Mirai (未来のミライ, Mamoru Hosoda, 2018)

Mirai posterIn Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children, a young woman experiences heartbreak when the love of her life is cruelly cut down, leaving her alone with two small children whose particular needs send her off in search of a new way of living. Hosoda’s filmography is filled with family drama, of how difficult and painful the relationships between parents and children can be. Wolf Children was the story of a mother’s tragedy in that she has to set her children free in order to see them grow. The Boy and the Beast was a young man’s struggle to make peace with his father. Mirai (未来のミライ, Mirai no Mirai) presents an altogether less “complicated” vision of family life, steeped in authentic detail and gentle warmth.

The hero of the tale is Kun (Moka Kamishiraishi) – a train obsessed four year old suddenly presented with a new baby sister later named “Mirai” (Haru Kuroki). Having been an only child used to receiving all of his parents’ attention, Kun is intensely resentful of the various ways his life has changed. Feeling pushed out, he begins to throw tantrums, become argumentative, even threaten to run away from home. Meanwhile the family dog, Yukko, looks on with thinly veiled contempt as Kun gets a little of his own medicine in no longer being the centre of attention.

Taking refuge in the front garden which is a major feature of the family home designed by his architect father, Kun begins to receive a series of visitations – firstly from an anthropomorphised Yukko and then by the teenage incarnation of his little sister on an urgent mission to the past to ensure her absent minded father packs the Hina Matsuri dolls away on time lest she end up an old maid, prevented from marrying her one true love because of ancient superstition (and her father’s forgetfulness). After interacting with the older Mirai, Kun travels off on further flights of fancy to observe his mother at his age and even his late great grandfather – a dashing, motorcycle riding hero who walked with a limp thanks to a lucky wartime escape.

Snatched from vague comments overheard from his parents and grandmother, Kun’s adventures teach him new and valuable ideas about the world. He learns that it’s alright not to understand everything right away because that’s what life is for. As someone later puts it, there’s a first time for everything and once you’ve learned one thing you’re halfway way to knowing everything else. Meeting his mother as a youngster shows him that she was once a messy toddler too and that all things come in time.

Kun still doesn’t quite understand, but comes to a new appreciation of his home and his family as a part of something far larger of which he is merely a mid-point on an ever expanding scale. Mirai shows him his “family tree” as manifested literally in the one in the family garden. Somewhat oddly for a girl from the future, Mirai likens it to a card index like the ones at the library (perhaps one of her old fashioned preoccupations like the Hina Matsuri superstitions) filled with personal stories in which no one is ever really forgotten. Having gotten himself into quite a fix and wound up at a very futuristic looking Tokyo train station, it’s family which eventually sets Kun on his way back home, having remembered who he is in relation to others.

Yet Kun’s family is also intensely modern and going through changes of its own. Kun’s mother will be going back to work soon after Mirai’s birth – something still somewhat unusual in traditional Japan while in an even more seismic leap towards equality Kun’s father, who will be working from home, has committed to sharing responsibility for the domestic realm in looking after the children during the day as well as taking care of the cooking and the cleaning while Kun’s mum works. Kun’s mother might bristle at her husband’s eagerness to accept praise for only doing his fair share while struggling with ordinary day to day tasks, but the couple have soon found a happy equilibrium in embracing the joys and anxieties of building a family. Another beautifully profound tale from Hosoda, Mirai is a lovingly rendered exploration of what it is to live a life among lives with all the rewards and responsibilities that entails.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Penguin Highway (ペンギン・ハイウェイ, Hiroyasu Ishida, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

Penguin Highway posterRandom penguins might be the very opposite of a problem, but what exactly does it all mean? Tomihiko Morimi has provided the source material for some of the most interesting Japanese animation of recent times from Masaaki Yuasa’s wonderfully surreal Tatami Galaxy and Night is Short, Walk on Girl, to the comparatively calmer Eccentric Family. Hiroyasu Ishida’s adaptation of Morimi’s Penguin Highway (ペンギン・ハイウェイ) may be a far less abstract attempt to capture the author’s unique world view than Yuasa’s anarchic psychedelia, but preserves the author’s sense of every day strangeness as an ordinary primary school boy’s peaceful life is suddenly derailed by the appearance of random penguins in a small town way in land in the middle of a hot and humid Japanese summer.

