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Mai Mai Miracle (2009)

Shinko is a feisty 9-year-old girl with a very fertile and active imagination.  She is fearless, inquisitive and not afraid to try something new.  She also loves to learn things, especially from her grandfather who knows all about the history of her local area.  From his teaching and her mind she imagines her home town as it would have been 1000 years ago and in the process of make-believe frustrates those who live in the local community.  One day a rather withdrawn and quiet girl called Kiko joins her class at school.  Shinko's fearlessness and curiosity enable her to form a strong friendship with Kiko and brings her out of her shell.  What follows is Shinko, Kiko and their schoolfriends sharing a truly magical and formative time in their childhood.  This is the story of Mai Mai Miracle.

In the spirit of full disclosure, back in March 2014 All the Anime started a campaign on Kickstarter to release Mai Mai Miracle in the UK and US with an English dub.  Because of what I had read and from the fact the title has been recommended by multiple people I backed the campaign. I received my DVD, Blu-Ray and a backer-only art book in December 2016 and now the title is on general release so many more can watch and enjoy this charming feature.

Mai Mai Miracle is written and directed by Sunao Katabuchi.  The story is based on the autobiography of Nobuko Takagi titled Maimai Shinko.  Katabuchi has had a promising career having worked with Hayao Miyazaki on Kiki's Delivery Service as an assistant director.  Perhaps in the West he is more well known for the bombastic Black Lagoon (which he also wrote and directed) and the upcoming In This Corner of the World.  I have to confess I would not have considered that the same person who conceived Black Lagoon (with all its violence and questionable characters) would have created something so ... elegant and sweet as Mai Mai Miracle. I know that is not fair but it is unexpected, and it will be interesting to see how Black Lagoon fits in with his body of work in the future.

Mai Mai Miracle is a gentle slice of life feature-length animation.  Through the tale we follow a rather motley crew of school children as they become friends.  We experience their highs, lows, joy and sadness in what appears in a "formative summer holiday" styled tale.  The story is set in 1955 at a time of post-war change in Japan as people, like Kiko and her father, move out to the countryside. Kiko's father is a doctor who has transferred to work at an industrial complex situated near where Shinko lives.  There is significant travel between countryside and town as people build new lives in an optimistic new world.  Even the father of Shinko works as at a university and is away from home.

Early in the feature the different contrasts are set up.  We see Shinko running about in nature so full of energy, causing slight mischief within a traditional community that looks after itself.  Kiko arrives in pristine clothes on a train into a town with modern 1950s buildings and sensibilities.  We see straight regular lines, cars, electricity people with formal greetings and a much greater hierarchical society.  At school Kiko stands out.  She looks (and acts) like the rich arrogant kid in class.  Through some awkward initial meetings Shinko works her magic (via her fertile imagination) and they become close friends and those contrasts and differences start to disappear to the point where gender and social background (for these characters in that time) do not matter anymore.  And its not just between Kiko and Shinko but across their friendship group.  It is almost like a visualisation of that childhood innocence.

Given that I have described Mai Mai Miracles as a slice of life tale there is very little else that can be said about the story.  Yes, it deals with growing up and handles difficult issues like loss very sensitively and in a mature manner, but at its heart change is the major theme.  Everyone has to face a major change during the course of the story.  The rural life is being changed by the migration from cities to the country.  Industry is being set up locally.  People move away (or to the countryside) to start a new life  The film is never preachy about change and never comes down on whether it is good or bad.  If anything it feels as though it is saying change always happens, embrace it, take control and it will turn out right.

Visually Mai Mai Miracle is beautiful.  Nature is full of fields, crops, trees and water.  It has a soft feel with pastel shades and a sense of continual movement, as if in each frame the wind is blowing somewhere.  On the one hand, the imagery is quite showy as it looks fantastic but it is not something that is there to show-off.  I think it could best be described as confident, not pretentious.  Perhaps the most spectacular imagery is that set at night.  These sequences show a deep blue starry sky not impacted by streetlights and the whole of nature has a slightly supernatural and mystical quality. Contrasting or strong colours are used to highlight something that at first glace doesn't belong there or something rather magical like a goldfish in the river.  After that initial impact it feels as if the colour then blends or softens into the world and we accept it, much like the children do.

There is a different feel in the town and the industrial complex.  It is definitely a contrast with the straight formal lines, concretes, signs and harsh light shone by streetlights.  It is almost as if the textures have been rubbed away.  Here the colours seem bleached, more muted during the day and it is as if natural objects like trees, blossoms and flours are slightly unreal and contrast with the surrounding complex environment.  Much like the country there is always something happening, be it vehicles in transit, the crowds of people going about their day.  In houses there are technical marvels to experience rendered in exquisite detail comparable some of the natural world they have created.

The world in which Mai Mai Miracle is stronger in design than the characters are.  In comparison, they look a bit bland.  The other visual components set a high bar so the comparison is a bit unfair. Whilst Shinko and her friends are all distinct enough to look at, it is their actions and behaviours that make them stand out and make them memorable for me.  Aside from a couple of visual traits I really can't remember what they look like, but I do remember their personalities and ticks.  This is where the effort went (in my opinion).  The character animation is beautifully fluid.  There are real standout scenes of running that almost look real in how they move, and close ups on faces show real acting that conveys emotion.  They capture and encapsulate that ungainly or slightly chaotic quality of how children on the cusp of becoming a teenager move and express themselves physically.  It really is superb.

I mentioned earlier that Shinko has an active imagination.  As she imagines things history integrating itself with her world what starts out as a crude childlike drawing - the kind you would see on the fridge (with all its vibrancy and energy) - is gradually refined until it looks like it belongs in the world. With each refinement, it becomes more real to the point that Shinko interacts with it as if it were there in front of her.  This at times is much to the entertainment (or frustration) of those around her.  Her imaginings, her movements and expressions really capture the energy of children with their enthusiasm, imagination and sense of wonder for life.  It is these visual flourishes and the animation quality that set it apart from other "tale of children learning about life and growing up".

Mai Mai Miracle is an incredibly sweet and charming animated feature.  In the best possible sense it is not flashy or attention seeking.  It is very confidently executed, subtle, and conceals its flourishes in plain sight against a backdrop which captures the everyday with ease.  This subtlety rewards multiple viewings as you will see something new every time.  Mai Mai Miracle does a lovely job in capturing the imaginings of a child and how her daydreams appear in the real world - from childlike scribbling to a polished inhabitant - is a neat touch.  It also shows just how infectious that ability to make-believe is.  Much like the animation the story is not in your face, it is a gentle a slice of life with the trials and joys of hanging out with your friends.  That said, it never felt like the story of "Skinko and her friends". Everyone felt rounded and that it was Shinko and her enthusiasm for life that brought them together. The ideas of loss and lost opportunities were handled sensitively and did not descend into melodrama or a moral tale.  Ultimately this is a feature that adults and children can enjoy together, with each taking something away from it.

FROM Anime Ltd.

1hr 33m