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Year: 2009
Director: Katabuchi Sunao
Screenplay: Katabuchi Sunao
Cinematography: Masumoto Yukihiro
Art Direction: Uehara Shinichi
Voice Cast: Fukuda Mayuko, Mizusawa Nako, Morisako Ei, Honjou Manami
Music: Murai Shusei, Minako “mooki” Obata
Theme song: こどものせかい (Kodomo no sekai/Children’s World) by Kotringo
Runtime: 95 min
Trailer: on YouTube (not subtitled)
Film’s official website: Mai-Mai
 (in Japanese)

Only one word is really needed to describe Mai Mai Miracle: it’s simply magical.

Based on an autobiographical novel by Takagi Nobuko (高樹 のぶ子), with parts inspired Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, 「マイマイ新子と千年の魔法」 (Maimai Shinko to sen-nen no mahō, literally Mai Mai Shinko and the Millennium-Old Magic) takes us doubly back in time: to the postwar Japan of 1955 in a rural town of the name Hōfu, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and to the same area during the Heian period (平安時代/Heian jidai, 794-1185). With the modern-day heroines of the story – two nine-year old girls – having been born after World War II, there is no hint of the horrors of the past, but rather we see them grow up in a young nation that, much like the children themselves, is just starting to bloom, on its path to becoming a one of the world’s most developed and technologically advanced countries. Gas-powered fridges inspire wonder and televisions are still only distant dreams of a Tokyo that could not be further away.

There is Aiko Shinko, a lively, cheerful child with an imagination that constantly runs wild. The countryside is her world: she knows which tree branches contain refreshing sap and can find her way around the fields of wheat even in the dark. Shimazo Kiiko, meanwhile, has newly arrived from the city. Raised single-handedly by her doctor father since her mother’s death, she is a withdrawn and timid child. The girls’ different personalities are accentuated cinematographically as scenes reveal a stark contrast in tone: bright colours and playful music accompany Shinko, laughing and mischievously sticking out her tongue as she frolics around in the high grass. On the other hand, our first glimpse of Kiiko comes at the train station: the train, perhaps hinting at the city where the simple life is being displaced by a more industrial, technology-driven one, darkens the image in front of us. Climbing out of this train we see only Kiiko’s feet, then a face partially hidden by a hat. The obscured view persists for a while as scenes mostly show Kiiko with her face in the shadow or turned away, her voice barely raised above a whisper.

Such things, however, are no deterrent for the high-spirited Shinko, who invites Kiiko into her life whether she wants it or not and shares secret treasures with her on the very first day of meeting. Such trust! Such closeness! Kiiko cannot help but surrender and as the girls become friends, the lifelessness that encircles her slowly dissolves. Brown clothes are replaced by pastel coloured ones, prim and proper attire becomes plastered with mud on a day of joyful play.

Parallel to the primary story, another one develops, born from Shinko’s imagination and the history of the land where the girls live a thousand years prior. As Shinko knows from her beloved grandfather, the place was then known as Kokuga in the province of Suō, and the home of princess Nagiko, who, much like Kiiko, leads a lonely life behind high walls – literally in her case – and longs for nothing more but a playmate. The second story comes in small pieces, inserted here and there into the days of Shinko and Kiiko, but never in an abrupt manner. Links – subtle and sometimes easily missable – are made, bits of red paper or flower petals dropping into the river of the past long ago and floating into 1955.

Back in the postwar present, there are more characters and story snippets. Shinko’s family (her mother, father, grandparents and younger sister Mitsuko), various schoolmates (Tatsuyoshi, Shigeru), and a number of other townspeople all make appearances. Some, like Mitsuko, we see multiple times: she rages when her sister breaks her precious doll and joins Shinko and Kiiko in one of the film’s most delightful scenes when a box of alcohol-filled chocolates results in three amusingly tipsy little girls.

Other characters have little screen time, but, without being reduced to clichés, still feel incredibly familiar. This may be because the film is full of the ordinary – people, moments, gestures – that we can all recognise and find delight in. These depictions of the every-day do not drive the plot, but make the film a much richer experience. Our narrative focus may be on Shinko, yet as she reflectively sits at a table, we cannot – in part due to the skilfully chosen angle of perspective – miss Mitsuko crawling past, playing with the cat. The attention to these ‘little details’ echoes Studio Ghibli – and not for nothing: Katabuchi acted as Assistant Director for 「魔女の宅急便」 (Majo no Takkyūbin / Kiki’s Delivery Service).

