Japanese Title: Mai Mai Shinko to Sen-nen no Maho (Mai Mai Shinko and the Millennium Old Magic)
Publisher: Deltamac (Hong Kong)
Format: Region 3 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional Cantonese Dub and English and Chinese Subtitles
Length: 95 minutes
Production Date: 2009
English Version Release Date: 23 December 2010
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes
One thing I wanted to do with my old blog but never got around to was to write about anime and tokusatsu DVDs that were practically ignored by western fandom. The majority of these releases are non R1 (US and Canadian releases) discs, though there a number of US releases which never got much exposure and languished in obscurity. Some of these titles are unappreciated classics, some are guilty pleasures and some are downright hideous. However I believe all of them should have been noticed a bit more than what they were. First up is a relatively obscure English subtitled Hong Kong release of Madhouse’s underappreciated “Mai Mai Miracle”;
Set outside the sleepy town of Hofu a decade after World War II, this family film follows the life of tomboyish nine year old Shinko Aoki. She’s a bit of a daydreamer and often fantasises about having imaginary friends such as Green Kojiro, who runs on top of the water along the canals that flow beside the roads and crops out near her house. Her grandfather’s stories about life in the area a thousand years ago also inspire her to have time traveling journeys where a bored and lonely princess named Nagiko Kiyohara wishes she had others to play with. A new student from Tokyo, Kiko Shimazu, is placed in Shinko’s class. In during self-study, class Kiko lets an unkempt boy borrows one of her colour pencils and he whittles it down to practically nothing after breaking the lead several times. She desperately tries to retrieve it before it’s completely destroyed, but a teacher enters the room and punishes the boy. Shinko, a little incensed by the injustice of this, follows Kiko home. Instead of telling her off, Shinko finds herself being invited into Kiko’s house and being amazed by the modern conveniences that none of the local folk (well Shinko’s neighbours at least) seem to have. Shinko discovers that the colour pencils were Kiko’s deceased mother’s which Kiko took without permission.
The two girls become friends rather quickly and Kiko drops her reserved stance and becomes more friendly and accepted with the other children as well. Over the next few months the pair get into all sorts of mischief, such as eating a box of liqueur chocolates with Shinko’s little sister Mitsuko, which makes them all rolling drunk. They also have adventures with the other local children including damming up a local stream. Shinko also introduces Kiko to her “Millennium Magic” in which she can travel back a thousand years to the Heian era where Princess Nagiko Kiyohara lives. While Shinko can see Nagiko’s world and fully experience it, much to Kiko’s disappointment she cannot have the same experience as Shinko. Shinko blames this on her Mai Mai, her cowlick on her head which she seems unable to get rid of. Regardless, during the course of the film the audience is simultaneously shown the day to day life of Princess Nagiko’s world along with the modern day world which Shinko and Kiko inhabit. One day the local children make a promise which is broken by a tragedy that befalls one of them. Shinko is disillusioned by these turn of events and runs off to set things straight. Meanwhile Kiko discovers that she has developed a “Mai Mai” of her own and finds herself following Princess Nagiko’s day to day life.
2009 was a pretty good year for anime films. In particular Madhouse released Mamoru Hosoda’s second film for the studio, “Summer Wars”. While that film got all the attention, Madhouse’s other family film of that year; “Mai Mai Miracle” was no slouch. In fact it ran for seven months in Japanese cinemas. I think Studio Ghibli should watch out as Madhouse seems to be gradually taking over the title of the studio that releases the best animated family films. In my opinion I think Madhouse makes better family films than Ghibli. I was rather lukewarm on the last two Ghibli offerings. This film is directed by Sunao Katabuchi who is not exactly a household name. Those with long memories may recall the Studio 4°C film released in 2001 called “Princess Arete” which at one point toured film festivals with an English subtitled print (which was unfortunately pulled for the Japanime 02 festival in Australia due to the fact the print was damaged beyond repair). Unfortunately Katabuchi’s directing career hadn’t progressed much since “Princess Arete”. In fact “Mai Mai Miracle” is his second time in the director’s chair. I think this film proves he was being underutilised at Madhouse.
Based on an autobiography by Nobuko Takagi, you could probably draw comparisons here with Isao Takahata’s “Only Yesterday”, but the closest this film comes to is “My Neighbour Totoro”, especially with its low fantasy elements and realistic setting. However the elements of reality and fantasy never really mix as they do in “Totoro” and the film is pitched at a slightly older audience. Like “Totoro”, it’s set in 1950’s rural Japan and there is a sequence where Shinko’s little sister becomes lost, but that is where the comparisons end. What makes the film work is the personalities and interactions of the children. I really liked the contrasts between city girl Kiko Shimazu and her “country bumpkin” classmates. However what impressed me the most with this film is the fact that it doesn’t wallow in sentimentality (though it does teeter on the edge toward the end) or makes out that 1950’s rural Japan was a better time than the present. Suicide, the failure of adult relationships, deaths of loved ones and even the seedy red light district of the town are shown. You’d never see that kind of stuff in an American family film. What’s interesting is that most of the first half almost exclusively focuses on the children, then in the second half the lives of the adults gradually creep into the plot. The message that comes across loud and clear is that the adults in this film aren’t exactly prefect. A lot of them are terribly flawed.
The thing which didn’t quite work for this film was the switch between modern times and the Heian era, mainly the attempt to link Shinko and Kiko with Princess Nagiko who lived in the same area a thousand years ago. While it did work for a majority of the film, there just didn’t seem to be any real connection between the past and the present, save for a very short scene where Shinko and Kiko happen across an archaeological dig and some of the remnants from that time period such as the canals. Possibly there were a couple too many sub plots going at the same time and not enough time devoted to this part of the story. Certainly the first half of the film moves rather slowly as we are introduced to the characters, setting and the way of life of the town. Maybe more time should have been spent linking the past and present together. Perhaps through an item that Shinko’s family owned, or the stories in the past and present could have mirrored one another. Despite that flaw the film is really entertaining, and like most Madhouse films the animation is just gorgeous. I think it’s a real shame that this film didn’t receive the same attention that its sister film, “Summer Wars” had. At the very least the film has had some sort of legit English release (outside of the subbed film print doing the rounds of the film festival circuit a couple of years back).
Deltamac’s DVD looks pretty damn good, but the font and readability of the English subtitles leave a little to be desired. They’re rather small and thin, and at times can be a little difficult to read. But the translation is excellent and not “Engrishy” at all. I suspect that these are the same subtitles that appear on the subtitled festival film print. The only let down is the DVD contains absolutely no bonus material at all, no trailer for the film or even previews for other Deltamac titles. As this film seems destined to never make it to the English language market “proper” (in western countries at least), this is the only way to see the film legitimately in English. If you love Japanese animated family films, don’t hesitate to import a copy.