Mai Mai Miracle -- Film Review

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BUSAN, South Korea -- "Mai Mai Miracle" unfurls the shared destinies of a country girl living in post-war Japan and a little princess from the Heian period (794-1185 AD). The animated feature directed by Sunao Katabuchi is as beautifully illustrated as a Monet landscape painting. It is also as impressionistic, having little depth or momentum. Meticulous production standards ensure "Mai Mai" will be eagerly consumed, and soon forgotten by the anime-hungry domestic and worldwide markets.

Adapted from Nobuko Takagi's autobiographical novel on growing up in rural Yamagata in the 50s, "Mai Mai" recounts the ups and downs of country girl Shinko (Mayuko Fukuda) during one summer. A new classmate named Kiiko (Nako Muzusawa) arrives from Tokyo with her doctor single-dad. She is teased for her cosmopolitan airs, but Shinko befriends her. They form the "destiny squad" with other kids, imagining they are protected by a magic sword.

In a parallel universe conjured up by Shinko from her grandfather's anecdotes and historical accounts in Sei Shonagon's "The Pillow Book," Princess Nagiko (Ei Morisako) accompanies her father Lord Kiyohara on his new posting as governor of Suo, a kingdom that existed right under Shinko's feet 1,000 years ago. Longing for a playmate, Nagiko is crushed when told that the highborn companion they groomed for her has passed away. She notices a peasant girl and is instantly drawn to her.

The loosely detailed screenplay allows sub-stories involving a bevy of faintly delineated characters to swim in all directions. Then, it makes a discordant lurch into tragedy. Perhaps the episode is intended to temper the film's fairytale element with a dose of social realism, but its sleazy and criminal nature may be considered unsuitable for children below 12.

The shifts between modern and ancient worlds, confusing to younger viewers, only converge with 20 minutes to go, when Nagiko's face is shown for the first time, but mystery or sense of deja vu has been so lacking in the build-up that the revelation prompts one to say "that's it?" or "so what?" The magic refered to throughout never really happens.

Katabuchi was assistant director for Hayao Miyazaki for "Kiki's Delivery Service." "Mai Mai" bears marks of Katabuchi's emulation of the master's splendidly colorful and lovingly hand-drawn art as well as his glorification of nature, of which "My Neighbor Totoro" is a blueprint (the disappearance of Shinko's little sister Mitsuko and the search through the fields is a replica of a similar scene in "Totoro.") However, compared with Miyazaka, Katabuchi is like a Lilliputan in the shadow of Gulliver, lacking his creativity, profundity and narrative sweep.

Pusan International Film Festival -- Ani-Asia

Sales: Shochiku Company Ltd., Avex Entertainment, Madhouse Ltd
Production: Madhouse Ltd
Cast: Mayuko Fukuda, Nako Muzusawa, Ei Morisako, Manami Honjo
Director-screenwriter: Sunao Katabuchi
Based on the novel by Nobuko Takagi
Producer: Tomohiko Iwase, Miho Icii, Ryoichiro Matsuo
Director of photography: Yukihiro Masumoto
Production designer: Shinichi Uehara
Music: Shuhei Murai, Minako Obata
No rating, 94 minutes
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