Blue Giant (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Jun 13, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Blue Giant (Blu-ray Review)


Yuzuru Tachikawa

Release Date(s)

2023 (April 30, 2024)


NUT (GKIDS/Shout! Studios)
  • Film/Program Grade: B+
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: C-

Blue Giant (Blu-ray)

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On its most basic level, Yuzuru Tachikawa’s Blue Giant is a straightforward adaptation of the manga by Shinichi Ishizuka that originally ran from 2013 through 2017, telling the story of a brash young self-trained saxophone player who wants to make his mark in the world of jazz. (Ishizuka has published three different follow-up series since then, none of which are covered in this version of the story). Yet one challenge inherent with any written work about musicians, even visual ones like comic books or manga, is that they’re all missing the most important thing: the music itself. Enter jazz pianist and composer Hiromi Uehara, who was brought in to write the original music for the film and to play the keyboard parts as well. Yet she did more than just that, because jazz is all about energy, and her own uniquely maniacal form of energy infuses the film from beginning to end even when there’s no music playing. As a result, there were really three different auteurs who brought Blue Giant to life: original author Shinichi Ishizuka, director Yuzuru Tachikawa, and the irrepressible Hiromi. They all shaped the final product in their own distinctive ways.

Of course, there’s still another person who helped to shape the way that Blue Giant unfolds, and that’s screenwriter NUMBER 8 (aka Eito Namba). He had served as story editor on the manga, and so he felt confident enough to make some significant changes in adapting it to the screen. Dai Miyamoto (Yuki Yamada) is an ambitious young saxophone player who picks up stakes after graduation and travels to Tokyo in the hopes of making it big in the jazz world. Raw talent or not, that’s easier said than done. He ends up befriending a much more refined pianist named Yukinori Sawabe (Shôtarô Mamiya), and the two of them decide to put a band together. They need a drummer, though, so Dai impulsively turns to his roommate Shunji Tamada (Amane Okayama). There’s just one problem: Tamada has never played the drums before. Still, in some ways that’s the least of their problems, because the cloistered jazz scene in Tokyo isn’t particularly welcoming to outsiders. They’re also not fully aware of the fact that each of them is on a different trajectory, and that’s ultimately the story behind the story of Blue Giant.

That may sound like a conventional rags-to-riches tale, and Blue Giant certainly feels like one for much of its running time. There’s a twist, however, and the nature of the story changes dramatically toward the end. The interesting thing is that the twist itself is a pretty standard cliché for the genre, but the manner in which it plays out is anything but a cliché. There are a few hints along the way that there’s more going on than meets the eye, but the point isn’t really driven home until later on. Dai, Sawabe, and Tamada may be friends and colleagues, but in some ways they’re all the antitheses of each other. Dai is the natural talent who can’t be constrained by musical norms; Sawabe is the technically proficient player who’s paid his dues, but lacks the ability to break outside of those musical strictures; and Tamada is the neophyte who’s willing to sweat blood in order to learn the craft, but who still has a long, long way to go. Friends or not, something has to give, and it takes a tragic turn of events for Sawabe and Tamada to finally understand that the best way that they can support Dai may be to let him go. After all, this is Dai’s story, not theirs. (Although as the post-credit sequence makes perfectly clear, they’re not going to give up their own dreams in the process.)

One aspect of Japanese animation that’s often overlooked (especially by non-musicians) is the way that many of its creators strive for technical accuracy when presenting musical performances, to a level that’s rarely seen in western animation. For Blue Giant, Yuzuru Tachikawa and his animators paid close attention to the details of the animation in order to help bring these musical performances to vivid life. They used a variety of techniques like motion capture and digital rotoscoping of live performers in order to make sure that they got everything right. That process was even more complicated than it may appear on the surface, because the needs of recording the music didn’t match what Tachikawa needed for the visuals. Saxophonist Baba Tomoaki had to remain still while playing in the studio in order to provide a “clean” recording, so Tachikawa had his improvised solos transcribed to sheet music so that a different saxophone player could be directed to create the body movements for Dai’s more energetic style of playing.

Their efforts paid off in ways that aren’t always immediately obvious. When Sawabe is playing the piano with his left hand only for one scene, he shifts his seating on the bench as he moves higher up the keyboard to the right. It’s a subtle detail that’s probably only present in the film because it’s what Hiromi did when she was recording the music, but it helps to sell the reality of the moment. Hiromi is also credited on Blue Giant as “piano performance animation supervisor,” probably not because she was actually involved with the animation process, but more likely because of how much her real performances guided the animators (and it’s very likely that the final results weren’t rendered until they received her stamp of approval). While the 2D and 3D animation in Blue Giant doesn’t blend together seamlessly, the realism of the way that the live performances were recreated helps to tie the shots together even when they don’t necessarily integrate with each other stylistically.

