Blue Thermal review (2022): gliding anime movie fails to soar

Blue Thermal makes for a decent sports-based anime movie, but gets a bit too bogged down in the protagonist's romantic notions to fully take flight

Blue Thermal review

A tension lies in Blue Thermal’s priorities. Fundamentally a college rom-com, the anime movie never quite manages to find good balance between protagonist Tomaki’s love triangle, and her competitive ambitions for gliding.

A freshman looking to spread her wings in a Tokyo college, Tomaki winds up joining the aviation club when her lacklustre tennis prowess leads to a damaged wing on one of their planes. Her passion’s flared by a brief training flight, pushing her to become a pilot and win a national tournament.

Masaki Tachibana’s animated movie, based on Kana Ozawa’s autobiographical manga, finds good velocity when taking to the sky, capturing what is to soar using only the wind and one’s ingenuity. Where it falters is how it refuses to untether itself from drama on the ground, pulling us away from what makes it exciting and distinctive.

The title itself is a reference to gliding terminology: a thermal is an upward gust of air that can lift a plane a considerable amount. Since these are engineless aircraft, good piloting is really a matter of sensing where thermals are, and getting the most of their potential upswing. During her first test flight, Tomaki demonstrates keen awareness for this, catching a blue thermal – a relatively rare, strong gust that usually requires more training.

Captain Jun Kuramochi, a senior who shows an affinity for Tomaki, is impressed, and makes her a team-member, to the chagrin of Daisuke Sorachi, who believes she has dues to pay (not least for the damages she’s supposed to be working off). That tension develops into a lot of will they, won’t they through all the gliding meets and races.

Blue Thermal

When pilots are in the air, and it’s all about who’s in the lead and what tactics the opposition are using, Blue Thermal is as captivating as any great sports film. Tachibana mixes racing with explainer graphics that tell the audience exactly why whatever’s happening is important or difficult. We understand Tomaki’s aptitude for the intricacies she’s dealing with, allowing us to better feel the thrill of soaring like she does.

Blue Thermal manages occasional flutters of beauty by floating through crystal clear blue skies, as if one suddenly grew wings. Some of the race sequences are on the same track as the ending of Toy Story, where Woody and Buzz descend into the Andy’s moving car. Falling, with style. But the emotions never quite get high enough to generate goosebumps because we’re so tethered to Tomaki’s romantic foibles.

That Tomaki’s as likeable as she is helps considerably. Her excitability, desperation, and desire for love all reflect the pressures, many self-appointed, of transitioning to university and adulthood. One can respect and understand why so much time is given to her social life, even if it makes everything unsteady.

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Neither of her potential partners get enough time to make it a solid romance movie, leading to an unsatisfying, over-zealous third act driven by her feelings about one of them. Beyond these two, a potential rival is introduced who only gets a couple of scenes. Blue Thermal has poetry in it, but there are too many tangled verses to really feel it. The film gets itself into a tizzy trying to find room for everything, when really it should just focus on doing one thing well.

During an introduction by Jonathan Clements at Scotland Loves Anime, he remarked that Kana Ozawa’s editors altered the manga to be more about all the flying and less her love life and studies, and Blue Thermal is closer to her original vision. Those editors might have had a point.

Blue Thermal review

Gliding anime movie is too preoccupied with what’s happening on the ground to spread its wings.

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