A nine-year-old girl named Shinko Aoki imagines she has a way of connecting to the world around her, a thousand years before. Then, an upper-class girl called Nagiko Kiyohara lived in this same land, at a time when the area was known as the province of Suō and its capital Kokuga. Shinko invites Kiiko Shimazu, a new student who has recently transferred to her school, to her magical time-travel, i.e. her vivid imaginings of the past. Despite the girls’ quite different characters – Shinko is an outgoing, exuberant tomboy, while the shy and initially very reserved Kiiko still mourns her deceased mother – they get along surprisingly well and end up learning from each other’s differences. However, from here the story meanders about, not knowing exactly where it wants to take these characters. While Mai-Mai Miracle falls slightly short with its overall story, its introspective into that which is pure childlike fantasy versus the harsh reality of life among other of its thematic devices is where it shines the most.
The film is set in a quaint countryside village so expect plenty of lush shots of nature. Much like My Neighbor Totoro, there is a very satisfying sense of minimalism in this film. The family of Aoki farms the land. Like many of their neighbours in southern Japan around the mid-20th century, they cultivate durum wheat in spring, followed by a rice harvest in late summer/autumn. Shinko’s and Kiiko’s differences include Shinko living in a house without stairs, and like most of her classmates she goes to school barefoot. Not the most exciting element, but still, Sunao Katabuchi is a director well worth looking out for in the future.
Even death is presented as simply a transition into a new way of life. Is there nothing this film can’t present gracefully? Once again, I am left with the conflicting feeling of satisfaction for having a discovered a little-known gem, but having Ghibli references sprinkled throughout and being made by Madhouse, how is this anime not more well known? The film is beautifully animated, and features a lot of innovative or at least, risky, techniques. Keep in mind though that this filmis more along the lines of films that Mai Mai Miracle most resemble are the non-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli films like Only Yesterday and Pom Poko. This line of films deal with many themes specific to Japanese lifestyles.
Mai Mai Miracle manages to cram in quite a few plot developments with its 90+ minute running time. There is a joyously innocent scene where the girls adopt a fish, poignant exposition into Kiiko’s departed mom, and even a heroic revenge subplot. Easily the most mature theme that parents should be aware of is the film’s brief exploration into suicide. There is no real overarching narrative which reveals itself over time, and Shinko’s goals, as much as she focuses on them, shift quite frequently along with her imagination and feelings. One might even say that the movie lacks an orthodox cinematic structure, and yet the movie never feels like it’s leading the viewer to a dead end, even when it’s not actually clear what direction it’s taking.