AI School Musical – Sing a Bit of Harmony

After the success of Belle, the announcement by Funimation of a new anime film also prominently featuring music instantly piqued my interest. Through a special, three-day engagement, the newest film from Yasuhiro Yoshiura (director of the acclaimed Pale Cocoon and Time of Eve), Sing a Bit of Harmony (original Japanese: Let Me Hear You Sing of Love) would see American theatres after premiering in Japan back in October and winning the Audience Prize at the Scotland Loves Animation film festival.

Now, right away, I should mention that this is not on the same level as Belle. There’s less technical artistry at play, the songs aren’t nearly as good or memorable, and the film is a much more traditional “school life” anime than anything else. There are a few high-concept ideas, but the movie doesn’t aspire to anything on Belle‘s scale. And that’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t have to change the world, just be entertaining. And to that end, it very much succeeds. The characters are fun, the animation is more than competent, and the story is clever and funny within its narrow sphere. Given the extremely limited release and its domestic acquisition by Funimation, I’d imagine it will have an at-home release soon, and if you’re a fan of anime, it’s certainly worth your time.

After a pretty interesting and colorful ride through a visualization of the internet itself (the second-most gorgeous artistic moment of the film after a climactic light show towards the end), we see a team of scientists activating an artificially intelligent android, which they name Shion, voiced by Tao Tsuchiya in Japanese and Megan Shipman in English. Operating from a remote tech corporation that runs a company town on a relatively autonomous island, the team enrolls Shion into the local high school without informing the administration of her true nature. This initial rollout is meant to be a five-day Turing Test to see if she can pass for fully human. The project is overseen by the ambitious Mitsuko Amano (Sayaka Ohara/Laila Berzins), who sees Shion as the next step in both technological and human evolution, particularly in this film’s world, which is set in a near future where AI has advanced to the point where automation has taken over most menial jobs (farmhands, bus drivers, literal trash cans, etc.) and whole-home computer devices make domestic life extremely convenient.

Mitsuko works an extremely long schedule, often going into the wee hours of the morning, so her daughter, Satomi (Haruka Fukuhara/Risa Mei) handles most of the day-to-day upkeep of the house, as well as her school duties. Satomi often appears morose and detached to her classmates, who dub her “Princess Tattletale” after an incident where she ratted out several athletes for smoking in the rooftop computer lab, but she isn’t exactly depressed or anything. She just keeps to herself to avoid conflict or sticking out.

That routine is quickly shattered when Shion arrives in her class, somehow recognizes Satomi, and instantly pounces on her like a long lost friend, gleefully asking if Satomi is happy and singing to her about the very concept of happiness. Satomi is aware of Shion’s existence (having come across a secret work email while organizing her mom’s schedule), but did not know the android would be coming to her school, and certainly has no idea how it recognizes her.

Through an awkward series of bad luck and coincidences, Satomi accidentally reveals Shion’s mechanical nature to some of her classmates: Thunder (Satashi Hino/Kamen Casey), captain of the school’s judo team, who uses a robot for sparring and constantly breaks it, Toma (Asuka Kudoh/Jordan Dash Cruz), an expert hacker and childhood friend of Satomi’s who harbors an unspoken crush, and the school’s power couple, the cool Gotchan and queen bee Aya, voiced respectively by Kazuyuki Okitsu and Mikako Komatsu in Japanese, and by Funimation veterans Ian Sinclair and Alexis Tipton in English. Knowing how important this project is to her mother, Satomi begs them all to keep Shion’s identity secret.

Hijinks ensue over the next few days, as Shion tries to make Satomi happy, despite not knowing what that actually means. She takes some instructions to literal extremes and creates some decent comedy. At the same time, she also helps the gang overcome their own individual problems, such as getting Gotchan and Aya to be honest with each other about their feelings, and using dance to help Thunder win his first match. And of course, at the heart of everything is Satomi’s own conflicted feelings about Toma, her mother, and AI in general.

Shion’s design is a bit of fun, because Yoshiura creates a sort of Uncanny Valley effect despite the standard two-dimensional animation. Aside from wearing a different uniform than the rest of the class to make her stand out, her skin tone and eye movements are just slightly off compared to the others. Also, the edges of her lips are always curled upwards in a permanent smile. The other characters show this on rare occasion, but Shion has it on almost all the time, at least for the first two acts. In a weird way, it reminded me of the Pokémon Ditto, which is appropriate, as Shion is mimicking human appearances, but can’t quite fully approximate them.

The songs are nothing special, as they all fit the similar themes of happiness and love, and the lyrics are quite childish. This makes sense within the context of the film, because they all come from a movie called Moon Princess that Satomi watches all the time (think of a Disney-fied mixture of Sailor Moon and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya). But after the really well-written music of Belle, it’s hard not be a little disappointed at how simple they are. It also gives a bit of lie to the English title, as Shion does the vast majority of the singing in this film, and when others join in, there is no harmony to speak of. The context of Shion’s songs makes much more sense for the original Japanese title, and honestly I don’t know why it was changed for the international release.

There’s nothing too high-minded in this story, apart from some kid-friendly meditations on what the growth of AI could mean for society as well as the artificial lifeforms themselves. If you’ve ever watched a Data story from Star Trek: The Next Generation, you’ve seen this ground covered before. But for a young audience who wouldn’t have been exposed to that now 35-year-old show (God I hate admitting how old I’m getting), it certainly works. And while the plot is basic, it doesn’t mean there are no surprises to be had. There are clues laid out over the course of the film, but the overall resolution to the small mystery being built up is relatively unforeseen and fairly well executed. I wouldn’t exactly say I was shocked by the reveal, but there were pieces of the solution that I didn’t entirely put together. So kudos to the writing team on that one.

If you’re into school life anime, or just anime in general, I think you’ll find something to enjoy here. A few of the early moments creep dangerously close to cringe territory, but it’s in service of establishing the awkwardness of Shion’s emerging intelligence and Satomi’s social standing, so it’s tolerable for as far as it goes. There are solid jokes and morals. The animation is always functional and occasionally delightful. The songs, while utterly simplistic, get the point across. I can honestly say I was never once bored, and more often than not, I was smiling, even in the more obvious and trope-y moments. The theatrical run has already ended, but if you’re interested, keep an eye out for the home release. You won’t be upset, and you might even hum along a bit as you go.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite subgenre of anime? If an exchange student suddenly started singing at you, what would you do? Let me know!

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