Director Keiichi Hara’s 2002 animated feature Colorful is an introspective study of life’s impermanence which teaches the value and rarity of human connection.
Mortality is a common theme explored in countless films and texts throughout Japanese culture and history. The Buddhist principle of mono no aware—the transience of being—is often represented by falling cherry blossoms. The Japanese people highly prize these delicate flowers for their beauty and ephemerality, their silent descent to earth encapsulates the notion that one must practice empathy toward all things, as time is fleeting. The Japanese animated feature Colorful (2000) is director Keiichi Hara’s own study of life’s impermanence. As his characters slowly learn to treasure each moment for its rarity, they form valuable human connections that forever alter their lives.
Colorful is a starkly realistic and thoughtful exploration of human flaws, told through the lens of a mysterious lost soul struggling to realize and redeem his former failings. The film delves into the universally challenging themes of misjudgment, rejection, depression, and suicide—subjects rarely explored through the animated medium. Yet beneath its grim tonality, Colorful is a nuanced journey of self-discovery, friendship, and acceptance. The film excels in its depiction of both everyday mundane frustrations and all-too-prevalent terrestrial strife, leaving viewers to question how their lives might impact others.
At first, the audience views the afterlife through the eyes of a nameless soul, one of the many downtrodden, shuffling shoeless toward the door to nothingness. Resigned to sadness, and with memories of his former life evaporated by “the boss,” the entity welcomes an impending, eternal non-existence. A small, grey haired messenger approaches bearing congratulatory news. “You’re the sinful dead soul of one who’s made a terrible error, but you have the chance to go back and try living one more time.” The spirit is apprehensive, and silently expresses that the opportunity merely sounds like a nuisance. As the messenger relays that “the boss” has made his choice, and there is no choice in the matter, viewers plummet from the dull sky along with him, clouds parting as he soars back into the realm of the living. The title shot unveils ‘Colorful’ as the camera pans across an effortlessly radiant tree, its blooms reminiscent of new beginnings, but also of life’s brevity.
As the anonymous spirit awakens, his eyes focus on a tearful crowd hovering over his hospital bed. He views a reflection of himself on a cellphone screen—the face of a troubled middle-school boy who has recently committed suicide. His messenger-turned-guide explains the boy, Makoto, is to be his new identity, and these concerned visitors are his new family. Doctors advise Makoto’s parents to care for his mental health. With a burning chest and nauseous stomach he thinks: “That’s okay, because it’s me now.”
On their way home from the hospital, Makoto and his family drive through hushed neighborhood streets drawn with such realistic banality, the scene weighs heavy in loneliness. Images throughout the film are thoughtfully composed of serene buildings and illusive sunsets, blanketed by the wandering melodies of a solitary piano. These quiet streets and melancholic overtures saturate Makoto’s journey with a tone of lonesome searching.
Although his guide suggests it might be “best to avoid preconceptions and just figure it out yourself,” the soul insists on being told of Makoto’s pre-suicide grievances. After learning of his family’s failings—an unfaithful mother, a weak and drunken father, and a distant brother—he struggles to embrace his second chance, and is quickly swept into Makoto’s prior routine of blaming others for his own unhappiness. Struggling to accept himself, the soul becomes increasingly unable to appreciate anything, or anyone, and begins to lash out on both friends and family. Despite his constant confessions of disdain toward them, the people in his life continue to support him with unconditional love and kindness.
Gradually, Makoto realizes his second chance is leading down a path toward death. Unless his outlook can be altered, Makoto will fail his second chance, and succumb to suicide. As those whom he previously overlooked slowly join the forefront of his attention, Makoto begins to release his hatred and preconceptions to form some unexpected friendships. At the hand of these companions, he comes to understand the weight of his actions and the importance his life. Through a road of sorrow and forgiveness, Colorful shows that human connection can strengthen fragile and damaged hearts.
The film slowly delves into the realm of complex human emotion, and through its careful development of realistically flawed characters, Colorful tasks the audience with a moment of self-reflection.
In this age of hyper-speed pacing and technology lust, Colorful can certainly demand a difficult amount of quiet attention. In doing so, the film demonstrates that the animated medium can be far more than just light-hearted, snack-popping entertainment. Unlike so many western animated features, the film refuses to catapult viewers through outlandishly dramatic adventures and bucket-loads of singing to get its point across. Here, Colorful gradually glides through Makoto’s story, allowing the audience to learn, accept, and grow alongside him. Makoto’s journey to correct past mistakes in order to accept his own identity is a struggle which many people, the world over, have experienced. Overall, Colorful teaches of the enlightenment which comes through acceptance and also stresses the importance of valuing others as well as one’s own self.