By Jonathan Clements.
Koichi Uehara (Takahiro Yokokawa) is the only kid in town who isn’t going somewhere exotic for the holidays. His friends are off to Hokkaido and Bali, but he’s stuck in boring old Tokyo. Even a trip to the grandparents’ place is hardly exotic, as they only live a few miles away in Saitama. But just as My Neighbor Totoro was a virtual vacation for a latchkey kid, Summer Days with Coo delivers a magical experience for the Tokyo teen stuck looking out the window all through July. Koichi finds a rock by the river, which turns out to contain the hibernating body of a kappa – a Japanese water sprite. He brings the beaked, turtle-like creature home…
Dad (comedian Naoki Tanaka) is easily swayed by the prospect of a new pet. Mum (Naomi Nishida) is less keen. Sister Hitomi (Tamaki Matsumoto) hates the idea of a water sprite sloshing around the house, and it’s through her, gossiping about it to her schoolfriends, that the story gets out that the Uehara family is harbouring a creature from Japanese folklore.
Summer Days with Coo (2007) marked a crucial watershed in the career of Keiichi Hara, a director who had toiled for more than twenty years in the trenches of commercial anime. He had worked on Doraemon and Esper Mami in the 1980s, and spent an entire decade as the show-runner on Crayon Shin-chan, a scabrous and successful TV show about a dreadful five-year-old child. Thanks to Doraemon and Shin-chan, Hara the TV journeyman had made the jump to feature films, helming over a dozen cinema hits through the 1990s and into the noughties. However, for all that time he had cherished a notion of making the film he wanted – something based not on a manga, but on a novel. It took years, but Hara finally persuaded his hosts at the Shin-Ei animation studio to let him get to work on an adaptation of two children’s books about a water-sprite that might be the last of its kind.
It’s plain to see that the folkloric origin of the kappa (“river child”) is rooted somewhere deep in the Japanese past, when children were entertained with tales about that errant splash in the nearby river not being an otter, or a monkey or a vole, but in fact being a water sprite. Kappa are mischievous tricksters, but mostly harmless, not the least because they can rarely stray far from the water’s edge. If a kappa does venture onto land, it needs to keep a spoonful of water in the bowl-shaped depression in the top of its head. The way to deal with a kappa is usually to capitalise on its obsession with politeness – bow to one and it will bow in return, inevitably spilling the water supply from its head and sending it scurrying back to the river. You can also, if necessary, scare them off by farting in their general direction. Although they are commonplace characters in children’s entertainment, you are most likely to run into them today in a sushi bar, since kappamaki, the cucumber roll, derives its name from the water-rich plant being one of the kappa’s favourite foods. That, at least, is what Japanese parents tell their kids – nothing to do with it being the cheapest thing on the menu.
The city of Tono, where Koichi travels at the midpoint of the film, already has a reputation in Japan as the “city of folklore”, ever since the famous mythographer Kunio Yanagita published his Tales of Tono (1910, Tono Monogatari). Collecting several hundred local legends, Tales of Tono was a stepping stone towards Yanagita’s investigations into diverse folklore from all over Japan, but firmly put Tono on the map. To this day, the town is festooned with images of kappa in reference to the five kappa tales Yanagita uncovered, alongside other legends also referenced in the film. The Jokenji temple in Tono faces a waterway called the Kappabuchi, which has become the mecca of would-be kappa-watchers. Less often discussed in tourist literature are Yanagita’s speculations about the misogynistic use of kappa in local folklore – that women who gave birth to disabled or deformed children were blamed for having carried a kappa’s child.
The fact that Tono got into print first has allowed the town’s tourist board to claim a kind of kappa cachet. Every little helps in a Japan scrambling to find anything at all to justify a night in a local hotel for domestic tourism – we might file Summer Days with Coo as cunning tourist bait, designed to lure visitors to Tono in much the same way that the later A Letter to Momo (2011) chronicled the myths and legends of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. Not that Iwate Prefecture is short of celebrity residents – Koichi gets off the bullet train at Shin Hanamaki, home not only to Night on the Galactic Railroad’s Kenji Miyazawa, but also to Birthday Wonderland’s Sachiko Kashiwaba!
