In Japan, it’s said that if a previously prized item has been abandoned for over 100 years, it comes to life, developing it’s own soul, born from the tragedy of it’s loneliness. If this is true, then you can only imagine the kind of forlorn souls that haunt your average antique shop. Of course, you don’t have to imagine it if you get a job at one of these locations, like Eiri Kurahashi does when he takes a job at his Grandfather’s shop to help pay his way through art school. Honestly, it’s not such a bad job, either. He works near his friends, a lovely young woman often rents the space outside for her tarot card readings, and all he really has to deal with is his grandfather’s compulsive purchases, as the worldly old man is constantly buying up antiques on his travels to sell at his shop for obscene and mostly arbitrary price markups.
One day, he receives a piece from his Grandfather’s trip to Europe, and while it looks like a simple piece of furniture at first, he soon finds out that the piece contains two hidden items… The first is a lovely glass chalice whose rim is tinted with an enchanting swirl of colors, and the second is an exquisite painting of a little white girl, dressed up in gothic lolita clothing like a porcelain doll. Eiri quickly starts to lose himself in this glass, and not too long afterward, he begins to see that same little girl moving around inside of the glass, presenting him with a glimpse into many different moments of her young life, from the innocent to the sad, and to make matters more bizarre, she seems to be completely aware of his presence… Whatever he’s seeing, it’s undeniably what she wants him to see, but the lovestruck Eiji may not be feeling what she wants him to feel. As he continues to get drawn deeper and deeper into the haunted chalice’s mystery, and he uncovers more and more about a centuries old crime, can his body survive the strain that this new liaison is taking on his soul?
Le Portrait de Petite Cossette was produced by the animation company Daume, which I’ve only spoken about once before, but that was before I started to adopt a consistent structure in my reviews, so I didn’t mention it at the time. For the record, that anime was Shiki, and the similarities are there, although thank God Cossette doesn’t have the same wacky design problems. Daume unfortunately didn’t exist for very long, as it was only active between 1999 and 2010, but from the few titles I have seen, their priorities seem to be pumping out trashy low budget ecchi shows, and saving the bulk of their money for more serious projects, like this, Shiki, and Strawberry Marshmallow, and with these titles, they put a lot of money and effort into animation quality and background detail, creating as realistic and immersive a tone as possible for the stories and characters that people will actually care about, leaving the titty shows that people will watch anyway to suffer the short end of the stick, and I can definitely respect that.
Alternatively, when it comes to Cossette’s visual style, it looks far more like a product of it’s director than it does it’s production company. Akiyuki Shinbou has a rather controversial reputation among anime fans, and while Cossette was his only real undertaking for Daume, he’s spent the majority of his career working for Studio Shaft, where his eclectic visual style has become synonymous with his name. He’s built his career on using strange, unorthodox cinematography to make dialogue scenes look just weird and off-putting enough to distract the viewer from noticing just how little is actually going on in said scenes, and he’s been called pretentious because of this trend… And not unfairly, either, it’s a label he well deserves. His other constant quirk is that he likes to present female characters, especially underage ones, in sexually appealing poses, regardless of what kind of tone the project is going for. His direction was, interestingly enough, one of the biggest criticisms that Madoka Magika received.
Having said all that, his visual trademarks can be used for good. His style added a lot of depth to EF: A Tale of Memories and it’s sequel, but even further back, he did a fantastic job on Le Petite Cossette. There are a lot of visual effects in this production that feel essential to the story, such as intense shadow play and intricate lighting, as well as a lot of CG glass effects and dream like backgrounds, and I honestly can’t think of any other anime director with the broad vision and even broader scope of imagination to pull it off as well as Shinbou does. His unorthodox visual style doesn’t feel wasted or arbitrary here, as it’s a story about art that’s being presented in as artistically daring a way as possible, and there’s some kind of meaning, no matter how small, that can be inferred from every off kilter shot of it. This is of course not to say the series was low budget, or anything… In the moments that rely on traditional movement, it looks fine. It doesn’t look cheaply made, or like they were struggling, or anything like that. I don’t know if i’d call this the best looking piece of Shinbou’s career, but it’s gotta be up there.
