Netflix’s Drifting Home, the latest anime movie to come to the service, is a surprisingly thoughtful adventure with an imaginative premise.
An engaging mix of ideas and visuals, plus themes of growing up and growing apart makes it a perfect film for younger viewers.
The movie tells the story of two best friends Natsume and Kosuke, who have drifted apart after the death of Kosuke’s grandfather – an important figure to both characters.
As the school year ends, the pair and a group of their friends find themselves exploring an abandoned apartment block. While there, a freak accident transports the group to a dreamlike world where the building sails through an endless ocean and they must learn to fend for themselves.
The desert island/survive on their own setup is a familiar premise within children’s fiction, but Drifting Home manages to distinguish itself thanks to a unique setting and occassionaly beautiful animation.
That setting, often shown to viewers through huge expansive frames of glistening blue sea, is the film’s greatest strength. It poses unique challenges for the characters and hammers home their isolation at every point.
Astute anime fans might also immediately notice the house style of Studio Colorido, who produced A Whisker Away for Netflix back in 2020, and have now entered into a three-picture deal with the platform.
Drifting Home also marks the second feature-length film from that studio’s resident director and writer Hiroyasu Ishida, after his critically-acclaimed debut Penguin Highway (2018).
The childlike, nostalgic tone of Drifting Home is wonderfully supported by Studio Colorido’s soft lines and smart use of colour. The blues of the ocean, pastels oranges and pinks of children’s clothes, and the distant lights of the city all have a fuzziness to them – ensuring nothing about the film’s visuals ever feel too bright or harsh, even when our characters are in danger.
This deceptively simple animation style, and a surprisingly varied soundtrack from composer Umitaro Abe, do a lot to capture the feeling of halcyon school days.
Drifting Home’s ensemble cast of central characters are all fairly likable too, which definitely can’t be said for every film in this genre. Kosuke and Natsume are joined by Taishi and Yuzuru, Kosuke’s buddies, and Reina and Juri – two standoffish girls from their class who are (of course) eventually won over.
Although none of the voice performances particularly stand out, they’re all certainly serviceable. Importantly, all the characters are supported up by an engaging script that gives them just enough heart without becoming overly dramatic or saccharine.
Over the course of its runtime, the movie does a fairly good job of balancing its central mystery (how did they get here, and how do they get home) while also exploring some classic coming-of-age themes.
It does this by cleverly flitting between fun, action-packed scenes and slower, more intimate conversations about memory, growing up and family.
To that end, the world of Drifting Home is constantly presenting Kosuke and Natsume with glimpses of their younger years.
The apartment block they’re trapped on regularly bumps into real buildings from their past, somehow transposed to their abstract world. They explore the sports centre where they practiced soccer together, and revisit the department store where they shopped for toys after a family argument.
This pair of characters make up the real emotional heart of Drifting Home, as we learn about the ways Kosuke’s family, and his grandfather, looked after Natsume when her own family could not.
The apartment block they’re drifting in was home for Kosuke but, more importantly, it was a haven for Natsume when she didn’t feel safe elsewhere. Their friendship, and the way they have drifted apart, provide the majority of the film’s tension, and by the end, Drifting Home is able to cleverly reconcile their differences in a satisfying way.
Like all good movies about growing up, Drifting Home also carefully layers some interpersonal stakes between characters. Betrayals and rebukes from close friends sting just as bad as the scrapes and tumbles the characters get into.
But, for all its charm, Drifting Home is not without issues. A confusing final act leaves the question of what actually happened frustratingly vague, and the character of Noppo (a supernatural being with ties to the forces that brought the kids to the drifting world) feels like he stepped out of another movie.
In some ways, the film is at its weakest when it engages directly with its fantastical premise, rather than leaving the idea of floating tower blocks simply as set dressing.
We would have also loved to see a few more, imaginative survival skills from the kids. So much of what makes this sort of children’s fantasy appealing is the ingenious ways characters have to stay happy and healthy in weird and wonderful environments.
In the end, Drifting Home is a perfectly passable entry in Netflix’s growing anime catalogue – and certainly not a bad way to spend two hours on a Sunday afternoon, especially if you’ve got younger film buffs at home. Just watch out for the games of make-believe this film is bound to inspire.