The Life of Budori Gusuko – Movie Review
Synopsis: In the 1920s, among the forests of northeastern Japan, droughts and natural disasters plague Budori’s community. In search of a better life, Budori joins a group of scientists that deal with the very same calamities that drove him away from home. (Official HIDIVE Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Spoilers to Follow):
The Life of Budori Gusuko is the second animated adaptation of a Japanese children’s novel with its most notable feature being its decision to portray the characters as anthropomorphic cats. This blends well with the more fantastical aspects of its plot and makes it something recommendable to those who like stories that blur the lines between fantasy and reality. We follow the titular Budori’s early life as a sweet and kind young boy living happily with his family in the mountains. Soon that life turns desolate and bleak, thanks to a never ending cold front leading to famine. The opening minutes are especially idyllic and cheerful in order to present the sharp contrast that the famine brings about. It’s a shocking early development and one that sets the tragic tone of most of Budori Gusuko’s life.
While these early minutes may showcase such tender moments that one can only picture happening in fiction, everything else about it is grounded. We have a small family of four living their life out in the woods and the whole cold front, while sudden and drastic, still plays out in a believable manner. Even the slow descent into complete desperation as the parents realize the bleak future ahead is played out in a convincing, if slightly dramatic manner. A softer viewer may even quickly find themselves getting invested in the scary and depressing situation our cast is in. Things get extremely bleak… until they get really strange instead.
For one, while the official HIDIVE synopsis makes no mention of it, the catalyst that sends Budori on his journey is losing his younger sister. This plays out in a sequence that feels like it is either Budori’s hallucinations brought about by a weakened mental state and starved physical condition or that the movie is about to go all in on high fantasy. For a while, it definitely feels like the latter; with Budori being then abruptly and forcefully employed by a strange man into a fantastical new profession, growing and harvesting silk via magical looking nets. This all emerges out of nowhere, with no connection to preceding events making it feel entirely mystical if not outright imaginary. His coworkers fly through the air, every movement and dialogue executed with exaggerated depiction like in someone’s fever dream. But then we move on and Budori is now being pseudo-adopted by a farmer who welcomes Budori into the family and relies on Budori’s intelligence to help their crops prosper. Things from there are pretty much slice of life, matter of fact again as Budori spends his days helping his new mentor/pseudo adoptive father plant crops all while reading and learning about the facts of agriculture to protect said crops from disease. But then drought hits the lands and Budori finds himself being sent away by his new temporary family as they admit they can no longer afford to feed another mouth. He sets off to the train station to make a living in the big city. It is then on the train and at the train station that we once again dive into fever dream territory as ominous voices and faces fill the screen.
And then we once more return to ‘reality’ and move on to Budori finding employment at a very scientific looking and sounding organization where they monitor nearby volcanoes to ensure the safety of the people and the nation. They approach problems in a very matter of fact manner and when we learn that another extended cold front might be happening, the solutions presented and deliberated are all very down to earth and believable. However, the actual solution, or rather the execution of the solution, is once again high fantasy with Budori teaming up with someone who has acted as his nemesis throughout the movie and things play out in a magical manner. It’s these sudden and abrupt shifts between unexplained fantasy and down to earth sequences that made it hard for me to follow and get invested. They become something that plague those seeking a more coherent tale. Experimenting with clashing tone and mood can be extremely hit or miss and in this specific case, the frequently jarring switches make it hard to connect with a more grounded audience.
Circling back to synopsis talk though, HIDIVE’s official synopsis might even be considered a little misleading. It gives the movie this aura which some could interpret as the story having a scientific, realistic tone when instead, the movie dives into intense magic-like elements for any major plot points. It also takes a fair bit of the movie for Budori to actually end up joining the team, which goes against expectations.
Thematically, it’s clear that The Life of Budori Gusuko wants to send a message as we hear some poignant poetry being read by Budori’s teacher within the first 5 minutes of the movie and our protagonist, Budori himself always acts in a selfless and kind manner to all; never lashing out even when life or people push him around, save for the supposed ‘villain’ he encounters. Budori is always kind to others and does what’s needed of him. In fact, he is selfless until the very end of the movie, clearly meant to set an example for viewers, young and old about how one must always tend to the needs of others to the best of one’s abilities and maybe even beyond. It’s an extremely noble and classic message. Some may even muse on how humanity can be so powerful against the whims of nature, watching the characters helplessly face hardship upon hardship thanks to cruel weather. However, when you consider the more fantastical elements, it becomes a bit difficult to take its message all that seriously. It’s certainly not to a dismissive level but it definitely shows its roots as it feels more like a children’s fable where instances of great mystery and magic happen out of the blue for no logical rhyme or reason other than to add some dazzling moments to the tale.
All that said; is The Life of Budori Gusuko for you? If you enjoy flashy and experimental tales that have strong touches of tragedy and sadness mixed with a moral message, you might be the person this movie was intended for. The art isn’t all that amazing but the unique designs of the characters along with scenic depictions of nature and even depictions of nature’s wrath do leave a mark. It’s definitely not for the layperson or average anime fan seeking just another quick watch to binge while multitasking. And it isn’t something I could imagine gathering a large following outside those more familiar and fond of its original material. But for the adventurous and curious, there’s still a slight chance that The Life of Budori Gusuko might be a fun 2 hour traipse through something unique and artistic.
The Life of Budori Gusuko is available for streaming via HIDIVE.com.