Updated: Oct 30, 2021
Scrolling through anime movies for kids, I found this obscurity from 1999. Based on a novel by Kazuo Aoki and sometimes given as Re-Birthday after Eleven Arts’s retitle, it’s properly Happy Birthday ~Inochi Kagayaku Toki~ (Happy Birthday ~The Moment When Life Shines~), but Re-Birthday is an apt handle given its themes. This is a title where subject matter is a bigger unifier than any series of events—multiple plot threads are pursued, one over the other, in drama affecting both children and adult characters, with bullying, disability, school and family life major presences. Birthdays, those special days to celebrate an individual, play an important part in the story, and point to the new beginnings that can come after healing and reconciliation.
How much drama, heartbreak can you fit into 80 minutes? Watch Happy Birthday ~Inochi Kagayaku Toki~ to find out. There are at least four times where the pangs of sadness really hit, and in earnestness, the emotiveness can sometimes appear contrived “in the public interest”. The movie sometimes smacks of an after school special, or even a special made to be shown in school, to make pupils think about the consequences of their actions, and encourage them to behave. Elementary school life here sometimes more resembles grade school as portrayed in American cartoons (think The Magic School Bus, Recess), where the kids are grimy, unattractive, and uncharitable, rather than immaculate, adorable, and cooperative (see Cardcaptor Sakura, Shugo Chara!). Indeed, the action begins with Aoba Primary School student Asuka Fujiwara getting bullied for walking home with classmate Junko Kanazawa, cruelly nicknamed Germy by a group of boys who picks on her daily. A few scenes near the beginning are instructive: Asuka and Junko and kind to one another, but lack the courage to stand up to the bullies. In class, Asuka (and everyone else) stays silent while a few boys harass Junko, but on the walk home, Junko crouches behind a tree as the same boys toss Asuka’s backpack in a pond. It’s every kid for him- or herself. Thankfully the healing (iyashikei) element is not slow to begin either. The boys run away as someone approaches; it turns out to be Keiko Hanamura, wheeling her severely disabled daughter Megumi under the cherryblossom trees. When Megumi’s hat blows away, Asuka returns it, and the two girls meet, clasping hands. Soon after, Asuka volunteers to be her class’s “goodwill representative” to the special needs school next door. On encountering Megumi again, Asuka takes the chance to deepen their friendship.
In spite of the bullies, Asuka was upbeat as she awaited her birthday, which she assumed her mother would remember as in years past. However, as her brother Naoto smugly reminds her, their father is on a business trip in London, so their mother won’t put in the effort this time. Their mom, Shizuyo, shamelessly favors Naoto, a high achiever with stellar grades, but for some reason has always been cold toward Asuka. Nothing, however, could’ve prepared her for overhearing her mom stabbingly tell Naoto there’s nothing good about her, and “I would have been really glad if I didn’t give birth to Asuka”. The shock is such that Asuka loses her ability to speak. Naoto is roused to compassion, arranging to have Asuka stay with her grandparents on their farm until she gets better.
So, while school life in Happy Birthday ~Inochi Kagayaku Toki~ is crummy, unvarnished, and unenviable, the new springs of joy lie in the familiar place, the Japanese countryside, tended by elders. It’s a lot like in Only Yesterday, with ample borrowing from Heidi, Girl of the Alps, both previously reviewed here (and I swear, for Asuka’s companion goat, they’re just reusing the same sound effects from Heidi, and already recycled into Swiss Family Robinson, again).
How could Asuka not improve, near to such beauty, allowed to unwind and relax, away from judgmental peers and close to loving grandparents she’s not seen since age 5? While there, Asuka learns she closely resembles her mother’s deceased sister Haruno, and is shown the peach tree planted to celebrate her birth, and an apricot tree, now bearing fruit, to commemorate her own birth. But there was never a tree for when her mother, came into the world. Unwrapping why that is proves important for mending wounds of long standing.
Despite the tumultuous, emotionally-laden plot, the place of the disabled is another major healing (iyashikei) element in the anime. Unlike the previous goodwill ambassador, who runs away as fast as she can, Asuka goes all-in for her role, and devotes a lot of her free time to Megumi and the others beyond what the school requires of her, and when the time of year comes around, organizes a birthday party for her. Watching this makes me feel bad; I passed on most opportunities to befriend the disabled in school, so I can understand where the former rep’s coming from. A recent anime movie, A Silent Voice, also dealt with both disability and bullying, but while the disabled aren’t the ones getting bullied here (heretofore they were mostly ignored), I think the treatment here is a bit more “all-in” too. Megumi, and the other special needs kids, look a lot like the disabled people I see in real life but rarely in media (where I imagine it can be a challenge to fit them into a story). As one caretaker at the special needs school explains, they not only can’t speak, they don’t have full control over their musculature (Megumi’s hand is always held out in front, contorted), and can rarely change facial expressions. Their life expectancies are also short. It can be easy to pity them, yet their lives (at least these individuals) aren’t all gloom. As someone points out later, Megumi is cared for, always wearing pretty dresses and flowers in her hair. And she, like her classmates, is usually cheerful, often laughing. And Megumi is—dare I say it?—really cute. She looks like Sara Crewe from A Little Princess Sara, only crippled. While she is the one cared for—her mother Keiko, and her father Takashi, come across as the bravest, most sympathetic characters from the beginning to end—a look at how encountering her affects those around her makes clear that she not only experiences joy, but gives it to others.
The rest of the characters, however, need some kind of moral improvement, inner change, before they can find inner peace. Be prepared for the drama to crest a few times, sometimes in a strained or prescriptive way (there is actually a community discussion group after school that confronts the scourge of bullying, the sort of thing a school committee might organize), with the understanding that, on recognizing past wrongs, it is not too late to be re-born, to start newly as truly as on the births whose anniversaries we celebrate.
For those interested in watching, Eleven Arts seemingly made just a trailer and then gave up: subbing the whole into English would be the work of Licca Fansubs, translator of several real gems. It’s absent from many streaming sites, but can presently be found at 9anime.