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A Look Inside “Okko’s Inn”

Joined by producer Masahiro Saito, the former Studio Ghibli animator, Kitaro Kosaka meets KARL R. DE MESA to talk about their film—the colorful, coming-of-age tearjerker that highlighted this year’s Animahenasyon.

F ollowing the death of her parents, a young girl named Okiro Seki–whom everyone calls Okko–meets two individuals: Miyo and Uribo. They appear and disappear as they will, they fly through walls and soon become her sources of comfort and friendship. One can ask this question, however: are they ghosts or imaginary friends?

In the mind of a child dealing with grief, the difference can be negligible. Moreover, the distinction can spell the path to accrued trauma that will need future therapy or faster healing and a more resilient adult. 

This is the ambitious conceit of “Okko’s Inn,” a Japanese animated film directed by former Studio Ghibli animator Kitaro Kosaka. Based on the children’s series of novels by Hiroko Reijo titled Waka Okami wa Shogakusei! (or, literally, The Young Innkeeper Is a Grade Schooler!,) it is about a 10-year-old former city girl trying to rebuild her life after her parents tragically died in a highway car crash that only she survives. She gets taken in by her grandmother who lives and runs a ryokan (a traditional spa hotel that features healing hot springs,) she was forced to adjust to rural life, a new school, and new classmates and was later befriended by friendly phantoms (including a garrulous, gluttonous, cute demon named Suzuki.)

By this plot alone—tackling loss and literal death from a child’s perspective in a movie made for kids—the film sets itself apart from the usual run of cute anime projects.   On the surface, this Madhouse Studios project might seem at odds with their more famous outings. For example, the violent and gory Ninja Scroll and Perfect Blue. Yet don’t be fooled; Kitaro has imbued this seemingly bucolic, coming-of-age flick with his own brand of grit, nuanced vision, and masterful emotiveness. These come together succinctly in the denouement, like a perfect punch thrown by a master—just enough strength to exhibit force while showcasing the more impressive feat of restraint.

Hayao Miyazaki may still be the biggest name in J-animation. Yet, it’s clear Kitaro (and other former Studio Ghibli collaborators,) do not need the iconic Totoro to make this a modern obra which clocks in at 94 minutes.     

I watched this movie at the Animahenasyon 13: The 2019 Philippine Animation Festival, along with a packed crowd that had many of us standing on the sides of the Samsung Hall last November 8. Towards the middle of the third act, two young girls of the Gen Z set sitting cross-legged beside me were openly weeping, hugging each other for comfort. It is that kind of film.

Okko’s Inn is an almost pastorally-paced movie that reveals its layers to the viewer with grace and thoughtfulness, a meditation crafted in equal parts universal distress and Japanese cultural color. It’s something that both parents and their kids can appreciate at different levels, something tailor-made for an intimate bonding experience. And, through the help of the Japan Foundation, Manila, I managed to talk with the men behind it: the film’s producer, Masahiro Saito and Kosaka himself. 

KARL R. DE MESA: What were the considerations in making Okko’s experience of loss in the car crash relatable and yet not gratuitously violent? 

KITARO KOSAKA: Okko’s personality and her growth are dented by a very real tragedy: by the car crash that kills her parents and her surviving it. She has a kind of survivor’s guilt that is, of course, undeserved. But, this is also the kind of mental burden that leads to early enlightenment and an earlier-than-usual coming-of-age.

We took care that the depiction of the accident wasn’t gory or bloody or too graphic. The movie we set out to do must also very strictly be able to be understood by elementary school kids, so this fantasy of the ghosts must still be rooted in reality. These ghost friends of Okko must also still be plausible as imaginary friends.

KDM: Now that I think about it, Uribo, Miyo, and Suzuki could actually be imaginary friends that help Okko cope with her grief rather than supernatural entities.

KK: The trio of ghosts represents parts of Okko’s personality. Suzuki, the cute demon, says that two of them disappearing as she gets older is just a natural event of growing up. Okko mourning their exit from the world is simply the grief that comes with aging, yearning for a throwback to innocence and simpler times.

KDM: Similarly, the guests that Okko encounters reflect parts of herself?

KK: Yes, in a way. A possible future of Okko is the beautiful young fortuneteller and model, Glory Suiryo, that she becomes friends with, while the emotional and surly boy, Akane, represents her recent past because he also lost his mother. As Okko realizes these things, she also comes to recognize that Matsuki Akino, the snobbish Frilly Pink girl who bullies her at school, isn’t really her enemy because she also has a good heart while she is living her own private sufferings.

KDM: As storytellers, it’s hard to keep up and bridge the age gap with how kids relate to things and see the world, especially now. How did you prepare and immerse yourselves in the research?

KK: We stayed at an inn for a few weeks and I constantly observed my kids and my daughter and tried to convey this to the rest of my collaborators, especially the 20 main animators who worked on this movie. It can be hard as we age to relate to children but it’s a fun process when we try to.

KDM: With streaming networks like Netflix becoming one of the most preferred means of distribution to international audiences, do you think a global marketing push on such platforms will help movies like yours gain a bigger following?

MASAHIRO SAITO: Those types of animation that are really for the geeks and the nerds, what we call the otakus in Japan, there will always be a niche market that’s strong for them. Really, really high-quality animation would also be good in streaming. Not that Okko’s Inn isn’t high quality; it is. But, it’s still very family-oriented, which isn’t part of the niche offerings for otakus. We’re still not there in terms of animation for Japan.   

KDM: It does seem that the hunger for anime abroad though has only exponentially grown with the success of the likes of “Baki The Grappler,” “Your Name,” and “Flavors of Youth.”

MS: If we target international markets, then our competitors are the likes of Dreamworks and Disney. Their budget is huge and it’s so hard to compete with the kind of finances they have compared to what we do. Having said that, Okko’s Inn is very Japanese in setup, story, and execution and also treated as limited animation. Yet, personally, seeing the reaction of a foreign audience like Filipinos, I felt that they understood the story and it resonated with them deeply. I felt it very much and this is something I can bring with me as I move forward in creating something else.   

KDM: How do you put a stamp or your own voice in your movies and projects, especially since the visionary shadow of director Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli still looms large in the minds of anime fans?

KK: I’m not very much at all thinking about my own voice when I first do a project, but if there’s a good story that comes my way, I would definitely like to put my voice into those pieces to create something unique and something different that people have never seen before.

Having said that, when I was working in Studio Ghibli and under Hayao Miyazaki, there were of course things that I didn’t agree with but we, for sure, needed to do what he wanted.

One of the things I noted back then is how director Miyazaki was very focused on the art: it always needs to be beautiful and it must come first. That’s number one to him. The story and theme are secondary. But for me, if the story and theme aren’t there, then what are we drawing?

I’d feel bad about that difference of opinion then, but in my case now, I really want to put the story and theme as a bigger priority. For me, without story, there is nothing there. So for me, I would like to keep on creating projects that have great themes and great stories. 

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