Aoyama (Kana Kita) is, as he tells us, “very smart”. He thinks its OK to tell us this because unlike some of his classmates he isn’t conceited, which is what makes him so great. He’s absolutely positive that he’s going to become an important person in the future and can’t wait to find out just how amazing he’s going to be once he’s grown up. Aoyama is also sure that crowds of girls will be lining up to marry him, but they’re all out of luck because he already has a special someone in mind – the friendly young receptionist from the dentist’s (Yu Aoi) who has been coaching him at chess and just generally hanging out with him chatting about life.

Everything begins to change one day when random penguins start appearing all over town. Penguins are, after all, cold climate creatures and this is a glorious summer in Southern Japan so even if these are rogue penguins who’ve managed to escape from a zoo, it’s anyone’s guess how they’ve managed to survive. Being the scientifically minded young man he is, Aoyama becomes determined to solve the penguin mystery, especially as it seems to have something to do with the young lady from the dentist’s who he can’t seem to get out of his mind.

Aoyama is, despite his opening gambit, a fairly conceited young man who thinks himself much cleverer than those around him – not only his schoolmates but the adults too (possibly with the exception of the lady from the dentist’s who is after all teaching him how to be better at chess). With an intense superiority complex, Aoyama has few friends (not that that bothers him, particularly) and is often bullied by the class bruiser, Suzuki (Miki Fukui), and his minions, all of which he takes in his stride. He is, however, slightly thrown by the presence of an extremely bright girl in his class, Hamamoto (Megumi Han), who regularly beats him at chess and is interested in black holes among other areas of scientific endeavour Aoyama had earmarked as his own.

Despite suspecting that Hamamoto might be “even more amazing” than he is, Aoyama is not resentful or jealous but remains seemingly oblivious to her attempts to make friends with him. Aoyama, as an intensely “rational” person, is also sometimes insensitive and remains entirely unable to pick up on social cues unlike his more perceptive friend/assitant, Uchida (Rie Kugimiya), who is well aware of the reason Suzuki keeps picking on Hamamoto, but is unable to convey his instinctual understanding of human nature to the logical Aoyama. Armed with this new fragment of information from Uchida, Aoyama uses it in a predictably “rational” fashion by suddenly bringing it up in front of both Hamamoto and Suzuki in “advising” him that liking someone isn’t “embarrassing” and Suzuki should just say what he means rather than making passive aggressive attempts to get attention by being unpleasant. All of which is, ironically enough, quite awkward.

Through carrying out his investigation into the penguin phenomenon, Aoyama is forced to confront his less rational side, eventually affirming that he’ll live his life based on a “personal belief” rather than a scientific principle. Getting a glimpse of the edge of the world and coming to accept that not matter how much fun you’re having there will always come an end, Aoyama decides to live his life in haste anyway running fast towards an inevitable conclusion in the hope of a longed for reconciliation. Sadly, his discoveries don’t seem to have made him any less conceited but he is at least good hearted and eager to help even if he remains determined to walk his “Penguin Highway” all alone while concentrating on becoming a better person. Beautifully animated and tempering its inherent surrealism with gentle whimsy, Penguin Highway is a promising start for Studio Colorido, mixing Ghibli-esque charm with Morimi’s trademark surrealism for a moving coming of age tale in which a rigid young man learns to find the sweet spot between faith and rationality and pledges to live his life in earnest in expectation of its end.


