Imaginative country girl Shinko (voiced by Mayuko Fukuda) enjoys daydreaming about her hometown of Hofu as it was a thousand years ago. Her loving grandpa, a former schoolteacher, teaches the mischievous tomboy all about nature, science and their unique local history. When a new doctor arrives in town, Shinko befriends his dainty daughter Keiko (Nako Mizusawa), a painfully shy little girl coping with the loss of her mother. As they while away the summer days, Shinko draws Keiko out of despair. Together they take care of a goldfish in a makeshift pond, help a local boy cope with a family tragedy, and fantasize about a cloistered and lonely young princess who moved to their town in the Feudal Era.
Sunao Katabuchi began as an animator at Studio Ghibli before he struck out on his own. He made the artful and Ghibli-esque Princess Arete (2001), but then took a crass misstep with Black Lagoon (2007). Now he has bounced back with this heart-warming coming of age fable. Mai Mai Miracle shares a pastoral idyll and Fifties nostalgia in common with the Hayao Miyazaki classic, My Neighbour Totoro (1988), as well as a subplot wherein Shinko’s naughty little sister goes missing, but is actually based on the idiosyncratic autobiographical novel “Mai Mai Shinko” written by Nobuko Takagi, winner of the prestigious literary award the Akutagawa Prize.
Powered by two perfectly pitched vocal performances from actresses Mayuko Fukuda and Nako Mizusawa, the story unfolds in a series of beautifully observed vignettes that add up to a psychologically truthful portrait of childhood. More specifically, children’s use of make believe games to make the world a little less daunting. When we first glimpse rowdy Shinko with her pudding bowl haircut and the fastidiously elegant Keiko with her cutely coiffed locks, it seems insurmountable class differences separate the two. Other kids gossip about Keiko’s “foreign ways” (she wears perfume and makeup) while Shinko cannot believe how beautiful her house is, with its lovely garden and fancy furnishings. They even have a refrigerator! However, the film argues those feelings we share in common transcend the social circumstances that keep us apart. The girls bond in a hilarious scene wherein Keiko accidentally feeds Shinko and her little sister chocolate liqueurs. They get blind, stinking drunk just as mom arrives home.
As in Miyazaki’s work, Mai Mai Miracle combines the moral values of the past with the progressive attitudes of the present. Hence the children are not punished for minor infractions, but nurtured with care and patience and learn from interacting with nature. Beyond their childhood games lies a more complicated world: beloved schoolteacher Miss Hizuru learns her boyfriend is a married man, older boy Tatsuyoshi falls into despair when his, hitherto respectable, policeman father commits suicide over a yakuza scandal. Far from escapism, Shinko’s imagination gives her the fortitude to cope with such harsh realities and fires Keiko’s fighting spirit to the point that by, the film’s end, she seems set to take over as the young alpha-female in town.
Interwoven midst the main story is a subplot concerning the feudal era princess and her efforts to befriend a humble servant girl, even though the royal elders want to keep them apart. Things take a unique time-travel twist wherein Keiko’s imagination allows her to inhabit the princess’ body and manipulate this story towards a happy ending. What this subplot does is underline the continuity of human existence. Wherever and whenever people exist, they share the same anxieties, dreams and joys. From ancient times to the post-war period and presumably, the generation watching this anime.