Once upon a time a wealthy but ailing, embittered and cantankerous old man named Onuki (an unrecognizable Koji Yakusho) winds up in a very strange hospital. A candy-coloured hospital with living décor, where it is not uncommon for a nurse to sprout vampire fangs to feed on human blood or the chief of surgery suddenly morph into Peter Pan. Surrounded by musical oddballs and fourth-wall-breaking weirdos, Onuki vents his frustration and anger on staff and patients including a sad drag queen and a suicidal former child actor haunted by the ghosts of his past roles. One day while sitting on a garden bench Onuki is joined by Paco (Ayaka Wilson), a friendly, angelic little girl. She asks him to read from her favourite children's book, 'The Toad Prince.' Enduring an awful amount of verbal and physical abuse, Paco somehow gets him to read her the story. The next day Onuki runs into Paco again, only the child cheerfully maintains she does not know who he is. Mistaking Paco's behaviour for play-acting, Onuki is so enraged he punches her in the face!
Horrified nurses and residents separate the ranting old man from the sobbing child. Whereupon Onuki learns Paco suffers a freak medical condition. After surviving the accident that killed her parents, her memory was severely impaired. Each day Paco wakes up with no memory of the day before. Sure enough, the very next morning, she sits down, smiling and cheerful besides Onuki and asks him to read her The Toad Prince. On learning the truth Onuki, for the first time in his life, feels ashamed.
Not too many family films would dare include a scene where an angry old man punches a child in the face. Not least a little girl as angelically sweet and lovely as title character as portrayed by Ayaka Wilson. Then again not many family films are like Paco and the Magic Book, a decidedly oddball yet poetic and disarmingly moving children's fantasy from cult director Tetsuya Nakashima, better known for his hyper-stylized dramas Memories of Matsuko (2006) and Kamikaze Girls (2004). Styled like a pop-up storybook the eye-popping visuals come across like an unhinged fusion of Amélie and Moulin Rouge (both 2001) by way of P.J. Hogan's version of Peter Pan (2003). Crazy, surreal and wildly overstuffed, the deliberately kitschy visuals combine Dr. Seuss-like stylized sets, over-saturated colours, animation, numerous allusions to vintage anime, hyperactive camera moves and actors that pitch their performances at a level of hysteria unseen outside of kids TV or else drag queen theatre. Every supporting character is cartoon wacky with ridiculous haircuts and fourth-wall-breaking attitudes. Meanwhile the plot, adapted from a stage-play by acclaimed theater writer Hirohito Goto, proves akin to a child's re-imagining of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)!
Those looking for something a little different will relish Nakashima's wondrously wacky whimsy. Others may well find it insufferable. Yet beneath the film's self-consciously zany, candy-coloured artifice lie raw emotions, disarmingly faceted characters and a sincere belief in the inspirational power of storytelling. The moment Onuki strikes Paco is jarring and unpleasant to watch but crucial to the story. Like a princess in a fairytale Paco is under a spell. Slowly through interacting with a contrite, shamefaced Onuki she starts to recover her sense of self while the old man in turn regains his heart. Acclaimed actor Koji Yakushi invests Onuki with the same level of intensity he brought to his many art-house dramas while mixed race child star Ayaka Wilson is thoroughly engaging as the sweet yet delusional Paco. Her sweetness and innocence stand out amidst the gallery of Carrollian grotesques.
While far from subtle, Paco and the Magical Book proves affecting and sincere. What unfolds is a remarkable allegory about the basic human need to leave something behind us after we die, something that will endure as proof of our presence on this earth. On a technical level the film routinely dazzles. In particular the climactic Toad Prince re-enactment sequence which stands as a brilliantly edited mix of computer animation and live action goofing around in funny costumes, of endearingly silly comedy and heartfelt, moving drama.