The Spring of Adulthood in the Forest of Firefly Lights

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.


Filed under Editorials, Hotarubi no Mori e

22 responses to “The Spring of Adulthood in the Forest of Firefly Lights

  1. mefloraine

    Even though this is most definitely the, beautiful, message of the OVA, I can’t help but feel my own heart breaking for our protagonists. To stay so close and so far away from each other for so long, only for it to end so quickly, on a night so full of new feelings — it must be hard. It has to be hard.

    The premise, of course, reminds me of Pushing Daisies. Two lovers who cannot touch. Forever working on finding ways around the problem but never able to fully solve it. Apart for their entire lives, no matter how happy they are.

    And yet the characters remain strong. It’s so inspiring.
    Now I will go cry in my corner because I am not that strong. ;_;

    • Yes, my first thought when Gin described his situation was Pushing Daisies! Which is great in itself, given my love for the series.

      And yes, it is hard. In our time and age, it’s the kind of feeling that is very easy to relate to. Brings the story very close to us. And what I liked about the movie is how positive it sounds, even after everything. Or maybe I’m just prone to this positivity.


      • mefloraine

        Me too! I want to rewatch that, but I couldn’t find it legally, so I laughed and then forgot about it. 8D

        It’s almost funny how her relationship with Gin is something that would be rare for so many people not ten years ago, but now we can almost all relate to it. I find it hard to embrace the positivity when there are so many people that I wish were nearer to me, but it does make me happy to see those two happy in the end.

        Gin’s life ended not in tears from either party but with happiness. Hugging. The tears came after. And that he could enjoy that happiness in his final moments is touching.

  2. This is a coming of age story, of a girl turning into a woman, experiencing friendship and love and loss.

    I think the idea of Hotaru’s growth and maturation of heart in the film is great. The concept of distance and overcoming that distance only to be left with feelings and departure in the end, it’s quite telling of what it means to encounter heartfelt relationships while learning to understand they are not the end-all in life. Hotaru’s growth, I believe, is in realizing that those Summers with Gin are to be cherished as she moves forward with her own life rather than stagnate in an unsustainable sadness. She moves with everything around her, the world she can see and breathe, instead of fancying a detachment from reality, a dream world. And for us, maturity comes similarly in realizing the good times do not always last with regards to love, especially for youth who will hold onto first loves more viciously than a pit bull. We grow when we let go and see something beautiful in memories. But, many of our misfortunes in love are not met as beautifully or bittersweet as Hotaru’s.

    This was a soothing film to experience.

    • And it’s a maturity that is not that easily seen, that moving forward, that cherishing of things that were. I’ve seen it presented as a melodramatic “But nothing will ever be like that love”, and maybe it really won’t, but I don’t think Hotaru begins to compare. It was an experience, and she loved him, and unfortunately they had to part, and life goes on. Soothing indeed.

      Long time no spot you, Ryan!

  3. I’ve read the original manga by Midorikawa Yuki, and I could only say that it’s one of the most beautiful works I’ve ever read/watched. And for me, it has something that Natsume Yuujinchou lacks….the nebulous, almost bland touch to the story that makes it all the more enthralling. The anime did a good job in translating that still dynamics of melancholy into motion pictures, but the flow seems a little awkward to me, not episodic (I couldn’t think of another word—‘fragmented’ sounds negative, doesn’t it?) and not legato either. Awww….who does a better job in creating those cordial and nostalgic feelings than Midorikawa?

    • I’d say the only thing that Natsume lacks in comparison… Is exactly the beautiful portrayal of romantic love, because Natsume doesn’t really go there. While love is universal, Natsume dwells in also universal feelings like belonging and interpersonal relationships, and love in a much more broad sense, embracing all of us who have people we love, be it romantic or not. And one could think, “Hey, maybe they just don’t know how to do romance properly”, but with Hotarubi we know that is not quite true.

      I didn’t notice any awkwardness, but maybe because I don’t have the source material to compare. Even the few scenes with Hotaru during winter, with other friends and that one boy seemed to flow well with the narrative and her feelings. :) May Midorikawa keep being so top notch.

  4. Looking at this series, I can definitely see the quality that went into it. I think I’ll give this a look fairly soon, since I’ve enjoyed Natsume and anything this close to it should be an interesting watch.

    • I’d say even the OST is as lovely as Natsume’s, and so are the colors and tenderness of the characters, so you should definitely go for it soon!

