Generation after generation, it’s been proven that audiences tend to connect with stories about teenagers bonding over a fantastical experience while dealing with the drama of school and their own lives, whether in a nostalgic Netflix show like Stranger Things or a poignant anime movie like Your Name. Juxtaposing big fantasy stakes with the more relatable stakes of teenage problems adds interesting flavor to familiar stories, and emphasizes how these adolescent problems feel super huge when you’re young.
The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes, an anime movie from Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood-War director Tomohisa Taguchi, veers closer to Your Name’s end of the spectrum. Here, the supernatural element is more of a vague concept than a monster that needs defeating. Based on the light novel turned manga of the same name, The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes is a gorgeous, sweet coming-of-age romance with a dash of science fiction, but it ultimately only scratches the surface of where the story could go.
[Ed. note: This review contains setup spoilers for The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes.]
The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes follows a high-school student named Kaoru who discovers that an urban legend in his town is actually true. There’s a secret tunnel capable of granting wishes — but at a great cost. Along with aloof new girl Anzu, Kaoru sets out to explore the secrets of the tunnel. Anzu and Kaoru discover that every three seconds in the tunnel equates to two hours outside, hence the mythos around it that says one wish costs a hundred years. Both teenagers have their own reasons for wanting their wishes granted, though neither of them is particularly forthcoming about those wishes. As they investigate the tunnel and test out its time-warping powers, they start to form a friendship.
Their connection drives most of the plot, as they eventually tell each other why they seek out the tunnel’s magic. Anzu and Kaoru both keep their secrets close to their chests, so when they do eventually confide in each other, it’s a blossoming start to what could become a transcendent friendship. But while their connection is sweet, it feels stuck at the beginning, and never quite transforms into a deeper relationship. Even in the movie’s third act, their connection has only just started to hint at something deeper, so when the plot takes a turn, their relationship arc feels unfinished.
The movie’s big bittersweet twist doesn’t have as much impact as it ought to, because up until that point, Anzu and Kaoru only really connect through a tunnel-investigating montage and a handful of prickly conversations. The emotions Taguchi tries to convey in the movie’s last act don’t quite gel, because Anzu and Kaoru’s relationship never gets to a point deep enough to justify that impact.
The tunnel itself is a fascinating plot device. But the best contribution it makes to the movie is as the set for the most stunning scenes. The tunnel is a shallow river lined on either side by glowing golden-orange maples, each decorated with shimmering holographic purple gems. Everything within seems to have its own light, casting the characters in vivid colors. In the tunnel, reality gets a bit warped, as the characters begin to see what they desire and time slows down. The animation is beautiful throughout, especially in conveying atmosphere like the rainy weather and the aquarium Anzu and Kaoru visit on a day off investigating the tunnel. But the tunnel is where the visuals really shine.
There are a lot of lovely working pieces in The Tunnel to Summer, and they almost all work together. Ultimately, the frustrations boil down to how Taguchi uses the tunnel. It’s a gorgeous, compelling plot device, but the reveal of the central duo’s motives for using it comes too little, too late. And the scenes where they run tests, with one person going inside while the other spends hours waiting for them, doesn’t lend itself to really fleshing out a relationship. As brilliantly beautiful as the tunnel moments are, Taguchi overindulges them instead of saving them for moments of impact.
Tunnel to Summer is visually stunning, and on the surface, the story is compelling and just bittersweet enough to be evocative. Ruminate a bit more and peel back the layers, though, and The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes becomes frustrating, because it could be so much more.
The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes debuts in theaters on Nov. 3. See the movie’s website for participating theaters.