Now streaming on:
Pre-teens somehow come of age in “Drifting Home,” a Japanese animated fantasy about a group of sixth graders who float out to sea in a haunted apartment complex. I say “somehow” because the lessons learned and friends gained along the way are never as interesting nor as well developed as the movie’s apocalyptic central premise: a tight-knit group of friends get lost in space—with no food and no fresh water—after a flash flood sends them and the otherwise abandoned Kamonomiya apartments into a vast and maybe limitless ocean.
The kids, led by de facto group leader Kosuke (Mutsumi Tamura) and his childhood friend Natsume (Asami Seto), inevitably discover that they shouldn’t take their loved ones for granted, but also should know when to let go. Unfortunately, the movie’s initial set-up is more compelling than these bubbly protagonists. A light tone is affected throughout, which makes the occasional outburst of disaster movie peril even more jarring. But yes, you read that right: there’s a new animated movie about a group of children who fall through a crack in the space-time continuum, and it’s not as good as that sounds.
Manga fans may find that the central premise of “Drifting Home” is reminiscent of The Drifting Classroom, Kazuo Umezu’s disturbing and imaginatively realized horror comic. In Umezu’s manga, a pack of grade schoolers become unstuck in time after an inexplicable catastrophe sends their school hurtling into a dystopian future. “Drifting Home” is considerably more light-hearted (and features fewer mutant spiders and child crucifixions).
In “Drifting Home,” Kosuke reluctantly follows his heedlessly curious friends Taishi (Yumiko Kobayashi) and Yuzuru (Daiki Yamashita) into the 60-year-old Kamonomiya projects. Kosuke is the most well-developed of these characters, mostly because he has loved ones beyond his platonic pals: recently deceased grandpa Yasuji (Bin Shimada) and overworked mother Satoko (Nana Mizuki). Kosuke still leads his friends in exploring the Kamonomiya apartments, despite associating the building with Yasuji, a former resident. Later on, Kosuke reconnects with Natsume, who has essentially been a surrogate member of Kosuke’s family for some years.
Also, there’s a pale wraith-like child haunting the Kamonomiya building; his name is Noppo (Ayumu Murase), and yes, he's obviously a ghost. An over-explained and under-utilized dream logic unites Noppo and Kosuke’s group, most of it concerning Kosuke’s strong emotional attachment with Natsume. That connection barely matters beyond a point though. The group’s floating shelter occasionally runs into other rundown and (mostly) uninhabited locations, including a department store and other apartment complexes. These exploratory scenes carry the movie to its eventual payoff about two hours later. It’s not an easy transit, but “Drifting Home” eventually gets there.
One considerable problem: these kids aren't psychologically or emotionally motivated beyond their general will to live, so they spend more time problem solving than they should. Some circumstantial peril forces Kosuke’s group to confront the surreal gravity of their situation. But even then, these kids either talk or forage their way through the most dangerous aspects of their plight. Imagine a survival horror narrative that mostly keeps to the reassuring side of its nightmarish premise. What’s the point? Viewers might leave with some prefab life lessons and general wonder at a premise that, again, seems kind of familiar.
“Drifting Home” works best when it’s a straight-forward disaster movie, focused more on the group’s search for new supplies, or, later on, the eventual collapse of the Kamonomiya building. (they’re floating around at sea, not a spoiler). Matters get complicated whenever bigger questions arise, particularly related to Noppo as well as Kosuke and Natsume’s fraught, largely unexamined relationship. Also, it’s hard to stay excited about this movie when so much time is wasted doling out insubstantial and generally unnecessary explanations about this cataclysmic and strictly impossible event. Sometimes, a fantasy should remain fantastic.
But the real problem with “Drifting Home” is that its central premise doesn't reflects its characters’ emotional states. There’s a lot of great, lived-in details baked into the movie’s production design, especially in the Kanomiya’s layout and haunted atmosphere. And yet this evocative set-up doesn’t say much about Kosuke and Natsume’s stillborn relationship, which mainly advances during stillborn conversations, and not mid-crisis adventures. They explore life at the end of the world, declare their feelings—or intentions, really—and then receive wisdom. It's not a complicated narrative, possibly because the movie’s designed for younger viewers. But the conception of “Drifting Home” is so stunted that its only memorable thing is its untapped potential.
Now playing on Netflix.
Mutsumi Tamura as Kosuke Kumagai (voice)
Asami Seto as Natsume Tonai (voice)
Ayumu Murase as Noppo (voice)
Daiki Yamashita as Yuzuru Tachibana (voice)
Yumiko Kobayashi as Taishi Koiwai (voice)
Inori Minase as Reina Hama (voice)
Kana Hanazawa as Juri Ando (voice)