2017 / 46m - Japan
Cocolors poster

There used to be a time when I had it much easier digging up small indie projects like Cocolors, nowadays, it's extremely hit-and-miss. All the more satisfying when something does turn up and lives up to my expectations. Toshihisa Yokoshima's first directorial effort is the type of film that benefits immensely from the creative freedom its creators enjoyed, overcoming any technical and/or budgetary limitations along the way. It is niche material executed with conviction and love, backed by proper talent. A cinematic rarity if there ever was one. Long story short: watch this film if you can.

screen capture of Cocolors

Cocolors has all the bearings of an indie project. It's a mid-length film from a small collective known as Kamikaze Douga that mostly specializes in shorts, anime openings and music videos, it's also part of a larger undertaking (Gasoline Mask) that sports a pretty erratic release record. It's reminiscent of the tactics used by Studio 4°C, who always go to great lengths to push creative and experimental projects beyond their built-in, niche audiences. From the looks of it, Kamikaze Douga has quite a ways to go to get to that level, which I think is why they deserve all the attention they can get right now.

If you want to draw comparisons to other projects, that's quite an easy thing to do. The concept isn't unlike Patema Inverted or Hellevator: The Bottled Fools, the nature of the project reminded me of Kakurenbo and Kai Doh Maru, while the vibe seems to be inspired by films like Kikumana, Tojin Kit or Cannon Fodder. I think you can make a fair case for any of these influences, but Cocolors is also equally unlike any of the films I've just mentioned. It's one of those films where the desperate need to frame it is more likely of a sign of its uniqueness than a sign of it being too derivative.

The story revolves around a society that lives underground. After the eruption of Mt Fuji the surface world has become a dangerously toxic place that had stopped supporting human life. People moved underground and do their best to survive, sending out teams of scouts to look for materials they can salvage. A group of kids dreams of a nicer future, one where color has returned to its world. Aki is a faint-hearted boy who does his best to take care of Fuyu, his mute friend. When Aki is older he is enlisted as a scout, but his fear of the outside world and the overbearing responsibility he faces taking care of Fuyu make his life quite difficult.

screen capture of Cocolors

Cocolors goes for a more oldskool aesthetic, taking cues from traditional Japanese printmaking techniques and mixing them with strong comic book influences. Coupled with a muted color palette and heavy cyber/steampunk-inspired designs, it gives the film an extremely distinctive look that helps to set it apart from more conventional anime. But most surprising off all is that Kamikaze Douga accomplished this using cel shaded animation. It's a really impressive mix of classic and modern elements that elevates the visuals beyond mere technique and aesthetics. While Yokoshima still can't fully hide his budgetary limitations (no doubt they would've gone a lot bigger if they'd had the chance), the result is impressive and establishes the collective as one to keep an eye on.

The soundtrack isn't quite as outspoken, but is used wisely and supports the film where needed. There are quite a few scenes that thrive on sound effects alone, but for a film set in a sullen underground dystopia that's a fitting choice. The rest of the music is stylish, ranging from lighter tunes to underline the dramatic moments to more tribal-like tracks during the rituals, decent music that sets the mood but never quite demands too much attention. The dub on the other hand deserves more explicit praise. For a film that rarely shows a human face (all the characters are wearing masks with reflective coatings) it's important to have a set of good voice actors and Cocolors delivers. Even though the film is short and dialogue is quite limited, characters feel alive and properly fleshed out. That's quite a feat for a smaller indie film like this.

screen capture of Cocolors

Though the setting and overall direction of the plot feels somewhat familiar, Cocolors adds enough characteristic elements (even on top of the styling) to distinguish itself from its sources of inspiration. There's the unique lore that gives personality to the underground society, a mute character than only talks through his flute and a cute motive with a painting that acts as an original driver for the plot. None of these elements are revolutionary by themselves, but combined they create a universe that feels unlike any other, which is quite a feat considering the relatively short time you spend in Cocolors' world.

Some of the best films are the ones that take their limitations and turn them into assets. Cocolors does exactly that. It may not have the support of a big production house, nor the budget to create a long, sprawling adventure, so instead Kamikaze Douga made a compact, slickly and tightly produced film that looks and sounds beautiful, feels original and packs more surprises than your average flagship title. It's a testament to the strength of the anime indie scene, which launched artists like Makoto Shinkai and Yasuhiro Yoshiura. I hope Toshihisa Yokoshima and this team will end up getting the respect they deserve.