Whether you’re familiar with anime studio Madhouse or not, it’s likely you’ve seen their work: the hilarious and satirical adaptation of the One-Punch Man manga, 2008’s Batman: Gotham Knight, 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and many more. The latest to hit North American theaters is director Kitarô Kôsaka’s adaptation of writer Hiroko Reijo’s and illustrator Asami’s 20-volume series The Young Innkeeper Is a Grade Schooler! (Waka Okami wa Shōgakusei!)to the 94-minute animated feature with the English title Okko’s Inn. For two-nights only – April 22nd and April 23rd – audiences can experience the magic and charm of Okko’s Inn in select theaters. The question is, with so many options in theaters and online, is there something about Okko’s Inn deserving of a theatrical experience? The answer to that lies more in the viewer than in the film, yet there’s something so delightful, so lovable about the film that seeing it with a crowd is justifiable.
After enjoying the annual festival in honor of the hot springs that run through the Japanese countryside, Oriko Seki, called Okko by her friends and family, suffers a great tragedy as she and her parents are the victims of a terrible crash during their journey home to the city. With no other family, Okko moves in with her grandmother Mineko Seki, the proprietress of an inn in the town of Hananoyu which rests atop an ancient hot spring known for its healing properties. There, Okko not only learns the traditions which keep the inn functioning, but, through the help of two restless spirits, comes to terms with her new life at the inn, a life she rebuffed before her parents died. A life which offers the key to moving on.
Animation is an oft-overlooked medium for storytelling and is frequently derided as being solely for children or of possessing a weaker constitution in comparison to live-action productions. To those people, look no further than the 2016 release Your Name or the recent Oscar nominee Mirai. Both animated features cast a spell upon their audiences, in large part due to their presentation as well as their provocative stories. In this same manner, Okko’s Inn is best served as an animated feature so that it can layer its storytelling more effectively than live-action, as well as change course in tone without ever seeming irregular. Take the larger tone of grief which hangs over the whole of Okko, both the film and the character. As an animated feature, it’s explored in ways both literal and figurative, empowering Okko’s journey of self-discovery and agency rather than being portrayed as something which weighs her down. For instance, Okko possesses the ability to see spirits. It’s insinuated that because she came so close to death herself that this ability manifests. But don’t mistake this for a family-friendly version of The Sixth Sense. The spirits she communicates with aren’t abundant and each possesses a specific narrative purpose, one which ties directly to Okko’s personal journey. In a live-action feature, this particular aspect runs the risk of either being morbid or cheesy, yet here it’s presented as matter-of-fact and commonplace. Once past her initial surprise at both her new surroundings and companions, Okko quickly becomes accustomed to what’s certainly a new normal and everything fits together so perfectly. The greatest gift of an animated feature is the way in which its inherent nature enables stories to be simultaneously grounded and fantastic, daring the viewer the take a leap of faith into the enigmatic, which, of course, is not to suggest that there’s anything truly mysterious about Okko’s Inn. Over time, even the more strange aspects of Okko’s Inn are explained, but never to the detriment of the emotional impact. After all, Okko is a tale of grief and it’s an aspect which is never once glossed over.
Wonderfully, Okko’s Inn never shies from addressing the darker aspects of loss, making a point to allow other characters to present and explore their own sense of sorrow. Whether it’s through the story told by young boy Uribo, the first ghost Okko meets, whose ties to the inn transcend time and space; by Miyo, the spirit of a young girl who seems to protect Okko’s classmate Matsuki, which reveals an unconsidered connection under further exploration; by Akane, a boy in possession of a raging anger who’s traveling through the countryside with his father; or by Glory, a fortune teller on a break from her vocation; each person Okko engages with offers a new perspective on her own experience, never diminishing it or stooping to condescension, but rather, enabling Okko to process her grief by opening herself up. As an audience, we expect the spirits to play a large part in Okko’s story, which makes the film more interesting when it leans on the living as well. Alive or not, each inn guest Okko cares for unknowingly assists her in healing. Unlike American culture where the supernatural is frequently a matter of spiritual unrest, in a story like Okko’s Inn, the spirits are there as protectors or as guides. They are respected parts of everyday lives, offering a chance to expand our perspective. To realize that even the worst things can herald something grand.
Audiences lacking foreknowledge of the story from which Okko’s Inn is born should be comforted that their cinematic experience is in good hands based on the very nature of Kôsaka’s experience working in the animation department for Studio Ghibli films Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke. Given his resume, Okko’s Inn possesses not just incredible charm and heart, but wonder and awe. Presuming the theatrical experience is akin to that of this reviewer’s, the audience will be treated to a dubbed version featuring the vocal talents of Madigan Kacmar as Okko, Carly Williams as Matsuki, Kenneth Aikens as Uribo, Glynis Bell as Mineko, and Colleen O’Shaughnessey as the spirit Suzuki. They, and the rest of the voice cast, do an incredible job adding dimensions to their animated characters, making them feel as real as their more tangible acting counter-parts. Given the material, it’s hard not to wonder if a more ethnically-appropriate vocal cast might’ve been gathered, but, as presented, this cast infuses these characters with such vibrancy that audiences won’t be able to help themselves from being swept up by the joy and sorrow. With such a brief window to see Okko’s Inn, make your reservations now so as not to miss your chance to experience Okko’s journey for yourself.
To find theaters hosting screenings during the two-night event on April 22nd and 23rd, head to the official Okko’s Inn website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.