Home Channels Anime Review: “Hal DVD/Blu-ray Combi (UK Edition)”: Do Androids Dream Of Human Girlfriends?

Review: “Hal DVD/Blu-ray Combi (UK Edition)”: Do Androids Dream Of Human Girlfriends?

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I first became aware of Wit Studio’s Hal last year, shortly after its Japanese premiere. Just a few months later I got a chance to talk to director Ryotaro Makihara, which only whet my curiosity about the film further. Just shy of a year later I am finally able to sample the film itself. Was it worth the wait?

Wit Studio Hal 2 ShotIn the near-future, robots have become an common component of society. This is illustrated in the opening moments as two men work at traditional Japanese labour while their robot companion studies the fish swimming through the stream below. It isn’t a Star Wars style case of sentient machines trundling around en masse but does illustrate a relatable yet different version of reality.

The mood swiftly changes from its initial sense of wonder, as both man and machine witness a passenger plane visibly struggle before exploding in the sky above. As fate would have it, the older of the two men is related to one of the young victims of the tragedy. The loss cuts deep not only for him but for the partner of his grandchild, a young woman named Kurumi. By request, the robot is reconfigured into a surrogate for the lost human Hal, dispatched to Kurumi in an attempt to ease her out of her grief and depression via experimental therapy. Confounding the situation is the synthetic Hal’s slow discovery that Hal was not a perfect person or boyfriend, despite the depths of Kurumi’s grief.

Something that stood out to me instantly about Hal as a speculative fiction story is the runtime. An hour seems incredibly brisk for a story set in a world mildly ahead of our own, exacerbated by the emotionally fraught story. There’s a very mild dash of whimsy to make things work, but most of the beats hit their mark. Technology feels evolved from our own: smart phones got a bit smarter, while the robot design feels like an extension of Honda’s ASIMO robot concept. As expected, Kurumi initially wants nothing to do with a recreation of the boyfriend she has lost and knows isn’t coming back. The combination of Makihara’s directing and the writing of Izumi Kizara allows the movie to flow at just the right pace, and by the end I felt the runtime was just about perfect. I’d have certainly enjoyed more time with this setting and characters but I don’t feel like the movie was incomplete or left anything undone. Indeed, this is one of those great stories where there is a good deal to be gained from a repeat viewing, which reveals the depths of the movie’s cleverly applied layers.

Visually, the film is engaging as well. Makihara had previously made a name for himself providing animation and storyboards for titles such as Summer Wars and he’s clearly brought that knowledge to the fore, creating a film that expresses the timeless historical beauty of Japan. Katsuhiko Kitada’s character designs are similarly engaging, offering thoughtful designs for the limited but varied cast. I particularly enjoy the way his concept for the starring robot evokes elements of its eventual human form.

hal2Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English and Japanese tracks are available, in addition to optional English subtitles. This is one of those titles where both casts are pretty evenly matched, but I have to give my vote to the Japanese one, primarily due to the performance of the title character. Chris Burnett presents a fine performance, but there’s something sincere and earnest about Yoshimasa Hosoya’s portrayal of the robot Hal that I feel works better with the emotions and the pacing of the story. The selfless nature of the character seems more evident in Hosoya’s performance, but it’s a very close call in general, with Burnett and his co-stars Bryn Appril and Bill Flynn nicely matching their Japanese counterparts. I also mark the dub down slightly for a few rewordings of lines that seem to flow better as originally presented.

Two brief Japanese extras involve Makihara and his key staff talking over successive animation build up of key scenes, showing how they went from simple storyboards to a multi-layered theatrical quality animation. A textless version of the film’s credits closing song is also presented alongside the Japanese and American trailers (I have to say the American one rather horribly oversells the connection to Wit’s more famous success Attack on Titan). The last substantial extra is a dub audio commentary, in which the three lead actors get about 20 minutes each with the voice director to talk about the film and acting in it. FUNimation has a knack for such things, and although the opinions expressed are independent of the original creators it’s still an interesting lesson if you enjoyed the film. The set itself is a DVD/Blu-ray combi pack and further includes a translated 20 page booklet full of production stories and notes.

Hal is a project that I think shows the value of self-contained short stories. Certain promotion might be taking advantage of Wit Studio’s success with Attack on Titan to sell audiences on it, but I think it stands quite strongly on its own merit. As a first time director, Makihara proves he can do more than just bring someone else’s story to life, and going forward I’ll be very interested to see what he creates. This is a gentle science fiction story with an effectively timeless human core that just about anyone can relate to. Firmly recommended.

Hal is available to buy on DVD/Blu-ray combi from Amazon UK