Friday, June 30, 2017

Video Backlog: “Mai Mai Miracle”

Publisher: All the Anime (Anime Limited, UK)
Format: Region A & B Blu-ray, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and English Subtitles. Region 2 DVD, PAL, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and English Subtitles
Length: 95 minutes
Production Date: 2009
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

Set outside the sleepy town of Hofu (in Yamaguchi Prefecture) a decade after World War II, this family film follows the life of tomboyish nine year old Shinko Aoki. She’s a bit of a daydreamer and often fantasises about having imaginary friends such as Green Kojiro, who runs on top of the water along the canals that flow beside the roads and crops out near her house. Her grandfather’s stories about life in the area a thousand years ago also inspire her to have imaginary time traveling journeys where a bored and lonely princess named Nagiko Kiyohara wishes she had others to play with. A new student from Tokyo, Kiko Shimazu, is placed in Shinko’s class. During a self-study class Kiko, lets an unkempt boy borrow one of her colour pencils which her proceeds to whittle down to practically nothing after breaking the lead several times. She desperately tries to retrieve it before it’s completely destroyed, but a teacher enters the room and punishes the boy as he thinks the boy is bullying her. Shinko, a little incensed by the injustice of this, follows Kiko home. Instead of telling her off, Shinko finds herself being invited into Kiko’s house and being amazed by the modern conveniences that none of the local folk (well Shinko’s neighbours at least) seem to have. Shinko discovers that the colour pencils were Kiko’s deceased mother’s which Kiko took without permission.

The two girls become friends rather quickly and Kiko drops her reserved stance and becomes more friendly and accepted with the other children as well. Over the next few months the pair get into all sorts of mischief, such as eating a box of liqueur chocolates with Shinko’s little sister Mitsuko, which makes them all rolling drunk. They also have adventures with the other local children including damming up a local stream. Shinko also introduces Kiko to her “Millennium Magic” in which she can travel back a thousand years to the Heian era where Princess Nagiko Kiyohara lives. While Shinko can see Nagiko’s world and fully experience it, much to Kiko’s disappointment she cannot have the same experience as Shinko. Shinko blames this on her Mai Mai, her cowlick on her head which she seems unable to get rid of. Regardless, during the course of the film the audience is simultaneously shown the day to day life of Princess Nagiko’s world along with the modern day world which Shinko and Kiko inhabit. One day the local children make a promise which is broken by a tragedy that befalls one of them. Shinko is disillusioned by these turn of events and runs off to set things straight. Meanwhile Kiko discovers that she has developed a “Mai Mai” of her own and finds herself following Princess Nagiko’s day to day life.

I know I have previously reviewed this film back in 2010 when Hong Kong distributor Deltamac released it on DVD with English subtitles. But I thought I’d like to look at the film again especially since it’s had a wider release with All the Anime’s recent Blu-ray and DVD set. 2009 was a pretty good year for anime films. In particular Madhouse released Mamoru Hosoda’s second film for the studio, “Summer Wars”. While that film got all the attention, Madhouse’s other family film of that year; “Mai Mai Miracle (the Japanese title of the film is Mai Mai Shinko and the Millennium Old Magic)” was no slouch. In fact it ran for seven months in Japanese cinemas. At the time I thought Madhouse seemed to be gradually taking over the title of the studio that releases the best animated family films (after Studio Ghibli stopped production). However with Hosoda setting up his own production company, Studio Chizu, and Makoto Shinkai suddenly becoming a mainstream name, I no longer think this is true. This film is directed by Sunao Katabuchi who is not exactly a household name (at the moment). Those with long memories may recall the Studio 4°C film released in 2001 called “Princess Arete” which at one point toured film festivals with an English subtitled print (which was unfortunately pulled for the Japanime 02 festival in Australia due to the fact the print was damaged beyond repair). That film also recently streamed on Netflix for a short time and All the Anime will eventually be releasing it to home video in the UK. Until recently Katabuchi’s directing career hadn’t progressed much since “Princess Arete”. “Mai Mai Miracle” was his second time in the director’s chair. This film proves he was being underutilised at Madhouse. The studio has probably realised that with his third film, “In This Corner of the World”, getting a worldwide theatrical and home video release this year.

