Youth, simultaneously innocent and cruel, but endlessly perseverent. This is the story of twins, born two months prematurely: Riki and Momoko, both named for the blossoming plum tree's perseverence in winter by their father, who wa inspired by the sight of it in bloom.
Despite a slow frame-rate and some sub-standard voice acting, this is a movie will surely move those who have suffered for being different, felt embarrassed (and later regretted feeling that way) by a relative who is not what society considers "normal," and for those who remember how difficult childhood can often be. The children are nine, they're still easily influenced, as shown by how quickly many of Riki's classmates grow to accept Momoko after steps have been taken to integrate her, but the darker side of this easily-influenced and malleable nature is also shown in the bullying Ryuuji, an overachiever whose father is cold-hearted and success-oriented. Momoko is innocent and childlike, moreso than the others, having a younger mental age and a pure, almost angelic nature--
Although the characters initially feel like cliches, they are well-written and given enough time, they will show their hidden depths and human fears. There are hints even from the earliest scenes that the children have more to them. The bully is not mean and spiteful for the sake of being mean and spiteful (pay attention to what angers him most in each scene he lashes out, what he attacks and mocks, you will quickly figure out his issue). Momoko is not constantly cheerful and giving simply by nature, and Riki suffers the whole range of emotions that come from being both a third caregiver and child at once. The plot is simple and rather predictable, but there are some sweet turns and plenty of charming scenes where you will grow to love the characters.
It's not trying to be new and innovative in its story, but it succeeds in portraying the everyday lives of children, building an emotional connection with the audience, and creating mood.
Momoko's perseverence and insistence on doing things on her own or at least trying to, rather than being coddled by everyone around her, is also rather unique in anime heroines and I appreciated her resilient spirit. Her mental handicap may have her struggling with reading and speaking with a babyish lilt, but her emotional intelligence is high. She understands the other disabled children perhaps even better than their own mothers.
The art is simple, sweet, and easy on the eyes, although in terms of animation, the frame rate is somewhat slow and the animation can be choppy at times (most notably when Riki starts crying in the principle's office, it almost seems as if some transitional frames had been skipped?). But it's overall easy on the eyes and the character designs are good, fairly realistic (no outlandish hairstyles or naturally pastel-coloured hair here!) fitting such a realistic, down-to-earth story. I was particularly impressed by the way Momoko's body was drawn, her legs and arms are drawn and thin. They certainly look like someone suffering from muscular atrophy (although in Momoko's case, they simply stopped growing, making her overall much smaller than her twin brother). The animation is consistent about her physical limitations and does a good job of conveying difficulties she has in moving, particularly when she tries to run a race.
The backgrounds are quite lovely! Flowers feature prominently, what with the central characters being named after a blossoming tree.
One of my only real issues with this film is the voice acting; Momoko is well portrayed, most characters are acceptable, Riki has some issues in the earliest scenes, but is otherwise alright...
But Ryuuji, the bully, is quite stilted. It lessens some of the impact of some of his scenes, unfortunately, but the animation and music help convey the tone even if his seiyuu's bland performance leaves the viewer confused. It's fitting, then, that his most poignant scene does not rely on words at all.
This film might not be groundbreaking, but it doesn't have to be-- it simply chose to tell a poignant, sentimental, but honest story that isn't often told in animation, and did it well enough to leave one weeping.