  5. i agree with everyone who said it reminded them of pushing daisies! that’s my favorite tv show of all time and a huge reason why i loved hotarubi no mori e so much. one thing that i thought was very interesting about the film was how you rarely saw gin’s face, and had to interpret his emotions for yourself because of that. i really liked how he put the mask on hotaru when he kissed her, which mirrored how you couldn’t see his face the majority of the time. that was a moment when her face would really have been expressive, and it was left up to the viewer’s own interpretation. i haven’t seen natsume, but considering how alike they’re supposed to be, i’m definitely going to start watching it soon!

    • Not only it mirrored how we couldn’t see his face, but the mask’s eyes – those were his eyes. So, by looking through the mask, isn’t Hotaru looking through his very own? ;) Everything about that scene is sweet.

      I’d say, drop everything you’re watching and watch Natsume as soon as possible! haha

  6. 2DT

    The best part, for me, was how Gin faced the inevitable. We should all hope to be so joyful.

    Great post.

    • Ah, a compliment from you is a sure boost to keep on writing! Thank you :)

      Gin, so human and yet so positive at the very last moment. Definitely something to admire.

  7. Ah, a compact depiction of mono no aware—the beauty of fleeting things, of first love and touch. I actually felt it would still work if it were longer, fleshing the characters out a little more, but there is something almost fable-like to the storytelling which would otherwise have been compromised. The story it actually kind of reminded me of was the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but while that was more tragic, this is warm-hearted and accepting, in which both Gin and Hotaru (how I love it when names mean something in the story!) not only accept their fates but learn and grow from them.

    I wish there were more well-crafted standalone OVAs like this. Beautifully written review!

    • When I started playing the movie, I didn’t notice the length and I was really surprised when it ended. “Fable-like” is a good description of how it felt, so magical and yet so close to us at the same time. There are so many stories that could benefit from a more direct (and yet still good) approach like this, although when stories are so good, you just wish they were longer. But it was satisfying.

      Thank you, Mike!

  8. Loved the film and loved your review, especially the way you highlight the significance of time. As well as through the use of the changing seasons, I also liked how the passage of time is reflected through Hotaru’s changing school uniforms and through Gin’s unchanging attire and mask. I thought the whole thing was very understated, but very heartfelt; perfectly structured and beautifully told. Thanks, Lily!

  9. I just saw this a while ago and yes it feels like a Natsume episode, but it still managed to give us such a great story filled with fantastic characters! I will admit in the begging I kept on picturing Gin and Hotaru as Accelerator and Last order from Index/Railgun series at the start because of how they interacted together. However that changed very fast after Hotaru got a bit older of course, but the ending was still sad yet important for Hotaru to grow.

    Great post! I look forward to reading more ;)

    • I don’t remember much of Accelerator’s and Last Order’s interactions, but I do remember… Accelerator being distant and apparently uncaring, which can be paralled with the blank of emotions that Gin is at first. Not to mention the white hair! Haha.

      Thank you for your comment, Shizzel :)

  10. Akira

    Thank you for a great post. It’s funny because I absolutely hated Hotarubi no Mori e because I felt that it was devoid and without purpose. Gin’s ultimate disappearance, to me, was a random act without purpose or meaning.

    But, perhaps, it’s futile to search for meaning in life. Things simply happen, and they come and go. I love how you captured the impermanence of life and love, which I felt the OVA tried to do (and didn’t do quite a good job of). I could see that those themes were there, but they sere simply too hushed to make a true impact. Thanks for this enlightening perspective on an OVA that I personally did not enjoy.

  11. Pingback: Debate between positive and negative persona of Canne: Hotarubi no Mori e -anime review | Canne's anime review blog

  12. Tako-chan

    You know, I really really liked your review. I think you portray perfectly the themes and feelings and what not that the film wanted to portray, and did very successfully in my eyes. I’ve read other reviews but I must say the reviews I read seemed slighted and inaccurate, and I found myself disagreeing with what those reviews had to say. I think it’s very interesting to see how you and your fellow commenters interpret the story, and I thank you. The only reason why I’m reading these reviews is because I simply adore Hotarubi no mori e :) I think it was an amazing film, that very subtly but beautifully portrayed the connection between those two, and that those little moments that they had together, the little moments, we’re the most meaningful, and those moments was what made the story :) without those moments to be the foundation of the story, I dont think I would have cried as hard as I did :) very simple, yet complex at the same time. I LOVED THE FILM, AND I LOVE YOUR REVIEW :)

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