The setup of Blue Giant is familiar anime territory: a young boy from a small town moves to Tokyo to pursue his dream. This boy, Dai, is a saxophone obsessive. He practices all day under a bridge, honking and warbling until he wears out his reed. Naturally, Dai wants to be the greatest jazz musician in the world.
For all his audacious ambition, Blue Giant is largely restrained. The movie focuses on the trio that forms the band — and even shifts its attention away from Dai at around the halfway mark. There’s also Sawabe, a savvy and smug pianist who knows how the club performance circuit operates. And then there’s Dai’s roommate, Tamada, a high school friend who improbably becomes the band’s rhythm section after trying the drums just once. They decide to form JASS, a name that, strangely, no one bats an eye at.
Swirls of color, brushes with the cosmic, an attempt to go sublime
As JASS, they practice, they perform, they get better. Much of the film’s success hinges on the music being excellent — which it absolutely is. This isn’t the jukebox roulette of the Cowboy Bebop. Blue Giant has a legit soundtrack composed by Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara, who does a compelling homage to the American sax legends of the ’60s. It’s less the jazz of cool sophistication but one of bravado and squeaky high notes. Think of the muscular brass of Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps (probably the record the film’s title most strongly evokes).
The concert scenes are magnificent, and the movie has the confidence to let them play long. Blue Giant is well aware of jazz as a dying genre — every jazz movie is, even though they are all remarkably bad at talking about the genre with any specificity. When someone asks Dai what kind of jazz he’s into (Cool? Bebop? Swing?), he can only say he’s into everything. Then, he unconvincingly tells the audience he likes jazz because it is “hot” and “intense.” But rather than give trite arguments about what makes jazz compelling, Blue Giant makes a show of it. The stage dynamics of the trio are a thrill when they come together, as the three of them get into harmony. As the film progresses, these sequences get more ecstatic, more abstract. Swirls of color, brushes with the cosmic, an attempt to go sublime. I’m at a loss for words to describe how much fun these sequences are. I guess I’ll just go with… “hot” and “intense”?
Still, if there’s one place the film stumbled for me was the animation. Ninety percent of this thing looks great — crisp and expressive. The jazz clubs themselves are especially pretty: dark wood bars, bottles of liquor in a row, a dim and suggestive ambiance. But during performances, the movie brings in motion-captured rotoscoping CG work, which never quite blends in with the traditional animation. The uncanny smoothness and high frame rate look out of place within the richly textured 2D world. The gap is jarring and, frankly, a little ugly. (That could just be my hang-up, though; a friend at the screening said it didn’t bother him one bit.)
As far as films go, Blue Giant is as earnest as they come. Based on a hyper-popular manga by Shinichi Ishizuka, the movie is undistracted by unnecessary romances or subplots and surprisingly light on melodrama (save for one twist). In some ways, you’re best off approaching Blue Giant as a musical. It rewards any listener with a big heart and open ears, ready to be moved by the beat.