With only three episodes ever made, Le Petite Cossette doesn’t have a very large soundtrack, but what it does have is hauntingly beautiful. I shouldn’t really have to expand much farther than that, at least not once I drop the name Yuki Kajiura, one of the most celebrated soundtrack composers in anime history, and her work for Cossette is no exception. While the instrumentations themselves are heart-breaking and exquisitely orchestrated, a lot of it’s tracks are songs with actual people singing lyrics, which is definitely not something you’d expect from most anime. I wasn’t able to find out who sang every track, I could only place names to a few of them, but from what I was able to gather, the singing duties appear to have been split between Kajiura herself and Cossette’s Japanese voice actor, Marina Inoue, both of whom prove to be outstandingly talented singers. There are a few exceptions to this, of course, and I’m pretty sure my favorite track is “Somewhere I Belong,” whose violin chords convey a very real sense of longing and loneliness.
The English dub is a very fine effort from Geneon, which I regret to say was never one of my favorite dubbing companies when it was still around. I was never a fan of how a lot of their dubs felt really samey, and quite a few of them tried way too hard to match the Japanese voices, resulting in awkward, sometimes screechy sounding deliveries. This particular project, led by director Wendee Lee, is a much more subtle effort than I’m used to from them, and I’d even go as far as to say it’s almost as good as the Japanese. One thing that I feel they greatly improved on is the casting of Eiri, who was for some reason played by a woman in Japanese, and yeah, it wasn’t very convincing. They gave the job to veteran Johnny Yong Bosch in the dub, and… You know that thing he does sometimes where he talks without any real inflections, but his voice is still entirely listenable due to how hypnotically soft it is? That works to great effect when playing his character in the real world, bored and distant as he yearns for the world inside the glass. Appropriately enough, he speaks with a lot more enthusiasm and genuine interest when speaking to Cossette.
And speaking of Cossette, Michelle Ruff plays that role, and while she kind of faltered when playing a similar role in Chobits, she actually gives Cossette a bit more personality than her original VA Marina Inoue did, although that could be chalked up to Ruff being an established star at the time and Inoue having just debuted. She plays her role a bit more playfully than Inoue did, and when the time came, she also delivered on the duality of the character nicely. Unfortunately, aside from Tony Oliver’s terrifying portrayal of murderer Marcello Orlando, the rest of the cast feels kind of wasted in smaller roles, including industry heavyweights like Kari Wahlgren, Kirk Thornton, Sam Riegal, Julie Ann Taylor and even Wendee Lee herself, put on strong, subtly emotional performances, considering the limited screen time they were all given. The English adapted script is also more than faithful enough. Yeah, there’s some philosophical changes in episode 3, but they’re workable. The sub is better overall, but both versions are equally listenable.
You know what we don’t have enough of? Stories where people fall in love with ghosts. I absolutely love reading about or just watching the idea of love conquering all getting challenged by the barrier of mortality between the two lovers in question. One of my favorite books growing up was Robert Westall’s The Promise, which was about an English boy falling in love with a beautiful classmate during World War 1, only for her to become a casualty of the legendary conflict. She comes back as a ghost, they’re still in love, and their attempts to rekindle their mortal romance nearly leads him to death’s door. He ultimately must choose between his life and his love, which is the kind of emotional dilemma I could die for. no, that doesn’t make me a Twilight fan, because vampires have physical bodies, and that would be cheating. Also, Twilight sucks.
To be honest, though, Le Portrait de Petite Cossette has one of Twilight’s biggest flaws, in the fact that it features a love connection between a couple who are separated not just by death, but by an uncomfortable age range. Yeah, in all fairness, Cossette was killed over 200 years prior to the story, but she’s still clearly a child. Eiri still falls in love with her, and while their specific ages are never explained, it’s very likely that Eiri is in his late teens or early twenties, while Cossette died between ages 10 and 12, creating a romance that would normally set off my lolicon alarm, if it wasn’t for what the writer was trying to do with it. Taking a look at Cossette’s background, she was the oldest child of an aristocratic family, and she was also a child bride, which was a common enough practice in those days. Her fiance was a family portrait artist who had fallen in love with her after several art sessions, and while the art we’re shown is fairly innocent, there’s a pretty decent chance he was also putting her in some Leo and Kate/Pretty Baby poses when her parents weren’t looking.
