At a time when sometimes heated discussions rage over the sameness
in tone, content and look in American CG features, Colorful serves as a welcome reminder that animation has a unique power
to touch deeply felt emotions and tackle serious social problems.
In the train station of the afterlife, a resigned, forlorn Soul
is told he has earned a rare second chance to re-enter the cycle of birth,
life, death and rebirth. The Soul will be placed in the body of one Makoto
Kobayashi, a junior high school student who just committed suicide. He will
have a finite time to discover the sin he committed in life that put him in
this position and atone for it. If he succeeds, he will re-enter the world of
the living; if he fails, he will utterly cease to exist.
The lost Soul, who communicates through title cards, greets
this news with a notable lack of enthusiasm; he’d really prefer extinction. But
the decision has been made and he doesn’t have a choice. He enters the assigned
body, and Makoto Kobayashi’s vital signs return. The doctors move into action
as his family weeps for joy.
The Soul inhabiting the newly revived body feels confused
and disconnected. He doesn’t know who Makoto is or was. He doesn’t even know
where his bedroom is. Purapura, an odd, often unsympathetic spirit, doles out
information piecemeal. Makoto’s room is
on the second floor. His father is an ineffectual salaryman; his older brother
Mitsuru doesn’t speak to him; his mother recently ended an affair with her dance
The Soul within Makoto dislikes this new family. Looking down
on their shortcomings, he refuses to eat the meals his mother cooks, ignores
his father and snubs his brother. At school, he realizes Makoto has no friends.
Almost no one speaks to him, except for Shoko Sano, an awkward girl who notices
the “new” Makoto is different, and Hiroka Kuwabara, a pretty girl who’s impressed
with Makoto’s artistic ability. The new Makoto is cowed by the old Makoto’s talent.
He sits in the art club room, staring at an unfinished painting and pondering
its meaning. The disconnection he suffers mirrors the loss of identify many
young Japanese feel in a stagnant economy and an aging population.
The Soul gradually learns that Shoko, whom he finds annoying,
was bullied almost as cruelly as Makoto when they were younger. She understands
the old Makoto’s sorrow. He’s horrified to discover that Hiroka prostitutes herself
to older men to buy designer accessories (a real phenomenon in Japan), and
grudgingly accepts his well-intentioned father’s attempts at reconciliation.
Makoto the lifeline he’s been seeking. The lost Soul within the student discovers
how enjoyable it can be just to hang out with a friend, tracing an old trolley
line’s path through the town, buying cool tennis shoes at a little-known
discount shop and sharing fast food snacks. For the first time, Makoto makes a human
connection that transcends bullying and alienation. He begins to draw again.
The warmth that the unimpressive Saotome kindles enables
Makoto to realize his true identity and the sin he committed that sent
him to train station beyond life.
Japanese animators treat death very differently than US artists.
In part, this reflects the Buddhist belief that during the 49 days immediately after
death, a soul dwells in a sort of indeterminate state. (A ceremony is held on
the 49th day). In American films, characters who appear dead flutter
their eyelids and reveal they were alive all along, like Baloo in The Jungle Book. In Japanese animation,
characters who are “really, most sincerely dead” come back and take part in the
story. After being hit by a speeding car, 14-year-old delinquent Yusuke
Urameshi gets a chance to redeem his bad behavior in the popular martial arts fantasy
Yu Yu Hakushu; in Fullmetal Alchemist, Alphonse Elric’s
soul remains magically fixed to a empty suit of armor while his body languishes
in the netherworld; Goku continues to train in the Next World and returns to
Earth for the climactic battle in the final seasons of Dragon Ball Z.
Colorful (2010) was
adapted from an untranslated novel of the same title by Ito Mori; Keiichi Hara directed
with skillful understatement. The film won both the audience prize and a
special award at Annecy, as well as the Mainichi Film Award for Animation
(sponsored by the newspaper Mainichi
Shinbun). It was nominated for the Japanese Academy Award for Animation,
but lost to Ghibli’s The Secret World of
This genuinely touching film deserves a wider audience in
the US, especially among people who love animation, but can’t face sitting
through another CG roller-coaster ride, another come-from-behind racing victory
or another sitcom wisecrack.