Grief can do different things to different people, and some of the responses can be the exact opposites of each other. For example, grief can make a person kind, or it can make a person cruel. Brave Story is a film that examines the two ends of that spectrum.
The two people suffering from grief are schoolboys Wataru and Mitsuru. The one problem I think this film has is that it never makes their grief equivalent, so it fails to quite function as an examination of different responses to the same situation, which is clearly the vibe they were going for. We are supposed to compare the actions of Wataru and Mitsuru, and yet they have suffered very different degrees of heartbreak. Wataru’s father has walked out on his mother, and she is unwell, suffering from her loss. Mitsuru, on the other hand, has lost his entire family to a violent crime, including his little sister. Mitsuru’s reactions are more extreme, but then so is the loss, so the comparison of different responses to tragedy doesn’t quite gel, but on the other hand it does give us an understanding of why the main characters in the film behave the way they do. Although Mitsuru ends up fulfilling the traditional role of the villain of the piece, we can never quite bring ourselves to see him in that way, and that’s because he is broken by an unimaginable tragedy. It also helps that the friendship between Wataru and Mitsuru, although uneasy, is developed strongly at the outset of the film, so it’s only natural to root for them both. This is far from being a black and white approach to villainy. There is a maturity here that is rare in a sword and sorcery film that borders on the isekai genre.
I say it borders on isekai, and that’s because it’s not quite a rebirth into a wonderful new life. There are aspects of isekai: both Wataru and Mitsuru are gifted in the other world, with Mitsuru having extraordinary magical powers, and Wataru learning skills that very soon earn him a following. But this is never about starting afresh in a new world, leaving behind the misery. Instead it is a quest to put things right, to change their destiny, so it remains rooted in the real world, with that end goal always in mind. In that respect, the film perhaps shares more with the British children’s fantasy fiction tradition than the isekai genre, and does indeed literally have a magic door for both Wataru and Mitsuru to travel through.
Wataru is the main focus, and inevitably he gathers some friends during his quest. They are a great selection of characters, with the lizard-like Kee Keema the most entertaining of the bunch. There is also a cute cat girl, Meena, who made me think of The Cat Returns, with that slightly awkward hint of romance between human and feline. She is one of the characters who has issues of her own, and is helped by Wataru along the way. This is the key point of the comparison between Wataru and Mitsuru. Wataru forms friendships and before long this world and its people mean a lot to him and he means a lot to them as well. Mitsuru, on the other hand, is a lone warrior, and will do anything to achieve his goal, even if it means the deaths of an unthinkable number of people. After all, it’s not his world, so what does it matter to him? That line of thinking is the opposite to Wataru’s. He won’t sacrifice anyone to get what he wants. So this is a story about the dangers of being selfish and single-minded to the extent that you cease caring about others, and how grief can lead a person down a very dark path. On the other hand, Wataru opens his heart and is rewarded for that. But this is far from being a film with a straightforward winner and a loser. Nobody is beyond redemption here.
I bought the DVD of this film at an amazingly cheap price in a second-hand store, and would probably never have bought it if it wasn’t at a bargain price. The cover art didn’t exactly jump out at me, so the DVD ended up sat on my shelf for about a year before I got round to watching it. But even if I had paid the full price for this, I don’t think I would feel cheated. The storyline would perhaps have been better suited to a series rather than a film, as the quest element makes for a meandering and slightly disjointed couple of hours, with some characters underdeveloped, but other than that it’s a worthy entry into the ever-expanding range of anime films we might term “Ghibli-esque”. RP