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Friday, July 27, 2007

KAPPA NO COO TO NATSUYASUMI

'Kappa no Coo to Natsuyasumi'

There's this kappa in my 'hood


Movie reviewers come in two broad categories — the ones who try to write truthfully about films, even if the director is a best buddy, and the ones who let personal factors, such as the free lunch from a PR guy, influence their judgment. The two can overlap, though, as I discovered when I went to a documentary about director Teruo Ishii — and saw myself on the screen, introducing Ishii to the audience at the 2003 Udine Far East Film Festival. That shock of recognition, as well as my affection for Ishii, didn't keep me from reviewing "Ishii Teruo Club," but I did issue a spoiler alert — telling readers the film wasn't spoiled just because I happened to be in it.

Kappa no Coo to Natsuyasumi Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Kappa no Coo to Natsuyasumi
Keiichi Hara's animation "Kappa no Coo to Natsuyasumi"

Director: Keiichi Hara
Running time: 140 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 28, 2007
[See Japan Times movie listing]

I had a similar experience with "Kappa no Coo to Natsuyasumi (Summer Days with Coo)," Keiichi Hara's anime about a family's encounter with a kappa — a mythological creature that might be described as a Japanese leprechaun, if leprechauns could swim like a frog, sumo wrestle like sumo grand champion Asashoryu and absorb water through a little bowl in their head, like a scaly coffee filter. Not that I know Hara personally, though he has been proclaimed an anime master by fans, critics and colleagues for his work on the "Crayon Shinchan," "Doraemon" and other series. (He has been known to drop out of sight for weeks and months at a time to bum around the world, with Southeast Asia being a favorite destination.)

No, my connection with the film is geographical — much of it is set in my town, Higashi Kurume, including my morning jogging course.

Located in western Tokyo, on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line, Higashi Kurume usually draws a blank when I mention it to foreigners, even ones who have lived in Tokyo for years. Many assume I have buried myself in a dull, faceless bedtown (while they live the urban high life in a six-mat flat in Harajuku). The place, however, has its charms, among which are two small rivers — the Kuromegawa and Ochiaigawa — that bisect it and whose banks are lined with bike paths, masses of flowers and much greenery, which the city cuts several times yearly to keep the bug population down. The rivers are also home to many ducks, carp and other creatures, though kappa are probably not among them.

So my first thought on learning about the film's setting was "if this thing is a hit, property values are going to go up," which immediately put me in the second, grubbier category of reviewers.

Should I have recused myself from writing about "Coo?" Maybe, but the film, which Hara spent five years making, is that rarity in the anime world: a mass-audience entertainment made as, not a cog in a marketing machine, but a labor of love, with the focus on quality, not formula. One comparison is with Studio Ghibli, whose animators have reportedly raved about "Coo," but Hara's imagination is more solidly rooted in the here-and-now than that of Ghibli auteur Ha-yao Miyazaki, whose Japanese and European settings tend to morph into Miyazaki Land. But he has a Miyazaki-like talent for bringing common fantasies and dreams to vibrant, spine-chilling life. And Miyazaki-like, his characters are, not sparkly cute, but have specks of grit in their natures, from pettiness to selfishness, that aren't all scrubbed away by the end.

Hara also shares Miyazaki's skill at depicting the natural world — and his understanding of its beauty, mystery and fragility. Biking around the neighborhood after seeing "Coo," I realized that my eyes had been dulled by familiarity. Yes, Hara and his animators have improved on reality — making even moldy gray stucco look atmospheric, but they have also more deeply appreciated what remains of what might be called old, original Higashi Kurume that many of its natives are ready pour concrete over.

Hara's hero is Koichi Uehara (voiced by Takahiro Yokogawa), a boy who finds a mysterious stone on the bank of the Kuromegawa, which looks like a fossil inside. But when he takes it back home and washes it, while chasing away his annoying little sister (Tamaki Matsumoto) and trying to placate his dubious mother (Naomi Nishida), green limbs pop out, woken from a 300-year sleep. They belong to a boy kappa (Kazato Tomisawa), who saw his father cut down by a frightened samurai and, as he was trying to escape from the murderer's blade, fell into a crack opened by an earthquake.

With the help of his kappa-conversant dad (Naoki Tanaka), Koichi slowly brings the kappa back to the land of the living and dubs him "Coo" for the first sound he uttered. Coo, it turns out, can speak slightly antiquated Japanese, toss Koichi and even Dad in sumo bouts, and eat pretty much anything put in front of him, including sis's pet snails. Koichi sleeps with him, takes him on tours of the neighborhood in his knapsack and otherwise does what he can to keep Coo thriving and happy, but the kappa is lonely. There seems to be no one like him in Higashi Kurume — and Koichi and his family, fearing for his safety, discourage him from independent exploration.

One day Koichi and Coo set out by train for Tono, a town in Iwate Prefecture in the far north of Japan known for its kappa lore. If any kappa remain in Japan surely they must be somewhere in Tono's lush green paddies and sparkling rivers?

There is much more to the story, including the uneasy relationship between Koichi and a shy-but-pretty classmate, and the depredations of the anything-for-a-scoop mass media, so much so that "Coo" would have benefited from judicious cuts. But it's hard to blame Hara for wanting to realize his thoroughly imagined world as completely as possible — especially since I happen to be living in it. But I honestly feel you'll enjoy "Coo," even minus a house in Higashi Kurume — emphasis on "honestly."



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