Teenage Hotaru (voiced by Ayane Sakura) remembers when she was a little girl lost in the forest. There she met Gin (Kouki Uchiyama), a white-masked, silver-haired teenage boy who was actually an ancient, immortal forest spirit. Excited to meet a real forest spirit, young Hotaru tries to touch Gin who promptly thumps her on the head with a piece of wood! Ancient magical rules dictate that if a human being touches Gin, or vice-versa, he will disappear forever. So no hugs please, little girl. Eventually Gin helps Hotaru find her way home to her uncle but some days later rejoins him in the forest. Over the next several years Hotaru meets up with Gin every summer. He introduces her to other scary-looking but friendly forest spirits and teaches her about nature. As time passes Hotaru grows into a beautiful young lady and starts to notice that underneath his mask, Gin is really rather handsome. Romantic feelings arise and yet the human girl and spirit boy can never touch.
Right from the opening, genteel pastoral images of lush greenery, flowing water and meticulously animated wildlife, Hotarubi no Mori e (To the Forest of Firefly Lights) has a contemplative quality that is almost serene. This Japanese animated short film is adapted from Yuki Midorikawa's one-shot shojo manga ('girls manga') from 2002 often considered the starting point for the author/artist's best known work Natsume's Book of Friends (2008) which explores similar concepts and themes, only there the protagonist is a boy. The plot is set near a real shrine in the Kumamoto Prefecture of Japan. During production the 2011 Tohoku earthquake struck the region. Animator and scriptwriter Takahiro Omori and his team continued work on the film in the hope their story might soothe the nation as it recovered from this traumatic event. Sure enough To the Forest of Firefly Lights was very warmly received in Japan. Critics praised its beauty, lyricism and gentle humanity which some compared to the humanist SF anime of Makoto Shinkai (Voices from a Distant Star (2002), The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2005)) or likened to the work of Studio Ghibli maestro Hayao Miyazaki. In particular his seminal pastoral fantasy My Neighbour Totoro (1988) although the film shares imagery in common with the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001).
In the UK the film premiered at the 'Scotland Loves Animation' festival in Glasgow where some balked at a running gag wherein poor, curious little Hotaru keeps trying to touch Gin only to get a bonk on the head. Yet it is a standard cartoon gag and fairly inoffensive. Funny, tender and mysterious, To the Forest of Firefly Lights has that distinctive combination of the magical and the mundane one might find in a story by Ray Bradbury. Midorikawa's story works on two levels. On the one hand it is a charming if semi-tragic teenage love story that tugs shamelessly at our heartstrings. But it is also an allegory for humankind's relationship with nature with Hotaru a stand-in for all Japanese. At first nature seems scary and threatening to the small child. Gradually, under Gin's patient tuition, she starts to learn more about the countryside and it starts to take on a more human face. Fittingly for a shojo anime, that face happens to be that of a handsome boy although the core ideal reflects Shintoist beliefs.
As the story unfolds Hotaru learns nature can be nurturing and inspirational but the story is also about learning to deal with the changing seasons and accepting that time passes on. Eventually Hotaru discovers Gin's origin is more complicated than he initially let on but becomes mature enough that she learns how to cherish the fragility of life. Omori brings to life a dense emerald landscape speckled with bright coloured flora in lush realist style and makes expert use of sound effects to make things even more evocative. The story is slight but poignant and romantic nonetheless reaching a charming climax amidst a so-called Spirit Festival where ghosts and goblins adopt human guise to play games, eat cotton candy and celebrate the summer. Makoto Yoshimori supplies a lovely score.