The New York International Children’s Film Festival is a place I like to experiment and quite often go into movies without much knowledge of them. I guess it comes down to the fact that for many of these films, this may be the only chance to see them, especially on the big screen. With a number of films this year being anime, I was feeling even more of an itch to squeeze in as many screenings as I could. Something about that big screen adds a lot to the experience, at least for me. So with that in mind I went to see Mai Mai Miracle where literally the only thing I knew about it was that it was from Japan.
Mai Mai Miracle follows the ever-imaginative young Shinko in a small, somewhat rural town, of a post-WWII Japan. Thanks to Shinko’s grandfather she has become fascinated with the town’s 1000-year-old history so much so that she often has wild daydreams about it. When shy Kiiko moves to town, Shinko’s curious nature leads her to befriend the quiet girl and the two become fast and inseparable friends. Through the make-believe world that Shinko shares with her, Kiiko starts to come out of her shell, and soon the little town is a place of joy where each day is spent in laughter and adventure. But, as many stories about coming of age do, some sad and very real problems invade their little piece of paradise. Mai Mai Miracle is a story of friendship, history, dreams, and growing up which really and truly feels like the perspective of the young.
There are moments throughout the film where we actually see the 1000-year-old town through Shinko and Kiiko’s playing. And according to Shinko her tuft of hair that just won’t lay flat is what gives her a connection and understanding of the old world. After they find out a princess their age lived in a huge estate, it almost becomes a testament to the girls friendship as they try to imagine just who she was. Though admittedly it wasn’t always clear to me whether the princess’s story was trying to draw parallels to Shinko and Kiiko, but in many ways I think the princess looking for a friend herself really resonates with the present story of Mai Mai Miracle. The girls’ imaginations come alive on the screen through the spirit and freedom that only children have in their fantasies. In fact, the entire film has a wonderful sense of childhood play and the bonds that happen almost by accident when you are young. And even though I didn’t grow up in a small town, Mai Mai Miracle’s circle of friendships even reflects the suburban neighborhood I grew up in. This understanding of youth, how each person influences the other, and how fleeting those moments of childhood are are far and away what makes this film stand out.
Shinko portrayal makes her a very alive character. She is the type of friend all kids long to have, she is brave, adventurous, and free-spirited. Shinko is always poised to lead you somewhere and she would never turn her back on a friend. At times the way she is portrayed seems to be through Kiiko’s eyes, a perfect best friend and someone quite unforgettable that surely shapes her life. Kiiko herself at first seems to be the complete opposite of Shinko, and maybe that is what fascinates both of them so, but her contemplation of events and her sincerity makes her fit with Shinko like a puzzle piece. The town has a wealth of personalities from the teacher at school, to Shinko’s little sister, to the neighbor boys who slowly become part of the group of friends which cements the small town feel. This is especially true of Tatsuyoshi, an older boy who has a mysterious quality about him, as you learn bits and pieces of his life he really adds some of that coming-of-age taste to the film.
Overall, I found Mai Mai Miracle to be an enjoyable and often times relatable film. Admittedly though I did struggle with the lack of an overarching plot, this is a personal limit. However, I think the story moves along at a good pace and with the stand out characters I was happy to look past it. Mai Mai Miracle captures a children’s story feel, and has a real insight into the relationships between children, without playing down to its audience making it truly a memorable film.