“Mai Mai Miracle” is based on an autobiography by Nobuko Takagi, so you could probably draw comparisons here with Isao Takahata’s “Only Yesterday”, but the closest this film comes to is “My Neighbour Totoro”, especially with its low fantasy elements and realistic setting. However the elements of reality and fantasy never really mix as they do in “Totoro” and the film is pitched at a slightly older audience. Like “Totoro”, it’s set in 1950’s rural Japan and there is a sequence where Shinko’s little sister becomes lost, but that is where the comparisons end. What makes the film work is the personalities and interactions of the children. I really liked the contrasts between city girl Kiko Shimazu and her “country bumpkin” classmates. However what impressed me the most with this film is the fact that it doesn’t tend wallow in sentimentality too much (though it does teeter on the edge toward the end) or makes out that 1950’s rural Japan was a better time than the present. Suicide, the failure of adult relationships, deaths of loved ones and even the seedy red light district of the town are shown. You’d never see that kind of stuff in an American family film. What’s interesting is that most of the first half almost exclusively focuses on the children, then in the second half the lives of the adults gradually creep into the plot. The message that comes across loud and clear is that the adults in this film aren’t exactly prefect. A lot of them are terribly flawed.

The thing which didn’t quite work for this film was the switch between modern times and the Heian era, mainly the attempt to link Shinko and Kiko with Princess Nagiko who lived in the same area a thousand years ago. While it did partly work at times, there just didn’t seem to be any real connection between the past and the present, save for a very short scene where Shinko and Kiko happen across an archaeological dig and some of the remnants from that time period such as the canals. Certainly the first half of the film moves rather slowly as we are introduced to the characters, setting and the way of life of the town. Maybe more time should have been spent linking the past and present together. Perhaps through an item that Shinko’s family owned, or the stories in the past and present could have mirrored one another. Despite that flaw the film is really entertaining, and like most Madhouse films the animation is just gorgeous. I think it’s a real shame that this film didn’t receive the same attention that its sister film, “Summer Wars” had.

Surprisingly in February 2014, UK anime video distributor All the Anime announced a Kickstarter for the film so it could be released on Blu-ray (for UK and US backers only unfortunately). Even though the film was pretty much unknown outside Japan and not really on the radar of western fans, it reached its funding target within less than a day. Unfortunately due to getting approvals from Katabuchi himself, who was busy directing “In This Corner of the World”, it took until November 2016 for the Blu-ray/DVD sets of the film to be finally shipped to backers. Seemingly the Japanese distributor also wanted to rerelease the film in Japan on home video, with the English dub that All the Anime had created, months before the Kickstarter copies shipped. I recently saw a few posts on a forum where a couple of the backers still hadn’t taken the shrink wrap off their copy, some six months after they had received it. I really find it weird that a lot of fans would seemingly rather collect than actually watch, cherish and enjoy films like this. I often wonder why these fans are fans.

This general release of the film, which doesn’t include the art book or the same packaging the Kickstarter versions had, was released in June 2017. It includes the film on Blu-ray and DVD with several on disc special features; the Japanese theatrical trailer, creditless closing animation and a 15 minute interview with Michael Sinterniklaas of NYAV Post who produced the English dub. Summing up, this is a pretty good family film. The animation is top notch and story is quite touching. The major problem is there really isn’t much of a link between the two stories being told. At times the Princess Nagiko parts of the film seem divorced from Shinko and Kiko’s world. I hadn’t seen the film for around five years and this time around I don’t think I quite enjoyed it as much as the previous viewing. 7 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: 16 TV series, 7 OVAs and 13 movies. In addition I am also waiting for additional parts of four TV series to be released before viewing them.

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