Sing of good things, not bad.
Those of you who pay attention to anime news as of recently have probably heard of the name, Sunao Katabuchi. He’s recently gotten a good amount of recognition due to the surprise acclaim of his most recent anime move, In This Corner of the World, but he’s actually been around for quite a while, mostly as a cult director who drew much of his directorial inspiration from Studio Ghibli whilst working there. Most people who do recognize him will likely only know him for Black Lagoon with the irony being that his resume mostly consists of putting his own spin on the Ghibli charm and failing to stand out in that regard. Prior to In This Corner of the World, he’s directed two feature-length films that received critical acclaim but have since been forgotten: Princess Arete and Mai Mai Miracle. The former was actually on Netflix for a time and consists of a Disney Princess story where the princess has to save herself ala the prototype to Moana. The latter is a little more well-known due to its Kickstarter campaign combined with how Katabuchi’s recent success drove up DVD rentals in Japan, but while it had a very successful theatrical run in its home country, it didn’t come to the States because at the time it felt too niche to be worth it.
I reviewed Mai Mai Miracle way back in 2015 in preparation for MAPPA’s first movie, but that review is no longer on the blog due to being a casualty of Standing On My Neck’s soft reboot. So I figured that with the latter coming out in the States soon (August 11 my ass), it was time to make another review of the former that contains some more recent thoughts. Copies of the movie are hard to find due to its scheduled release date currently being in 2019, but I did manage to borrow my friend’s blu-ray package, which he got for funding its license on Kickstarter. Wish I had funded that instead of Wakfu, but that’s neither here nor there.
Also, I intend to write a mini-essay on Mai Mai Miracle sometime later. But for now, let’s make do with a more straightforward review of this cult classic. Is Mai Mai Miracle actually an underlooked gem that some people claim it to be? Or did it lose out on popularity for a reason?
Mai Mai Miracle takes place in mid-1950s Japan and is centered on a young imaginative girl named Shinko and the adventures she dreams up for herself whilst living in a rural area. Thanks to the influence of her grandfather, Shinko believes that the permanent cowlick on her head, which she refers to as a “mai mai” gives her the ability to see into the past and what people did in her town back when there were princesses around. One day, a young Tokyo girl named Kiiko moves into the area and becomes ostracized by the other children due to her western-influenced sensibilities like wearing perfume and carrying a large number of colored pencils. However, Shinko easily befriends the new girl and Kiiko soon starts to appreciate the country life and get along with the other classmates (mostly boys) as a result whilst dealing with the inner turmoil of a dead mother. Also, there’s some subplot regarding a girl from the past who may or may not be imaginary that I couldn’t really wrap my head around.
There’s not really much else to say about the plot than that, as this is a film that’s obviously trying to be a more modern My Neighbor Totoro, which means the narrative is more based on nostalgia and imagination tied together by a few subplots than actual momentum. The most we get in terms of progress is Shinko and Kiiko delving into the world of imagination and realizing how there are limits to it, as Mai Mai Miracle does not have actual magic in its universe. Said subplots include planning a surprise for a beloved teacher who’s getting married, searching for Shinko’s sister after she gets lost, and braving the bad side of town in order to find out who was responsible for a police officer’s suicide. Oh yeah, did I mention that despite being a movie for kids, it has a few elements that kids won’t be able to fully grasp like suicide and underage drinking? I’ll mention this more in the personal dissection section, but suffice to say, some of the issues it explores are a tad darker than Mufasa’s death in The Lion King.
One thing you’ll notice very quickly about Mai Mai Miracle is that it’s a film that leans very heavily on remembering what it’s like to be a kid in regards to its storytelling. The plot is mainly based around capturing the imagination of a child and representing said imagination as a whimsical place where everybody is happy, even when faced with troubles. But unlike Ghibli movies, the whimsy never directly manifests in the real world, as between this and his other anime, it seems like Katabuchi prefers that his audience recognize the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Said boundaries can be pretty hard to see when you’re as young as the main characters in Mai Mai Miracle, and acclaimed anime like Now and Then, Here and There and Made in Abyss prefer to utilize the recognition of them as a sign that their leads are growing up.
