Lost in the woods and crying desperately for help, 6-year old Takegawa Hotaru is saved by Gin, a mysterious “spirit of the forest.” Gin tells Hotaru that he will disappear if she touches him. Despite this, Hotaru and Gin become friends, spending their time together summer after summer. Hotarubi no Mori e is a story about their love and the distance between them.
Hotarubi no Mori e takes a rather cliched premise (forbidden love) and does absolutely nothing new with it. The result is a slow, uninspiring movie devoid of merit. The characters are uncompelling and shallow, and their relationship is most notable for its lack of intimacy. It is surprising how long this movie takes to say so little.
Hotarubi no Mori e is a relationship piece with two characters, Hotaru and Gin. This makes the movie’s lack of character development particularly frustrating. Hotaru and Gin’s relationship does not really evolve. Clearly, the director thought that everyone watching Hotarubi no Mori e would simply assume that Hotaru and Gin would eventually fall in love with each other. The movie spends zero time describing how Hotaru comes to love Gin, or vice versa.
In fact, character development is so poor that I can only think of one adjective (flat) to describe either character. Neither Gin nor Hotaru have personalities. Hotaru spends time with Gin every summer because that’s just what she does— I never quite got the sense that she strongly desired to be with him. There is no passion and no affection in their relationship with each other. Gin is merely an object, a plot device to create conflict.
With characters as flat as Gin and Hotaru, it’s no surprise that their relationship is equally bland. The only notable aspect of their relationship is a complete lack of physical intimacy. Not the worst of premises, but the movie only manages to beat viewers’ over the head with this contrived “NO TOUCHING” rule. Neither character seems particularly bothered by the lack of intimacy— one would think that death by touching would be a slightly bigger source of stress and strain in any kind of relationship. Instead, there is a near-complete lack of anxiety or despair, and the ultimate resolution of Hotarubi no Mori e‘s central conflict is frustratingly meaningless.
With bland characters and an incredibly shallow main conflict, I found it difficult to emotionally invest in this movie. The film also suffered from a lack of visual beauty, which further exacerbated by disinterest. Character designs were uninspiring and generic, and the forests of Hotarubi no Mori e are shockingly bland, especially when compared to similar works about forest spirits (Princess Mononoke, Mushishi, even Oji-san no Lamp). Its shrines are devoid of sanctity or dignity— they’re simply old.
Ultimately, Hotarubi no Mori e is simply uninspiring. Its character designs and art direction are incredibly bland, its characters shallow and its plot virtually nonexistent. Hotarubi no Mori e may have tried to create a sense of fragility and subtlety, yet ironically, it is so subtle that its themes and ultimate message (if one can even call it that) are glaringly obvious. Its unwillingness to say anything significant or meaningful dooms it to complete mediocrity.
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