Programmers will undoubtedly be familiar with the term “Hello World”. It’s typically the first line of text fledgling coders type into their programme, then watch as the words politely manifest into existence on screen.
I find that incredibly fascinating. We often consider programming as something cold and stoic – that everything exists in numbers and text, in bits and bytes. Yet the fundamentals of coding is an attempt to anthropomorphise a programme. It’s as though we understand that within the complex construct of us as humans, there is a line of code, a strand of DNA, which forms part of our foundations. Perhaps a complex construct of a programme, too, might be something that we can recognise as a person.
It’s one of the core themes explored in the anime movie Hello World, a science-fiction romp that meshes heady ideas into a tale of youthful romance. I’m going to say that it’s a formula that works, even if the results can sometimes appear like a wall of code – making sense only if you delve deep, or perhaps with a degree in programming. Better that than something utterly incoherent, I suppose.
The premise isn’t quite as complicated, at least initially. We follow the exploits of one Naomi Kitagaki (voiced by Takumi Kitamura), a teenager stricken by severe Ordinaryism. Well, as ordinary as a friendless high-schooler can be in 2027 Kyoto, where there is an effort to digitise the entire city as a way to preserve the history of a historic city. Naomi copes with a hearty amount of books, yearning for companionship but can’t quite read his way to some.
As we know, Ordinaryism doesn’t last long in anime flicks. Soon enough, Naomi encounters a mysterious man (Tori Matsuzaka) who has an impeccable amount of knowledge of Naomi’s life. As it turns out, the man is the adult Naomi, and that Naomi’s world is, in fact, the digitised version of Kyoto preserved to the last detail, progressing as though it’s the real world.
Here, Older Naomi has a proposition: to get Younger Naomi a girlfriend. More specifically, a girlfriend in the form of Ruri Ichigyo (Minami Hamabe), the taciturn ice queen residing behind a fortress of equally large amounts of books. There’s a good reason for this, of course, which softens the inherent creepiness of a future science whiz helping his younger self gaslight a crush into a relationship.
Once the heavy exposition is conveyed and the ball gets rolling, Hello World works as a teen rom-com, more concerned with the shenanigans of both Naomis as they attempt to defrost and grow a relationship with Ruri. Beyond that is the budding friendship between Younger and Older Naomi, too, as they evolve into a student-mentor relationship (Younger Naomi refers to his Older self as “Sensei”, meaning Teacher).
Midway through the film is when things get bizarre. There’s a twist I won’t spoil, but that’s when the movie shifts from Back to the Future-esque breeziness to heady, heavy themes. It’s still a teen drama at heart – like Makoto Shinkai’s recent hits Your Name and Weathering With You, Hello World deals with youth persistence against adult apathy.
What’s interesting here is how it wraps it into a larger question surrounding the measure of humanity. Is something that is essentially a collection of data and memory actually be someone? If their existence is virtual by every sense of that word, could we take from them without expecting any consequences? You can easily flip this into a metaphor for our perception of the youth. Often we see young people as yet-to-be-complete adults, lacking in experience and therefore okay for us to exploit. But what are they if not people with feelings that are just as important, deep? What are they if not us?
Hello World is animated in cell-shaded CG, often in a way that imitates, or at least attempts to, the look and feel of hand-drawn anime. The results are mixed, at least for me. Some scenes are visual spectacles that broach into the surreal, while some parts are distractingly rough and a little stiff. It is, perhaps, thematically on point. For a movie about virtual constructs and data, CG animation may be the right way to go.
Like the animation, there are also rough patches to the movie. There is one subplot concerning a side character that goes nowhere and doesn’t have any payoff; and while I liked most of the characters, I wish that Ruri isn’t just a collection of common anime traits, which makes her feel more as a plot motivator for Naomi and less as a proper, established character.
All in all, Hello World will intrigue and, by the end, leave your brain knotted with its ideas. It’s perhaps not a balanced tale – the scales are tipped far more in favour of its grand sci-fi concepts than it is about its characters. But that’s the essence of sci-fi – tales of humanity set against technology-infused change in society. For that, it’s worth saying hello back.
Also published on Medium.