At the Japan Media Arts Festival yesterday, I attended a screening of Summer Days with Coo / クウと夏休み, a charming film about a fourth-grader who befriends a Kappa.
Kappas are mythical Japanese water sprites, surprisingly strong for their size and completely at home in water. They're often used as a cautionary tale to keep Japanese kids away from the local ponds ("Don't go swimming in that pond, or the Kappa will get you!") and are famed for their trickery. Also, they have a wet spot in the middle of the top of their head, which they have to keep moist in order to stay alive.
The film is classic 2D animation, and while the story isn't epic in any way -- it's almost entirely concerned with Coo and his host family -- it's touching. It does open with a Finding-Nemo-like scene of Coo's trauma, but in general it's in the same vein as "My Neighbor Totoro," just a little less compelling all around.
The animation ranges from awesome (there's a beautifully animated Chinese dragon in the middle of the movie) to awful (some of the interactions with other kids at the end are just disturbingly off-model), but overall the story is well-told. It's too bad the rest of the world doesn't know what Kappa are: the storytelling is completely international, but if you don't know about Kappa a lot of the scenes will be a little mysterious.
Ironically, that wasn't the film we went to the festival to watch. We went there to see a very different film that showed just before Coo: Koji Yamamura's "A Country Doctor," a very trippy piece of surrealistic animation based on Kafka's story. It was well-executed in its own way, and intellectually the visuals were worth watching. However, it was the opposite of Coo in that it doesn't function very well as a piece of entertainment -- you have to watch it for the sake of the visuals.