16 May 2011

Colorful (カラフル, 2010)

Suicide has been a growing concern in Japan over the past couple of decades due to a combination factors such as depression, job stress, and other societal pressures. With his latest film Colorful (カラフル, 2010), veteran animator Keiichi Hara (原 恵一, 1959), takes on the complex psychological factors behind suicide in a meaningful way.

An adaptation of a novel by Eto Mori, Colorful (Order DVD) takes us into the spiritual world of the deceased. In the west, we are familiar with the concepts of the afterlife and visitations from spirits or angels being used as a narrative device in stories such as Charles Dickens’s classic tale A Christmas Carol (1843) or Frank Capra’s perennial Christmas favourite It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The angels or spirit guides in western fiction tend to present a Christian conception of the afterlife and offer the troubled protagonists advice on improving their circumstances so that they can become good Christians with the promise of heaven awaiting them in the next world.
Examples of Hara's photo-realism animation technique
Colorful presents the dilemma of suicide within the Buddhist conception of the afterlife in which the soul is reincarnated. The film opens with the unnamed main protagonist in a kind of in-between realm. As he has no memory of who he was on earth, he refers to himself only as “boku” (masculine form of referring to oneself). His spirit guide is a young boy with grey hair and eyes called Pura-pura who tells him that he is being given the opportunity to return to the realm of the living. A teenage boy named Makoto Kobayashi has committed suicide and his soul is just about to leave his body. The spirit of “boku” will re-enter Makoto’s body and have a limited period of time in which to discover what mistake he has made in his past life, so that “boku” may move on and enter the next life.
"Makoto" sits with his art
“Boku” struggles with understanding why Makoto Kobayashi would kill himself when he seems to have a family that loves him and a comfortable middle class home. It doesn’t take long before suggestions of intense loneliness, parental infidelity, school bullying, and the discovery of Makoto’s high school crush Hiroka’s shocking secret double life give us clues as to the turmoil that had become unbearable to young Makoto. The other clue to Makoto’s state of mind can be found in his paintings. In particular, an unfinished painting in the art club suggests that he felt submerged, and struggled towards the light.
Pura-pura, the spirit guide
Pura-pura is an unusual spirit guide by western standards because he is far from angelic. Also a boy himself, Pura-pura resorts to manipulative tactics such as provoking with words or threat of physical bulliyng in order to push “boku” in the right direction. In the end, the main protagonist must not only look within himself to find a resolution to his situation, but also learn empathy for others. The main message of the film is that people are not monochromatic, they are colourful. We may find some of these colours beautiful and others ugly, but we need to learn to accept both in order to lead happy, productive lives.

As with Hara’s other independent film Summer Days with Coo (2007), Colorful has an animation style that is unique to Hara. A lot of attention is paid to accuracy in the details of spaces such as streets locations and the interiors of homes and the school. As with Coo, I had the impression that some exterior scenes were made using a composite of photographs and animation. Hara does indeed use a full, colourful palette in the film – which is particularly striking in the scene when “boku” as Makoto goes fishing with his father and paints the autumn leaves.

It’s a beautiful film that is a must-see for teenagers in particular because it opens the door to discussions about how to overcome depression and feelings of loneliness and despair.

Colorful won the Animation Film Award at the 65th Mainichi Film Awards and was nominated for Animation of the Year at the Japanese Academy Awards.
Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

Nippon Connection 2011