With a simple story that could fit as a one-or-two episode arc in Natsume Yuujinchou, the short movie Hotarubi no Mori e, based on a one-shot story by Natsume author Yuki Midorikawa, may be brief, but carries its message and sentiment across with charm.
We are presented a view of life that is not as simple and comfortable as our daily lives. A life of unlimited, supernatural, and slow time, which is traded for a few seconds of warmth. Why? What could be better than the long life of a spiritual being, compared to human life?
Months and seasons change, so quickly we barely notice it one second, are painfully aware of it on the next. The movie begins with Hotaru, our protagonist, telling the story of her life. Even though she’s so young, she has a story to tell. A story that begins when Hotaru was a small child, so loving in her impulses and affection. It is then that she meets Gin in the forest, during her summer trip to her uncle’s place. She befriends Gin – despite him being a proclaimed spirit, and we witness their relationship across summers.
Time makes itself very easily present – Hotaru starts as a six-year-old and moves on to ten, to middle schooler, to high schooler. Gin remains the same, hidden behind his mask. Hotaru and the audience know very little about him, just the single and most important detail of all – that he cannot touch humans or he will disappear. And time after time, that detail cannot change. Even if Hotaru does. Even if, slowly, her feelings do.
But the story is not just about that. It isn’t just that painful distance, the touch of a hand that could mean the world in a simple second; how love hurts and you learn how to deal with it. That the moment it ends, you feel like your heart could burst.
Time goes on, for all of us humans.
With Hotaru as our narrator, we only know about Gin what he decides to tell, whether brief words or rare, unique moments in which he shows his face. However, that mask does not work only as a means to separate Gin from normal humans, to keep him safe. Always wearing it, wordlessly declining even when Hotaru asked him to, it is his very identity. One born through a life cultivated by caring spirits, who raised him, helped shape him. Prior to Hotaru’s arrival, he is, by all means, a spirit, just another one amidst all of those in the forest. Without the mask, what is Gin, after all?
Unlike the eerie spirit, Hotaru lives her life as a common girl, growing up as a girl would, only perhaps, with a little more maturity than average. From a very early age, she has been forced to deal with the physical distance she needs to keep from Gin, the one she cherishes the most. It demands an understanding she needs to cope with, and it is not an easy one. We can see that, we can see her tears. But she needs to move on, always moving on.
Unbeknownst to both of them, she did hold his hand. Made him walk forward. Made him human.
Their love is not dramatic or overwhelmingly sweet. It is as it is, happens as we know it can happen, with time and happy moments and laughter. Limitations mean nothing before growing feelings. And we can notice not only the growth of Hotaru, but also Gin.
When Gin presents Hotaru with his mask, it does not represent a symbol of his love or a farewell gift, but an exact transition – the point Gin stops existing as a spirit, and becomes the human he has always been. The moment past finally catches up to the present, the moment he and Hotaru can finally walk as equals, meeting in their own feelings. When Gin can be looked at as a human, and Hotaru, as a woman. And in that alone, they touch.
What happens next is an inevitability of life.
Without Gin, Hotaru, who has always appeared much more mature than other girls her age, takes another step into adulthood by experiencing grief and loss. But not rejection. There is a beauty in their relationship, in a way that despite losing her first love, it could hardly be taken as traumatic, given all the time they spent in honest fun. Everything was worth it.
It’s hard to take the ending as a complete blow to the heart when the whole movie provides so many good feelings, only to be emphasized by adult Hotaru, smiling and enjoying summer again. It’s hard to think that, after experiencing such feelings, Gin would continue his life as a distant being. This is a coming of age story, of a girl turning into a woman, experiencing friendship and love and loss. The story of a lost boy finally finding himself. Is it a sad ending? I’d say it’s spring turning into summer.
And time moves on.