iSugio

Mai Mai Miracle – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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It’s the spring of 1955, and the place is the area of Mitajiri (in the countryside around then small-town Hōfu) in Yamaguchi Prefecture, southwestern Japan. A nine-year-old girl named Shinko Aoki imagines she has a way of connecting to the world around her, a thousand years before. Then, an upper-class girl called Nagiko Kiyohara lived in this same land, at a time when the area was known as the province of Suō and its capital Kokuga. Shinko invites Kiiko Shimazu, a new student who has recently transferred to her school, to her magical time-travel, i.e. her vivid imaginings of the past. Despite the girls’ quite different characters, they get along surprisingly well and end up learning from each other’s differences.

While many Japanese animated films have often dealt with the tragic consequences of World War II, not many have taken a look into the recent postwar atmosphere of Japanese culture. This era of cultural reconstruction, rebuilding, and occupation has been an area of Japanese animation that has often been glossed over and usually been one solely explored within Japanese cinema. Based on the autobiographical novelization by Nobuko Takagi, Mai Mai Miracle details this drastic contrast and change that was occurring within Japan during its postwar era, expressed through the concrete values of friendship and social divisions. Directed by Sunao Katabuchi, who was an assisted director for Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, was a screenwriter for Hayao Miyazaki’s Sherlock Hound animated series, and directed his first feature animated film with Princess Arete (2001), Katabuchi had already accumulated quite the experience within the animation industry when he took helm of Mai Mai Miracle, bringing his technical expertise to the table.

In many respects, Mai Mai Miracle is both an ode to a bygone era where war was a distant memory and the revitalization of a nation was steadily taking place. Utilizing the notion and construction of what friendship truly encompasses as a backdrop, Mai Mai Miracle details the everyday life of two young girls that exist within each of their respective social classes and simultaneously growing up in such a divided environment. The film introduces us to Shinko, representative of the rural communities that still relied on the fortitude of the community to carry themselves during this time, and Kiiko, representative of the burgeoning modernization of Japanese culture and its various Western influences. The film portrays these two characters as initially opposite of one another in very distinctive ways, both from a cultural standpoint and visual appearance. Shinko, for example, is viewed as a rugged and tomboyish individual who relies on her natural environment and extraordinary imagination to dominate her character. On the other hand, we see Kiiko as almost akin to a Westerner with her elegant and colorful attire and proper dialectic presentation. The film initially conveys these two characters as ones that shouldn’t exactly speak to one another let alone become friends, but as we see their relationship slowly develop, we see the social divides slowly dissipate between them.

Katabuchi seems adamant in showing the growth and subsequent power of friendship to transcend aspects of restraint within this postwar Japanese society. The film parallels their relationship with that of an ancient tale of a Japanese princess and her servant becoming friends despite the social hierarchy that they reside in. The film does an adequate job in correlating the two stories between Shinko and Kiiko and the Japanese princess and her servant during the first half of the film. While the viewer can certainly see that the ancient tale that stems from the past is reflective of the main storyline between Shinko and Kiiko, it increasingly becomes a narrative device that the film doesn’t exactly reinforce as a strong component of its story towards the concluding half of the film. As we get to know more about Shinko’s imaginative skills and Kiiko’s past, the film slowly leaves behind the paralleling ancient tale of royalty and servitude for the minor revelations that both Shinko and Kiiko experience. It’s not that the inclusion of the ancient tale does a complete disservice to the main narrative within the film, but it just seems that Katabuchi utilizes it more as an afterthought than anything else. Given the mythological elements of the ancient tale, the film may initially appear as a whimsical journey into a magical, otherworldly environment where Shinko and Kiiko will traverse, but the film remains grounded in its reality and its explorations of normalcy within everyday life.

So while the film doesn’t effectively build upon the initial framework of the ancient world coinciding with that of the postwar setting established within the film, it reinforces the realism of overcoming one’s fears and essentially growing up within the latter environment. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film considering that it could have completely gone into an imaginative world like so many films before it, where the protagonists meet new and interesting characters that help them along their journey. Mai Mai Miracle remains rather audacious in its attempt to situate its characters in a manner that has them address their issues by actually facing reality and questioning their decisions, thoughts, and relationships in a genuine fashion removed from the realm of the magical. While some may not like the approach that the film takes in regards to initially correlating a theme of the imagination with that of youth—only to replace it with that of characters examining their place within a postwar society—this approach establishes Mai Mai Miracle as a distinguishable animated film unafraid to address some very mature themes throughout the course of his narrative.

Of course, the film doesn’t always necessarily succeed in its execution of such mature themes, but it doesn’t rely on the whimsical elements of its story to make up for a lack of character development, narrative structure, or elements of drama—an approach that many similar films decide to take. Mai Mai Miracle fortunately refrains from viewing its whimsical elements as the main motivation to promote its narrative, instead allocating much of its time towards the real-life issues that its characters face. Whether this is viewed in Shinko’s realization that her imaginative abilities don’t allow her to escape the hardships of growing up, to that of Kiiko’s self-discovery regarding her mother, the film becomes a portrait of two characters slowly breaking free from many of the childlike conceptions that they have relied upon thus far in understanding the world around them. This approach towards their development as characters is viewed as an exceedingly important facet towards the concluding half of the film, where many of the characters issues come to the forefront. While some viewers may see the latter half of the film as convoluted and at times even unnecessarily rushed, the strength of the film to portray the idea of companionship as an everlasting notion throughout countless generations remains its highest quality—despite many of the hindrances stemming from the film’s structure.

The look of the film is perhaps its most striking technical aspect, with elaborate character designs and illustrious countryside settings; the visual aestheticism of the film is very pleasing to view. Studio Madhouse does a fantastic job in bringing to life the dexterity and postwar industrial climate of the Japanese rural environment through its subtle visual displays. Some viewers might even equate the look of Mai Mai Miracle to that of a Studio Ghibli production, which wouldn’t be a needless comparison in the slightest. Given the high production values, the film is visually akin to that of other higher-quality films within Japanese animation, but unlike other films that delve into creating magnificent creatures, otherworldly settings, and uniquely distinctive characters, Mai Mai Miracle is again rooted in a narrative focus that looks upon the realistic endeavors brought forth by its characters.

Overall, Mai Mai Miracle is an exceptionally well-made and visually stimulating gem of a film. I would suggest that one going into watching this film have some inclination as to the dynamic social and political climate of the era in which the film takes place in, only to better understand the relationships that are shared between the characters. Mai Mai Miracle is a very Japanese film considering that it’s one based in a contextually historical framework, even if there are elements that may be based outside the realm of reality—only for the sake of utilizing some of the artistic astuteness brought about by the creative staff at Studio Madhouse. At its core though, it’s a film that looks at the unchanging landscape that genuine friendship can bring about despite the various social hierarchies and divisions that may exist throughout a multitude of generations. In this regard, one can essentially view Mai Mai Miracle as a film that delves into universal qualities that practically any viewer can relate to in some fashion, with the film representing a fine standard in which future films can look towards in depicting the genuine realities of young children within a postwar society and how their social and communal environments ultimately shape them.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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