find in this brief, but passionate story. I’ve mentioned the inevitability of the ending, and one’s reaction to this might be the key way in which one interprets the story. However, I think it’s important to remember that the highs outnumber the lows, and how some things are simply worth remembering. Or, in other words…
…Tl; dr? It’s not how many times we miss being able to make contact with someone, but the moments when we do touch and connect with someone, that matter, and should be cherished.