If there is anyone to hold responsible for this review of Mai Mai Miracle, it is Japanese blogger tamagomago.
A blogger of anime and manga with a very keen sense of observation, lots of intelligence to spare, and a fount of good ideas, my first real experience with tamagomago was when I translated his essay on the concept of “Otaku Girl Moe.” Since that time, both of us had come into possession of Twitter accounts, and so it was only natural for me to begin following him.
Around late November, early December of last year, I began to notice that, in the vast majority of them (I would say over 90% or so), tamagomago would consistently mention the same thing: Mai Mai Shinko. He would preface his tweets with マイマイ新子妄想, or “Mai Mai Shinko Delusion,” and it was clear that whatever this was, it was quite a big deal to have captured his imagination so. My curiosity was piqued, and after finding out that it was actually a movie he was talking about, I hoped for the day that I too could see it. So when the New York International Children’s Film Festival brought the film over, I felt very fortunate.
Known in Japan as Mai Mai Shinko and the Millennium Magic, it was titled in the US as Mai Mai Miracle (and for the purposes of this review I will be going with the English title). Not knowing what to expect, I went into the theater and came out pleasantly surprised.
Mai Mai Miracle takes place a few years after World War II in Japan and follows a young girl named Aoki Shinko, whose primary characteristics are an untameable tuft of hair and boundless creativity. Shinko’s daily life is changed when she befriends a lonesome new girl in town, Shimazu Kiiko, and shows the quiet and demure Kiiko how to live life to its fullest armed with only two feet and a head full of imagination, while also connecting to her town’s storied history which stretches back a thousand years.
When I say that Mai Mai Miracle is a pleasant surprise, the operative word here is “pleasant.” It has an everyday atmosphere that can only be described as such, and the film, down to its core, exudes a sense of serenity that cannot be escaped even during the movie’s unhappier moments. The story has a clearly intentional meandering quality. There is no real overarching narrative which reveals itself over time, and Shinko’s goals, as much as she focuses on them, shift quite frequently along with her imagination and feelings. One might even say that the movie lacks an “orthodox” cinematic structure, and yet the movie never feels like it’s leading the viewer to a dead end, even when it’s not actually clear what direction it’s taking. Mai Mai Miracle is like a series of vignettes connected by the thread that is Shinko’s daily life and how it is affected by her newfound friendship with Kiiko.
Mai Mai Miracle has many strengths, but chief among them is the characters. This is especially the case for Shinko and Kiiko, but every person in the story, no matter how much or how little screen time they get, feels incredibly human. Some characters get barely touched on, but you can tell that they are going through their own personal adventures and struggles just as Kiiko has in moving to a new town.
The animation in Mai Mai Miracle is very vibrant and fun, though for the most part it doesn’t go for any wild experiments in moving images and keeps everything very traditional. One exception however, takes place in the early parts of the film, when Shinko is imagining the world of a thousand years ago. Here, crude, crayon-like drawings of houses, animals, and other objects begin to pop up all over the landscape and transform into their “real” counterparts, symbolizing the strength of Shinko’s childhood imagination. But by the latter half of the movie, the technique disappears entirely and we never see that transition again. Most likely the creators thought that doing it in the beginning was enough to imply that it was happening all the time, but I still kind of wish that we saw more usage of creative and abstract techniques, even if it wasn’t this one in particular.
I think Mai Mai Miracle will draw inevitable comparisons to the works of Studio Ghibli, particularly My Neighbor Totoro with its similar themes of moving to a new home and the strength and wonder of imagination, but Mai Mai Miracle can certainly stand up to the scrutiny. It’s a pleasant experience that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys the simple wonders of life and youth.