The film was released in Japan in 2010, the product of a joint project by several studios, by far the most well-known of which is Sunrise. Director is Keiichi Hara, who in addition to directing most of the "Shin-chan" adaptations also wrote and directed 2007's Kappa no Coo to Natsuyasumi (Summer Days With Coo). It wasn't a huge box office success, but caused quite a splash critically, winning several International animation prizes both in Japan and outside.
To say that this movie hit close to my heart is an understatement. While my own clumsy scribblings would bear little resemblance to this adaptation of Eto Mori's 1999 novel in quality or execution, in theme and sentiment it feels very much like something I would have written if I could. I adore magical realism, and even more the coming-of-age story - the bildungsroman. It feels like this used to be a much more common type of story in anime back in the day, when lots of series and movies were about boys and growing up - but I guess it's unfashionable now to create anime about young men and the struggles they face. So in that sense Colorful is a throwback - indeed, the novel was written during that earlier period in anime I refer to - but that just makes it all the more precious to me.
The numbers tell an indisputable story - teenaged boys are about six times more likely to kill themselves than girls. It would be a long post indeed if I were to list all the things Hara does right with this film, but foremost among them might be the way he captures the pain of his protagonist, Kobayashi Makoto. Boys are expected to internalize their sadness and anger - to "man up" and "keep a brave face". The things Makoto has to deal with - his parents troubled relationship, terrible bullying at school, an unrequited crush on a girl "out of his league" - are very real and very believable. Boys deal with this things all the time, in Japan and elsewhere. And sometimes, they deal with them by trying to end their lives.
I won't spoil the major plot twist that comes at the end of the film, just in case you haven't seen it - but I will say that I guessed it fairly early on. Rather than lowering my esteem for the film, though, it bolsters it - because it feels natural and logical to the story. Frankly, it's how I would have written it if it had been my story. The basic premise is that a lost soul shows up in the afterlife, guilty of a sin it cannot recall. An odd little "angel" named Purapura - an impish schoolboy in a short-pants suit and tie - tells him he has a choice. He can go on a "homestay" - inhabit the body of a recently deceased human and try to remember his sin, atone and earn his way back into the reincarnation cycle. In this case, the human is a 14 year-old boy named Makoto who has just attempted suicide with his mother's sleeping pills. Just as he expires in his hospital bed, the wayward soul enters his body and opens his eyes to a strange, unfamiliar world.
With only the occasional visits from the snarky Purapura as guidance, the soul must navigate the maze of Makoto's life - and it's no bed of roses (pun intended). Makoto is small for his age, friendless even before his suicide attempt (which his schoolmates don't know about), and struggles badly in school (32nd out of 32 in his class). A decent high school seems an impossible dream, he pines helplessly for the beautiful but remote Hiroko, and he alone bears the knowledge of a terrible sin against the family committed by his mother - a mother who helplessly tries to reconnect with a totally remote and hostile child returned from the dead. Only through his painting and sketching did this strange boy find any respite from the troubles in his life.
The casting here is crucial. Makoto is played by 14 year-old Kazoto Tomizawa and Purapura by 12 year-old Michael (that's his only name, oddly enough) and - as I've said countless times before - the degree of realism from casting real kids in these roles is indispensable to the success of the film. The entire cast is stellar but those two - especially Kazoto-kun - carry the weight of the movie on their shoulders. There's no denying that the emotional pitch of the story is pretty intense - no punches are pulled in dealing with serious and ugly issues. Suicide, bullying, Enjo Kosai - things adults would rather pretend didn't play roles in their children's lives. But they do - and they're dealt with here in a frank, matter-of-fact way - not sentimentally but not heartlessly either. The tone is just right - this could easily have been either bleak and depressing or corny and sappy - but it's neither. it's painful, honest and true.
One more element that seems to have largely disappeared from anime is the theme of male friendship among teenagers - not the superficial stuff you see in most series, but real, heartfelt friendship - and just what a lifeline that can be to a kid in trouble. It says something about the unconventional choices this story takes that rather than romance (frankly, a remote concept to most real 14 year-olds) or the troubled family relationship, it's ultimately Makoto's friendship with Saotome that proves the most crucial relationship in his life. Anyone who has even been a teenage male will tell you that for all the love of parents and the longing for a girl, very often the best friend is the most important person in your life - and the one that ultimately helps you make it through the long, dark time that is adolescence.
I've referred to Makoto Shinkai as a poet of animation. While this story is a little more linear and complex than Shinkai's standard, I look at this is a visual poem as well. The gorgeous backgrounds, character designs and animation merge with a fairly subtle but impacting soundtrack to create what's more than anything else, a mood piece - a collection of emotions that slowly opens up in the viewer over the 125 minute running time. No detail is overlooked - even a seemingly minor scene involving Makoto and his new friend Saotome tracing the paths of old streetcars is wonderfully moving and beautifully executed.
Again, I won't spoil the twist by talking too much about the ending - but for me, it was an ending that fit perfectly in place. Life is difficult and always will be, but that's rather the point. As much as I love this film and I think every parent (or older sibling, and there's a great one in this story) should see it, I especially wish every teenager could see it - especially boys. A story that moves and entertains while casting light on the real issues people confront is a rare and valuable thing.