This is one of many films marketed for it’s ex-Studio Ghibli staff member credentials. The director is Kitaro Kosaka, who was a key animator for the studio. It’s worth mentioning, because if you are looking to find that Ghibli magic elsewhere you could do far worse than explore what the animators who moved on from the studio have been up to. This comes close to achieving the beauty and wonder of a Ghibli film, and the storyline is certainly worthy of the famous studio.
Okko loses her parents in a car accident, miraculously thrown clear of the vehicle and unharmed. The first thing she sees after the accident is a vision of a ghostly boy floating away from her, up into the sky. When she goes to live with her grandmother at a traditional inn near the healing waters of a hot spring, she sees the same ghost boy again, Uribo, a long-term inhabitant of the inn, who was a childhood friend of Okko’s grandmother.
So it’s fair to say her life has been turned completely upside down, and the film is very much about exploring the way Okko deals with her grief and the people (and ghosts) who help her on that journey. Just like a girl in a Ghibli film she finds ways to deal with her issues through positivity, determination and bravery. She is determined to help her grandmother and become a good inn keeper herself so that the Hananoyu Inn will continue to survive. Uribo is initially an annoying character, flicking ghost bogies around, but it soon becomes apparent that he has a heart of gold and cares deeply for both his old childhood friend, and her granddaughter who is so much in need of his help. Okko is also helped by another ghost, who has a important connection to Okko’s main rival, the privileged heir to the town’s other hotel, the huge and luxurious Harunoya Inn. Matsuki is initially a cliché of a spoilt brat, but the most important way that this film picks up the Ghibli mantle is that there are no villains. Matsuki might be stuck up, but the last thing she wants is for the rival inn to fail, as it would bring dishonour to the whole town. Like Okko, she is able to set aside differences when it matters, and like everyone in this film her heart is in the right place.
Also helping Okko on her journey of healing is a guest of the inn who becomes a sort of surrogate mother character, taking Okko under her wing. If you were in any doubt where the writer was going with this, a moment where a vision of Okko’s parents fades away to be replaced by her friend Glory makes it clear that she has become a mother figure for Okko, although the relationship is often more akin to a big sister. So this is all about Okko being helped to overcome her grief and find her new place in the world, but it also works both ways, because Okko has people to help as well. Her ghost friends have been hanging around for a long time, and need some kind of closure before they can move on to the next world. Matsuki lives a life of luxury but no friends. And the Hananoyu Inn faces an uncertain future with its ageing host. But the moment the film really goes from watchable fun to sublime emotional depth is when somebody involved in the car accident that killed Okko’s parents turns up at the inn, and the way Okko deals with that situation.
This never quite hits Ghibli standards, but that’s not much of a criticism because very little ever does. The animation is beautiful, but a couple of times a bit of CGI kicks in jarringly for moments that are hard to animate in the traditional way (the place you will often spot this in anime is when there are moving vehicles), something that never happens in a Ghibli film. The ghost characters never quite achieve the pathos of, say, Marnie from When Marnie was There, and there is a demon creature who is largely redundant to the story. The ending is also a little abrupt. But aside from a few issues this is a beautiful and emotional film, which is also family friendly and deserves a place in the collection of any fan of Ghibli and Ghibli-esque anime films. The tagline is “all are welcome here”, and that sums up the film very well. I will leave you with the trailer, which gives a good idea of the emotional journey Okko’s Inn will take you on. RP