In a way, that’s true of Blue Giant as a whole. It’s an otherwise clichéd rags-to-riches story that successfully conveys the bittersweet realities that lie behind those clichés, brought to life by animation that manages to convey the reality of the musical performances behind its sometimes inconsistently stylized animation. At every level, Blue Giant is driven by love of music, and more importantly, by the love of making music (regardless of skill level). That’s difficult to convey even in live action, let alone in animation, but Blue Giant manages to pull it off thanks to the talents of everyone involved. In the end, Dai, Sawabe, and Tamada may all be shining stars in Tokyo’s jazz sky, but the reality is that some stars shine brighter than others. We can’t all be John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, or Art Blakey, and the challenge of finding the balance between personal desire and self-awareness is the beating heart of Blue Giant that helps to elevate it above other standard issue rags-to-riches musical stories.

Blue Giant was animated digitally using a combination of hand-drawn 2D elements and full 3D elements, both for the backgrounds and for the characters themselves. It may have been finished as a 2K Digital Intermediate, although some animation in Japan is still produced at 1080p instead. In any event, it’s framed here at 1.78:1, although it was probably matted slightly to 1.85:1 for theatrical exhibition. The line art for the characters leans heavily into the flat, hand-drawn look, with edges that sometimes appear a little coarse. When 3D animation is incorporated into the musical performances, it offers a more stylized presentation, creating a kind of a hyperreality to contrast with the drab reality of their everyday lives. There’s a bit of aliasing in some of the 3D animation like on the cymbals, so it may well have been rendered at 1080p. The colors are beautiful throughout, with blue naturally dominating the proceedings, although once again things open up into warmer tones to convey the vitality of the musical performances. There are some motion artifacts during the closing credits, but it’s not an issue elsewhere. Aside perhaps from the color depth, there’s not much advantage to be gained from a 4K upscale of Blue Giant, so don’t be put off by the fact that it’s available on Blu-ray only—especially considering the audio options.

Speaking of which, audio is offered in Japanese Dolby Atmos, 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, and 2.0 LPCM. Subtitle options include English, English SDH, and Spanish. It’s always welcome to see an Atmos option on standard Blu-ray, and in this particular case, it’s the only way to fly. The overall soundstage is gently immersive, filled with the subtle but consistent sounds of the city. There are a few bold choices as well, like the fact that dialogue is placed into the overhead channels whenever a character is speaking while they’re standing over someone else. Still, the music is everything in Blue Giant, and it’s supported beautifully in Atmos. There’s a real sense of acoustic space surrounding the instruments, especially during the indoor performances at the various clubs. There’s a duo near the end that stands out in that regard, with a genuine sense of room tone surrounding the drum kit. These days, when everything is close-miked separately and mixed together in a way that destroys the natural acoustics, it’s wonderful to hear a mix that at least tries to recreate the effect of hearing the interaction that live music has with the room around it.

The Shout! Factory/GKIDS Blu-ray release of Blue Giant includes a slipcover that duplicates the artwork from the insert. The following extras are included:

  • Q&A with HIROMI (HD – 15:56)
  • Trailers and Teasers (HD – 4:30 & :44, 6 in all)

The Q&A with HIROMI was taped at a screening of Blue Giant by the Japan Society (in New York City, presumably?) While the moderator leaves a bit to be desired, there’s still some fascinating information from Hiromi Uehara here. She actually composed some of the songs that are heard in the film after reading the manga, and explains the challenges of adapting them to fit the space that was allotted for them in the film. Despite the fact that she’s credited as performance animation supervisor, she gives director Yuzuru Tachikawa full credit for being the one who brought her musical performances to visual life. She certainly insisted on as much realism as possible, always playing the same type of piano in any given scene as the one that’s being depicted—an upright, baby grand, or concert grand, as the case may be. She also insisted that the tuning of the pianos that she played for the scenes set at smaller clubs be not quite perfect, since that’s how they always seem to be in reality. On a personal level, she talks about her musical influences including how she fell in love with the improvisatory nature of jazz. She feels that there are only two genres: music that moves her, and music that doesn’t. That’s a good perspective to have, and it applies to more than just music. Many films fans would do well to keep it in mind before prejudging things based on genre preferences rather than the films themselves.

Although to be fair, prejudging the story of Blue Giant actually works out in the end, since it sets up expectations that the film ultimately subverts in a subtle way. Unfortunately, not enough people are even aware of Blue Giant, since it ended up being overshadowed in 2023 by Hayao Miyazaki’s umpteenth “final” film The Boy and the Heron. Yet while Studio NUT may not have the resources of Studio Ghibli, and Tachikawa may not have the name recognition of Miyazaki, there’s a wide world to Japanese animation, and plenty of room for stories like Blue Giant. It’s well worth a look.

- Stephen Bjork

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