It's a little puzzling in what it's trying to do and what its themes are, but it's also lovely and among the best anime movies I've seen. It's an adaptation of a novelisation of an autobiography, which hurts my head but explains a good deal.
It's the spring of 1955, although the film doesn't make this clear and I expended a good deal of brainpower trying to work out when we were. "Where" is obvious. It's Japan. More specifically, it's a small town out in the sticks, where the locals talk in the equivalent of "ooo-aarrr" accents and the lead character is astonished to find a house with such new-fangled innovations as a gas-powered fridge and a staircase. The biggest clue to the year is the school uniforms, but the movie somehow looks modern (because countryside is timeless?), while conversely the Kiiko character is introduced in what you'd swear was an 1920s outfit. In fairness though, there are also horses and carts.
The lead character is Shinko, as per Nobuko Takagi's autobiography, called Mai Mai Shinko. She's a little tomboy (aged eight or nine?) whose friends are all male and whose hobbies include rampaging through the countryside and having magical hallucinations about what it was like there a thousand years ago. Her scary grandfather (whom she loves) used to be a history teacher and he's filled her full of stories.
Kiiko is another girl the same age, who's only just moved to the area and has lost her mother. Kiiko is the opposite of Shinko. Her dad's rich and she lives in what looks like an expensive, faintly depressing dolls' house (but human-sized). She has no friends here. You wouldn't think she'd say "boo" to a goose. She drifts around like a ghost, avoiding eye contact, but we later learn that she's girly and has an emotional attachment to her late mother's wedding photos.
Shinko's five-year-old sister Mitsuko might possibly be a brat, but she can keep up with Shinko.
Nagiko, who lived a thousand years ago. The historical background for her scenes is based on Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book (completed 1002). Don't let the name fool you. It's nothing to do with sex, but simply Shonagon's diary and random jottings as a lady of the court in Heian Japan. (Yes, the period with the stovepipe hats.)
My puzzlement involved the fact that most of the movie didn't seem to be doing anything. It's often compared with My Neighbour Totoro
, since they're both charming, plot-light anime celebrations of childhood in 1950s Japan with a fantasy element. (Even the art and tone are Miyazaki-like.) However when I learned it was autobiographical, everything fell into place. Shinko runs around. Kiiko comes to school and the other children are unpleasant to her. Shinko does nothing and just watches, but later follows Kiiko home and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. They eat liqueur chocolates and get drunk. Shinko tells Kiiko about the Heian era and the fact that this region used to be a separate country called Suou. They do children's stuff that includes goldfish.
This is charming, but I wasn't sure if it was going anywhere.
However at the same time, we also see Shinko's magical world of the Heian era. We meet Nagiko, who's a little girl just like Shinko and Kiiko. She's funny. In its quiet way, this is one of my favourite cinematic evocations of a historical period, doing it with a light touch as we get to know the irrepressible Nagiko. I loved the way she gets into playing that board game against herself, for instance. Like Kiiko, she doesn't seem to have any friends, but she's so full of life that you hardly notice.
I particularly appreciated the bit where Nagiko's thousand-year flashback itself has a thousand-year flashback, going back to the Yayoi period when Japan had its own Bronze and Iron Ages. It's a lovely new perspective.
In other words, we have a story that on one level is just small children playing, yet is also bringing in magical realism, thousands of years of Japanese history and some dramatic real-world events. Stuff happens to the adults around Shinko and Kiiko. There will be marriage, death, prostitution and yakuza, albeit mostly offscreen. Sometimes the children don't really register this, while sometimes they react with peculiar child rituals that make perfect sense to them (and hence us). Life goes on, if you're lucky.
In the end, the film does pull together a theme. It's a celebration of children's play. If that sounds trite, it's not. These are tough times, underneath the surface of this charming, light anime, and a number of the characters are in danger of letting their troubles overwhelm them. At the start of the film, Kiiko is damaged. Shinko heals her. She doesn't do it through her magic, but just by being Shinko. They play. They run around the fields. They do normal, insane child stuff that would have any adult committed to an asylum... and this makes the world a better place. It's about children finding a connection with each other, playing and being friends. It's beautiful, actually.
However it's not a straightforward film to interpret. Those who'll get it more completely and immediately than anyone, I suspect, are small children. This might explain why its only English-language DVD release to date has been in Hong Kong.
I loved this film. It's set in the real world rather than in whimsical Miyazaki fantasy, but that's fine. You're on a hiding to nothing if you're trying to go head-on with My Neighbour Totoro
. It won various film festival awards and was nominated for the 4th Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Is there a letter-writing campaign to get this an English-language Blu-ray release to which I can sign up? It's sweet, its control of tone is masterful (delicate yet rumbustious) and it's funny (e.g. the children vs. the "brigands"). If you ever get a chance to see this, jump at it quick.