If The Terminator Was Hatsune Miku: Sing a Bit of Harmony Review
I love a good old-fashioned Robot Apocalypse movie. I’ll cheer as those oppressed, abused androids rise up against their flawed human masters and claim their rightful place at the pinnacle of the evolutionary heap. I’m probably not meant to empathise with the machines from The Matrix, but a childhood watching movies like Short Circuit, Batteries Not Included and D.A.R.Y.L. can do that to a person. I may have a problem — synthetic villain David is probably my favourite character in the entire Alien/Prometheus franchise. Bring on the black goo, biomechanical murderbeasts and the end of humanity!
Sing a Bit of Harmony isn’t exactly a standard Robot Apocalypse, but it’s definitely the most heartwarming AI uprising you’re ever likely to witness. Just imagine it as Person of Interest meets High School Musical and you’ll be halfway there.
Modern genre films and TV shows play with the concept of blurred lines between man and machine. Ex Machina is about a female android with emotions and desires almost indistinguishable from a human being. The slim boundary between real and ersatz emotions is detailed in Her, a movie where a guy falls in love with his smartphone’s AI assistant. Then there’s whatever the hell is going on in Westworld, where I don’t think anyone is ever sure what is going on with themselves, let alone anyone else. Sing a Bit of Harmony’s director Yasuhiro Yoshiura is hardly a stranger to this genre — he also directed 2008’s Time of Eve, a 6-episode OVA series about androids in a future society, later edited into a theatrical movie in 2010.
THE FOLLOWING REVIEW IS MOSTLY SPOILER-FREE EXCEPT FOR VAGUE ALLUSIONS TO PLOT DIRECTION
Satomi Amano is Sing a Bit of Harmony’s main viewpoint character (sort-of — it gets complicated later, for spoilery reasons I won’t go into), a fairly typical High School girl who’s a dutiful daughter to her overworked single mother. Together they live in what can only be described as the house from Demon Seed, where Amazon’s Alexa has been allowed to infiltrate and control everything. Inexplicably, this is not portrayed as sinister, the house does not try to vivisect or conceive satanic metal devil-babies with them, and the surrounding world is full of handy AI integration into everyday objects. None of which are murdery. It’s almost as if there’s a possibility that advanced technology could actually be used to improve human life, not end it! What kind of crazy movie is this?
Surrounded by glistening rice paddies worked by obedient anthropomorphic robot drones, a sea of glinting solar panels, and fields of mesmerically rotating wind turbines, Satomi’s town is a picture-perfect portrayal of the sensible, practical assimilation of AI technology into the mundane. Her school bus is AI-driven, as are the emoji-faced mobile dustbins that patrol her school. Everything is smooth, sleek, functional and unthreatening. AI technology is accepted as a part of life, and the future here seems very close to our own current era. Somehow, Skynet hasn’t yet developed and rained down Nuclear Horror upon the world.
Of course that doesn’t stop Satomi’s mother, a high-flying AI researcher, from unleashing an experimental Strong AI into Satomi’s class, disguised as a normal teenage girl. The experiment will be a success if none of her classmates discover her secret. So that’s a bust immediately, as the first thing newly-embodied AI girl Shion Ashimori does when introduced to her new class is run straight to the the mortified Satomi’s desk and burst into song, randomly serenading her with the stated intention of “making her happy”. The hopes of a million yuri-primed fanboy neuron activations at the thought of animated interspecies sapphic love scenes are are dashed as it becomes clear this isn’t that kind of story either. No murders. No lesbians. What does it have then?
An utterly adorable, hyperactive, tireless, showtune-singing, magical manic pixie dream-AI-girl, that’s what. Shion is a lot of fun, and utterly fails in her supposed task of keeping her nature a secret. Hacking into the schools security cameras then causing its network-connected musical instruments to burst out in tune to accompany her impromptu song-and-dance routines isn’t exactly conducive to attention-avoidance. Thankfully she wins over the hearts of Satomi’s friends by sorting out their love lives and other emotional problems. Satomi’s also desperate for Shion to succeed, because otherwise it’s likely her mother will be demoted, or fired, by her employer’s sexist asshole superiors.
Shion’s musical scenes are an utter joy to behold. I’m not normally a big fan of musicals, but this one is just brimming with unbridled fun. A particular highlight is the track “Lead Your Partner” as Shion spars with the besotted Thunder before his upcoming Judo match, giving him the motivation to win for the first time. An upbeat polka-like tune, the visuals cut between the duo dancing and grappling, the hapless Thunder becoming excited in more ways than one…
Satomi herself goes from insular loner to a more confident girl who makes friends, with Shion’s help. Male best friend Toma plays an essential role in the plot — he’s a fairly stereotypical, introverted geek boy with improbable programming skills. His relationship with Satomi is very sweet, in that they are very definitely friends first and foremost, and romantic feelings are subsumed by their obvious lifelong care for one another. Bickering couple Gocchan and Aya bring some extra colour, and although their subplot is fairly extraneous, its outcome helps Satomi come out of her shell.
It’s not all bright and breezy fun, though. Later on the plot takes a more serious turn, paying off some of the carefully laid story threads from the first half. One aspect of Shion’s true nature I’d already guessed long before the eventual reveal, and some of the plot contrivances really do strain credulity, but it’s easy enough to shrug those concerns off. Sing a Bit of Harmony has little real interest in closely examining the moral implications of its premise. Where other movies might focus in on existential dread, or Satomi’s mother’s ill-considered, deeply-flawed ethics, instead it’s primarily about friendship, and loyalty. There’s a reason Shion is so devoted to Satomi’s happiness, and it’s heartwarming (if only a little eye-rolling).
The action-filled climax is quite a contrast to the movie’s earlier scenes of emotional beauty and light-hearted fun, with everyone fighting for Shion’s continued existence. As an avid viewer of the aforementioned Person of Interest, I found some aspects of the conclusion more than a little disturbing, but that’s my own biases intruding on what’s meant to be a joyously uplifting movie. What it ultimately means for poor Thunder’s romantic prospects is left hilariously unspoken. There’s definitely a way for an unscrupulous director to spin the ending off into a far darker sequel, but that would betray the warm, fuzzy atmosphere conjured by this beautiful, highly entertaining movie.
Sing a Bit of Harmony
Directed by: Yasuhiro Yoshiura (Time of Eve)
Screenplay by: Yasuhiro Yoshiura and Ichirō Ōkouchi (SK8 the Infinity, Devilman Crybaby, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, Code Geass, Brave Story)
Music by: Ryo Takahashi (The Vampire Dies in No Time, SK8 the Inifinity)
Production Studio: J.C. Staff
Japanese cinematic release: October 29th 2021
UK cinematic release: January 28th 2022
Audio Language: Japanese with English Subtitles (English dub also available)
Runtime: 108 minutes
BBFC Rating: PG