Mai Mai Miracle takes a different approach to the subject matter in that it fully embraces the innocent joy of a child’s imagination whilst acknowledging that there’s a time and place for it. The majority of the movie is mostly centered around Shinko’s imagination and the amount of fun she has when sharing it with Kiiko and her male classmates, occasionally intercut with a serious moment when Shinko realizes that her imagination isn’t going to help, but she still relies on it as a safety mechanism because how else is she supposed to stay positive? This is best exemplified in the final act when a police officer who happens to be a father of one of her friends commits suicide, prompting Shinko and the dead officer’s son to walk into a shady part of town at night in order to get revenge. Now obviously, it is very naive to expect anything good to come from such an encounter even in the 1950s, especially with Shinko trying to trick herself that everything will be okay. But despite the outcome playing out unnaturally positive, it’s also a heartwarming payoff that acknowledges how despite bad things happening sometimes, kids should still hang onto their childhood while they’re in that phase.
As someone who’s sat through a fair amount of bad animated products for children, I really respect Mai Mai Miracle for realizing the importance of being a kid and how there’s a difference between being innocent and being naive. It’s also not afraid to toss in some adult elements in its childish tale, like the above-mentioned shady town complete with yakuza threatening little kids, or a certain scene where Shinko and Kiiko accidentally get drunk on whisky chocolates. Obviously the film supports the notion of third-graders getting drunk about as much as Madoka Magica supports the notion of giving up your humanity to save the world, but at the end of the day, isn’t getting into unexpected trouble (that doesn’t go too far) a natural part of childhood that we all grew up with? There’s plenty of time to deal with adult troubles like marriage, debts, and such in the future – but at that age, you should be going to school and hanging out with friends.
What’s less of a positive for the movie is the imaginary girl who may or may not have lived in the town during the Heian period. I understand she’s supposed to be representative of how even with a thousand-year difference, there’s not much difference between her childhood story and Shinko’s, but she’s given a lot of screen time for someone who doesn’t really have much impact on the present besides that tenuous connection. At best, she keeps the characters’ spirits up when they’re feeling down. At worst, she feels like a subplot that could have been cut out with minimal difficulty.
The narrative itself isn’t all that strong either. Despite being the main character, Shinko doesn’t really go through much of a character arc, especially compared to her friends. There isn’t much connection between the various subplots/conflicts besides the characters involved, and the finale mostly wraps things up in a “life goes on” manner after all is said and done. Of all the ways to differentiate yourself from Kiki’s Delivery Service, moving away from the narrative structure it utilized was probably not recommended. Although the Japanese version of The Carpenter’s “Sing” was pretty cute.
I also ran into some audio problems watching Mai Mai Miracle on blu-ray. The English dub is fine on a technical level, but everyone speaks so softly to the point that I was better off watching it online, and the subs don’t match what the characters are actually saying in my native language. And while I’m aware that the voice actresses were in their teens when recording their lines, something about the pitch of Shinko’s Japanese voice made it hard for me to sit through. Maybe that’s why I had such a hard time understanding what the point of the imaginary girl was. Because I couldn’t hear the parts that explained her role all that clearly.
Finally, this is a Katabuchi anime, so expect a lot of craft in regards to realizing the setting and keeping it as accurate to real-life as possible. It’s clear that the people behind this film performed a lot of research on how life was like in 50s rural Japan, what with the caste system in regards to Kiiko’s appearance when she first shows up to minor details like the children using a pocket knife in order to sharpen color pencils or walking barefoot in certain areas. I also love the childish character designs utilized in the movie and how it exemplifies the innocent tone whilst contrasting with the darker undertones of the plot. In my opinion, it’s a moe style done right, and I love how beneath its simplicity lies a complex wave of emotions that represent just how ugly yet beautiful the world is.
Mai Mai Miracle is not exactly what many would call a winner in terms of grand narrative, but as a 90-minute animated romp for kids, it’s up there as one of the better family films out there. It never talks down to children whilst maintaining its innocent tone, and while there’s the occasional usage of distracting CG, it’s an all-around beautiful movie with engaging visual storytelling and likable characters to keep most animation fans happy. The charm and nostalgia can get wearisome at times, but the movie’s insistence on making sure that the kids stayed kids no matter what happened really struck a chord with me, even if it had to tone down a few potentially dangerous situations in order to do so. It’s not exactly more mature and subtle to deal with childhood in that matter, but it’s definitely unique, and I wish to see that kind of story told more often in the future. Preferably better than Mai Mai Miracle did.
I can definitely see why this movie never got a Western release up until now, but at the same time, I recommend anime fans – especially those interested in In This Corner of the World – see it at least once. Especially if you have kids and are running low on films to show them. I mean what else is there that they haven’t seen yet? The latest Cars movie? Yeah…no.
- Am I the only one who thinks the box art on the official Anime Limited blu-ray cover looks kind of creepy?
- I’m surprised people could make long-distance relationships work in a time before cell phones and the Internet were invented.