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September 18, 2021
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By Shelley Pallis.

Everybody loves the new girl at Kegebe High – Shion Ashimori has an innocent demeanour and scarily swift reflexes, soon endearing her to the classmates and particularly the sports teams. But Shion is oddly fixated on the friendless wallflower Satomi, and suddenly declares that it is her mission to make her smile, which apparently is best achieved by bursting into song.

At first Sing a Bit of Harmony looks like yet another high-school musical, a Love Live! clone in which a bunch of teenagers resolve to Do The Show Right Here to save the school from dastardly developers, and what-have-you. But the film soon veers off on a much more science fictional theme, revealing that the perky Shion is not a run-of-the-mill transfer student (as if there is ever such a thing in anime) but a malfunctioning android tasked with bringing a smile to Satomi’s face. Shion is also keen to embark upon a number of other “missions”, but it’s not quite Mission: Impossible saving the world – some of her tasks include setting up a reluctant pair as a romantic couple, and helping a judo team failure get his grove back. Then again, even such apparently minor achievements have the potential to snowball into life-changing events.

This is hardly a spoiler-ridden surprise. The Japanese title of JC Staff’s original film is “Let Me Hear a Love Song”, punning not for the first time in anime, on the fact that the word for love in Japanese, ai, is also the English-language acronym for Artificial Intelligence. Shion, however, isn’t at the top of her game, she might breeze through the school like a robot Haruhi Suzumiya, but much of her character seems derived from a more long-standing anime icon, the hapless but good-intentioned robot cat, Doraemon.

“I was determined to make something that was fun for everyone,” says director Yasuhiro Yoshiura, whose earlier Patema Inverted managed the rare feat of winning both Scotland Loves Anime’s Audience Award and the coveted Golden Partridge jury prize. “But different people enjoy different things, so I ended trying to recall the moments in my life that I had enjoyed from the bottom of my heart. I came up with a bunch of life-sized high-school students, all with their own habits and dramas, and I asked what would happen if they were hit by some sort of event that went obliquely way above their everyday lives.”

For animator Hidekazu Shimamura, who had never worked on an anime before that was not based on a pre-existing product, the production was a sharp learning curve, aided greatly by Yoshiura’s ability to manage a digital production, particualrly one that needed to integrate dozens of musical cues and over 1200 individual shots. “The storyboards were complete before we even started on the character settings,” he recalls “and all the dialogue and background music was set down with a degree of precision. There was no room for being timid. The actual job switched early on to working from home, because of COVID, so it was no longer to communicate directly with each other as we had done before. But since every single shot came with detailed instructions and explanations, I don’t think we had any problems.”

For Tao Tsuchiya, the actress who provides Shion’s voice, the story is closer to an even older animated character, Pinocchio, the puppet who just wants to be human. “There’s a sadness to the idea that even if she gets close to humans, she can never become one of them,” she says. “Not to mention the sadness that the closer she becomes to humans, the more she is able to feel fear. But in the end, I think this is a story about friendship between two people in different places, rather than friendship between a human and an artificial intelligence. This is a story that gives us a sense of the future, but also depicts a theme that is universal: what is love?

Sing a Bit of Harmony is screening at Scotland Loves Anime.

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