Mai Mai Miracle
(Check out my review for Sunao Katabuchi’s first feature-length animated film here: Princess Arete)
Of Sunao Katabuchi’s three animated features, his first, Princess Arete, is the best in my estimation. It is also the hardest to find, was the least well distributed theatrically, and received the fewest critic awards. None of his films are bad, and each has its moments of brilliance of animation and theme, but I believe as his career continues, Arete will come to be seen as his first real masterwork. That said, Sunao’s second film, Mai Mai Miracle, is great and interesting in its own right.
The story, set in rural Japan (in Hofu in Yamaguchi Prefecture) during the mid-1950s, recounts the adventures and relationships of a young girl growing up during the earliest years of Japan’s industrial-commercial resurgence known as the Economic Miracle (not the ‘miracle’ of the title). It is based on a script adaptation (by Sunao Katabuchi) of a novelization by Nobuko Takagi of her own autobiography. The process is a little bit labyrinthine insofar as Takagi first wrote about her life and published an autobiography, then turned that book into a novel, then had that novel turned into a screenplay by Sunao, who then adapted the screenplay into the animated film.
Like Studio Ghibli pioneer Hayao Miyazaki, Sunao likes to adapt works by female authors, both British (as on Princess Arete) and Japanese. His prior film represents his interest in myth and fantasy and aligns well with one-half of Miyazaki’s thematic approach (as in Castle in the Sky or Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) while being visually similar to the Toei productions of the 1960s like the film Horus: Prince of the Sun on which Miyazaki first worked with the director Isao Takahata with whom he would later co-found Studio Ghibli. On Mai Mai Miracle, the obsession is with rural Japan in the post-war period. The temporality of the film, its setting, its themes of childhood imagination and personal growth, and the fantasy and light within the piece mirror My Neighbor Totoro.
But unlike that film, Mai Mai Miracle is full to the brim with darkness as well. The children of this film must come to terms with death not only through the death of their pet goldfish, which dies through their own negligence, but through real deaths of actual people. The children in the film who play together form close bonds and call themselves the Suicide Squad as they often attempt wild schemes like investigating potentially dangerous caves and creating pools by damming small streams. The cool kid of the group, Tatsuyoshi, lost his mother years ago. His father is a policeman who drowns his sorrows in whiskey at his favorite dive bar in town. After a particularly bad night emotionally, he drinks himself to death, leaving his son behind without a father or a mother.
Another girl, Kiiko, the one who really starts the ball rolling plotwise, comes to the town from Tokyo. Her father is a doctor who has just procured a lucrative position as a the head of hospital in the rural region. Kiiko must adapt to the realities of life in the countryside, make new friends after leaving behind her friends in the city, and cope with the loss of her mother who had drowned to death in an unexplained incident months prior. By the end of the film, all of the children have begun to understand the world a bit better and learned to deal with their emotions and reactions regarding death and dying, suffering and pain. And so, in the end, when Shinko Aoiki’s (the main protagonist of the film) grandfather dies and her family sells the farm and moves to the city, she can reflect on the death as just one more change in life and consequently does not mourn his death for as long as she might otherwise.
The film is about a lot of other things as well. The town is very old and contains within it ruins of the foundations of ancient homes, including one in which a girl lived without any other child companions over 1,000 years ago. She was the daughter of a feudal lord and kept hidden away in a manner of speaking, separated from other children, from commoners. This figure of the lonely noble child was derived in part from Sunao’s mind and in part from the writings in The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. Shinko and Kiiko learn about this girl from a young archaeologist doing research in the area, and the two develop an affinity for her, wishing that they could bridge the gap of time between her and themselves to become her friend and give her some company through the years in which she waited around alone. Through the force of their imaginations and the miraculous power of Shinko’s Mai Mai (a pet term for the cowlick in her hair), the two manage, in a nebulous sort of way, to transport themselves in this manner, to reach the girl, and to influence her life in a way that allows the girl to leave the palace surreptitiously and make friends with a commoner girl. This relationship gives her some meaning in life and Shinko and Kiiko’s roles in bringing it about cede some to their lives as well.
Sunao’s first film was distributed and produced by his employer at the time, Studio 4°C. But by 2006, he had moved on to the much larger and resourceful Studio Madhouse. At Madhouse, Sunao directed the Black Lagoon anime series in 2006, and after this test, was given the go-ahead to direct his first feature for the Studio, which began production in 2007, was completed in 2008, and slated for a wide international release in 2009. It was popular locally and ran in cinemas in Japan for an astonishing seven months. It did really well at the South Korean box office and played to festival circuits in the US, UK, France, Belgium, Canada, and Australia. And because of the strength of Madhouse’s brand recognition and advertising strength, Mai Mai Miracle won awards for best animated feature in festivals in Japan, France, Canada, and Belgium, whereas his previous feature had only won a minor excellence award at the Tokyo International Anime Fair. Just goes to show that quality may be important (and Mai Mai certainly rises above the quality of your average anime film), but at least just as important is how you market a product.
[Next up: In This Corner of the World]