The Most Timely Sci-Fi Epic is Impossible to Find in the US

Wonderful Days, or Sky Blue, is an overlooked mid-aughts anime that feels all-too prescient.

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Kim Moon-saeng’s 2003 post-apocalypse sci-fi actioner Wonderful Days falls in the same bucket as a handful of early 2000s anime movies overlooked in their day and left gathering dust in the aughts ever since. Just like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy, Shinji Aramaki’s Appleseed, and even Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Wonderful Days is an all-timer of its genre that oddly enjoys sustained relevance in 2023.

Wonderful Days, alternately titled Sky Blue, is a hybrid CGI and cel-animated film packed with themes of class divide, power disparity, and environmental calamity that register as all too familiar today; it’s almost tempting to call the film “prescient.”

“I don't know that the movie was prophetic,” writer Jay Lender tells Inverse. Lender was hired by Park Sunmin, the film’s U.S.-based producing partner, to give the script a judicious edit. “It's just that we've all been talking about it so long and been powerless to do anything about it. We're not on the edge of disaster. We're past the threshold.”

Wonderful Days takes place in 2142, after humanity has obliterated Earth’s biosphere. Most survivors live in Ecoban, a high-tech city closed off from the outside world. The rest live in the wasteland, mining the raw materials needed to keep the lights on in a place they’re not allowed to inhabit. Into this dynamic steps Shua (voiced by Marc Worden in the English dub), a wasteland rogue, whose childhood friend Jay (Cathy Cavadini) works for Ecoban security alongside its commander, Cade (Kirk Thornton). Shua’s reemergence in Jay’s life sparks a love triangle between them, while the wastelanders — the Diggers — plot to revolt against Ecoban, and restore blue skies to Earth.

It’s easy to see why Wonderful Days’ story of an imminent ecological disaster rings so urgent today. But the film actually resonates most from behind the scenes, as an object lesson in the difficulties writers face in the movie industry. Park originally approached Lender and his co-writer Micah Wright for the daunting job of molding the film’s ungainly screenplay into coherent shape; she wanted them to make the story palatable for Western audiences. “Our version of the story was to be the basis for the script in every language, not just the English dub,” Lender says.

Lender and Wright were up for the challenge. For them, Wonderful Days was a huge opportunity — the chance to work on a full-fledged movie. “When [the producers] came to us, we felt like, ‘This is it. We're going to have Hollywood careers as writers,’” Lender reflects. Around this time, he and Wright had been blacklisted by “every studio in town,” he says — the appalling outcome of their demand to be paid what they were owed for their work on shows like Spongebob Squarepants, Angry Beavers, and Hey Arnold!

This, like Wonderful Days’ climate change motif, probably sounds familiar; as of this writing, the WGA, now joined by the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), is striking against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) in the pursuit of fair wages. Hollywood studios habitually look for loopholes to avoid appropriate compensation for labor. In the case of Lender and Spongebob, the loophole was classification; Spongebob aired at night on Nickelodeon and Disney, but both companies categorized them as “daytime animation.” Since daytime animation is not traditionally covered by those studios, Lender was screwed out of proper wages, and he and Wright turned to the WGA for help. By the time all was said and done, the pair were persona non grata everywhere in town; Nickelodeon’s COO at the time saw to that personally.

Wonderful Days used a combination of backdrops rendered using photo-realistic CGI and traditional cel animated characters.

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Park’s eventual offer of feature work was too good not to jump on. The script needed reshaping, sure, but the central ideas were solid.

“The biggest thing that we did was eliminate the unbelievable level of self-importance,” says Lender, “and the teen-like angst that everyone has.” Lender and Wright’s top priority was deflating what Lender describes as the “distant, legendary, carved in alabaster feeling” the primary characters had. The rest was solving the puzzle of the background plates.

Background plates are a compositing technique that combines the foreground and the background into a single image; Wonderful Days shot live action backgrounds, then overlaid them with animation. It’s a costly process. “We were humbled,” says Lender, “by this rule that we had to use their locations in that order.” Because of this, he and Wright had no room for cutting scenes, or reordering scenes, or buttressing the film’s themes by introducing lines of dialogue here and there. “We essentially had to work with their scenes and the characters that they had placed in those scenes,” Lender continues, “and come up with some way to have them make sense.”

The behind-the-scenes story of Wonderful Days is just as timely as the film itself.

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Wonderful Days doesn’t enjoy the same cultural cachet as other anime films of its era — its reputation doesn’t hold a candle to any of Studio Ghibli’s 2000s output. (Though it would end up inspiring the beloved American cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender.) But Wonderful Days is a gorgeous, unsung visual gem underpinned by enduring thoughts about inequality and climate change. So imagine Lender and Wright’s disappointment when Park lost interest in the project, and the Korean team sent them back notes that subtly, and with unfailing politeness, instructed them to put the script back the way they found it.

“We literally took their script and stamped ‘second draft’ on it, and sent it back to them,” Lender says with a laugh. “They told us, ‘this is perfect.’” And that was that — not the end that Lender and Wright had expected.

Wonderful Days would end up released in the U.S. under the title Sky Blue, but with two minutes cut and some story “distortions.” It was due to receive an American Blu-ray release in 2008, but those plans fell through when the film's original distributor, Tartan Films, folded due to financial issues in late 2008. Palisades Media Group, which acquired the Tartan Films catalog, currently has no plans to release the film. To this day, there’s no way to legally watch Wonderful Days in the U.S.

Revisiting Wonderful Days now, the environmental angle is likely to inform our first impressions; it’s the plot-defining element, after all, the text of the film, and the biggest existential crisis of our time. Labor comes a close second. But labor, more than environmentalism, is Wonderful Days’ heart — a common theme buried deep in the film’s production, and a rare instance of art imitating life.

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