Mai Mai Miracle (Cert PG)
2 Disc DVD/Blu-ray Combo (Distributor: All The Anime) Running time: 94 minutes approx.
The journey of Mai Mai Miracle to the UK has been a long and adventurous one. The film was made in 2009 and did well on the festival circuit and in Asian cinemas. With the UK left out of the European release, UK distributor All The Anime launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 to rectify this, which brings us to this review of the Collector’s Edition I received as a backer.
Set in 1955 in the rural community of Kokuga, Hofu City in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, an eight year-old girl Shinko allows her vivid imagination to whisk her away to 1000 years ago in the past when Kokuga was once the ancient capital of Suo. Going by the stories told to her by her former teacher Grandfather, Shinko dreams up the scenario of a lonely princess waiting for someone her age to play with.
Meanwhile Kiiko, a shy transfer student from Tokyo, arrives at school following the death of her mother. Kiiko’s family wealth sets her apart from the humble bucolic lifestyles of the other kids but Shinko is determined to help Kiiko fit in with her friends. As Shinko and Kiiko get close, Kiiko begins to share Shinko’s capacity for dreaming of yesteryear but the sharp realities of life provide them with a rude awakening.
Regardless of the usual moans and cavils about anime, one area in which they excel is in the nostalgic drama genre. Whether through the actual animation, the wistful musical scores or the use of authentic sound effects it is rare to find a medium that is capable of taken us back to a specific point in history in such an immersive and tangible fashion.
Mai Mai Miracle is based on the novelisation of the autobiography Maimai Shinko by Nobuko Takagi, explaining the deep-rooted sensation of personal nostalgia, which in fact becomes accessible and relatable to those of us of a certain vintage. Millennials for example won’t recognise the concept of a group of eight year-olds running off together to play by the river without adult supervision or even their permission.
Shinko’s imagination is represented in a harmless and fun manner, apparently made possible by the cowlick Shinko calls her “mai mai”, which she equates to having a magical power. The fields of extraordinarily high wheat becomes an ocean to Shinko, and she leaps in, holding her nose and navigates her way through the engulfing undergrowth like she would a swimming pool.
Once she finds a resting spot, Shinko just has to look at the dusty roads and a settlement of wooden shacks from a bygone area will appear, while the river runner she created in her mind noisily runs past her, which she accepts a challenge to a race. This simplistic mode of time travel is one that Shinko eventually passes on to Kiiko yet neither are so immersed that they lose track of their current surroundings.
The fantasy involving the lonely princess is a little obscure in that it doesn’t reach any real resolve other than creating a bond between Shinko and Kiiko, the parallel perhaps being that of Shinko waiting for some like Kiiko to arrive. This particular connection takes a surreal turn late in the film at the same time Shinko and a male school friend Tatsuyoshi are concurrently involved in a tragic real life drama.
While Shinko and Kiiko are the main protagonists, they are supported by a likeable cast of friends and family. Shinko’s five year-old sister Mitsuko is the victim of Shinko’s occasionally destructive caprice but the siblings are close. School friends Shigeru, Hitoshi and Tatsuyoshi welcome Kiiko into the fold, their bonding experience being the building of a dam at the riverhead, where they discover a goldfish which they shower with gifts.
At this point, it may seem that the story is rather plotless and in some ways, it is just a series of events linked by the young cast and their summertime adventures. But it is also a coming of age tale that veers into darker territory in the third act and exposes the kids to the aspects of life parents try to shield us from – namely death.
Yet it would appear that the rural upbringing had already made these precocious nippers aware of such happenings and they react to them with an alarming calmness and maturity. Perhaps a little too mature for eight year-olds but the understanding that life is fleeting and yet precious and childbirth is still a thing of wonder, plays into their innocence and unfettered positive outlook.
What may surprise some is the director of this film is Sunao Katabuchi, whose most famous credit is the violent, profane and edgy action series Black Lagoon! Quite the dichotomy yet indicative of Katabuchi’s versatility as a director although this isn’t his first foray into softer fare, his debut feature film being 2001’s fairy tale Princess Arete.
Acclaimed studio Madhouse handle the animation duties and while the usual and easily assumed Studio Ghibli comparisons are found in the character designs, the delicate and lovingly detailed artwork stands on its own merits. The smoothness of the character movements compliments the gentle tempo of the rural life, the breeze of the summer air and the busy running of the streams providing a visual comfort.
For a film that has huge appeal to children as well as adults the tone is very balanced, refusing to patronise the younger audience nor alienating them when the darker issues are addressed. For adults the joyous escapades will recall their own summer days and the carefree life of our childhood, and perhaps give cause to lament the passing of a time when our world was full of such vibrant imagination and dreams that felt real.
What Mai Mai Miracle may lack in depth of story, it compensates for with the earnestness and warmth it revels in to deliver a charming, evocative tale of pastoral existence and whimsical fantasy.
Japanese Language w/ English Subtitles
Clean Closing Animation
Interview with Michael Sinterniklass
Rating – ****
Man In Black