Okko's Inn Review
Largely because of Pixar's Up, the ship that launched a thousand YouTube shorts, there is a tendency in Western animation to make you as unbearably sad as possible, yanking on your heartstrings rather than tugging them. Of course, this has resulted in some memorable weepy moments: 'Remember Me' in Coco and 'I Am Moana' in Moana, for example. Okko's Inn, despite starring an orphan who is exclusively friends with the ghosts of dead children, doesn't do this, and for that, I respect it enormously. Rather than trying to emotionally exhaust you with melodrama, it serves as a mature and intelligent look at grief and emotional growth for a younger audience - one without an overwhelming wave of tragedy.
Beginning on the sucker punch of the death of her parents, enthusiasts of their village traditions, Okko is sent to live with her strict grandmother at the titular inn she runs, the Hananoyu Inn. After befriending Uribo, the ghost of her grandmother's childhood best friend, she stumbles into becoming the junior innkeeper at Hananoyu, gradually learning to forgive her past through the ancient motto of her home and workplace: 'all are welcome'. While this is mostly a setup for a series of vignettes involving different quirky guests, ranging from a forlorn father on a diet to a fortune-telling older sister figure for Okko, it assists brilliantly as a springboard for Okko's maturity and growth.
But a top-notch anime wouldn't be so without beautiful visuals, and the film abounds in them. The character designs may be too saccharine for some, but the huge eyes and cutesy outfits worked well to balance out some of the more challenging elements of the story, keeping the film lighthearted even in its darkest moments. But where the movie truly excels is in its stunning depictions of the Japanese village in which it is set, the sweeping shots of the rustic landscape reminding me frequently of Ghibli's more down to Earth productions. While not breaking any new ground, the palette of lime greens and warm browns keeps the film connected to nature and tranquility, and Hananoyu is represented so well that I wish I could genuinely stay there.
Okko's Inn may have a grim subject matter on paper, but the whimsical, infectiously charming characters more than succeed in lightening the tone. Okko herself is adorably humble and well-intentioned, and her interactions with the wide range of people who come in and out of her life always seem to leave her just a little more confident. The silly moments with Uribo and the other spirits she befriends are sweet enough, but one of my favourite scenes in the film is when she befriends the aforementioned fortune teller, the kind of woman who is confusing to adults but bewitching to children. The reverence that Okko holds her in reminded me of how I viewed older girls as a kid, so watching her take Okko out on a shopping trip for some female bonding left me beaming.
In terms of extras, a younger audience may want to just stick to the movie itself, but any older fans of anime will likely get a fair amount out of the special features. As well as the usual standby of trailers, the Blu-ray includes interviews with director Kitaro Kosaka, also known for his work as an animation director on films like Whisper of the Heart and Howl's Moving Castle, as well as interviews with Okko's Japanese voice actress Seiran Kobayashi for those interested in both the dub and the sub.
This isn't a film that always has a great deal of emotional realism - after all, we rarely see a shred of sadness or anger from Okko after the trauma she has experienced. But as an entertaining, visually impactful way of teaching young children some of life's harder lessons in a way that won't leave them in a puddle of tears, Okko's Inn excels.