Liz and the Blue Bird is a fantastic movie. On a purely technical level, it may be the most impressive work I’ve ever seen and it’s certainly one of the most emotionally resonant ones I’ve witnessed. Many people, my girlfriend included, have already declared it as the best anime ever made and I truly understand how they can do so. But… I can’t. I love this film but I’m incapable of fully embracing it in quite the same way that others do. Its connection to Hibike Euphonium, a series which I’ve come to view as one of the most disappointing that I’ve ever seen, is something that poisons my enjoyment of Liz. That I still believe it’s a 10/10 movie is a testament to how good it is. Yet, it could have been my favorite film of all time if it were a standalone work and I’m sad that I have to say that.
My history with Hibike Euphonium can’t be called a fun one. Like many, I began watching it in season 1, making it all the way to the famous mountaintop scene. It was a fantastic moment, a key point in the relationship between Kumiko and Reina that had been built up and I could not have been more crushed when novel readers told everyone that this wouldn’t go anywhere, that Kumiko would eventually date Shuu. The arc of the anime was so focused on Kumiko’s budding queerness and Reina’s mutual interest that it didn’t make sense for that to happen and I told myself that it wouldn’t. Surely, KyoAni was planning to change things. After all, they’re connected by the red string of fate in the ED, right? How could they not get together?
Yet, I fell off the show, too frightened by the spoilers I had received. Some may say that dropping a show just because your ship doesn’t work out is silly, but that’s an unfair way of looking at things. If you read the arc of a show as being about a character coming to understand their attraction to another person, that being thrown away will inevitably put you off. I did not simply “ship” Kumiko and Reina. To me, their relationship was the series’ core. So when I returned to the show before season 2 aired, and the two of them showed no sign of separating from one another, I was incredibly happy. Perhaps KyoAni truly wouldn’t go down the Shuu route. I had and have a lot of faith in them as a studio, after all.
And to be fair, they mostly didn’t. In season 2, you never see the two of them date, though there are a couple hints that Kumiko is on the way to reciprocating his feelings, which is already unnecessary. Yet, the damage is done. In spite of the first episode being the gayest thing of all time, an escalation of the tension present in season 1, the rest of the narrative totally ignores Kumiko and Reina’s relationship. What happened to the red string? Clearly, someone snipped it. Because not only does their relationship get a backseat, but Kumiko basically allows Reina to flounder in her weird Taki obsession for most the season, growing far more interested in Asuka. Which would already be a disappointing turn, but there are people who see them as romantic too, which could be a salve for the wound, except Asuka leaves at the end of the story, never to return. Kumiko’s queerness which, once again, was the central narrative element that stood out to me, is totally thrown against the rocks. The fact that Reina became, if not totally irrelevant, far less important, was just another nail in the already burning coffin.
I have never been so disappointed watching an anime as it aired. The series ended up echoing many of the tropes criticized in earlier Class S works in a period where that’s no longer necessary, less gay in actuality than fucking MariMite, and what do those of us who were upset by it get? “Oh it was never gay in the first place, why did you get your hopes up?” “Oh, well, sure, but look at how cute KumiRei is, don’t let the actual writing of the damn show distract from that.” “Just stop getting so angry, it’s just an anime.” I was already pissed off by the series, disappointed more than I’d ever been, and then all the discourse surrounding it just served to further upset me, belittling my feelings and acting as if it was unreasonable for me to expect anything more from a piece of media I once cared about. As a result, I’ve honestly come to hate Eupho, because thinking about it just makes me feel horrendous.
So, I was not expecting to come to love Liz. I enjoyed Mizore and Nozomi’s story in season 2, so that wasn’t a problem; after all, it came before I was disillusioned, and given that I could not have cared less about Asuka’s arc or Kumiko’s sister — not only do these arcs bore me on their own, their aforementioned treatment of Reina just added injury to insult — it was far and away the aspect of the season that I enjoyed the most, other than the admittedly amazing performance episode. However, it was still a part of Eupho, and at this point, I could not trust something which bore its name. Much of this is because of the way it was advertised and discussed. Most people that I talked to agreed that it’s a yuri film, and yet all the discourse surrounding it painted it in terms that conjured the ones that soured me from Eupho. “Transience” and “parting” are topics that can certainly be handled well, Aria is my favorite anime after all, but in yuri they often smack of “gay until graduation.” Furthermore, much of my anger at the franchise came from the fact that in one way or another, Kumiko ended up parting from her potential romantic partners. If that were to happen to Mizore and Nozomi, I wouldn’t be able to stand it.
So, when I sat down to watch the film at Anime Expo, with Eupho fans literally surrounding me, my heart was beating faster than it ever has. I knew that this was a pivotal moment, one I’d been afraid of and excited about for the last year. I wanted to love the film, I wanted to prove to myself that my hatred of Eupho wouldn’t stop me, that Yamada could be trusted, that this weight which had been hanging over me for almost two years could be lifted because I’m a strong person. And… I did love it. From that early moment where Mizore waits for Nozomi, only to sensually glue the camera’s gaze to her neck as soon as she arrives, I was enraptured. Don’t take this to mean that I calmed down, however. I was constantly afraid. The story-within-a-story of Liz and the Blue Bird is a tragic one, and given its clear status as allegory for the relationship between Mizore and Nozomi, it left me more worried than anything else, somehow beating my preconceptions at making me anxious. Liz may love the bird romantically — she uses aishiteru after all — but she also believes that she has to force the bird to fly in order to give her freedom. People certainly can hold each other back but in refusing to give the bird a choice here, she’s the one who’s truly behaving toxically, and while the ending is bittersweet, it portrays this all as a good thing, something I simply can’t agree with. Breaking up with someone, as long as they’re not abusive or actively harmful, is not and will never be anything but sad and for them it certainly wasn’t in that bad a state. From the moment we saw the end of the story, I was left tapping my foot on the ground in order to relieve stress, terrified that they would break up, afraid that the fairy tale would speak to what would come of our two leads. I loved almost every second of this film and yet on my first watch, I could not wholeheartedly sit back and enjoy it, because my anxiety over these two lovely young women had me firmly in its grasp, tightening by the minute. The amount of stress I felt in that moment rivaled the most difficult conversations I’ve ever been forced to engage in.
