On the way home after attending a festival in Hananoyu, Japan, young Oriko "Okko" Seki (voiced by Seiran Kobayashi) loses both her parents in a car accident. Okko miraculously survives thanks to a mysterious ghostly boy who floats away just as she loses consciousness. Sometime later a still brittle and shell-shocked Okko returns to Hananoyu to live with her stern grandmother Mineko (Teiyu Ichiryusai) who runs a traditional Japanese inn or "ryokan" with a small but devoted and kindly staff. There Okko discovers her ghostly saviour Uri-bo (Satsumi Matsuda), who happens to be the spirit of Mineko's childhood friend. Before long she encounters other supernatural beings. Among them a rapacious little "oni" (demon) named Suzuki (Etsuko Kozakura) and Miyo (Rina Endo) a malicious little blonde ghost. For her own mysterious reasons Miyo initially torments Okko relentlessly. Meanwhile at school Okko unwittingly earns the enmity of pink-frill-clad classmate Matsuki (Nana Mizuki), a hoity know-it-all rich girl whose family happen to run a much fancier rival inn. Under the collective influence of these and other assorted characters Okko comes to deal with her grief by devoting herself to the wellness of the many guests that stay at the inn.
Any anime that deals with a little girl interacting with the spirit world whilst working at an inn has to deal with the long shadow cast by Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001). To say nothing of the underrated A Letter to Momo (2011). However Okko's Inn has a fervent fan following of its own in Japan since it is based on a much-loved children's book series penned by Hiroko Reijo and illustrated by Asami. Adapted for the screen by long-time fan favourites Studio Madhouse, who were also behind a twenty-four episode television version released the same year, Okko's Inn is a superior children's anime, distinguished by its sensitive treatment of how kids cope with grief. Even so cultural differences may prove an obstacle for non-Japanese viewers grappling with the characters’ attitudes and behaviour.
The film places a very Japanese emphasis on the importance of duty, social etiquette and above all suppressing one's personal feelings for the benefit of others. Poor little bereaved Okko initially seems to have no agency in this story. In what appears to be only a short time after losing her mom and dad, and with no scene showing her one living relative comforting the child in any way, she is basically bullied into the role of junior innkeeper. Thereafter various misadventures find Okko often at the mercy of not only bossy ghosts and an implacable grandma but arcane rules the child barely comprehends. To a non-Japanese audience it is a little jarring in a Stepford Wives sort of way. Yet these traditional values are an integral facet of Japanese culture and resonate with a local audience.
The arc of the story charts how Okko adjusts to this new environment and gradually learns the rules. A brief glimpse of an album of Mineko's childhood photos charting her own misadventures with Uri-bo hint that life at Hananoyu Inn is cyclical and eternal. Part of a rich tradition that endures in a manner deeply reassuring to a Japanese audience, rather than stifling. Being of use to others helps Okko feel more connected to humanity, easing her grief and setting her on the path to maturity. If some of the life lessons forced on Okko seem a little pat, to the film's credit it counterbalances the more conservative values with a subplot where she bonds with Glory Suiryo (Chiaki Horan), a sexy, sophisticated guest who connects her to a thriving modern world beyond the inn. Along with its cast of appealing, disarmingly complex characters, Okko's Inn crafts a vibrant and richly detailed milieu that serves as an eye-catching backdrop to the heroine’s spiritual journey. All of which culminates in a third act plot twist that proves deeply affecting as it inflicts one last trial on Okko. It should be noted that the English dub is exemplary and thus eminently suitable for younger viewers.