Genius party is a series of short films by several Japanese directors widely revered as ‘geniuses’ (hence the name). The seventh one is titled Baby Blue, and Shinichirō Watanabe, renowned for his series Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, is the genius director. The brilliant Yoko Kanno, who worked with the director in Cowboy Bebop, produced the soundtrack – always an import piece of Watanabe’s vision.
Although wonderful, the music is outside the scope of this discussion, as instead of seeking another strange juxtaposition of music and setting, drawing the disconnect into the forefront, the music here resonates with emotion from the background, allowing the viewer to focus on the action of a genre Watanabe hasn’t tackled before: a coming-of-age tale set in modern day Japan.
Always concerned with motion, Watanabe has once again made movement and stillness, and the contrast between them, a focal point of his work. This short film (clocking in at a little under 15 minutes) is an odyssey through space and emotion, as the two main characters, high school students Shou and Hazuki, spend 24 hours traveling throughout urban Japan, the beach their final destination.
The impetus for this journey is the fact that Shou will be moving away the next day, and he wanted to spend some time with a childhood friend from whom he has drifted away. Of course, he doesn’t let on to this fact until toward the end of their time together. As the two make their way to the beach, they reveal more and more about their personalities, their memories, and how the two things interact. In the end, this is truly a tale about what it means to grow up, accepting that it has been done a thousand times before and that it will be no different for them.
It seems like being blown off course was a big theme here, the director taking from Homer’s Odyssey the idea of a simple and easy journey home constantly sabotaged by fate or coincidence. Shou and Hazuki’s journey, both the one trying to get to the beach and then to their actual home and the mirror journey of their emotional search for a foundation resonate with Homeric ideology – each victory is met with another, greater challenge.
Of course, feelings of not being in control are a huge part of what it is to be a teenager (it is poignant that Hazuki remarks, “We can’t go anywhere” right before they leave the beach, seemingly unaware of the dissonance), but Watanabe manages to escape the clichés the genre is littered with, evoking something that is new and exciting while being utterly familiar emotionally.
Throughout the film, Shou reflects on his own memories, and proffers that he has himself forgotten his own friends that have moved away. The loss of his memories is weighing on him – for one so young, he must be experiencing the fact that you can only remember so far back for the first time. This leads him to think, “will I too be forgotten?”
At the beginning of the film, we see Shou writing graffiti on his school desk. Strangely, though, he is writing in magic marker on a desk already littered with carvings. I think this is his first sign of acceptance of the transience of his existence, insofar as his classmates are concerned. As this takes place at the very start of his story, we can see that he has already started to accept this fact, and the viewer should note this when watching his actions during the rest of the episode.
“Forget about tomorrow, and go somewhere”
A relic from a shared childhood memory becomes the catalyst for many of the bad things that happen to them – a hand grenade they stole from a military instillation. Carrying that grenade in his backpack, Watanabe clearly wants to personify the volatile emotions bubbling just under the surface of most all adolescent boys. The desire to bury the grenade – symbolic of putting to final rest their time together – is the reason he wants to go someplace, anyplace, at all.
Afraid of having the grenade discovered by a policeman, Shou is forced to run as the policeman gives chase. Shou goes from the frying pan into the fire as he escapes, and the worst thing that could happen to him does – someone actually offers him the chance to save himself by giving up Hazuki. Another wonderful personification of emotion, this person is asking him to do what his parents effectively did when they told him he had to move. His emotion overflows as he puts the grenade to use, letting out all that built up rage in a spectacular display of fire.
I noticed that when they got away from the policeman, in that brief second before they were again accosted, Hazuka looks above her head to see a flock of birds seeming to personify her feeling of freedom. We don’t see the birds again until they are on the beach, and Shou looks up to see the birds again, echoing his feeling this time. Now, though, the meaning of the birds has changed from freedom to the complete lack thereof, insofar as the birds have no more choice as to whether to move to the next locale as does he.
Let’s talk about motion for a second. Anyone who has seen Watanabe’s prior works knows that his attention to detail is evident in his use of movement. The viewer can be sure that each motion the characters make, and the energy of each scene, was painstakingly choreographed to perfection. I can’t help but think that the action here is set to convey the constant false starts of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, as the scenes here constantly change from movement to stillness.
So much of the time in this film is dedicated to movement, the characters only have a few chances to actually talk to one another. The main talk they had occurred once they made it to the beach. Even though the show had been so great up to this point, I have to confess that I was worried the dialogue was going to degenerate into something campy or forced. Such little faith, I know! I love how respectfully they treated it, more realisticaly portrayed perhaps I have ever seen; Watanabe truly captured the emotion of the moment – treating universal themes of growing up in a grown-up manner without reducing them to trite clichés. Kudos to the great action director for writing such a moving scene.
The pacing comes to a head at the very end, in the climactic fireworks scene where Hazuki bids her final farewell as Shou watches on, with the director using a slow-motion so jarring I actually thought my video card was messing up. This farewell, so bittersweet, feels so personal I can’t help but wonder if Watanabe is allowing us a glimpse into his own soul.
The ending, continuing the theme of life going on, was so well done that I could barely contain my elation. The decision Hazuka made not to go to the train station and have an awkward conversation, and the acceptance of the realities of life led Hazuki to give a much more memorable send-off than some sappy I’ll-write-I-promise conversation. They understand that the chance for their love has passed – she has already moved on to another man and Shou is moving on to a new life. They know that eventually they will both be forgotten, but she wants to try to help him hold on to their memories of each other for just a little longer.
People always grow up and move away, but this film was one of the most realistic depictions of the emotions that go on inside, and the imagery used fit so perfectly that I continue to be amazed that they could pack so much emotion, so much meaning into just 15 minutes, when other productions can’t hack that in a whole season. Baby Blue took me back to my adolescence, making me feel all those thousand emotions that go along with the transition to adulthood, showing them not with the nostalgic patina that time puts on memories, but with the fierce intensity of the moment.