As a child, moving to a new home can feel less like an adventure and more like confronting the destruction of the known world. That apocalyptic feel should seem overly dramatic in hindsight, though Penguin Highway Director Hiroyasu Ishida takes it seriously and gives it an amazingly literal face in his second anime feature film. drive homenow streaming on Netflix. drive homeKosuke and Natsume, the protagonists of the elementary school students of , have to come to terms with the loss of their former home when it suddenly heads towards the middle of the ocean with them and their friends on board.
In a neighborhood on the verge of renewal, where old apartment complexes are slowly being replaced by new water towers and industrial buildings, the Kamonomiya apartment complex is a remnant of the post-war growth of the 1960s. Kosuke and Natsume used to live in these “haunted homes,” which are now set to be demolished and are reportedly inhabited only by ghosts. From the start, the slow disappearance of their homeland is a clear symbol of a friendship threatened by change and time. The two have drifted apart over an exchange of poorly chosen words, compounded by divergent interests and priorities.
A beautiful but simple opening sequence traces the friendship they used to have, taking you through the area back to when the neighborhood was bustling with life. Scaffolding, mold, rust and weathering gently fade away as the footage shifts back in time. After a quick buildup at school, Kosuke and some friends set off to check out the old apartments and search for the ghost that is said to be haunting them. Instead, they run into Natsume and her strange new friend, Noppo, who claims to be a former resident.
Soon, a sudden downpour cuts them off from the real world, and the run-down apartment complex begins to float like a raft through the ocean, with no hope of rescue. As in Penguin Highway, Ishida stages an early coming-of-age story on the porous border between the fantastic and the everyday, in which the world suddenly but seamlessly disappears. It’s an eerie moment that feels like real magic wrapped in succinct editing. This sense of eeriness persists throughout the film, thanks to the good instincts of Ishida and co-writer Hayashi Mori, who avoid getting bogged down in the mechanics of what is happening. The story is simply driven by feelings, not explanations.
The journey becomes both a trip down memory lane and a final confrontation between the two old friends over the things that lie between them. As they seek mutual understanding, their friendship brings with it more complications than either of them realized, partly due to their shared relationship with Kosuke’s recently deceased grandfather, Yasuji, who has lived in the apartments since the apartments were built. Yasuji involved both children in his hobby, photography, becoming Natsume’s surrogate for her own dysfunctional family. As Yasuji dies, so does the apartment, and Kosuke and Natsume’s friendship reaches a point of its entropy. Natsume struggles to let go of her attachment to the place, which could cost her a future relationship with Kosuke.
Change is shockingly alien to the two children at this point in their lives, so leaving behind a place and the memories it holds feels like removing a limb, an idea Ishida and Mori play with in their screenplay. The symbolism of young people being shipwrecked at a transition point in life – even the specific idea of impossible shipwrecked buildings – has seen a number of iterations in anime, most recently in the series sonny boydirected by Shingo Natsume.
but drive home is different because Ishida and Mori also ask: What if the feelings the characters have towards this place are mutual? Noppo is the film’s most sinister magical touch: he’s a lanky, slightly creepy boy who seems to be the embodiment of the apartment complex. Noppo’s true nature is widely shared, but the depth of his connection with the children is both novel and moving. Also the extent of his pain. He laments his abandonment: “Now everyone’s gone, but I’m still here.”
The anthropomorphization of an entire apartment complex – which has its own journey of reconciling the process of Kosuke and Natsume’s loss to new apartments – threatens no little cheesiness. But the slightly morbid details of the story make it work: his bones are made of rebar and his skin is reclaimed by plants, much like an abandoned building disappears under grasses, moss and mold. Noppo makes the presence of this post-war architecture something ephemeral, and it is interesting and often moving to see how Ishida engages with the way children are confronted with these ideas of ephemerality, both for people and places.
The handsome animation production by Studio Colorido (Penguin Highway, A mustache removed) does a lot to sell the outlandish premise. Structures shift and break with believable weight, though the driving action is about a building floating through the ocean like a raft. Similarly, the young characters are all drawn with light, smooth lines. Akihiro Nagae’s designs remain down to earth even with the more imaginative characters that appear to the children. The photorealistic background art contrasts modernism with mid-century post-war architecture, but Ishida’s direction is not obsessed with realism. It’s never at odds with the film’s sense of danger when the director infuses broad, sometimes elastic physical comedy into the characters’ interactions with these environments, like when Kosuke daredevilly uses a makeshift zip line to reach an adjacent floating structure and through the corrugated iron topples the roof and bounces around the room below like a pinball machine.
By exploring both childhood fickleness and sensitivity, drive home continues the work of Ishida Penguin Highway: Both films show an even knack for portraying children in all their capacity for selfishness, selflessness and even wisdom. Moments of enlightenment are believably interspersed with immature impulses. Even seemingly adult realizations will quickly spill over into more childish feelings, such as Kosuke’s inability to derail reconciliation with Natsume over minor jealousies.
Once again, Ishida is interested in characters arguing and clashing without either side necessarily being at fault. Each of the characters has a different, less obvious side to their personality, and the film moves towards them becoming more aware of their feelings and becoming more empathetic towards their friends while shedding the myopic view of the world that comes with childhood . One girl, Reina, who increasingly becomes the focus of the film, is amusingly contradictory in this way – she poses as an adult, pragmatic member of the group, but is also obsessed with roller coasters. She makes a big show of constantly bragging about her upcoming trip to Florida (she even wears a Miami t-shirt as a constant reminder), but it quickly becomes apparent that the bluster is a childish effort to get Kosuke’s attention. As a result, she wants to shoot down Natsume at every opportunity. Reina is a window into Ishida’s compelling approach to writing children – often as capable of being selfish brats as they are of spreading simple wisdom and never being slandered in any way.
There is enough vitality drive home that two hours in a single location against a minimal backdrop doesn’t really feel like overkill – the apartment feels spacious and the kids end up drifting past other abandoned buildings that become opportunities for adventure. The movie doesn’t quite manage to maintain the intrigue in the same way Penguin Highway‘s amusing bird hijinks do, especially with this film’s gradual scientific approach to his imagination. But the adventure in drive home is nonetheless compelling and makes up for the lack of a process with a very real danger as the children must search for food to survive being shipwrecked.
Despite the generally strong character work, Ishida and Mori strike repetitive tones between the other characters as they become tighter and tighter in panic and yell at each other with increasing frequency. This tension meets diminishing returns fairly quickly. But at least such moments feel like a fairly believable portrayal of children stranded alone, particularly during a race against time to search for food.
While the entire journey is intelligently and sensitively implemented, there are points where drive home feels (appropriately!) a little lost at sea as its characters struggle between youthful impulses and empathy for their friends. Regardless, the film is admirable for its patient engagement in unpacking the children’s feelings for each other, the building, and other relics from their past as they learn to carry their attachments and memories to new places.
drive home now streaming on Netflix.