There is a certain department store with a very peculiar clientele. It’s not just that it caters to the rich and famous, though many a celebrity, business mogul, and socialite can be spotted browsing the store’s luxury boutiques or strolling the palatial expanses of polished marble. No, there’s something else that sets these customers apart, and it happens to be rather furry—or at times feathery, and upon occasion, even leathery. You see, the clients of the Hokkyoku (North Pole) Department Store are all extinct animals! And when they visit that elite establishment, they bring with them their own particular problems, which it is the duty and privilege of the department store’s human concierges to resolve.
Akino is a Hokkyoku concierge-in-training and today is her first day. She may have a sparkle in her eye and a smile that could melt an iceberg, but she also has the worst sense of timing known to humanity and a propensity for putting her foot in her mouth, figuratively and literally! Experienced concierges Mori and Iwase put Akino to shame with their cool confidence and graceful maneuvering of even the prickliest of clients, while Todo, the exacting floor manager, always seems to catch her at her worst, popping out of the most unexpected places with his beady eyes locked onto her every mistake—which he then notes down on her evaluation form. Even worse, Akino has a tendency to over-promise as she strives to serve the establishment’s clientele, which commits her to some endeavors that she can’t manage on her own. Can the young hopeful win over her colleagues in time to attempt the impossible for the sake of the Very Important Animals?
The Concierge adapts the quirky award-winning manga series by Tsuchika Nishimura, and marks the much-anticipated feature film directorial debut of Yoshimi Itazu. He had previously taken the helm on Satoshi Kon’s last film, The Dreaming Machine, which was stalled by the auteur’s death, but sadly the project never came to fruition. Instead, Itazu makes his premiere as a director with a very different type of film—and an incredibly charming one at that!
This is workplace slice-of-life at its finest, featuring a delightful cast of characters. The anthropomorphism of the clientele strikes just the right balance, infusing these rare (and at times, rarified) animals with enough humanity to render them relatable, but without making them either too cartoony or uncanny in a way that disrupts the suspension of disbelief. As a result, viewers are guaranteed to be swept up in the humor and pathos of the lives of a veritable menagerie of Hokkyoku clients, from the cocky bishounen peacock and his swooning peahen to the irascible monk walrus; the bashful sea otter to the restrained laughing owls; the lovesick Japanese wolf and sweet Barbary lion cub to the beatnik woolly mammoth. Each animal’s storyline is rich in detail and expertly woven together to form a well-paced whole peppered with witty dialogue and heart-warming character moments. Meanwhile, character designs by Chiyo Morita and the stellar character acting produced by the animation team bring these animals to life.
This holds true for the human cast members as well, particularly when it comes to Akino’s expansive slapstick gestures, which never fail to land—and least in terms of delivering laughs, if not always achieving her intent! Also worthy of note are the concierges’ hairstyles, which capture their personalities to a T: the unflappable Mori, with her sleek should length bob and side swept bangs, and smooth-talking Iwase, whose coif is caught in energetic suspended animation as she continually swoops in to the rescue. Eye-catching color design and flawless voice acting round things off nicely, while an original score by tofubeats adds the cherry on top. The Concierge may look quite different from the realist animation style viewers have come to expect from Production I.G, but the signature attention to detail and high-quality production for which the studio is renowned nevertheless shine through here—with added brightness!
And this is very much the theme of the film, this brightness. Although The Concierge spotlights an array of extinct animals and points out the fact that the majority of extinctions have coincided with the rise of human consumerism and the advent of the department store, the significance of this correlation is left to the viewer to ponder—or ignore. Is the department store’s intense focus on serving these lost species a type of penance? Is Hokkyoku a purgatory of sorts, perhaps, where humans must make amends? It remains a mystery, as the story is confined to the walls of the department store and to a mere 69 minutes as well. There are only so much world-building and backstory that can fit into just over an hour. Yet, it must be said that every minute is used well. I just wish there were more of them!
So, what to make of Itazu’s debut? The Concierge may not be what viewers would expect of the animation director who worked so closely with Satoshi Kon and nearly picked up his mantle. The creative layouts and dynamic animation are there, certainly, and the film is delightfully fantastical, but that’s the key: this is fundamentally a light-hearted work, a gentle story, which is not something one would ever say of Kon’s oeuvre. Instead, it is clear that Itazu is carving his own path—one where the humor is spot on and the charm is palpable. Which puts me in mind of another famous auteur-apprentice duo from the heyday of avant-garde silent cinema: Sergei Eisenstein and his assistant director, Grigorii Aleksandrov. While the former excelled in the kind of formal experimentation that has left its fingerprints on cinema to this day (including the work of Kon), the latter did not follow in his sensei’s footsteps but rather became a master of comedy. And although Aleksandrov may not be a household name today, let me just say that if Itazu is heading in the same way, then we’re in for a real treat! Humor is, after all, the best medicine.
Hokkyoku Hyakkaten no Concierge-san (The Concierge) premieres in Japan on October 20, 2023. No word yet on the English language release, though it has been subtitled and was, in this reviewer’s opinion, the highlight of the Annecy International Animation Film Festival this past June!