I remember seeing a trailer for Okko’s Inn when we went to see Modest Heroes. While I had not heard of it before that point the trailer made it seemed like a fun family-friendly anime film. It definitely feels like one of those titles trying to inherit the spirit of Hayao Miyazaki films that have sprung up since Studio Ghibli is mostly, sort of, kinda, maybe out of the feature-length film business. It has a plucky young female protagonist, a countryside setting, some supernatural shenanigans, and an overall warm vibe. The general audiences anime film is an important niche for the medium so it is good to see more studios trying to fill the void. I love me my genre trash, shonen spectacle, and high concept anime movies but something with a broader appeal helps keep the industry healthy.
For some reason, I assumed the movie was an original concept but it is actually based on a series of popular young adults novels called The Young Innkeeper is a Grade Schooler! There is also a manga and a TV series based on the books. As far as I can tell the manga and TV series are a bit more direct adaptation whereas the movie is a more compact version. Also, the movie has some major cast changes when compared to the TV series.
While I cannot compare it to the TV series I can tell you how well the movie version comes off when it tries its version of the twenty book series.
After a major tragedy Okko has to move in with her grandmother who owns a hot spring inn. While adjusting to her new home Okko befriends two amiable ghosts and an oni who are haunting the area. While learning about several eccentric guests and gaining a frenemy who is also the heir to a much more successful inn Okko begins to settle into her new life. But the scars of her trauma still linger with her and can sometimes pop up at the most unexpected times. Can Okko get by with a little help from her friends?
Okko’s Inn certainly does not pull its punches when it starts. Anime loves to kill off parents in car accidents. It is probably the most popular way to get rid of the protagonist’s parents other than some unnamed illness. The thing is anime usually does the deed off-screen. Okko’s Inn has Okko right there in the car. Now it is still a movie for families so there is no Death Proof levels of gore or anything but it is still very shocking. It is one of those “you should probably know this is in there” if you’re going to show the film to little kids moments.
Past that the movie felt more like the family-friendly version of Hanasaku Iroha. Okko is 100% a city kid who only briefly visited the inn to see her grandmother on holidays so actually living in the boonies has a bit of a learning curve. Also like any service industry job, there is a bit of a learning curve and this is doubly true for someone as young as Okko. While she gets some help from Uri-bō since he has been haunting the inn for years his advice is often canceled out by the trouble he causes since no one else can see him. The other ghost Miyo and the oni Suzuki are equally a mixed bag of helpful and troublesome. Suzuki will often do little chores if properly motivated but also has a penchant for snacking on whatever catches his fancy.
For the first part of the film I was enjoying myself but the film felt very standard. I felt like I was enjoying myself but there was a slight disconnect. I think I could not shake the idea that it was kiddie Hanasaku Iroha with a ghost boy added for fun. Then Okko’s rival Matsuki is introduced. The so-called Frilly Pink adds a level of energy that was lacking even if she is a fairly standard tropey character. After that Okko starts interacting with guests like the fortune teller and the movie won me over.
Okko’s trauma over the death of her parents builds the same way. The initial scene is very dramatic and shocking but after that, they only occasionally hint that she is not properly processing the tragedy. As the film goes on Okko’s condition becomes more and more apparent with some major moments in the last third. In retrospect that is probably the best for the kids watching the film. It lets them process what happened to Okko alongside her.
Okko’s Inn is a very pretty looking movie. It always has lovely backgrounds taking full advantage of the beauty of the countryside. It also has some lovely set pieces with very fluid animation alongside some intimate character moments. My major criticism is the same I would for some of Studio Ponoc’s work: It feels like off-brand Studio Ghibli. While it does not look exactly like a Hayao Miyazaki clone it does have a very similar atheistic. That means it feels similar but it also feels inferior. It is the whole Pixar vs. DreamWorks thing. I get why you might want to do that. Studio Ghibli often gets the pass as people see it as the anime that is not “anime.” That means there is a distinct marketing advantage to having a similar style. I would like to see more anime that has the spirit of Studio Ghibli films but their own style.
This is a charming film that has a surprisingly satisfying arc even if it starts a bit slowly. Now if you want to show it to your kids that is a slightly more tricky situation. There is nothing objectionable in the movie but the story is quite frank about death and grief. Some kids will not even bat an eye and others might find the themes either therapeutic or informative. It can even be a good way to broach the idea in a controlled fashion. Other kids might react poorly with the death of Okko’s parents even if it is sandwiched in-between everything else.