OKKO'S INN

★★★

A GENTLE TALE OF GHOSTS AND HUMAN KINDNESS

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
14th August 2019

Contrary to popular belief, non-perverted anime is fairly easy to come by. “Family friendly” can be a bit tougher to find once you step out of the realm of Studio Ghibli (otherwise known as the Disney of anime), but that depends on your definition of the term.

‘Okko's Inn’ is based on a series of Japanese children's novels, written by Hiroko Reijo and illustrated by Asami, that have already been adapted into a manga series and a 24-episode anime television series. The feature-length film is directed by Kitarō Kōsaka, whose numerous animator and animation supervisor credits include classics such as ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, ‘Akira’, ‘Princess Mononoke’, ‘Spirited Away’, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ and ‘Ponyo’.

Kitarō’s film focuses on a girl named Okko (voiced by Seiran Kobayashi), who loses her parents in a shocking car accident and goes to live in the countryside with her grandmother. Her grandmother runs a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, which is built on top of an ancient spring (onsen) said to have healing waters.

To get the most out of ‘Okko’s Inn’, you will first need to know a little about Japanese culture. Omotenashi is a tradition that involves the subjugation of self to provide hospitality to a guest, without being servile - “omote” meaning “public face” and “nashi” meaning “lack of”, service is from the bottom of the heart, expecting nothing in return. Tied intrinsically into the culture’s deep respect for omotenashi, ryokans tend to be soothingly silent and infused with the Japanese philosophy of zen, whether through hushed halls, the precision of architecture, or the sublime simplicity of the food they serve. They’re intimate and minimalist and typically feature aromatic tatami mats, shoji (sliding paper doors) and soft futon beds. Many ryokans house a hot spring onsen, a traditional bath, and kaiseki meals that revolve around local fish and foraged ingredients.

'OKKO'S INN' TRAILER

Okko goes about her chores and prepares to become the inn's next caretaker, all the while still having visions of her parents. Soon she discovers there are spirits who live there that only she can see. She befriends the ghost of Uribo (voiced by Satsumi Matsuda), a buck-toothed, impish boy who was a close friend of her grandmother’s decades earlier. They’re soon joined by Miyo (voiced by Rina Endô), the spirit of the older sister of Matsuki Akino, whose family runs the huge Harunoya Inn, and Suzuki (voiced by Etsuko Kozakura), a tiny demon who loves sweets and is summoned by a monstrous bell left by a former guest. These spirits are not scary ones, but welcoming ghosts who keep Okko company, play games, and help her navigate her new environment. Suzuki, Uribe and Miyo form a team that help the young girl with her inn chores. As Okko becomes cheerier, though, Suzuki notices that she is less able to see the ghosts.

The inn's motto that it welcomes everyone is soon put to the test by several unexpected guests who challenge Okko's ability to be a kind and accommodating host. Here the director plays with time in that the three groups that come to the inn are based on Okko’s past, present, and future. It's through these trials that Okko discovers that she gains fulfillment in making people happy through her service.

Omotenashi is a tradition that involves the subjugation of self to provide hospitality to a guest, without being servile - “omote” meaning “public face” and “nashi” meaning “lack of”, service is from the bottom of the heart, expecting nothing in return.

The basic message of the film is one that was once summed up by famous tea master Sen no Rikyu with a poem to describe a tea ceremony (a ritual that revolves around a guest): “Though you wipe your hands and brush off the dust and dirt from the vessels, what is the use of all this fuss if the heart is still impure?” The most important part of every tea ceremony is that the bowl of tea is prepared from the host’s heart.

Mixing cartoony character designs (the children are rendered more simply than the adults), beautifully detailed landscapes, and glacial pacing, ‘Okko’s Inn’ is squarely aimed at young children. Okko continues to have happy experiences with her parents in her fantasies, despite knowing that they are no longer alive. The little ghosts who play with her are her support system, helping her to adjust at her new role at the inn, providing friendship and also showing that the afterlife isn’t so scary. Meanwhile, in the process of learning her trade, Okko realises that she can be a positive force in the lives of damaged strangers. It is an exceptionally gentle exploration of death, trauma and simple human kindness (as well as Japanese culture).

Although it doesn't hit the high-water mark of ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ and similarly-themed Studio Ghibli fare, Kitarō’s ‘Okko’s Inn’ is, like the tradition of omotenashi itself, charming and effective at pleasing its young audience, and goes well beyond a napkin on the lap or smile upon arrival.

Looking for more Melbourne International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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