By Charles Solomon | Animation Scoop October 15, 2013 at 2:30PM
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 instructor.
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.
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 Arrietty.
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.