After a decade away from directing, former Studio Ghibli animator Kitaro Kōsaka (“Nasu: Summer in Andalusia”) marks his return with “Okko’s Inn,” a sweet ghost story that attacks selfish, divisive behavior with idyllic surroundings and inclusion. From anime studio Madhouse and distributed by GKids, the movie opens April 22nd and 23rd in select theaters in Los Angeles.
After her parents are killed in a car accident, the big-eyed Okko stays with her grandmother, an innkeeper, on top of an ancient spring with healing powers. There, Okko encounters friendly spirits that only she can see, who play games, teach her about selflessness, and groom her to become the new caretaker. Based on the children’s novel, “Wakaokami wa Shogakusei!,” the project inspired Kōsaka “to depict a girl, at a self-conscious and impressionable age, growing up and learning that there are things you can and cannot manage.”
“The main reason we are divisive comes from the behavior of separating yourself or yourselves from others,” said Kōsaka, one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most talented disciples (supervising the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” among many others). In fact, Kōsaka has been assisting with some key animation on Miyazaki’s final, humanitarian feature, “How Do You Live?” Kōsaka found the best way to combat self-centered attitudes was through the hospitality industry via the inn “because customer satisfaction benefits the business and brings out the best in people.”
“Within the fluidity of globalization, one’s sense of values will break down and before it can be rebuilt, oftentimes a person would show intolerant reactions to issues,” added Kōsaka. “It’s not limited to movies, but creating something is not only about expressing myself. You also have to keep the audience—other people—in mind, and that is where I think about the society. And feeling the existence of other people acted as a source of energy for me.”
Kōsaka admitted that the world has changed since he left feature directing for a decade, even in Japan. In pursuing “Okko’s Inn,” he thought about himself, his society, and even his own physical limitations. “Recent brain studies have also said that there is no free will,” he said. “So in order to create the protagonist, I consciously elaborated on the environment and human relations that surround her in order to build her character.”
When constructing a ghost story such as “Okko’s Inn,” it was best for only the hosts and spirits to get close to Okko. Kōsaka suggested maybe they were illusions that came out of her grief. “I wanted Okko’s breakthrough to not depend on fantastical elements but the wisdom she achieves,” he said. “And by overlapping the imaginary friends and the real human relationships, I thought I can emphasize her growth.”
As part of his research of various onsen (hot springs) towns in Japan, the director discovered that they shared something in common: the animals used the hot springs to heal, and that was the origin of the onsen culture for humans that he added as a motif. “I do believe that it’s really up to you to change an unfortunate circumstance to a fortunate one,” said Kōsaka.
The director also played with time in that the three groups that come to the inn are based on Okko’s past, present, and future. Sometimes it was a struggle balancing some of the scenes. But his main takeaway was the confirmation “that the more I spend the effort on something, the more I can please the audience. I also felt my inadequacies.”