Above all else, Kitarô Kôsaka’s “Okko’s Inn” is a warm and adorable new addition to the growing subgenre of animated children’s films about grief (see: “Coco,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and “My Neighbor Totoro” among many others, most of them Japanese). The film is so colorful and kid-friendly that it’s hard to believe it’s from the same production studio responsible for the hyper-violent likes of “Ninja Scroll” and “Perfect Blue,” but this bucolic story about a little girl who moves into her grandmother’s ryokan isn’t quite as gentle as it looks.
Based on a series of Hiroko Reijo novels called “Waka Okami wa Shōgakusei!” (literally “The Young Innkeeper Is a Grade Schooler!”) — and unfolding like a Kidz Bop cover of “Spirited Away” — “Okko’s Inn” might be too shrill and erratic for most adults to enjoy all the way through, but it deals with death in a way that’s direct enough for even young children to understand. For small kids coping with big losses, this manic little movie could help them make sense of a broken world.
Still, there’s no overstating how aggressively (almost hostilely) cute Kôsaka has made this ultra-kawaii adaptation; it’s so adorable it’s almost ugly, and even the youngest viewers might wish they could dial things down a notch. That energy starts with Oriko “Okko” Seki (voiced by Madigan Kacmar in the stale but serviceable English dub), a rambunctious tyke whose massive eyes take up at least half of her entire face.
But the girl’s plucky nature is immediately put to the test, as the film is just a few minutes old before she’s involved in a confusing — yet palpably violent — highway accident that kills both of her loving parents. It’s strange that Okko survives unharmed, and stranger still that she wakes up to see a translucent, buck-toothed boy floating above the wreckage.
When Okko — now orphaned — relocates from Tokyo to her grandmother’s countryside inn, the boy reappears and introduces himself as a friendly ghost. His name is Uri-bô (Kenneth Aikens), and he’s been haunting these parts since Okko’s grandmother was her age. It turns out that Okko’s brush with death has turned her into a regular Haley Joel Osment, and that she’ll have to get used to a few local spirits if she hopes to take over the ryokan one day.
That’s essentially all there is to the plot of “Okko’s Inn,” as the film skitters between a series of semi-related episodes while the title character slowly works through her grief by discovering the joy she gets in living for other people, dead or alive. The guests come and go, and each is a bit more compelling than the last. The first to arrive — a single father and his snotty kid — don’t bode well for the rest of the film. Things pick up a bit from there, as the story refocuses on a sexpot fortune teller who can’t sense Okko’s sadness, and then a recently traumatized family whose fateful connection to their young host will become clear over time.
Each of these segments are punctuated by a small litany of other characters, including a posh and precocious girl whose family owns a rival inn (in a film that’s full of jarring moments, the one where she quotes Steve Jobs feels particularly out of place). But the most tedious interruptions come from Uri-bô and the other phantoms, one of whom is a “bell demon” who looks like a rejected Pokémon and contributes almost nothing to the narrative.
Perhaps in the book, this character had more of a purpose, but here he functions like an obnoxious failsafe to prevent Okko’s adventure from growing too heavy. It’s as if Kôsaka can only afford so many devastatingly vivid flashbacks of Okko’s parents before he feels compelled to undercut the emotion with some cutesy nonsense.
Even at its most serious, “Okko’s Inn” is calibrated for the attention span of a five-year-old; as mature and abstract as the lessons its protagonist learns might be, there’s no use making an uncommonly honest kids movie about death if kids aren’t interested in (or able to) sit through it. Absent Hayao Miyazaki’s enchanting imagination, Kôsaka has to find simpler ways of servicing young minds. Much of that boils down to a restless visual style that contrasts generic character designs with lushly drawn backgrounds, and never stops moving. Okko’s pals may never slow down for long enough to develop into anything more than adorable nuisances, but at least Okko herself is given the time to discover how being there for other people — as a friend, family member, or innkeeper — is the only way to make it feel as though her parents are still there with her.
It’s a sweetly rendered takeaway that helps galvanize the welcoming ethos that her grandmother’s ryokan applies to its guests: Accept all, and reject none. Everyone is invited to watch “Okko’s Inn,” though only those who truly need to be there are guaranteed to enjoy their stay.
GKids and Fathom Events will screen “Okko’s Inn” as a special event on April 22 and April 23. The English dub will show the first night, and the Japanese-language original (with English subtitles) on the second. Visit FathomEvents.com for more information.