Missed Chances in Colorful

I really, really wish Colorful were a better movie than it is. The kind of movie that Colorful is trying to be is a great idea – a painful, intimate portrait of depression, where any slight hints of the supernatural are really just there to better illustrate the context of the protagonist’s life. A movie that fully embodies the mindset of feeling divorced from happiness, and the reality of an unhappy adolescence. Colorful works somewhat better in retrospect, but even looking back on its trials, it’s a messy, awkward movie, one too caught up in its own bitterness and too hamstrung by its conceit to really invite the audience in. But it certainly tries to be something.


The film stars Makoto Kobayashi, or more precisely, the soul that is occupying Makoto Kobayashi. Makoto himself overdosed on pills after simultaneously learning his crush was engaging in compensated dating and his mother was having an affair – the current Makoto is another spirit brought back from the hereafter, who’s being given a chance to make up for past misdeeds by fixing Makoto’s life. And so the first parts of this movie involve a whole lot of new-Makoto attempting to piece together the context of his previous owner’s life, and find a new place in a world he doesn’t understand.

This meta-conflict is a feint, in the end, and I’m going to spoil this ending because not only is it not a surprise, but it’s the only thing that makes sense of the movie. Makoto is still Makoto – the “new soul” embodying Makoto’s body is the same as the old Makoto, he just doesn’t remember that. The supernatural elements here are just a metaphor, and actually a pretty clever one, one that digs sharply into the nature of depression. New-Makoto finds other people to be constantly surprised by his behavior, which they describe as “un-Makoto-like” – but you don’t have to have had your soul replaced to experience something similar to this. This experience is a part of depression – when you find yourself wondering whatever you enjoyed in the things you used to care about, and friends and family stare at you as if you’re some stranger who’s taken the place of a person they loved. It’s cold and isolating and a generally terrible feeling, but at that point, feeling itself isn’t something you can really touch. You feel like you’re living under glass, and the world around you doesn’t matter enough to be real.


That fundamental metaphor is a strong one, but in practice, it’s actually one of the main issues that hobbles this movie. By framing new-Makoto as a separate character, his actions don’t come off as the understandable consequences of a sequential descent into depression; they come off as the idle fancies of a huge asshole. When new-Makoto learns his “mother” was having an affair, he doesn’t investigate this issue further; he simply decides to hate her then and there, and from then on makes the mother’s already difficult life a living hell.

Makoto’s fundamental dickishness extends far beyond his relationship with his mother, which is at least understandable in retrospect. The film also continuously draws a grand contrast between Makoto’s cute classmate that he has a crush on and his frumpy one that seems actually interested in him. The portrayal of both of these characters is so heavy-handed that it ends up making me feel disgusted not just with Makoto, but with the actual writer and director of the film. The film plays up the “annoyingness” of Makoto’s frumpy classmate in such a way that it only makes him seem unlikable, and it being clear the film is eventually going to say “ah, but she was actually nice after all” just makes the staff seem shallow. She doesn’t need a scene to “redeem” her – she’s a perfectly reasonable person from the start, in spite of the film’s efforts to sabotage her presence.


And in contrast, Makoto’s crush Hiroka is framed as the “pretty but shallow” girl, whose participation in compensated dating slots her into the same “untrustworthy woman” category as the mother. At the film’s halfway point, Makoto’s “heroic efforts” to save this girl from herself end with her brightly saying she’d be willing to sleep with him for money as well, essentially double-cross-underlining Makoto’s tragedy in a way that just makes the writer seem like someone who’s never looked closely at anyone outside of himself.

Which is likely this film’s fundamental problem. While I am certainly a fan of shows like Evangelion, Monogatari, or Oregairu, which star deeply flawed and self-involved people, I am less a fan of shows that seem to be written by the protagonists of shows like that. Colorful does not express the greater understanding and empathy of someone who’s escaped from Makoto’s situation and then returned to reflect on it – it expresses the exact understanding of someone in Makoto’s position, who sees everyone around him as either bad or vehicles for his own redemption, and sees life itself as a game of actual wins and losses. “You feel like you carried the sadness of the world with you” says Makoto’s unwanted friend at one point, to which he replies “no junior high kid is like that.” That line feels like a thought coming not from Makoto, but from the author of this movie – who himself feels not like an adult, but like a highschooler with just enough distance to think his own depression is unimpeachably profound.


