Over twenty years ago, amidst the backdrop of a rural Japanese town, My Neighbor Totoro explored both the boundless imagination and the underlying fragility of childhood, setting the standard for the genre. Mai Mai Shinko to Sennen no Mahou (released as Mai Mai Miracle in English) takes many cues from that film, but diverges from the established path to present something fresh and worthwhile while simultaneously feeling like a spiritual partner. The influence of the former thus takes away no credit from Mai Mai Shinko – which earns itself a place for consideration alongside the best films in its category for its delightful and often poignant exploration of the wavering emotions of childhood. Though released in 2009 to a commendable run in Japanese theatres, the film remains somewhat obscure in the English-speaking community, presumably due to the humble plot description and unassuming art. I can safely say, however, that like-minded readers of my reviews will almost certainly find a hidden gem in this charming little film.
The film is set in a quaint countryside village during the post-war years of Japan, a time and place where a box of coloured pencils could evoke awe in the school yard, while televisions were still a rumour. In this homely setting, a young girl named Shinko, a creative and friendly child, pursues the friendship of a new transfer student from Tokyo with curiosity. This transfer student, Kiiko, is initially reclusive and somewhat frightened at her new classmates, but Shinko makes her best effort to transfer her bottomless pit of imagination into her new friend and welcome her to the fold. Shinko’s particular obsession is with imagining her town as it was a thousand years earlier – when it had been the capital of Japan, according to her grandfather, and when there almost certainly must have been a girl of the same age. Shinko and her group of friends bond over this shared interest and support each other despite the moments of tragedy which come.
A variety of narrative threads are weaved throughout the film, but its core strength is the endearing treatment of its characters and not any suspense within the plot. Shinko in particular is a strongly realized character, a realistically exuberant child with a mind that is constantly in the skies, and all of the characters are handled with a similarly sensitive touch. The film shifts perspective occasionally between its characters as it explores a variety of miniature stories, one of which even takes Kiiko’s imagination back to the feudal era, where she imagines what life would be like as Japanese royalty, while the others are more firmly rooted in the daily lives of the characters (and in the climax, their personal tragedies). Despite the constant shifting of this plot, the film manages to avoid a feeling of aimlessness due to its elegant pacing and strong writing – a scene never outstays its welcome, and a character never feels like padding. Much like My Neighbor Totoro, there is a very satisfying sense of minimalism in this film, and our focus on a few small stories of a small cast amidst the vast fields of the Japanese countryside is a very enjoyable contrast.
What the film also does extremely well is present how the sometimes harsh realities of life are filtered through childhood innocence in a remarkably nostalgic and believable manner. Concepts of familial conflicts, respect, and even death, appear in the movie at various times and are captured perfectly in the curious manner that a child would interpret and respond to such things. The climax in particular is a very satisfying depiction of how a child would deal with a personal tragedy they do not yet fully understand, and I was very impressed by it. With that being said, not all of the narrative threads are equally polished – the aforementioned recurring flashback to a similar girl who lived a thousand years back clearly intends to build to a finale, a merger of the stories of past of present, and while the film does attempt this towards the climax, the final resolution is just a few steps short of the poetic merger that such an idea could have achieved.
The director of the film, Sunao Katabuchi, was an assistant director on Kiki’s Delivery Service, so it isn’t a surprise that many elements of Hayao Miyazaki’s style of direction have found their way into this film as well, particularly in the quieter moments of the film. For Mai Mai Shinko, Katabuchi chooses a very elegant and minimalistic style of direction. The art style is beautifully simple with any flourishes reserved for character expressions rather than flights of fancy. The music, though sometimes lacking in variety, complements the film well, dominated by charming orchestral strings, crisply recorded, with occasional piano and vocal interludes. The final song which closes the credits, though it has a somewhat familiar sound and makes use of contemporary “breathy” singing, is pleasant, and more importantly, works very well to close off the story. Indeed, while there may be minor flaws at plenty of moments in this film, what is important is that Katabuchi knows how to put together a film in a cohesive, natural, and flowing manner, something which does not always come easy to inexperienced directors whose films often wander or feel unsatisfying.
Once again, I am left with the conflicting feeling of satisfaction for having a discovered a little-known gem along with disappointment that it it not more well-known in the first place. As I mentioned at the start of this article, I have often championed My Neighbor Totoro for being the greatest exploration of childhood – of both the joys and fears of being a child. Mai Mai Shinko, though it may make a few missteps along the way, is a fine film which hits many of the same notes with equal care and sensitivity. Katabuchi has earned himself a follower.
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