Last week The Japan Foundation put on an excellent mini festival of recent Japanese cinema at the ICA. I unfortunately only got to see one film, but it looked like an excellent lineup all round. Titled Once Upon a Time in Japan, there were modern Hitchcockian murder-mysteries and grand period pieces alike.
The film I caught was Mai Mai Miracle, which, according to the rather lovely Japanese lady who introduced the film, was actually the first time the Japan Foundation have shown an anime in around ten years of doing this kind of thing. Mai Mai Miracle is a product of Sunao Katabuchi, who has worked with Miyazaki before and has plenty of experience with animation for TV and film. It’s not often anime hits cinema screens either, so my interest was piqued.
The film itself offers a very sweet look at nostalgia, memory and history. At the center are two young schoolgirls who form a close friendship over the course of one spring. There’s not so much of a plot, rather, memorable events seem to happen whilst the friendship blossoms. A favourite teacher leaves school to marry, the girls and friends build a damn in the local stream and adopt a pet goldfish, a friend’s parent dies, a grandfather inspires, an absent father returns home. All these things are remembered with a warm hazy nostalgia (even the death, as much as you can call that hazy and warm).
It all acts to recall a specific place in the lives of two people (childhood, the 1950s, rural Japan) and underline the nostalgia found in youth. Meanwhile, a side strand sees the girls imagine another young girl who lived in the past. The wise old inspiring grandfather tells stories of a palace that once stood in their village 1000 years ago, and the girls become fascinated by a young princess who inhabited it.
The princess’ tale bears similarities to the contemporary one in terms a playful desires and a youthful pursuit of friendship. This parallel narrative anchors home the points about memory and nostalgia made before, but puts them in a historical context, specifically bringing out themes about one’s place in history. Childhood comes only once, and it should be remembered fondly, yet there is a universality at play. Whether 1000 years ago, 50 years ago or today, children existed, and their experiences were much like our own.
Viewed at: The ICA