On top of those message issues, the film is just not well-constructed. In spite of its title, it’s not a particularly visually engaging film – even the moments that are supposed to demonstrate the occasional beauty of the world aren’t particularly beautiful, and most of the film looks simply muddy and washed-out. The direction isn’t particularly inspired, and for a feature film the animation is downright terrible, complete with some deeply misguided sequences of traditionally animated characters running over flat, affected-photograph backgrounds. And as far as the writing goes, this is the kind of film that has its protagonist make a dramatic third-act speech about the meaning of “colorful,” a speech which is then played back in a “remember when you talked about ‘colorful’” fashion directly to the audience, three minutes before the end.

Colorful is a plodding, vindictive, and deeply messy film. There are highlights here – the scenes of Makoto making a real friend are good, and the sequence where he finally reconnects with his family is legitimately cathartic. But those moments are exceptions in a larger frame defined by missed opportunities. I would very much like to see the movie Colorful is trying to be. But this is not that film.

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One thought on “Missed Chances in Colorful

  1. Thanks for the thoughts! I appreciated the film significantly more than you did, despite its structural idiosyncrasies and unfortunate narrative shortcomings, for two reasons, one personal and one aesthetic/social.

    Personally, I’ve been in the position of Makoto’s acquaintances, watching a close friend succumb to a depression that totally overwrote his normally kind and compassionate character. Watching Colorful, I find myself and my many failures of empathy in all the Others whose small flaws are blown up by Makoto’s inability to connect with the world around him. Thus I can’t agree that the film feels like some kind of paean to the Nobly Oppressed Depressive—its commitment to detailing the ugliness and pettiness of human beings in their darkest moments is far too purposeful for that. Instead, it’s an opportunity to see myself from the opposite perspective, and I think the film is morally praiseworthy, or at any rate not deserving of condemnation, for demanding of its audience the ability to empathize with people seen only through the most negative perspective possible.

    Aesthetically, yes, the film is ugly—which is the point, and which is why I love it as an antidote to the passion-fueled, “youth shall overcome!” literally colorful schlock comprising 99.9% of school-based anime. Particularly outstanding are the character designs for Shoko (the “frumpy girl”) and Saotome, Makoto’s friend, who look exactly like a few kids I’ve known. I’ve lived in Japan for some time now (holy crap, almost four years already!), and I can tell you, for a frightening majority of junior-higher and high-school kids, this is the mirror of their existence: relentlessly repetitive, filled with things they don’t want to do, ridden with people known by titles like sempai and kohai and iinchou with whom genuine connection is impossible, and promising only the skull-crushing drudgery of life as a corporate drone after graduation. (The three most common phrases I’ve overheard in Japan from teenagers are “面倒くさい,” meaning “this is a pain,” “分かんないよ,” meaning “I don’t get it!” or “I don’t get why I gotta do this!” and “もう嫌!” meaning “I’m sick of this!”) Colorful perfectly captures the listless ennui [redundant –ed.] that defines the average Japanese youth, and is unafraid to examine it honestly even as it finds some small hope for redemption in the daily grind.

    In short: Colorful is a deeply unpleasant film, but in its distastefulness is its genius. You can interpret it as whiny, like the kids it examines, or you can interpret it as authentic—and honestly I think it’s both—but I feel it’s a mistake to dismiss it as merely self-serving or conceited, both because it accurately reflects a reality its nation’s popular culture chooses blissfully to ignore and because it examines the utterly ignoble side of depression in a way few other films have. Although I have nothing against art as escapism—escape is an important function of art—I also think it’s important to have nasty pieces of work like this to show us the pettiness of human nature (as opposed to praising the abstract ideal of human potential, which is what most “redemption” in narrative art comes down to). And in that respect, I think it’s exactly the flawed movie about flawed people it was “trying to be”—selfish, brutal, demanding too much of its audience, and without genuine catharsis (which would undermine its whole project). Truly no masterpiece… but also not a “missed opportunity”!

    (Or would you argue that it’s incumbent upon art to provide some kind of redemption or salvation? I had an English lit prof—a brilliant man, much smarter than I—who believed this firmly, and maintained that Lear’s fourth-act reconciliation with Cordelia was, in fact, the point of the play, since only by that redemptive climax could King Lear be “great art.” I, of course, held that the beautiful moment—I still cry every time I hit, “I think this lady to be my child Cordelia”—served a larger function in the narrative to increase the utter, blasting devastation of the play’s climax, Lear being a story about “ruination” and the end of hope. With whom would you side?)

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