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Mai Mai Miracle
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by Jay Seaver

"Traditional animation, and that'sfine."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Mai Mai Miracle" is charming. It's a nostalgic memoir about growing up as free-range kids, but we can use all the good ones we can get before we run out of people who grew up that way. Nicely animated by Madhouse, the anecdotes should please audiences of all ages, and the storytelling is sophisticated enough to draw adults in without leaving the kids behind.

Shinko (voice of Mayuko Fukuda) is an energetic third-grader living in rural Japan. Her days are spent running through wheat fields, messing with her little sister, soaking in every word that her grandfather, a former schoolteacher, tells her about their town, and using it to fuel her very active imagination, which she claims is connected to her "mai mai", a cowlick that just won't lay flat no matter what she does. One day, a new girl joins her class; Kiiko (voice of Nako Mizusawa) is in many ways Shinko's opposite - the girl from Tokyo is shy and sad, and lives in a new western-style house - but they become fast friends. Soon there are other kids in their orbit. It's a good life, but not always a carefree one.

Like many films of its genre, Sunao Katabuchi's breaks up into smaller pieces. It's taken from a book by writer Noboku Takagi, who based it upon her life, and the various individual episodes toward the beginning are both amusing and true-to-life; Katabuchi almost never misses when depicting what's in a kid's head or what they'll do in a given situation, and there's never a situation the feels contrived beyond kids' natural abilities to get into mischief, usually with at least one big laugh to be found in each scenario. The filmmakers also do a fine job of getting into the kids' point of view, only briefly giving us the adults' perspective.

Katabuchi and company have ambitions beyond just looking back at childhood fondly, though. There's a real (but not overdone) sadness to Kiiko, who acts out in ways you may not notice at first, and lamenting that she can't muster quite the active imagination that Shinko can - although the way she rediscovers that ability is unusually sophisticated. The challenges that face the kids in the second half lead into each other and bring them into dark places. In fact, parents should perhaps be ready to have a discussion with their kids over one plot development - (spoiler!) an adult character commits suicide, which is both heavy stuff and something viewed differently in 1950s Japan than the modern west (end spoiler) - even though it does not dominate the movie.

The visuals are, as might be expected, quite impressive: Madhouse is one of the top animation houses in Japan, and Katabuchi got his start working for Hayao Miyazaki. Movement is smooth, and I never noticed any moments when things would freeze to save animation effort and costs. There's a solid feel to the characters, and the designs are perfect, from the whimsical, simple shapes of Shinko to the clean, neat lines used for Kiiko. They also do a nice job of varying the style on occasion - most obviously when something wanders onto screen out of Shinko's imagination, looking like it was crudely drawn with colored pencils, but also when the characters make their way into the dangerous port area, and the people they meet have a more angular, less friendly style.

Things at the end of "Mai Mai Miracle"> come a little bit out of left field, but that's what a kid's life is like - full of adventure and amazement but often completely out of her control. Katabuchi captures that, making a film that is familiar but beautifully executed.

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originally posted: 07/15/10 13:51:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Sunao Katabuchi

Written by
  Sunao Katabuchi

  Mayuko Fukuda
  Nako Mizusawa
  Ei Morisako
  Manami Honjou
  Miyo Wakita

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