Color your life

Suicide and animation. That’s an unlikely association and yet Director Hara Keiichi managed to make it work. Did you ever wonder what kind of rules you must follow in the Afterlife, if you try to take your own life? Colorful gives you an insight of its own and proves that Death has never been so full of Life. [Spoilers ahead!]

Song of the Movie:

miwa – 「青空」(Blue Sky) / The Blue Hearts cover

First a 1998 novel written by Eto Mori, that already had been adaptated into a live-action movie in 2000, the animated Colorful presents a nameless soul, 「ぼく」- Boku (the male version of “I”, “Me”), who committed a sin he has no memory about. A celestial guide, called PuraPura, informs him that he just won the Heavenly Lottery (don’t they have better games upstairs?), and will be given an other chance to return to the world. What a lucky soul!

This fantasy premise is the only link with supernatural. As Boku gets transfered into the body of Kobayashi Makoto, a teenager who attempted suicide, the movie becomes a slice-of-life story depicting the day-to-day life of Boku-Makoto, as he’s trying to remember his previous sin in order to move on his next life.

With such ties to the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation, and how the “You” of your previous life will influence the “You” of your next, this story naturally offers a philosophical reflection on the concept of death and the way it affects you (the individual) and those around you. More precisely, how a suicide attempt may affect your peers and family. This choice is proved particularly relevant when we realize that suicide is often (unconsciously) considered as an individual issue, an individual choice.

This “Kobayashi Makoto” guy…Who is it? Why him?

When Boku-Makoto opens his new eyes, a family surrounds him in the hospital room, and when he comes back home, there’s a home-cooked meal awaiting him. He (and us) can’t understand why “Makoto” tried to kill himself when there is obviously so much love in his house. But little by little, we unveil the truth and find out that “Makoto” fell under the weight of his own dark discoveries about those he loved: adultery, child prostitution. Add to that the school bullying he had to suffer, and you can pretty much understand the reason behind his desperate move. “Makoto”‘s state of mind can be read through his paintings, with one representing an horse immersed in the sea and struggling to swim to the light.

I noticed that food was a real indicator of Boku-Makoto’s turmoil, the dinner table being our vantage point to witness the family’s internal conflicts. Take Boku-Makoto’s first meal: when he discovers his new house, he wholeheartedly enjoys the food, and shows his gratitude to his new family, even asking his new mom to stop feeding him. They’re all shocked by his attitude, which proves that the real Makoto wasn’t really demonstrative.

But with no real explanations of what he’s supposed to do, or how, and given how he was kind of forced into this situation, he distances himself from the real “Makoto” and doesn’t care about how his actions will impact others’ life. He turns out to be insufferable and inconsiderate of others’ people feelings. This is perfectly represented in the way Boku-Makoto treats his mother, which can very much be described as plain bullying. Once he discovers her secret, he judges her and gives her the (very) cold shoulder. That results in icy dinner reunions, with Boku-Makoto leaving as early as he can, not realizing that he’s wasting the meal of all of his family members.

From then on, he’ll find other ways to eat. For instance, he’ll never say no to snacks offered by “Makoto”‘s crush, Kuwabara Hiroka. Even when they look as bland and artificial as Hiroka, though it may precisely be what’s attracting Boku-Makoto.

But what’s really annoying is how he openly rejects the food his mom cooked and brought him directly, respecting his wish to be alone. Rarely caring enough for even touching it, he often let it rot while eating junk food. Knowing how food is closely related to maternal love, that says a lot about Boku-Makoto’s sadistic desire to hurt her.

Speaking about home-cooked food, his cruelty and disdain strike hard during a painful scene, provoked by Boku-Makoto picturing images of love and care his mother puts into her food. Granted, it does feel like her love is smothering him sometimes, but I believe that he exploded because he thought she was playing the part of the “perfect mom & wife”.

Unleashing all the hatred he had towards her, he clearly showed here the worst of his character. Watching the story unfolds, I’ve wondered why Boku-Makoto would react so violently when he was the one stating that he wouldn’t care about a family he isn’t considering being a part of. The more you hate, the more you show how you’re actually involved in the relation, and Boku-Makoto isn’t as insensitive as he’d like to be.

A thing that I really appreciated is that all the characters of Colorful are flawed (though less than in the original book), but that only highlights how human they are. Fortunately, Boku-Makoto slowly changes as he begins to realize his own issues, and is helped in his growth by his interactions with others, notably his very first friend. Here again, food is shared, and what better symbol than the 「肉まん」- Nikuman (meat steamed bun), staple of street food. As PuraPura says later on: “It may be only fried chicken and nikuman, but it can bring that much happiness.

