Wonderful Days (aka Sky Blue)
Many of us old-timers in the anime hobby got involved due to good science fiction. Whether Robotech or Gundam, Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion, anime has offered some of the most creative material in the genre. However, when I look back at all the shows that are now popular, only a few really fall in that category. Is it because the ideas are drying up, or is because the Western companies want to license harem shows with lots of fan service that drive sales? Good question.
Frankly, one of the reasons is that a lot of the new stuff like Appleseed (2004) and Steamboy have been good but not great. Though sci-fi fans are rallying around some titles like PlanetES, it's just a soft time. Off the radar to all but the hardcore fans, however, is Wonderful Days (now officially known as Sky Blue by its American distributor, Maxmedia). A Korean project, it has the 2D/3D look of Appleseed but with, amazingly enough, even better graphics. It still has some plot issues, but I'm amazed that the US licensor hasn't gotten this onto DVD yet...it should sell like hotcakes. Unless, of course, they can pull off a theatrical run, which frankly this film deserves.
The Earth is a shambles. The only safe place to live in AD 2142 is a utopia called Ecoban, which powers itself off the destructive pollution found in the rest of the world. However, there are countless millions living outside Ecoban in squalor. Over the whole globe, however, is an impenetrable cloud that blocks out the sun on all but the rarest occasions. There is an uncomfortable truce between the refugees who work the systems that power Ecoban and the elite who run the city. But as the Ecoban hierarchy decides on a course that will eliminate the outsiders entirely, some of the refugees become determined to free their world from the oppression that blesses the few while the masses perish under the darkened sky.
Into this mix is thrown Jay, a young woman who is part of Ecoban's security force. She rarely questioned her life until she saw the cruelty of her superiors as they allowed a huge workforce to be killed in an industrial accident. Soon after, a rebel named Shua breaks into Ecoban. Jay briefly captures him but finds herself at his mercy. As he escapes, memories start flowing...for the bond between Shua and herself is stronger than captor and prisoner. As loyalties shift, Jay must choose between her comfortable life in Ecoban or existence with the resistance determined to bring Ecoban down.
Wonderful Days is pure eye candy. Seriously, I haven't watched an anime that was more visually engaging since The Place Promised In Our Early Days. The 3D computer work on display is nothing less than spectacular. Sadly, the first few minutes show possibly the least impressive melding of 2D and 3D work in the whole film. At first, the characters look to be on top of the environment rather than naturally blending into it, and it's unfortunate that this is most noticeable at the very start of the film. However, as the movie continues, we are treated to a truly wonderful visual display. Unlike Appleseed, where the character animation always felt one step short of perfect, in its better moments Wonderful Days gets it just right.
If you really love Japanese character design, you may find Wonderful Days a little stiff. The characters look nice, but they still have a slight angularity reminiscent of Aeon Flux, except for the visuals of children (who tend to be a little too rounded). These are personal preferences, but the discerning viewer will notice that things are slightly different than your typical Japanese production...but so what? The Korean animators prove themselves worthy on this project, and the minor differences could be seen as a highlight rather than a distraction.
The music within Wonderful Days is also unique. There's a lot of action in the film, but it feels far more serious than the typical movie that has these many guns a-blazing. Part of that is because most American (and Japanese) action films would ratchet up the soundtrack during the battle sequences. Here, the music is understated, and the firefights feel more realistic as a result. The only time the soundtrack really pulls out the stops is during the ending, and the musical choice is surprising but very effective. Once more, it's a reminder that we're watching something just a bit different. I have a feeling that the average viewer might at first dismiss Wonderful Days as a lesser work for these changes, but I think that it will play really well on repeat viewings once typical expectations are no longer in place.
The one area that Wonderful Days has a weakness is in its character development. Now for a film that barely lasts 90 minutes, you might expect that, but my complaints are different than what you'd expect. The minor characters act with the weight of backgrounds; though we get few back stories, a lot of the supporting cast seems well rounded. The characters who suffer are our leads. There's a love triangle at the heart of the film, but Jay and Shua don't have all that much personality. There's enough to power us to a conclusion, but not enough to feel a real connection between them. It's not a fatal flaw for a film like this, but it does suffer from having weak protagonists.
Otherwise, though, Wonderful Days is an immersive trip into a visually gorgeous world. Though not an action film in the regular sense -- it's too slow for that -- this is a nice merger of drama and science fiction with action incorporated. Although the plot is stereotypical, the movie is more interested in mood and emotion than in plot. Does it always succeed? Yes and no. I was disappointed that we didn't get to see more of Ecoban; we wind up spending most of our time in the fringes of the world, rather than in this supposed paradise, which would have helped us see the contrast between the two. And honestly, with maybe ten more minutes of exposition, the love story could have been first rate. The ending would have been more powerful had they just expanded the edges. But despite these problems, boy, did I like Wonderful Days! For the lack of exposition, I still felt really connected to these characters through the visuals. The expressiveness of the artwork tied me far more to the characters than plot or dialogue did. In some ways, the film could have been silent and been as effective. It was just that visually entrancing to me.
I can honestly say that I wish Wonderful Days was going to be available on Region 1 DVD for this Christmas season -- I'd be requesting it. I could watch it again right now. My rating is going to be a little lower than I actually feel towards it because of its admitted flaws which may be bigger to some viewers. It's got a B-movie plot, to be certain, but I feel much more passion towards this film than most of the anime I've seen this year. So keep your eyes open...whether it's known as Wonderful Days or Sky Blue, it's a film worth seeing.
Wonderful Days -- profanity, realistic violence -- A