The story is about two characters, Akanemaru, a sculpture genius, and ex-burglar Gao whose only purpose in life is sculpting, and how they struggle with the fate to compete with each other over their capacity and talent.
Just some context: Hi no Tori is a manga by the great Osamu Tezuka, who is unfortunately primarily known as the creator of Astro Boy. I say "unfortunately" because although Astro Boy may be a seminal work and an important stepping stone in the history of anime & manga, it does not come even close to rivaling the sheer brilliance and philosophical depth of Hi no Tori, which I would class as one of the ten greatest works of fiction I have come across. Anyway 2 adaptations had been tried before Hi no Tori: Houou-hen: the live action film Hi no Tori: Daybreak Chapter, and the loose anime adaptation Hi no Tori 2772: Ai no CosmoZone, both of which I have had the misfortune of watching. Daybreak Chapter was directed by the usually fantastic Japanese auteur Kon Ichikawa in the low period of his career, the film itself being his nadir, for its cringeworthy effects and unconvincing performances. Ai no CosmoZone is just a pathetic attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the manga which is not worth discussing any further. After these two failed attempts, the sometimes great Rintaro stepped onto the scene and delivered what would be, to this day, the best adaptation of Hi no Tori.
Hi no Tori: Houou-hen itself near-perfectly captures every element that made the manga so awesome. It recreates the wonderment of the original story as well and the intense feeling you get deep in your gut as you get to the end of this particular part of the manga.
The characters are fantastic, though I would add this caveat: other than the two leads, characters should be considered merely foils or ways to advance the plot. That said, the two leads, Gaou and Akanemaru, are some of the most interesting characters I have come across in years of watching anime and other media. Gaou's transformation in particular fascinates me (but I won't talk about it to avoid spoilers).
The art is amazing, although this is perhaps the one part of the movie that does not capture the greatness of the manga, which boasts drawings of the highest quality. One potential reason for me having this problem (other than Rintaro's slightly worse art direction) was that the only quality I was able to access this relatively obscure film in was quite low in both frame rate and resolution.
Oh boy that synth heavy soundtrack/score really makes the movie. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of the manga and adds elements of mystery, wonder and suspense.
It's Hi no Tori. of course the story is mindblowing.