Review by Daniel Lima
A century removed from the birth of jazz, it can be hard to describe its appeal to someone who isn’t already a fan. As passionate, expressionistic, and beautiful the music is to an aficionado, the heights of its popularity have long since passed, and ears unaccustomed to its complexity can have a hard time understanding what makes it so enrapturing. Blue Giant uses the language of cinema to sell the awesome power of jazz as experienced by those who play it. Though the narrative stumbles, it shines in those moments where it has to deliver on that power.
An anime adaptation of a manga series, the film follows a young saxophonist who moves from a small city to the Tokyo metropolis, in pursuit of his dream to become a jazz legend. Quickly linking up with a tremendously talented pianist and a novice drummer, the trio attempt to take the city’s jazz scene by storm with their own unique sound. Their goal: to play Tokyo’s most prestigious club before the end of their teenage years.
From that description, anyone familiar with the narrative conventions of this kind of story can plot out exactly how things unfold. There are absolutely no surprises, with even the contrived dramatic twists of fate fitting neatly in the bog-standard “young person falls in a niche world and decides to be the very best” formula so popular in all media, but particularly in Japanese anime and manga. It’s certainly functional, but working within the confines of a two-hour film, it does feel limited.
Unlike a full series like Hajime no Ippo (or, presumably, the manga this is based on), you don’t get to see every moment of the would-be greats’ development, blunting the catharsis of seeing them succeed. The time spent watching them hone their craft is instead left to montage, both reducing the time that could be spent getting into the particulars of the art form and blunting the emotional catharsis of their success. That Blue Giant hews so closely to formula calls to mind The First Slam Dunk, and how that film cleverly weaves the personal arcs of its characters into one moment in their lives, establishing the story’s take in a dynamic way. That level of narrative ingenuity would have been sorely appreciated here. The most this film can muster is a superfluous framing device that further telegraphs what will happen.
Disappointing as the broad story is, the film clearly understands its characters, as well as what this art form means to them. The core trio come to jazz from different avenues — each with their own strengths, desires, and inclinations. Through this contrast, the film explores the collaborative, improvisational nature of the music they play. Watching the three protagonists bounce off each other and discuss their music clearly and textually helps build their insular world, where the difference between technical proficiency and playing from your soul is absolutely crucial.
Words alone, however, will only take you so far in capturing the majesty of jazz. The music has to speak for itself, here aided by the fantastic visuals that animation allows for. Hiromi, an acclaimed artist in her own right, provided the score, and it is every bit as energetic, emotive, and expressive as the film requires. That it also captures the subtleties of the characters, and how they evolve over the course of the story, is equally impressive. For those who may not already be fans of the genre, the animation serves to divorce both the characters and the audience from reality, allowing glimpses into the past, the cosmos, and within themselves that render the ineffable emotion of the music in gorgeous detail. Each performance is an incredibly moving experience — a perfect encapsulation of what makes jazz so uniquely powerful.
While the film suffers from a narrative overly beholden to convention, Blue Giant nevertheless succeeds in conveying the singular draw of jazz music. With such a remarkable score and effervescent animation, this is a wonderful primer for anyone who might want to dive into this world.
Blue Giant hits theaters October 8.