(2019—Director: Kitarō Kōsaka)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“Hananoyu’s hot spring water rejects no one.” — Grandmother/Obā-chan Mineko Seki (Harumi Ichiryûsai, dubbed by Glynis Ellis) to granddaughter Oriko “Okko” Seki (Seiran Kobayashi, dubbed by Madigan Kacmar)
Potential spoilers below
In the list of directors perceived as “the next Hayao Miyazaki”, most minds likely won’t turn to Kitarō Kōsaka. Yet in his nearly forty years as a freelancer in the Japanese anime industry, one could argue that Kōsaka-san has been the closest in proximity to that anime master. After working as part of the key animation teams for films like 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1988’s Akira and Grave of the Fireflies, to 1994’s Pom Poko, Kōsaka-san made his debut as an animation director (second to director proper) on 1995’s Whisper of the Heart. Kōsaka-san then served as animation director for about half of Studio Ghibli’s output after that, including 1997’s Princess Mononoke, 2001’s Spirited Away, and 2013’s The Wind Rises (all by writer-director Miyazaki).
Given this résumé, it seems surprising that Kōsaka-san has only risen to the role of director proper for a few small screen productions (mostly for Madhouse). Miyazaki-san recommended Iō Kuroda’s 2000-2002 manga Nasu to Kōsaka-san, who subsequently took one of the stories (one centered on competitive road cycling) and adapted it in 2003 for his feature debut Nasu: Summer in Andalusia (lovely-looking and exhilarating, yet borders on being a short film elongated to a 47-minute runtime—barely feature-length). Over fifteen years later, Kōsaka-san finally delivers his sophomore feature with Okko’s Inn*, adapted by Reiko Yoshida (who wrote last year’s Lu Over the Wall) from the 2003-2013 coming-of-age children’s novels by Hiroko Reijo and illustrated by Asami (itself adapted into a manga drawn by Eiko Ōuchi that started in 2006). Okko’s Inn is a wholesome, heartfelt, and cathartic anime gem that serves as a testament to director Kitarō Kōsaka’s longtime yet understated experience in the anime medium.
Okko’s Inn wastes no time shifting from sixth-grader Oriko “Okko” Seki (Seiran Kobayashi, dubbed by Madigan Kacmar) losing her parents to her move to Harunoya Inn, run by her grandmother/”Obā-chan” Mineko Seki (Ichiryūsai Harumi, dubbed by Glynis Ellis) at Hananoyu spa town. Director Kōsaka-san and writer Yoshida-san pace her naïvely-repressed period of mourning in a casual and episodic fashion: Okko encounters the ghost of Makoto “Uri-bō” Tachiuri (Satsumi Matsuda, dubbed by KJ Aikens), the nose-picking childhood friend of Okko’s grandmother (and perhaps the story’s most amusing character) (see “Parental Note” below). At her new school, Okko meets Matsuki Akino (Nana Mizuki, dubbed by Carly Williams), the precocious and snobby heir to the rival Shuko Ryokan Inn whose fashion sense falls squarely on the phrase “frilly pink”, as well as a young girl ghost named Miyo (Rina Endô, dubbed by Tessa Frascogna) connected to Matsuki somehow.
Okko’s newfound responsibilities as “junior innkeeper” at Harunoya help her learn to channel the abrupt and tragic loss of her parents into selfless kindness towards guests of the inn and others. This theme is palpable throughout much of Okko’s Inn, allowing it to become a family-friendly yet subtly mature depiction of recuperation from a pre-teen perspective. Like last year’s Lu Over the Wall, Okko’s Inn stands out in an animation medium targeted at teens. Okko’s task of growing used to a new home, getting groomed into a leadership career in hospitality, and her silly fear of bugs and lizards common to the Hananoyu spa town push the grief for her parents low on her priority list. The movie’s hastiness in showing the tragedy supports this prepubescent coping and lets the grief build and eventually overflow through Okko’s day-to-day activities in her new life, especially towards the climax.
Okko’s Inn is such a breezy, modest, and genuinely uncynical story that I only wish it ran a bit longer than its 94-minute runtime. While I’d say that Okko’s Inn concludes more firmly than last year’s anime gem Mirai, it somehow feels less emotionally exhaustive—attainable, perhaps, by extending the interactions between Okko and the various supporting characters. It also makes sense that the original source material was simultaneously adapted into a 24-episode anime series that premiered between April and September of 2018 and was handled by a creative team separate from the feature. (Most surprisingly, there’s barely any presence whatsoever of the series online—most online material concerns the movie at hand.) Nevertheless, these do little to affect the current status of Okko’s Inn as my favorite animated release of 2019 so far—that is, at least until either Disney with The Lion King, Toy Story 4, and Frozen II, Masaaki Yuasa with Ride Your Wave, or Makoto Shinkai with Weathering With You challenge it for that title. (It wouldn’t surprise me if either of the two latter anime films save their North American releases until 2020.)
As for Kitarō Kōsaka, I hope he’ll release his third theatrical feature soon—one that is entirely his, rather than recommended to him by his mentor (Nusa) or in cooperation with Madhouse for a multimedia adaptation venture (Okko’s Inn). Kōsaka-san may prefer to remain just outside of the spotlight as a freelancing animation director, but if there’s ever the time to upgrade to the chair of the director proper and break out with his own unique stories, this current turn of the decade is his chance.
*The informal Hepburn romanization of the movie’s original Japanese title is “Waka Okami wa Shōgakusei!”, which literally translates to “The Young Innkeeper/Mistress Is a Grade Schooler!” (other international titles here).
(Parental Note: Okko’s Inn has been rated PG by the MPAA “for thematic material.” A fatal and brisk car accident takes place in the film’s opening minutes and doesn’t show any grisly details. One supporting character named Glory Suiryō (Chiaki Horan) is a professional fortune teller. While she believes in her powers, she admits that clients come mostly to get cheered up and her presentation revealingly consists more of theatrics than genuine occultic powers. The ghosts in general and reincarnation are discussed as normal aspects of the Japanese Shinto religion crossed with Buddhism.)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
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