Teenage jerk daringly painted in both light and dark shades

by Mark Schilling

One of the iron rules for Hollywood scriptwriters is that the audience must root for the hero. Character flaws and bad behavior are permitted, but, in the final analysis, the hero should not be a jerk.

The teenage hero of Keiichi Honda’s new anime, “Colorful,” comes about as close I’ve ever seen to violating this axiom. For much of the film he behaves abominably with less reason than usual for a chip-on-his-shoulder adolescent.

As the story begins we see him among the recently dead at a way station to the afterlife when an otherworldly being in the form of a sly, precocious schoolboy tells him he has been given a chance to redeem himself for an evil deed he committed while alive. The catch: He must return to the world of the living in the body of another — and recall his crime.

In other words, our anonymous hero (voice: Kazato Tomizawa) is plunked down in the midst of total strangers, including his putative mother (Kumiko Aso), father (Katsumi Takahashi) and older brother (Akiyoshi Nakao), and is expected to become one Makoto Kobayashi, a third-year middle school student who committed suicide — and whose revived form our hero now inhabits.

Director Keiichi Honda
Run Time 127 minutes
Language Japanese

Meanwhile, with the dubious assistance of Pura Pura (Michael), his enigmatic guardian angel, he must recall what has been wiped from his memory slate. At first, grateful for this second chance, he is outgoing and polite to his new family and classmates — which floors them, since they knew the real surly and withdrawn deal.

Then, as Pura Pura fills in Makoto on his new family and friends — his saintly mother cheated on his wimpy father, his studious brother despises him for his slacker ways and his classmates gleefully drove him to kill himself — his attitude changes. That is, he starts to identify with his new form, nursing resentments and responding to kindnesses with petty cruelties, his central task of remembrance seemingly forgotten.

Based on a prize-winning novel by Eto Mori, this story initially struck me as a bad miscalculation. Makoto’s words and actions are so irredeemably caddish, such as bringing his repentant mother and a gawky girl classmate (Aoi Miyazaki) to tears with undeserved insults, that I wanted him to receive, not redemption at the end, but a one-way ticket to the nether regions.

But Honda, who has won many accolades for his entries in the “Crayon Shinchan” animated comedy series and his 2007 fantasy “Kappa no Coo to Natsuyasumi” (Summer Days with Coo), knows what he is doing both as a storyteller and an animator. That is, he finally delivers the revelation promised in the first reel, together with a chills-down-the-spine, tears-down- the-cheeks catharsis, intensified because it was delayed for so long.

I was willing to wait for this disclosure since Honda dares to paint his teenage hero in all the colors of reality — not just the pastels of Makoto’s crush on Hiroka (Akina Minami), a cute, friendly fellow art club member, but the darker shades of his baser impulses as well.

“Colorful” in fact, is so life-as-it-is, with such mundane details as the curriculum of an arts high school Makoto’s parents want him to enter and the history of a vanished streetcar line that Makoto and Saotome (Jingi Irie), a kindly, nerdy classmate, explore, that Honda could have easily made it as a live-action drama with a documentary flavor.

He didn’t, rightly, since the animation serves the story well, despite a certain stiffness dictated by budgetary constraints. At once pictorially realistic (landmarks in its Futako-Tamagawa scenes are clearly identifiable) and emotionally evocative, with characters registering subtle shifts of mood, Honda’s style invites imaginative empathy, rather than cartoonishly doing our feeling for us.

His story, though, drags at some points, repeats itself at others. Also, some of his tropes — such as school bullying and enjo kosai (“paid dating” or teen prostitution) — have become barnacled with cliches over the years, but Honda doesn’t really bring much new to them.

Nonetheless, his portrait of Makoto and his world has the ring of bittersweet truth. Take it from a former teenage jerk.