Hello World is the kind of ambitious and interesting storytelling you’d expect from a filmmaker finally let loose from the franchise pen (director Tomohiko Itō’s only films up until now have been for the Sword Art Online series). It’s not without its flaws – the ending is possibly too drawn-out and the cheesiness amps up to levels that might turn some off a little. However, as well as being a genuinely compelling love story, the film is also a substantial piece of sci-fi, creating an interesting dialogue between analogue and digital technology and the moral character we often assign to both (good, evil, or benign), as well as our relationship to our past selves.
Fans of Japanese animation will no doubt recognise Itō’s past TV projects, the aforementioned Sword Art Online, Silver Spoon and Erased, the latter of which parallels Hello World’s time-bending premise. Rendered in 3D CG animation, protagonist Naomi Katagaki – a chronically indecisive Kyoto high schooler in 2027 – comes face-to-face with a version of himself from 10 years in the future. His mission in the past? It’s not to save the world from Skynet, it’s to get his younger self a girlfriend. And not just any girlfriend, but his frosty, fellow bookworm Ruri Ichigyō, a girl whom present-day Naomi doesn’t even realise he likes yet.
That might sound like a plot spoiler, and the film does keep the real identity of future Naomi – or “Sensei,” as present-day Naomi calls him – hidden for about five minutes. But this revelation is just a drop in the ocean of the strange twists and turns that Hello World takes. While the romance at its core between Naomi and Ruri is a simple boy-meets-girl one, with a universal kind of ‘young love’ sweetness to it as a result, the unfolding storyline around them is anything but. The sci-fi elements of Itō’s world aren’t easygoing on the viewer, at times feeling like a mash-up of The Matrix and Inception with a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s trippy visuals. But these reference points, whether purposeful or incidental, don’t make the film seem derivative; instead, providing cultural anchor points to help you get a firm foothold when things get really weird.
While still somewhat contentious for audiences, CG technology in Japanese animation has come a long way in recent years. TV shows like the monstrously popular Demon Slayer masterfully marry computer-aided animation with traditional 2D to not only shorten production time but also create beautifully fluid action sequences. Others, like Lupin III: The First, part of this year’s Kotatsu Film Festival lineup alongside Hello World, utilize full 3D CG to similarly great effect, demonstrating how the ‘cartoony’ look we love in traditional, hand-drawn animation can be carried through into a medium that we sometimes perceive to be soulless and stilted.
The idea for Hello World goes back to 2015 when the animation technology wasn’t quite where it needed to be, and waiting has certainly paid off: it takes a little adjusting to at first, but the characters are expressive enough to feel human (even Ruri’s death glares) and the unravelling reality sequences are kaleidoscopically inventive.
Though bordering on the convoluted at times, what the film makes clear is that the more time passes, the more estranged we become from who we used to be, splitting our identity across time and place. Our obsession with digital recordkeeping only splits us further, creating a carefully curated, timestamped ‘clone.’ Genetically, both past and future versions of Naomi are the same, but as the story goes on, it becomes clear that’s where the similarity ends. It’s only once both Naomis align to achieve a common goal that this division might be reconciled. These ideas will stay with you long after Hello World has ended.
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Dir. Tomohiko Itō (CTBA, 98 mins)
words HANNAH COLLINS