So when the story made it clear that both were Liz, that both were the Blue Bird, that they’d have to go separate paths in life but that didn’t mean they had to abandon their love, to truly move apart, I was overjoyed. I wasn’t totally confident in my reading, I knew I’d need another watch, but I was so happy. Nozomi’s “wait for me” was all the confirmation I needed that this film wouldn’t go down the path of Eupho. The two birds flying together, drifting apart but always returning to each other’s sides, was perfectly clear visual language. The fact that these two had finally overcome the disjoint was what I needed to see. This could be my favorite yuri anime, or at least up there. It would certainly be my favorite yuri film.
Yet, as I saw others react, I became confused. Was I really correct to read it this way? Many viewers seem to believe that they did break up and while I don’t have to accept what they saw, it clearly came from the text. If the movie was ambiguous enough that someone could interpret Mizore and Nozomi as being seconds away from breaking up, could I really love it as much as I’d like to? This question plagued me in the coming months. When the people who love Eupho in spite of what it does celebrate this film as similar, can I really feel confident in my readings? This may sound silly and unbefitting of a critic who has faith in her own opinions but I really was afraid that I was just seeing what I wanted to in Liz. Not in terms of queerness, you’d have to be trying to miss that element, but in how happy I saw the ending. If this film ultimately did promote the idea that to help someone grow, you have to leave them, I wouldn’t be able to stand it. Call me a romantic, naive, whatever you like, but I don’t believe that’s a healthy message, and people’s reactions made me terrified that’s what it was trying to say.
A rewatch, however, was enough to cure those fears. As they walk together at the end of the film, different people yet in sync with one another, it’s clear that they’re going to continue their relationship. Throughout it, as other characters’ romantic situations are brought up, it’s obvious that Mizore and Nozomi’s feelings are just as romantic, whether they know it or not. They may not have been the healthiest, but they’re improving. And their doing so is painted in the most masterful portrayal of a relationship that I have ever seen in the film medium. Yamada’s direction, Nishiya’s designs, Ushio’s soundtrack, all come together to sell this as one of the greatest films ever made. I can honestly, confidently say that now. I love Liz and the Blue Bird, it is perfect, and I’ve been reading it correctly.
Yet everytime I think about it, I can’t shake the negative association that it has in my mind as a part of the Eupho franchise. What if Takeda writes a side-story breaking them up in a year, once again ruining what I see as the core part of her work, her actual masterpiece? What if an interview comes out that says, really, this isn’t gay, nor is it a relationship that has any chance at lasting beyond the story? I honestly don’t know what I would do. I’m afraid, I think, and not in the way I was afraid of being let down by Liz. I’m terrified that if I let myself care too much about this film, if I let it envelop me like it’s enveloped so many of my friends, my wife included, that I’ll eventually be hurt. I cared a lot about Eupho when I watched it. I dropped it that first time because it mattered too much to me and I didn’t want to be let down. I was eventually let down anyway and it fucking hurt. It hurt really, really bad. And that might sound silly, I probably shouldn’t let an anime upset me so much, it’s not good to let a work mess with you so badly but when there’s so many damn people who it has changed for the better, so many who’ll proudly say that without Eupho, they wouldn’t be who they are today, how are you going to criticize me for feeling the same way in the opposite direction? I’ve managed to get over it to some degree. I’ve calmed, joking about how much I hate the show to offload the pain of thinking about it more seriously, but writing this, I can tell that it’s still there, deep-down, ready to come out if poked vigorously enough. It’s the same pain I felt when season 2 of Amanchu aired, and all the discussions I’ve had about the series, the continued support of it in spite of what I can only see as it being totally ruined, has only cemented this pain deeper. It’s a pain that shows up when I see Kumiko and Reina in the film, happy together, yes, but not in a relationship, not the way they should’ve been. I was able to deal with it for Eupho, eventually. But if I give in to how much I love Liz, and I’m someday disappointed, I don’t know what I’d do. I really, really don’t, and I’m afraid to find out.
Writing this has helped, I think. It’s been very cathartic to talk in detail about what I’ve mostly kept silent about for the past 2 years, barring a couple stray conversations and a lot of coping humor. I have a lot of works I really love and very few of them have disappointed me like Eupho did. As a result, I’m not sure I can totally conquer this fear in regards to Liz. I will likely always be afraid that it will somehow be ruined, at least as long as Eupho continues production as a cultural product. It honestly wouldn’t be healthy for me to totally drop my guard; I simply can’t take another disappointment on this scale again. Yet, I do adore the film. It really is perfect outside its connection to the franchise it’s a part of and I’m happy to say that. The fact that a work can challenge Bloom into You as my yuri anime of the year is impressive. But I’ll always have to wonder how much more I could love it if I had never watched Eupho, or if it simply weren’t a part of that series, how it would be if I weren’t terrified of being emotionally destroyed. Ah well. Liz and the Blue Bird, I truly do love you and hopefully in another 5 years or so, I can call you my favorite.