Not too many children’s movies thoughtfully address grief. Sure, orphaned kids are found everywhere – Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket’s tales, The Lion King – but the psychological repercussions of loss are seldom dealt with intensively. (The brilliant, wrenching A Monster Calls is the exception that proves the rule.)
Into this sparsely populated arena strides Okko’s Inn, an anime based on a popular series of Japanese novels and manga. The film adaptation opens with its title character, an elementary school aged girl, attending a Shinto festival in the town where her grandmother runs a traditional inn. Driving home from the festival, a car crash takes her parents’ lives.
The anime’s prologue cleverly alternates shots of the festival’s dancers with rapid, non-graphic images of the accident. This choice by director Kitarô Kôsaka achieves a few goals. It keeps his film kid-friendly, introduces us however briefly to Okko’s loving parents, and thrusts us into the setting for the main story, as Okko is subsequently taken in by her grandmother.
The grandmother’s humble inn is situated on a hot spring reputed to have healing properties. A stern yet kind woman, Okko’s grandmother is aided in her labors by two younger, more affectionate workers, Ko and Etsuko.
Around the same time she meets this pair, Okko also encounters the first of three ghosts who flit around the inn. Uribo is a frivolous, booger-flicking boy who looks to be about Okko’s age. Delighted to be finally seen by somebody, he urges Okko to volunteer as “junior innkeeper.” He plays protector, too: when Matsuke, the pampered daughter of more prosperous hotel owners, bullies Okko at school, Uribo draws a silly moustache on Matsuke, dropping her a few notches in the class’ pecking order.Through her interactions with the town dwellers (corporeal and incorporeal), as well as guests at the inn, Okko assimilates multiple lessons. Okko learns to help and offer hospitality, as the inn adheres to a precept of not rejecting anyone, human or animal, who desires its comfort and healing.
Just as importantly, at crucial moments, Okko also learns to ask for help. Into the forward momentum of his story, Kôsaka inserts scenes of Okko’s former life. Mostly, these are memories of the nurture received from her parents: an early morning snuggle, a meal together. But on a road trip with a friendly inn guest, Okko flashes back to the fatal crash. In talking through these memories with a caring adult, Okko is bathed in relief that is visible in her face and body language.
A film with such themes could easily become heavy or preachy, but Kôsaka employs a few tactics to keep it light. The imagery is bright and summery, with the spa’s forest setting brought vividly to life. The three ghosts – besides Uribo, a young girl and a cherubic demon with a sweet tooth – are decidedly unscary. And the musical score has a bouncy, sunny innocence to it.
Additionally, the animation is typical for light-hearted TV anime, with exaggerated emotional reactions accompanied by goofy sound effects. While this is only Kôsaka’s third feature, he’s had three decades’ experience as a lead animator for Studio Ghibli, as well as on the anime classic Akira. This expertise comes through loud and clear in Okko’s Inn.
The serious subject matter, though delicately handled, probably means this is not an appropriate film for children less than, say, 8 years of age. I could see younger kids also being freaked out by the ghosts of those meeting an early demise, however playful and obsessed with nose-picking they might be.
For an older audience, Okko’s Inn offers an enjoyable glimpse into another culture’s practices and belief system. In keeping with the spectral characters, Okko often voices the feeling that her mother and father aren’t really gone and are still watching over her. For parents who don’t believe in the supernatural or an afterlife, this can offer an opportunity to discuss our point of view, that those who have died do persist, in our memories and in their influence on our lives.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )