Sunao Katabuchi’s charming, millennium-spanning anime, from Nobuko Takagi’s autobiographical novel about growing up in ’50s rural Japan, succinctly maps the dynamics of childhood imagination. Though less graphically sumptuous than the recent work of Hayao Miyazaki (Katabuchi apprenticed on “Kiki’s Delivery Service”), “Mai Mai Miracle” maintains a high production level consistent with that seminal Miyazaki opus. Katabuchi exploits deftly timed facial expressions, judiciously chosen minutiae and complex cross-cutting to grant emotional depth and tonal resonance to a deceptively simple story of girlhood friendship. Pic deserves an audience wider than the kiddie ghetto to which exceptional animation is too often consigned.
An exuberant tomboy, Shinko (voiced Mayuko Fukuda) feels completely at home in the wheat fields of the small town of Kokuga, where she races imaginary creatures and daydreams of the ancient capital city of Suo, on which Kokuga now stands. Nine-year-old Kiiko (Nako Mizusawa) has a very different temperament — shy, withdrawn, still mourning a mother she barely remembers. A transplant from Tokyo, Kiiko, with her exotic Western dress and pale complexion, is marked as alien to her peasant schoolmates.
Yet the two girls hit it off with giggly camaraderie, as Shinko draws Kiiko into her fantasy scenarios, and the film comes to loosely resemble “The World of Henry Orient,” with a ninth-century little princess, Nagiko, in the obsessed-over Henry Orient role. The feudal past materializes in the middle of a 20th-century road in the form of ox-drawn carts and kimono-clad women, sometimes childishly rendered at first, before morphing into full realization. The princess, a girl their age whose face they cannot yet visualize, remains isolated in her parallel universe as Katabuchi inventively leaps timeframes.
Shadowing this enchanted cross-temporal childhood ether is a half-glimpsed adult world — which includes a classmate’s heroic policeman father and the girls’ beloved young teacher — that hides secrets darker than the pair’s youthful imaginings. Katabuchi’s storytelling skills enable him to layer an aura of postwar disillusionment without disturbing the pic’s well-sustained innocent tone.
Pic’s action-packed climax finds Shinko venturing into the seamy side of town, discovering that good and evil are not so comfortingly distinct.
Ultimately, “Mai Mai Miracle” depicts Japan in the ’50s, caught between an imperial past of rigid class distinction and its Western-influenced, caste-loose future. Kiiko’s ability to channel an imperial princess while mourning her Westernized mother, and Shinko’s realization that her classmate’s father was not simply seduced by Western influences but carried the seed of his own destruction, sophisticatedly represent two sides of an ambivalent East/West fusion, conveyed with surprising clarity.