Kappa, of course, are not unique to the Tono region – Yanagita would go on to find tales about them dotted all over the Japanese islands, including the old Tokyo entertainment district of Asakusa, where a kappa’s mummified arm is supposedly kept as a holy relic at the Sogenji temple. It is also known as kappa-dera (the kappa temple), and backs onto Kappabashi (kappa bridge), which Tokyo cognoscenti may know better as the place to buy all your discount kitchenware. However, much of this Tokyo folklore is based on a 19th century misunderstanding.
Asakusa entrepreneur Kihachi Kappaya, an umbrella and raincoat merchant, invested heavily in an embankment scheme to hold off the frequent flooding of the nearby Sumida River. His surname, which has nothing to do with water sprites beyond a chance pun, came to be associated with the area, with all things watery, and with schemes to hold back Tokyo’s swampy origins. By the time he died and was buried at the Sogenji in 1814, he was known as Kappaya Kawataro, a jumble of damp allusions tantamount to calling him Sloppy Joe or Amphibian Andrew. At some point, his interment at the temple was garbled into an idea that the Sogenji was somehow associated with kappa, and today worshippers can be found leaving cucumbers there to placate the mischievous sprites.
Nevertheless, kappa have been a perennial favourite in Japanese children’s books, including the works of Masao Kogure (1939-2007) a prominent children’s author who served a long period as the head of the Japan Children’s Literature Association for much of the 1990s. A Kappa’s Gift and A Kappa’s Surprise Journey were two of his best-known books, although the author seems to have been somewhat surprised when Keiichi Hara travelled to his home in west Tokyo and announced that he wanted to adapt them into an animated film. Kogure agreed, on the understanding that anything would be a benefit if it brought his 1978 and 1980 stories back into the public eye. However, Kogure passed away from lung cancer shortly before the film’s premiere, leaving Hara to dedicate it to his memory.
Summer Days with Coo is an obscure work in Hara’s career. He had spent 20 years chasing the project, sometimes sneaking elements of it into his other work as test footage and experiments – sharp-eyed viewers may notice the resemblance, for example, between Coo’s scene at the Tokyo Tower and a similar sequence in Crayon Shin-chan: The Adult Empire Strikes Back (2001). At the time of its release, Coo was over-shadowed by Hara’s earlier work on the long-running Shin-chan franchise, even though it was only his box office success with Shin-chan that persuaded backers to take a chance on him. Coo, alongside Hara’s under-rated Colorful (2010), seems to exist unnoticed, in a state of limbo between Hara’s stepping away from the lucrative Shin-chan job, and his international acclaim with Miss Hokusai (2015). Nevertheless, in its day it found a lot of people to love it, particularly in Gunma prefecture, the home of its original author, where local schools block-booked trips to the cinema, as well as in the west Tokyo districts along the real-life Kurome River and up in Iwate Prefecture, in the legendarily kappa-friendly town of Tono. By the time the film went on national release, it had already notched up over a hundred enthusiastic online reviews, mainly from gung-ho Gunma residents.
Ironically, however, the film did not take place in a recognisable Gunma location. Hara exploited the reputation of Kogure as a Gunma boy made good, and indeed his own connections as a Gunma native, but the town featured in the film itself is Higashikurume, the suburb in west Tokyo where author Kogure moved in later life, a stone’s throw from the location of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Totoro Forest.” Hara claimed to have fallen in love with the vistas of the Kurome River on his trip to talk to Kogure about the rights, leading to a film crammed with real-life scenes from Tokyo suburbia. This necessitated some backpedalling in the studio, since not all the cast got the memo. Folk-singer Kenichi Nagira, who briefly appears as Coo’s father, had rehearsed his role in the expectation he would need to sound like someone from northern Japan (i.e. from Tono), but was told to rein in the regional accent in favour of something that could conceivably sound like old-time Tokyo.
