When the name Hayao Miyazaki is thrown around in a film’s synopsis, the reader’s ears should prick up and listen, as the man is responsible for some of the best animated films of the past decade, with Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke being just three of my personal favourites.
But when the name is given in the way this one was, you need to hear it with at least a little scepticism. Mai Mai Miracle‘s director Sunao Katabuchi was the assistant director to Miyazaki on Kiki’s Delivery Service, and, as such, can have the man’s name dropped into anything he touches from then on.
And it’s no surprise, as Sunao Katabuchi’s style is quite close to that of Miyazaki’s, even if it does have some little bits of flair all to itself. The animation here is entirely lovely, of course, and gives the film a brilliant sense that something wonderful is about to happen. It’s just unfortunate that the story doesn’t live up to the animation’s promise, and that, in itself, is hard enough to write because of it.
The story follows Shinko, a young girl who lives in a fairly small area of Japan with her mother and sister. They also live with her father, but he is absent a lot of the time due to work, leaving Shinko’s grandad with a bigger role in her life. He tells Shinko of ancient times, a thousand years ago, and sparks her imagination of the time, leading to some nice scenes of her town’s past. When a shy new girl arrives from Tokyo and Shinko follows her home, they spark up a lasting friendship which should, in all fairness, take up most of the story.
However, from here the story meanders about, not knowing exactly where it wants to take these characters. On one hand, you have an entirely lovely story about the two girls meeting boys from their class, building a dam, and keeping a fish together. On the other, you have a very loose story about the new girl going back in time, taking over the body of a princess and making friends with a slave.
While the former is a pretty interesting coming of age tale in which the best parts of the film are to be found, the latter is an unfortunate mess, which doesn’t fit with the rest of the story and, in fact, drags the film down by quite a large amount.
The repetitive soundtrack is also a problem. When it comes to this particular part of the filmmaking, it seems like someone fell asleep during the process and left the same four bars of music running for a long, long time.
However, despite these problems, I can’t help but love something about Mai Mai Miracle. The story about the girls becoming friends, finding the boys from their class, making a dam and all that follows there is brilliant, and shows how just a little part of a young person’s life can colour their future.
While the story may be different for everyone, this is a perfectly brilliant one and it gives us a great understanding of the reason these girls become friends. In particular, the ‘halcohal’ scene is inspired and it’s hard to imagine the writers of the story didn’t go through similar experiences to the kids here in their own childhoods.
Which makes the time-travelling storyline so hard to understand and, to be honest, whether it was really time-travelling or just imagination is irrelevant. The strand completely changes the entire film, just to show us these characters, which we barely know, interacting in a way that we can’t understand. It almost made me hate this film with a fiery passion, and definitely means that I could never watch it a second time. But, for what it’s worth, Sunao Katabuchi is a director well worth looking out for in the future.