Japanese Title: マイマイ新子 と千年の魔法
Romaji: Mai Mai Shinko to Sen Nen no Mahou
Release Date: August 15th, 2009 (Japan)
Running Time: 93 mins.
Director: Sunao Katabuchi
Writer: Nobuko Takagi (Autobiography), Sunao Katabuchi (Screenplay)
Starring: Mayuko Fukuda (Shinko Aoki), Nako Mizusawa (Kiiko Shimazu), Ei Morisako (Nagiko Kiyohara), Tamaki Matsumoto (Mitsuko Aoki), Keiichi Noda (Koutarou Aoki), Manami Honjou (Nagako Aoki), Eiji Takemoto (Tousuke Aoki)
Mai Mai Miracle was the third film I saw at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme and it was the first anime to have been screened at the festival.¹
The film is based on Nobuko Takagi’s autobiography and is set in 1955, Hofu City, Yamaguchi Prefecture. One thousand years ago during the time of the Heian Period (794-1185) Hofu was the site of the ancient capital of the Province of Suo (Suo no Kuni) named Kokuga and ruins are still dotted around the rural city. Shinko Aoki (Fukuda) is one of the modern-day inhabitants. Born in1946, she is a nine-year-old elementary school student and a bit of a tom-boy. She lives with her sister, parents and grandparents. Her grandfather was a teacher and taught her all about the local area and its history and so Shinko loves constantly wandering around the countryside and daydreaming about the past and wishes to travel back to the days of the Heian period. The only nuisance in her life is a curl of hair she can never make straight. She has named it Mai Mai and thinks it powers her imagination which is all well and good but trying to get it to stay in place is hard to do!
Hofu city has a new arrival in a doctor named Shimazu from Tokyo who has taken a job in a factory. He is moving into a new housing development in the suburbs of the city and brings his daughter Kiiko Shimazu (Mizusawa) who is very withdrawn. When she appears in Shinko’s class as a transfer student Shinko is curious about her in a way her classmates are not. Indeed, the classmates rather cruelly ignore Kiiko but Shinko follows her home. After breaking the ice the two begin playing together and Shinko invites Kiiko to ‘time travel’ by the power of imagination and join her circle of friends. The two begin to form a deep friendship right around the time they learn about the story of a princess who moved to Kokuga. Her name was Nagiko and like Kiiko she came from a bigger city and was isolated and wanted friends but finds circumstances are difficult.
The poster and animation feel a lot like a Ghibli film but it was animated by Madhouse who are known for brilliant psychological thrillers like Paranoia Agent, Perfect Blue and Monster. It was directed by Sunao Katabuchi, a man with an eclectic filmography including directing the explosive first season of Black Lagoon. Crucially he acted as assistant director of Kiki’s Delivery Service. The latter title is a perfect comparison as Mai Mai Miracle hits all the magical realism notes that Ghibli are known for. It fits the magical (in this case, the power of imagination and small miracles) into the everyday.
I had little idea what to expect but tagged it as Totoro in 1950’s Japan. The visuals and plot are similar: two extremely cute girls and the power of imagination in rural Japan. Such a reading was glib because unlike some of Ghibli’s stories which feel like dark fables with clear-cut endings (I am being extremely glib here), Mai Mai Miracle reflects the messy and uncaring nature of the universe and the unexpectedness of life much like The Wolf Children did. Indeed, while I detected a child-friendly message about using your imagination and persevering to overcome tough situations you may encounter in life and find a better future, the narrative is involved what with its magical fantasies and jumping back and forth in time and delivers situations with an unexpectedness that is real and very dark.
My dismissiveness was washed away when I became absorbed in the simple yet effective way of delivering the story and the great animation.
We get a kids eye view of life and the world. We only ever see and hear and things at the pace they do and we only uncover important things related to the plot like character motivation in moments like the kids getting into very serious scrapes or overhearing adults gossiping and it is sometimes a cruel shock as it is not glossed over. Like real life, Shinko, Kiiko and Nagiko find their concerns are just a selection amongst many and that life can be very different from what they expect. We see that even on summer days full of imagination and play death and dishonour can be found under the same sun.