As director and screenwriter, Keiichi Hara’s work on the project displays a certain rookie enthusiasm, as if he feared this would be his only chance to ever make a feature film on his own terms. Just one of Kogure’s novels might have been enough material for a movie, but Hara insisted on cramming two in a single feature, which led to his original storyboards topping out at 800 pages. Even after cuts to bring down the running time, the first set of animatics was timed at two hours and fifty minutes, forcing Hara to drop another half-hour of material, some of which had already been shot. The removed scenes mainly came from the second act, which features a series of short vignettes of Coo interacting with the Uehara family, and several scenes revolving around Coo’s appearance on Tokyo television. In all his subsequent anime feature work, Hara has delegated scripting duties to the veteran scenarist Miho Maruo, possibly in recognition of her ability to streamline complex source material into a concise dramatic work.
In a surprisingly modern touch, echoing many a Studio Ghibli eco-fable, the kappa have been pushed out of their natural habitat not merely by the onset of modernity (a recurring theme in supernatural stories from Shigeru Mizuki’s manga on down), but by corrupt officials. The two samurai encountered in the pre-credits sequence are discussing the fact that they are illegally developing agricultural land. We see Coo’s father vainly trying to buy them off with a gift of food, unaware that his simple, village-barter way of negotiating has been overwhelmed by the concerns of an increasingly industrialising world. It has now been at least two centuries since the events of the opening of the film, which would place them right at the end of the Tokugawa period, around the time of Hara’s later Miss Hokusai, when the samurai themselves were fated to fade into history.
So, too, however, are the kappa. In a surprisingly violent opening for what is supposed to be a children’s story, Coo’s father is slain by samurai who fear he has rumbled their scheme, and Coo is immured by the earthquake that hits shortly afterwards. He wakes up to find Japan changed beyond all recognition – his former home, the Dragon Swamp, is now a block of flats.
Elements of the original story’s 1970s mindset can still be discerned – not the least an ESP subplot that Hara could surely have whipped out to save some running time, in which Ossan the dog suddenly speaks with the voice of Yoshito Yasuhara, better known in Japan as a local dubbing actor for Mickey Rourke, Mel Gibson, and Tim Roth. The story has also dated a little in the way it casually dismisses so many female characters – Koichi’s classmate Sayoko, the butt of many a teenage joke, and his sister Hitomi, who is an irritating brat, but so would you be if your every wish was countermanded by the men of the family.
Close to the surface of the film are some other hot-button social issues – particularly bullying and social exclusion. Sayoko is constantly being pushed around by both the girls and boys at school. Ossan the dog has a sad story of his own to tell, about his mistreatment at the hands of his first owner. As the news spreads of the kappa at Koichi’s house, the entire Uehara family become victims of a new sort of bullying – press harassment.
Flickering at the edges of Hara’s script treatment is a melancholy consideration of how much has been lost of the Japanese past. Recalling similar musings in Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko (1994), Coo the kappa is a part of priceless Japanese heritage, hounded out of his natural habitat, orphaned by monstrous humans, and hunted through the streets with a price on his head.
Hara remained intimately attached to Coo even after the film was released, putting together a 141-minute special edition adding three minutes that had been cut from the original theatrical release, along with details of the missing subplots. In 2010, he cast Coo’s voice actor Kazuto Tomizawa as the lead in his next feature, Colorful. In 2013, five years after Coo was released, he collaborated with his regular script partner, Miho Maruo, on the novel Summer for Coo in Year Six, a sequel to the original in which Koichi, now a second-year high-school student, looks back on the carefree summer-times of his youth.
The novel was written in the shadow of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami, and finds Coo, in disguise as a human, working to help in the disaster relief efforts. The older Koichi’s bus journey in search of him forms a framing device for the reminiscences in the middle, which amount to a novelisation of the events of the movie, in which Hara finally gets to use all his deleted scenes – sometimes literally, since the book was illustrated by the film’s chief animator Yuichiro Sueyoshi. Some reviewers complained that, lacking pronunciation guidelines for the more difficult words, the novel was hardly a children’s book, although considering its treatment of death, bereavement, animal abuse and corruption, perhaps Summer Days with Coo was never really just a “children’s movie,” either.