Pile of Shame

by Justin Sevakis,


To paraphrase Hideaki Anno, people don't commit suicide because they're depressed, people commit suicide because they can no longer imagine happiness. That thought occurred to me again and again while I was watching Colorful, the remarkable feature film produced by Sunrise in 2010, but only brought out in North America by Sentai Filmworks last year. I thought about that line because although Colorful is a film about teen suicide, to adult eyes its protagonist, Makoto, is not suffering from the usual anime teen-angst problems. Why he would do such a thing, as in real life, isn't superficially obvious. What makes the film remarkable is the respect it has for the underlying emotions; how it plumbs the depths of his feelings, digging beyond layers of anger and withdrawl, until we're left with a sensitive boy who just couldn't face what surely seems like betrayal.

Makoto Kobayashi has just committed suicide. Successfully. In a long, surreal Point-of-View sequence, taking place at a weigh station between Earth and the afterlife, we are told his soul is gone, and another soul, one with no memory of its own or of Makoto's, must inhabit his body so that Makoto can have a new chance at life. (The bearer of this news is a mysterious being known as Purapura, who's something of an angel that looks like a well dressed little kid.) And so, we are sent back, and that's when we meet the newly awakened Makoto. Makoto has just awaken in a hospital, flanked by concerned family members. Makoto has no real memories. He has to fake knowing who his parents are, where his room is, and attempt to be this kid, who was supposedly so depressed that he tried to off himself.

Without the baggage of circumstances weighing him down, the new Makoto is happy and polite, much to the shock of everyone around him. Much of the first act plays as sort of a comedy, where this unfamiliar spirit must try to emulate a kid he's never met, and discover what made him tick. Purapura, the pint-sized "angel" who acts as a tour guide, pops in and out, but ultimately uncovers the betrayals that led Makoto to abandon hope, and forget happiness. It's from this point that things start clicking into place, and the soul quietly starts taking up where Makoto left off.

The high concept nature of the film is novel, but ultimately unimportant; its sole interest lies in the examination of Makoto, his relationship with women, his oversensitive nature. It's interested in why he chose to end his life, but more than that, it pays respect to the unique hell a kid can inhabit when he's smart enough to know the people around him aren't what they seem or claim to be, but not yet experienced enough in life to understand why. He feels betrayed when he sees two of the most important women in his life with questionable men at a love hotel, but can't know the desperation and low self-worth that it took to get them there.

The end result is an angry paranoia, a lashing out and a withdrawl. The breakdown in communication with his family turns this isolation into a vicious cycle. Nobody wants to talk about the real issues, and so things go unresolved. Mother superficially reaches out and tries to be a good mom; Makoto insults her for being a fake; Brother stares at Makoto in quiet resentment; Father sighs helplessly.

And then things begin to thaw. It happens slowly at first. Two people, the awkward girl who sort-of likes him at school reaches out to him, concerned with how differently he's been acting. A much needed friend and confidant emerges as well. The cycle of isolation broken, Makoto's anger slowly recedes. Communication starts again. On a fishing day-trip with his father, he learns a few things about his mother that never occurred to him before. And then, during a family dinner, a discussion about what high school he'll attend finally opens the floodgates.

The final "reveal" at the end will be seen by most viewers coming a mile away, and yet it's satisfying not for the resolution of the film's central puzzle -- why did Makoto kill himself, and what did this new soul do to deserve such a reassignment? -- but for the knowledge that the lessons have clicked, that Makoto too didn't value his life enough, and that the process of coming down from his angry, hopeless place to a mindset where he can communicate with others and forgive them their flaws was a permanent one.

While the film is a bit over-reliant on dialogue at times, the actual lessons Makoto learns are not quite spelled out; I suspect that how much the viewer can relate to him will affect what they perceive the lessons to be. But while the electroshock jolt of his reincarnation might have started the ball rolling, the healing process for both Makoto's depression and his family's broken state takes time, and patience, and a lot of sussing out. And when it finally happens, it's so beautiful that it's unquestionably worth the journey.

As is starting to become common in "higher-end" anime feature films, the voice cast is populated by live action actors, which gives the film a much more naturalistic feel than many anime. Child actor Kazato Tomizawa (best known to anime fans as V.V. in Code Geass) gives Makoto a fiery temper and violent emotional swings, and pulls it off with an impressive even-handedness. But the real show-stopper is Kumiko Aso as Makoto's mother, walking a delicate line of trying to stay strong while being nearly about to break, herself, for most of the film. It's a subtle, smart performance, and some of the best voice work in recent memory.

Sentai Filmworks' English dub, unfortunately, is not so good. Rather than using age-appropriate kids for a more naturalistic sound, director Christopher Ayers cast his brother Greg as Makoto, who strains his trademark voice to a near-falsetto half the time, and defaults to his normal speaking voice the other half of the time. Ayers and the rest of the cast stumble through their line reads, struggling through the poorly adapted script, which reads clumsily and too slowly. Everyone sounds like they're trying hard and nobody can be singled out for phoning in their performance, but in a film that relies on a certain degree of naturalism, the end result just doesn't work.

As a Blu-ray, this release is a massive disappointment. Despite a deluxe release in Japan, the US edition has ne'er a single extra feature, not even a theatrical trailer. Sentai Filmworks' issues with quality control at the time of its release (which have since been resolved for new releases) also rear their ugly head: while the film itself looks and sounds fine for the most part, a very important scene near the end of the film descends to sub-streaming quality, suffering from severe compression artifacts. More noticeably, the pop-up menu has a very glaring bug in the audio section that will immediately be obvious to anyone that tries it. I'm really quite grateful that more recent Sentai discs are a better, but I really wish they'd go back and re-author some of their more problematic discs. This one was bad enough to really annoy me.

Colorful is a challenging film, one much more at home in the art house cinema section than with its fellow anime. It's a deeply affectionate examination of a troubled kid who forgot love for a time, and while it's easy to share in his heartbreak and subsequent healing, I wonder if some viewers will have a hard time relating to his angst. But for those who spent their teen years frustrated with their surroundings and overcome with the hypocrisy of the world around them, the experience of watching Colorful is so real it stings.

Japanese Name: カラフル (KARAFURU)

Media Type: Movie

Length: 126 min.

Vintage: 2010

Genres: Drama, Supernatural, Teen angst

Availability (Japan): A deluxe DVD and Blu-ray boxed set was released, which looks very nice, but has no English.

Availability (English): Sentai Filmworks released a barebones DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray has issues. The subtitled version is also on Hulu and other places Sentai normally puts things.

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