This is where things take a real dark turn as the world of adults intrudes on that of children and makes them question reality. Characters are forced to grow and it can be affecting to watch (and it was affecting!) because there is a feeling of verisimilitude and reality. You feel like life is being lived an even the most minor of characters gets something of an arc that feels real. I was surprised at the force of feeling (I had to wait in the cinema before leaving just to compose myself!) but I was sucked in.
The animation was intoxicating in its detail and the camera work was assured. It is like total immersion as every scene and character design help to convey a sense of place as well as the tones of the story, situation and character.
The film is animated with a high degree of detail and life. The audience are always aware of things on a global scale like the age we are in thanks to hindsight of over 50 years. It is post-World War 2, an age of growth after devastation so there are signs of renewal and reconstruction with new buildings being put up on idle land and cranes about town. It is an age of innocence, children play with mud, marbles and kewpie dolls and wander about everywhere in complete freedom and safety. Characters marvel over such modern wonders like gas-powered refrigerators and the mere idea of television. It evokes tones of nostalgia and transports us to a simpler age.
The animation is more than just for setting as everything from colour, shading and character animation it also informs the audience of the character’s mental space.
Shinko and Kiiko are totally different characters. Shinko lives in a colourful and vibrant world full of sunshine streaming from skies of infinite blue on fields of gorgeous green. We hear the sounds of lively shouting and nature. She likes lazing around in tall grass and dashing through wheat fields. Highly energetic, brave and a bit of a rebel, her demeanour is lively and she throws herself around the screen causing the camera to become ever more active in trying to chase her and keep her in frame.
This life is reflected in her imagination which she uses to make houses and people of the period pop up in her everyday surroundings. A city develops around her, starting off as crayon drawing from a colouring book to almost accurate reconstructions straight from text books all the way to the real thing populated by people from the time. At first the contrast in animation is garish but it becomes a joyful evocation of inspiration. I personally loved Shinko all the more for it!
In complete contrast is Kiiko, a girl who is totally timid and withdrawn and marked by a degree of sadness in life which is reflected in her physicality and her surroundings.
She is highly contained and walks at solemn pace, following people at a distance in silence, head down and closed off to the sights around her. Shinko loves wildlife while Kiiko is absolutely terrified of it and knows little of nature. Her home is a silent place wreathed in shadows and a pallid light there is a definite sense of coldness. The audience could be witnessing something submerged in the sea. She is extremely pale when compared to the tanned children who surround her in her new classroom and something of an outsider both physically and mentally. She does not don a school uniform and her clothes are subdued colours.
As the two become friends, Kiiko’s world becomes all the more and filled with the liveliness of Shinko and she discovers an inner-strength through imagination and friendship that gives her new life. This story is also played out through the tale of Princess Nagiko which runs adjacent. It is not merely a flight of fantasy and imagination but a reminded that things in life are timeless. Even though there are a thousand years separating the girls they deal with similar problems, ones where a character is forced to confront the fact that life is not clear cut and there are many curved balls and no overarching narrative to set things right and they must find inner-strength and imagination to overcome their problems and take control of their future.
It is not trite. It is thoroughly absorbing. The use of imagination and reality, playing on what the audience knows and what the children believe and shaping a narrative in which the growth of the characters is compelling and their world feels so vital and alive is done here to perfection. The changes in tone from light-hearted to serious are delivered matter of factly. Things happen just like in real life. Deal with it. This, like all the changes in tone and the switching between imagination and reality is handled with such confidence that I have to admire the film and I think that it carries a great message for kids and is also adult enough to entertain grown-ups. Indeed, this review turned out longer than I thought it would but it is just because I hold the film in high regard. With the chances of this being shown on the big screen in the UK again being slim, I am very happy to have watched it!
¹ It was sold out and there was an audience made up of children and adults. If the screening is considered successful, the Japan Foundation may programme more anime for future festivals. Judging by the positive reaction of the audience that is probably a dead certainty because I heard nothing but praise for the film. Consider this review another voice of praise!