Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 13, 2010 8:54 pm 
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Shinko, her grandfather, and Kiiko in Mai Mai Miracle

Facing harsh realities with magic and smiles in provincial Fifties Japan

Directed by a former assistant of the great Hayao Miyazaki, (he served as a scriptwriter of Miyazaki's Sherlock Hound and assistant director on his Kiki's Delivery Service), this anime film is Katabuchi's second feature, produced by the premier Madhouse animation house in Japan. Mai Mai Miracle is a charming, touching, and surprisingly complex story about two nine-year-old girls in Kokuga, a farming village (near a factory) in 1950's Japan developed from an autobiographical account by Nabuko Takagi. Though less visually rich than Miyazaki, this film is continually engaging in the way it enters the world of childhood without condescension but with the upbeat-ness in the face of troubles characteristic of anime.

The main character, Shinko (voiced by Mayuko Fukuda) is a free-spirited tomboy much influenced by the tales told her mby her grandfather Nagako (Manami Honjou) of Sue, the town as it was called a thousand years ago. Her fantasies based on his lessons and stories lead her to believe she has access to her own special brand of healing magic she connects with her "mai mai," her cowlick in the middle of her forehead. Shinko has many fantasies, which include a lonely princess, Nagiko Kiyohara (Ei Morisako) -- derived from the 11th-century Japanese literary classic the Pillow Book of Sei Sh┼Źnagon, whom Shinko believes she's descended from and who is woven in and out of the story. Kiiko (voiced by Nako Mizusawa) is a shy, reserved new girl, daughter of a doctor, who's recently come to Shinko's school from Tokyo and has pale skin and city ways and a sadness because she's yet to get over the death of a mother she barely remembers. The two girls meet in third grade and quickly become great friends. Each helps the other. Shinko learns to deal with reality, and Kiiko learns to develop her imagination.

A lovely early episode depicts how Shinko visits Kiiko's relatively lavish house and wonders at its having two floors, and Kiiko is equally awed by Shinko's more traditional dwelling. Playing with other kids they make a dam and discover a red fish they name after the teacher they adore. The kids hero-worship an admirable policeman, praised by Shinko's grandpa and the father of one of the older boys. Both the policeman and the beloved teacher Hiraku have more dark and complex lives than the kids had realized, leading toward tragedy but also accommodation. There is a suicide, and Shinko feels wrong has been done that she must avenge; this leads her into contact with the seamy side of town and a discovery that things aren't as black and white as she had thought. The shocks and disappointments Shinko experiences cause her to realize that her magic may not be real. As we get to this part of the film it has become surprisingly complex. Neither Mai Mai Miracle nor the screenplay talks down to anybody, even though the playfulness and the ability to laugh are never lost.

What's most appealing and fascinating about this film is the way it oscillates between the real and the imaginary, the upbeat and the sad, while maintaining the deceptively simple surface of childhood. The drawing too is richer than might appear. It's often as elementary as a Fifties school book for young kids (Spot, Dick, Jane), yet the animation flows very smoothly and the style morphs from the bright scenes of the Kokuga wheat fields to the dark gangsterish precincts of the port, and when Shinko describes some of her imaginings to the audience or to Kiiko they initially take the form of simply animated, conceivably childish drawings, while the flashbacks to a thousand years ago have a hazy richness. Reaction shots are convincing, and the voicings are delicate and touching. The musical background is delicate and often unexpected. Katabuchi has made an animation that's traditional without being hackneyed at all. At the end, everything changes, and the two girls are no longer going to be together any more. A lot has happened. The best thing about the story is that it seems both surprising and inevitable. And its simplicity embodies a bipolar message about history and culture. As Ronnie Sheib's Variety review concludes: "Ultimately, 'Mai Mai Miracle' depicts Japan in the '50s, caught between an imperial past of rigid class distinction and its Western-influenced, caste-loose future. Kiiko's ability to channel an imperial princess while mourning her Westernized mother, and Shinko's realization that her classmate's father was not simply seduced by Western influences but carried the seed of his own destruction, sophisticatedly represent two sides of an ambivalent East/West fusion, conveyed with surprising clarity."

Released theatrically in Japan and South Korea in late 2009, Mai Mai Miracle has been shown in various international festivals in 2010. Seen and reviewed as part of the 2010 San Francisco International Animation Festival. Shown to the public Saturday, November 13, 12:00 pm at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema.

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