Now, it’s kind of a spoiler, but I’m sorry, I have to talk about her death, and honestly, it’s not even that BIG of a spoiler, as I’ll still be leaving the entire third episode a surprise for you… One day, her artist fiance, Marcello Orlando, goes crazy and slaughters her family before killing her, because… Once again, I’m sorry, but here’s the spoiler… Because she was aging. Yeah, he stabs her through the chest with a huge knife to keep her from growing up, because if she did, she would no longer look like the girl he’d fallen in love with, the girl in his portraits. When you add this to the fact that Eiri’s obsession with a little girl who wasn’t real and complete ignorance of the real life woman who’s in love with him feels like a very intentional metaphor for lolicon media and how it indulges a person’s socially unacceptable fantasies to the point of seclusion, this all becomes the most brilliant condemnation of pedophilia and lolicon culture that I’ve ever seen. Well, from anime, at least… The movie Hard Candy does a pretty solid job, too.
And for those of you who are trying to be smart and point out that the main character also falls in love with a little girl, well, he doesn’t come out of this unscathed either. Yeah, his love for Cossette is portrayed as being more pure than Marcello’s… Which isn’t too difficult when you’re being compared to a murderer… But the idea of his love is still shown through the same kind of lens, as it’s ultimately a delusion. Even if the idea of an adult having a physical or romantic relationship with a child wasn’t wholly reprehensible… Which it unquestionably is… It’s fundamentally impossible for an adult who’s attracted to children to have a substantial relationship with one, as children don’t stay children forever. This is why the anime is named after Cossette’s portrait, rather than Cossette herself… Because it has a duel meaning. Her portrait, in this equation, is symbolic of lolicon art, and to a more unsettling extent, child porn. Cossette says at one point in the ova that she hates having her portrait done, and can you blame her? She was killed over the fact that she, as a person, could never have the same kind of eternal youth that her portrait had. This ties into the portrait’s second meaning… It’s her. The portrait, like her, is a ghost of something that once was, and can never be again.
Of course, it also helps that Cossette as a character is never sexualized, or presented to us in a sexually suggested manner. I guess Shinbou did have a sense of restraint and taste at one point. We’re shown how she seduces Eiri, because she needs a man to fall far enough in love with her to willingly sacrifice himself to the torture and punishment her killer never faced so that her soul can be at peace, but they never bother trying to seduce US with her, so points to them on that front. They could have easily tried to have their cake and eat it too, like the use of nudity in Sankarea, but they took the high road. I wish I could say all of the work they put toward creating their metaphor and supporting their point had resulted in a stronger story and overall better writing, but unfortunately, with only three episodes of time at their disposal, a lot of this anime’s potential wound up falling by the wayside. I do wish the other characters would have had more time for development, seeing how there’s quite a few of them and a lot of them seem genuinely likeable, and I wish they’d drawn the story out more so that it could be enjoyable to people who DON’T want to put in the work to understand it, but what are you gonna do.
Le Portrait de Petite Cossette was originally available from Geneon entertainment, and with that company long since dead and buried, it’s since been rescued and redistributed by Sentai filmworks. Both DVDs are available for cheap online, and the only real difference between them is that the Geneon release has a pointlessly higher content rating. You also get a nifty poster inside, which is awesome. The manga adaptation is also available stateside from Tokyopop, and is just as easy to find online. As far as I know, no legal streaming site is airing it.
Le Portrait de Petite Cossette is, at least for what it tries to do, one of the best independent OVA series I’ve ever seen. Despite it’s weaknesses in characterization and plot, it tells an engaging story with an important message lurking beneath the surface. But putting all of that silly depth stuff aside, though, is this a good, spooky show to watch on Halloween? You bet your sweet ass it is. Despite all evidence to the contrary, you want Eiri and Cossette to reach some sort of positive conclusion at the end(Even if you understandably don’t want to see them wind up together in any way, shape or form), and you will feel legitimately frightened for both of them, as well as sympathetic to their situations. In terms of it’s visuals, you could argue that it was ahead of it’s time, as it holds up far better now than it did when it was originally released, making it a title you really wouldn’t guess the age of, unless you judged by the actors involved. It’s smart, complex, and a feast for the eyes, so I highly recommend adding it to your Halloween watch list. I give Le Portrait de Petit Cossette an 8/10.