Full Disclosure: I backed this film’s Kickstarter. I have buyer’s remorse. Also, spoilers.
Mai Mai Miracle wants you feel things, other than boredom. Great animation veils undercooked characters and an unfocussed, unmotivated plot. Unfortunately, the film is otherwise so competent, that no especially dunderheaded artistic choice can distract you from how much of a slog the film is.
In 1950s Japan, there forms an unlikely friendship between an outgoing, rural tomboy and a shy, city girl. Our tomboy, Shinko, has a vivid imagination. She transforms the countryside into the ancient Land of Suo’s capital. She dreams of a lonely princess, who wants only to meet a girl her age. Our shy girl, Kiiko, can’t quite grasp Shinko’s fantasies, but reaches out to them regardless. Our heroines, alongside four boys, adventure through the countryside, until one of the boys has his life changed forever.
Friendship. Friendship between rich and poor, urban and country, refined and unrestrained, friendship across a gulf of circumstance and personality, a gulf which narrows as friendship grows – a fine sentiment. But a movie cannot live on only a sentiment.
Films require conflict. (Some avant-garde films forgo conflict, but Mai Mai Miracle is not avant-garde.) If there is no difference between how the world is and how characters wish it would be, why should the audience care about what characters do? What are their doings for? Lacking a conflict, their actions only add to runtime, not plot. A long, continuous portion of this film amounts to a montage of children playing. Cute, for the first thirty seconds, but soon we beg the film to go somewhere.
Mai Mai Miracle could do with a lot more conflict spread throughout, rather than front- and back-loading it. The first twenty minutes have a bit of conflict: transfer student Kiiko is treated as an outsider, and wants to stop feeling isolated. A conventional conflict, but the film goes through the motions convincingly.
Problem is, the conflict resolves too quickly. The gregarious Shinko follows Kiiko home. Soon Kiiko warms to her. And then there are no new challenges, no new gulfs between reality and desire, until a good thirty minutes later. Oh, yes, stuff happens within that thirty minutes. They make new friends and go adventuring, but no obstacle stands in the way of getting friends, nor did the adventures throw up any obstacle. (It does throw up one bit of conflict, when a child goes missing, but it resolves without our heroes’ input.) Lulls in action are fine, but one-third of a movie is a hiatus.
This lulling period-piece of children playing in untamed nature feels like watching someone else’s nostalgia. For the first ten minutes, it is merely mawkish. By minute forty, it is interminable. It may mean a lot to the author of the original book, but their childhood arcadia bores me to tears.
Some conflict still runs through this section’s still waters, but of such a kind that it doesn’t matter. Shinko imagines an ancient princess, in desperate want of a friend. The viewer infers this potential friend is the peasant girl on the other side of the castle wall. The princess wants a friend, does not have a friend, and a way presents itself of getting a friend – thus conflict. But even putting aside the easy resolution this conflict has, it is unsatisfying. Within the narrative, it is a fantasy, i.e. not real. Why should I care if this imaginary girl doesn’t get a friend?
I suppose, the purpose of this fantasy’s conflict is subtext. After a dream where the princess is lonely, the normally unflappable Shinko wakes up crying. At the end of the film (spoilers), Kiiko continues Shinko’s fantasy in her mind. The princess only befriends the peasant girl in Kiiko’s fantasy. It symbolises the solidification of Shinko and Kiiko’s relationship. Despite her boundless imagination, Shinko cannot imagine the princess with a friend. Only when Shinko’s friend Kiiko opens her mind to Shinko’s fantasies can Kiiko give the princess a friend.
But while I’m all for subtext, it should relate to the actual text. The princess and the peasant girl become friends. That would be a fitting metaphor for the film’s first act, when rich girl Kiiko and poor girl Shinko become friends. This fantasy, however, culminates at the end of the film. After the princess and peasant become friends, Shinko and Kiiko affirm their friendship. The fantasy’s climax may reflect Shinko and Kiiko growing closer, or that a rift between them healed. If that’s the case, the film should have laced some doubt about their closeness, so that this capstone could be a culmination, and not merely a confirmation of what the audience knew from the start.
Apart from the fantasy narrative, our film’s latter half has a baffling choice of focus. Of our sextet of childhood friends, only Shinko and Kiiko approach roundness. That is fine. You can depict a friend group where only the main characters have depth, and the others are just there for background. What’s not fine is the film’s climatic conflict focusses on neither of our heroines. The plot swivels to one of the undercooked characters in their friend group, and his family, and his coming-of-age. This swivel is not merely underwhelming, but infuriating. The film assumes you’re invested in this character. You want to yell at the screen, ‘I don’t care!’
As one can expect from a nostalgic tale of childhood, by the end, childhood dies. But the film botches this tried-and-tested theme.
There’s a cliché that if a children’s book has a dog on the cover, that dog will die. This symbolises the death of innocence, or something. For such a symbol to work, however, the audience needs to actually care about the dog. In Mai Mai Miracle, the dog is a fish and a teacher with the same name. The audience could not care less about them.
The children’s teacher is moving to Tokyo, because her fiancé needs to move there. Shinko and Kiiko are ecstatic about their teacher’s coming marriage, but she tells them to keep it a secret. Our heroines, therefore, shower their celebrations on a pet fish named after their teacher. In the fish’s pond, all six children leave little gifts. Kiiko’s gift, her late mother’s perfume, leaks into the water, killing the fish. And thus happiness turns to melancholy. Change, even positive, is bittersweet.
But it’s not bittersweet to the audience. We don’t care about this fish, or this teacher. We know they exist, we know the children like them, but we have no connection to these underexposed characters. So what we have is a fish, which the audience doesn’t care about, symbolising a teacher, who the audience doesn’t care about, to communicate the pangs of change, which the audience doesn’t feel.
The death of innocence is also repeated in the brooding boy, who is the focus of the third act. As I have said, the audience builds no relationship with him, and thus feel nothing for him. His coming-of-age affects the audience as minimally as the teacher-fish.
I cannot chalk up the film’s mediocrity to the creators’ laziness. If the film was just lazy, perhaps I’d not be so harsh; there would have been no promise of something good. Just looking at the animation, flowing with the youthful exuberance, coloured like a nostalgic daydream, we see the effort, care, and money put into this film. The creators pooled all their talent into creating a Ghibli-esque masterpiece. They only achieved the pretty pictures, not the emotional depth.
Apparently Mai Mai Miracle’s getting good reviews. I would say judge it for yourself, but the film costs around $30 American. Don’t make that gamble. Wait for it to come on streaming. The ninety-five minutes this film steals is cost enough.