But truly, Boku-Makoto’s enconters with PuraPura throughout the movie are certainly his most meaningful meals. Food for thought, I mean. Ok, my PuraPura bias may hinder my judgement, I confess. Not as angelic as his cherub face would let you think, PuraPura doesn’t hesitate to be mean towards the sloppy and irresponsible Boku-Makoto. When necessary, he’d provoke him or manipulate him, or hit him, sometimes abusing his guide fonction in order to goad Boku-Makoto into questioning himself and change.

It’s quite interesting to note that in the original book, PuraPura is an adult, but Hara wanted him to be closer to Makoto, so he decided to give him a child form. PuraPura’s appearances also provide us with some much needed comic relief scenes, as well as a moving final meeting.

Makoto’s return to life has been welcomed as a true miracle by all the members of his family. The final dinner scene becomes the stage where they all voice their concern, at least, and prove to Makoto how important he is to them. Indeed, his suicide attempt woke them up and forced this broken household to change. Each has his/her own way to convey their feelings but they do come across and Makoto finally lets go of his inner barrier and bares his soul.

As Makoto learns what is really important in life, we come to like him and feel close to him, which was hardly the case in the beginning. Life is fragile, and like Makoto, we realize that simple things like sharing a meal with your family, discovering an old tramway circuit with a new friend, or watching the landscape are precious moments we should be grateful for.

Life doesn’t need to have a delimited purpose and Makoto’s family appreciate his presence, and the simple fact that he’s alive is a great joy and  blessing in itself. I have to say that it’s surely the first time I see a Japanese movie depicting such understanding parents, not pressuring their son into entering a well-known school but rather focusing only on his well-being and personal development. For them, social success isn’t contributing to happiness, which can be rather built up through the bonds we form with others, those we love and who accept us as we are.

I won’t say this movie is flawless, because it does have some weak spots. The ending is predictable and does feel rushed, and we’re also left with lots of unresolved questions. But truly, we’re given so many meaningful moments that I don’t mind it that much.

気がつくと、ぼくは小林真だった。Indeed, the tagline of the poster above is spot-on. “Next thing you know, I was Kobayashi Makoto”. At this turbulent period of life that adolescence is, you may feel the need to kill your previous self in order to let this new “You” come to light. Of course, that’s going a bit far, but symbolically and physically, Makoto died twice. And this journey was necessary for him to become Kobayashi Makoto.

It may only be me, but I think it’s not a coincidence that the kanji used for “Makoto” is「真」- Truth, Sincerity. Makoto’s character represents the Lost Generation, and he doubted the sincerity of the world he was living in. So it’s highly gratifying to see him mature and find his own answers, as he’s the one giving us (one of) the moral(s) of the story: Humans aren’t monochromatic but colourful. Some colors may seem ugly, others cute, but we have to accept them in their differences and multiplicity.

So that we can also state:「僕は生きてます」- I am alive.

3 thoughts on “Color your life

  1. I so cannot wait to see this film.

    “Suicide and animation.” – Dark topics and animation, yes, it’s something intriguing. Something we are (still) not entirely used to seeing in the west, but has been explored in Japanese animation (and comic) culture for much longer already. I’ll comment on this when I finally get to finish my review on Tatsumi – Tatsumi (the person) generally being heralded as the father of gekiga, or manga dealing with serious topics.

    ““Makoto” is「真」- Truth, Sincerity” – very interesting! Wouldn’t have known this if you hadn’t mentioned it.

  2. Yes, I think that’s why Japanese animation appeals so much to the young Western audience. There are exceptions (the recent “Le chat du rabbin” coming to mind), but most of the Western animation take its audience for naive little kids, glossing over (if not completely forsaking) deep and important themes. Japanese animation is not afraid of tackling complex subjects, and I think it helps kids (but not only) to apprehend the world by reflecting the movie’s themes.

    I didn’t even know about Gekiga! I’m looking forward to your review, since I didn’t see the movie and I’m interested in this term as opposed to Manga..Dramatic images versus Whimsical images…

  3. Well, I think some more serious comics/animations are emerging elsewhere as well – but nowadays only and I’m sure that the Japanese paved the way for us here. I like how something even light-hearted like Arrietty keeps it real rather than sugarcoated by having the human boy character suffer from some sort of heart disease and NOT reveal whether he survives his operation at the end or not.

    I didn’t now about gekiga until I watched Tatsumi. I don’t think it’s on general release yet, I saw it at a preview, the wider release in the UK will only be in January. I’m totally fascinated by the concept of “dramatic” versus “whimsical images”! So great!

    I’m hoping to go into some detail about this – the history, the impact of Japanese comic culture, but that will require some research on my part. Hmmm, was originally thinking of publishing the review this week but maybe it’ll be next week only. I’m still busy before I leave for Austria on Monday.

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