On the one hand, Okko’s Inn is a delightful family film, broadly in the tradition of Ghibli, but not a facsimile of its style like Mary and The Witch’s Flower. On the other, it contains some startlingly intense scenes of a child’s grief and trauma. The film is broadly a fantasy, about a little girl starting life at a rural inn and encountering ghosts and spirits, but the central tragedy is not really couched in fantasy. In short, this is a film you might want to pre-watch before you show it to smaller relatives. It’s certainly not unsuitable for kids, but it gives real meaning to the phrase, “Parental Guidance.”
The tragedy occurs right at the start. Little Okko has spent a day watching festivities in the country with her mum and dad. While these traditions plainly mean a lot to her parents, Okko herself is a bit bored. Then on the way home, there’s a traffic accident on the freeway. Unlike her parents, Okko survives unhurt, and has a strange vision of a buck-toothed boy floating over her.
Skip to a short time later, when Okko (who grew up in a city) is travelling to the country inn run by her maternal grandma, Okko’s new guardian. After spending some scenes cringing at every bug and lizard – Okko really is a city girl – she encounters the floating boy again. A long-term resident, he’s a mischievous ghost tyke called Uribo, and he’s only the first spirit she will meet…
Okko’s Inn is a gently-paced film that might almost be called slice-of-life despite the supernatural premise (if it is supernatural – see below). At Uribo’s urging, Okko finds herself volunteering to help her grandma run the inn, and one of the film’s running strands has her learning the ways of Japanese hospitality, in an establishment which accepts everyone. As Okko deals with multiple guests, one after another, the episodic structure is very like Kiki’s Delivery Service.
Actually, Okko has several points of contact with the 1989 film. Like Kiki, Okko makes important acquaintances as the story goes on, who challenge or support the girl. Two of these characters are among the best things in the film. There’s Matsuki, a hilariously prissy girl at Okko’s new school, who quotes the wisdom of everyone from Steve Jobs to Walt Disney. She’s involved with another inn and sees Okko as an unworthy rival, but while Matsuki starts out as Okko’s adversary, she changes believably and satisfyingly.
The other standout character is Suriyo, a woman fortune teller who stays at the inn and connects with Okko – partly, the film indicates, because she has her own hidden unhappiness beneath her lively cheer. Again there’s a Kiki-ish dynamic, with Suriyo evoking the older females who helped the girl in that film. However, Suriyo’s love of shopping malls and retail therapy would have surely scandalized Miyazaki. Yet the retail therapy sequence, complete with bubblegum J-pop soundtrack, serve as a joyful catharsis for Okko after a scene of intense trauma.
The ghost characters are less memorable than the humans, though they’re funny as an ensemble, with Okko having to marshal them into some kind of order to help with the inn. The boy Uribo is the sweetest; he was the childhood friend of Okko’s grandmother, and still regards her as exactly the same person despite the passing of decades, which is a worthy message for a family film. A horned character who pops up later feels like an obvious visual call-back to a 1980s anime sitcom, but the reference feels amusing and well-placed.
But beneath all these cheery elements, we’re frequently reminded that Okko is still grieving. Even the guests can be triggers; among the first customers she must deal with is a boy who’s bereaved himself, touching the rawest nerves in her. Later, a revelation involving another guest shifts the film into a jangling key, beyond anything in Pixar or Miyazaki films.
More subtly, Okko’s Inn floats the question of whether the supernatural characters are actually “there”, or just representations of Okko’s fantasies and feelings. (The in-film “evidence” of the ghosts’ existence can be rationalized.) We see Okko has phone-straps resembling the ghosts – “You’re squeezing the life out of them,” Suriyo observes. There are also scenes where Okko talks to her dead parents, presented overtly as grief-induced fantasies. Other anime films blur dream and reality – for instance, Ride Your Wave, When Marnie Was There and Satoshi Kon‘s oeuvre – but Okko treads the line with great delicacy for such a deceptively “simple” film.
The film is entirely satisfying as a stand-alone, though it was inspired by a long series of children’s books by Hiroko Reijō. These books also inspired a TV anime by the same studios which made the film, DLE and Madhouse; the series appears to be a much lighter take on the material. According to the publicity, the particular storyline in the film is a new invention; the scriptwriter is the prolific Reiko Yoshida, who adapted titles as diverse as K-ON! and A Silent Voice for Kyoto Animation, and scripted Lu over the wall and Ride Your Wave for Masaaki Yuasa.
Visually, the film invites descriptions like “pleasant” and “serviceable.” The cheery simple character designs are very close to the TV version, and give an overbearing sense of a “children’s cartoon.” Okko’s crescent smiles are gratingly cutesy. But they don’t preclude moments of beauty, such as Okko’s train journey from the city to the countryside, a heartbreaking moment when she snuggles up with her imagined parents, and pillow shots of the wildlife near the inn. The ghost characters sometimes take flight, with a lively chase through carp streamers (koinobori), but they express merriment more than the sublimity of Miyazaki’s skies. Instead, Okko’s Inn loveliest sequence is actually its end-titles, showcasing the graceful and funny concept art for the film.
While Okko’s Inn was directed by Kitaro Kousaka, who has endless animation credits at Ghibli – though not, incidentally, on Kiki– it seems to gain most of its soul from Yoshida’s script and Kousaka’s storyboards. The film’s cute appearance means it’s easily underrated, but its last scenes are enormously affecting, finding emotional releases which don’t just copy the Ghibli tradition. Okko’s Inn also benefits from an excellent English dub, with all the actors giving engaging performances to capture the characters’ vivacity and vulnerability.