Fantastical elements can be effective in creating compelling drama in anime. In NagiAsu: A Lull in the Sea, a significant mid-series event causes its sea-dwelling protagonist and his friend to disappear for five years. After the time skip, they return to the surface world without having aged a day, resulting in fascinating upheavals in their personal relationships. In Kokoro Connect, a mysterious being subjects five friends to a series of invasive phenomena that include random body-swapping and mind-reading. With various secrets and flaws being revealed without their consent, the five find the strength of their friendship tested.
Like NagiAsu and Kokoro Connect, Hello World‘s drama wouldn’t exist without its fantastical elements. The difference is that this 3DCG movie also places a large emphasis on its fantastical side and tries to make its story more complex with a bunch of twists. While it’s certainly an interesting direction, it’s also one that feels like a strong misstep.
Hello World‘s synopsis is pretty simple. One day, timid high school student Naomi Katagaki encounters a three-legged crow that leads him to his future self. Future Naomi has come to warn him of an accident that will befall Ruri Ichigyo, the stern girl whom young Naomi will start dating in three months. Young Naomi is thus tasked with getting close to Ruri as his future self once did, while also ensuring that she has a different fate.
The actual story is more complicated, thanks to the aforementioned twists. Their impact on the story is big and pretty much makes the synopsis a bluff. The first of these twists, which is already pretty major, is revealed in the movie’s trailer, so I’ll go ahead and spoil it. You see, Young Naomi’s world is simply a data archive of the real one; Future Naomi is basically visiting a virtual replication of the past, rather than truly traveling through time. Since I didn’t watch the trailer beforehand, I was genuinely blindsided by this reveal. The other twists are similarly unpredictable, and they deserve praise for being so, as well as for recontextualizing events in interesting ways.
That’s where my praise for the twists ends, unfortunately. By the time the third or fourth twist comes along, it’s clear that Hello World is more interested in throwing surprises at the audience than strengthening its emotional core. Even at the very end, there’s a big twist that forces you to question everything that came before, but its presence doesn’t feel essential. I’d have preferred it if more time was spent on developing Young Naomi and Ruri’s romance instead. What we get isn’t bad, but when a chunk of runtime is dedicated to not just the climax but a second act faux-climax, I can’t help but feel a bit short-changed.
The bigger issue I have is how Young Naomi and Ruri are “alive” despite their status as data. Now, I’ve no problems with sentient virtual characters in other shows due to their respective backgrounds. Sword Art Online: Alicization explains that the virtual inhabitants of Underworld have artificial souls. In movies like Tron and Wreck-It-Ralph, the virtual characters are personifications of programs and sentient video-game characters respectively. Their sentience might require some suspension of disbelief, but I could still wholeheartedly buy into them. I can’t do the same here when Young Naomi and his world are virtual replicas based on drone recordings of the past. Software in the form of creepy fox-masked figures keep an eye on changes to the virtual world’s replication of history, but how is Young Naomi able to exercise free will and change events in the first place? Shouldn’t the system be more strict? Because of the “based on history” aspect, I was never convinced that Young Naomi could somehow be a sentient being and couldn’t empathize with him during multiple key dramatic moments as a result.
The data twist also proves to be a misstep in another way. Since Future Naomi can’t actually change the past and save the real Ruri, the stakes just vanish for much of the movie’s early parts. The movie does explain why he wants to save data Ruri, but it’s an unconvincing reason. Luckily, another twist near the end of the second act succeeds in reintroducing a sense of urgency. Unfortunately, it’s undercut by my previously-mentioned issues with Young Naomi: I could strongly root for Future Naomi, but I couldn’t care less about Young Naomi since I could only think of him as mere data.
There are other elements from Hello World‘s sci-fi side that bothered me. Initially, Young Naomi has to learn to use a special glove which allows him to manipulate his world by creating objects and such. These training sessions are accompanied by upbeat techno beats that make it difficult to buy into the supposed severity of his mission and clash with the tone of his regular life as well. The sense of disconnect strengthens in the third act. Here, the relatively-grounded setting of the first two-thirds gives way to shifting landscapes and kaleidoscopes that bring Doctor Strange to mind (there’s even a chase scene set within this new setting). While I appreciated the mind-bending visuals, I couldn’t say the same for the action that comes with them. The combination is entertaining, but the flashy spectacle just feels at odds with the more mundane, romance-focused events of the preceding acts.
That sense of disconnection aside, I wasn’t able to fully appreciate the third act’s visual creativity because Hello World’s best moments are its quiet ones. Despite my misgivings about Young Naomi’s data background, his confession to Ruri was a sweet moment that elicited a reaction from some members of the audience I was in. Meanwhile, there was a poignant scene involving Future Naomi and Ruri that almost brought a tear to my eye. Like the drama in NagiAsu and Kokoro Connect, the existence of the latter is made possible by the catalytic involvement of the story’s fantastical elements. And like those shows, the emphasis is placed firmly on the feelings of the characters; the sci-fi/fantasy part, while important, doesn’t overshadow the former.
Hello World would have benefited from more emotional elements, rather than a third act that is largely wasted on fancy visuals and action. I’m not against the presence of grand visuals in the movie, but they need to be accompanied by something human too. While I wasn’t a big fan of Weathering With You as a whole, its “Grand Escape” scene was filled with noticeable emotion and yearning and was buoyed by a formidable, uplifting track. In Summer Wars’ case, its climatic virtual reality sequences were supported and enhanced by the movie’s strong theme of family bonds. Hello World does have both Naomis’ feelings for Ruri, but when one of those Naomis comes from a historical data archive, the human element gets lost among the spectacle.
Despite my numerous misgivings, I wouldn’t go so far as to consider Hello World a trainwreck of a movie. I did, however, feel very apathetic towards it throughout most of its runtime. I had hoped that it’d be a somewhat memorable experience, but I’m now wondering if I’d remember it in a few days’ time.