Cinematographically, the feature gives the impression as if filmed on a real camera – something I had not seen with an animated movie before. When Skinko tumbles into the grass, we literally tumble with her, the ‘camera’ losing its balance as if handheld by someone recording the scene. The effect is repeated another time when the protagonists outrun the camera with childish enthusiasm and energy and it has to pursue them. There are other unique touches too: drawings, as if made by a child, are inserted, usually as an indicator that Shinko’s imagination is coming to life. It’s slightly jarring at first, but really just part of the film’s special charm.

And finally there is Mai Mai Miracle’s soundscore, which has not one note off-beat. It heightens the film’s shifting moods throughout and is used, again, for the characterisation of Shinko and Kiiko, cheerful beats and voices accompanying the former, dispirited, lonely piano chords – at least at first – the latter. But it is more than just the music that deserves praise, the score is truly a soundscore: scenes come to life with trains thundering past, nearly drowning out Kiiko’s whispery words, while the moos of cows, the chirping of crickets and the whirring of blades of grass fill the pitch-black night of the countryside – all feeling incredibly real.

Mai Mai Miracle is a wonderfully uplifting film, but do know that although the purity and joy of childhood shine through, there is no naivety, no sugarcoating here. As much as Mai Mai Miracle will make you smile, it will equally invoke nostalgia and move you to tears – of sadness. One summer’s day, blissful Shinko and Kiiko race barefoot through the fields, with not one care in the world, but on another death makes its entrance – more than once. There is laughter, there are tears, and there is laughter again, and yet more tears: because in the end, both joy and sadness are life.

Overall Verdict: I already said it: absolutely magical.

Rating: 10/10

Bonus bits: 

  • The film, on limited release in Tokyo, at first had a weak opening at the box office. However, thanks to word-of-mouth recommendations, it managed to attract more viewers – so many, that screenings soon sold out. In the end, it was shown in Japanese cinemas for seven months.
  • Update 6/2/2014: A UK/US release will be available later this year. All the Anime successfully set up a Kickstarter for an English-language release, which reached its US$30,000 goal in the less than 24 hours of its funding campaign. Unfortunately the film is not easy to get hold of. A DVD (Region 3) for the Hong Kong market with English is subtitles is available, but needs to be ordered from Asia and requires a multi-region DVD player. If you speak French or German, subtitled DVDs exist for these languages. The film has also been released in Korea and Taiwan. Links for purchasing Mai Mai Miracle:
      • Japanese DVD (original, no subtitles – Region 2). Also available at cdjapan, which specifies that a bonus disc featuring “creditless ending, event footage, making-of, original drawing footage, unreleased scene, and more” is included.
      • Hong Kong VCD (English or Cantonese subtitles)
      • Hong Kong DVD (English subtitles, Region 3)
      • French DVD: Mai Mai Miracle (French subtitles, Region 2)
      • German DVD: Das Mädchen mit dem Zauberhaar (German subtitles, Region 2). No extras (other than trailers) are included on this DVD.
      • Taiwanese DVD: 新子與千年魔法 (traditional Chinese subtitles, Region 3)
      • I haven’t been able to track down the Korean DVD yet – if you happen to know a legitimate outlet, let me know so I can add the link here.
  • Katabuchi Sunao (片渕 須直) has only directed one other feature-length film: 「アリーテ姫 」(Arite Hime/Princess Arete, 2001). He has worked on a number of anime series, most famously 「ブラックラグーン」 (Black Lagoon).
  • You can listen to Mai Mai Miracle’s ending theme song Kodomo no sekai/Children’s World on YouTube (includes Japanese lyrics transcribed in Romaji). The track list for the soundtrack is available here and here. The second link is in Japanese, but has links to the musicians’ websites – mooki’s is kind of neat! Plus: Kotringo’s official site (in Japanese).
  • Alternative reviews over at GenkinahitoOgiue Maniax, Omohide and Isugoi.
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