Penguin Highway was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fireworks (打ち上げ花火、下から見るか? 横から見るか?, Akiyuki Shinbo & Nobuyuki Takeuchi, 2017) [Fantasia 2018]

Fireworks posterBack in 1993, Fireworks, Should We See it From the Side or From the Bottom? (打ち上げ花火、下から見るか? 横から見るか?, Uchiage Hanabi, Shita kara Miru ka? Yoko kara Miru ka?), became something of a sliding doors moment for the young Shunji Iwai who received an award from the Directors Guild of Japan for what was in essence a single episode in an anthology TV series dedicated to the idea of “what if”. “What if” is, it has to be said, a constant theme in nostalgic Japanese cinema as slightly older protagonists look back on the hazy days of youth and wonder what might have been if they’d only known then what they know now. Scripted by Hitoshi One (Scoop!) and produced by Shaft, the anime adaption attempts to do something similar, floating in with a gentle summer breeze that could easily be from 30 years ago or yesterday while its conflicted hero ponders where it is he ought to stand to get the most beautiful view of life passing him by.

The central dilemma that seems to obsess the boys this particular summer is whether fireworks are flat or three dimensional and whether your perception of them changes depending on where you stand. Norimichi (Masaki Suda) risks falling out with his best friend Yusuke (Mamoru Miyano) and so has avoided revealing the fact that they both have a crush on the same girl – Nazuna (Suzu Hirose), who (neither of them have noticed) has a dilemma of her own. A chance meeting at the swimming pool seems primed to dictate the romantic fate of all concerned. Norimichi and Yusuke race for the affections of Nazuna who, in the original timeline, ends up asking Yusuke to see the summer fireworks with her even though it’s Norimichi she went there to meet.

Unfortunately Yusuke is a flake and nothing goes to plan. He stands Nazuna up to hang with his buddies and figure out the answer to their inane riddle leaving her to run into Norimichi who gets an unexpected glimpse at her inner turmoil. A mysterious orb salvaged by Nazuna from the nearby sea gives Norimichi a chance to start over, be braver, do things differently thanks to the benefit of hindsight, and so he begins a path to idealised romance by manipulating the events around him to finally “save” Nazuna from making a rash decision (or at least from making it alone).

In 1993, Nazuna’s dilemma was perhaps a little more unusual than it might seem now. Her twice married single-mother (Takako Matsu) is planning to marry again which requires the teenage Nazuna to leave her home behind to live with a strange man in a strange town. Though her new step-dad seems nice and is obviously trying his best, Nazuna is not of a mind to give in. She consents to accepting one of the ice-creams he’s bought to curry favour (after all, there’s no need to be “rude”), but is not about to go so far as to say thank you or to enjoy eating it together with the rest of the family when she could guzzle it sulkily in the comfort of her bedroom. Nazuna wants to escape, but her ideas of doing so are childishly naive even if she puts on a sophisticated front by joking about going to Tokyo to work on the fringes of the sex trade by lying about her age. Hence, she asks a boy she likes but barely knows to take her away from this place, but the boy is just a boy and not quite equipped for rescuing damsels in distress from suffering he doesn’t understand.

Like many Japanese teen dramas, Norimichi’s interior monologue takes on a rueful quality, as if he’s eulogising his youth while still inside it. He doesn’t know whether there’s a difference if you look at things from one angle or another because he’s not particularly used to thinking about things and his first few experiments with the orb are pure reactions to events rather than thought through decisions about effects and consequences. Nevertheless, use of the orb shifts him into a philosophical contemplation of what it is to live a life. Finally realising he should probably ask Nazuna what it is she really wants, the process the pair undergo is one of learning to live in the now rather than obsessing about the end of something that might never begin if you never find the courage to start.

In the end their beautiful dream world is ruptured by a drunken old man, shattering into a thousand shards of memory of things that never were. Fireworks wants to ask if you can have a more fulfilling life by simply changing your perspective, but its central messages never quite coalesce. There is something about Iwai’s original concept which inescapably of its time, sliding neatly into the melancholy world of early ‘90s teen drama drenched in nostalgia for an era not yet past. Reaching for poignant philosophising, Fireworks falls short through, ironically enough, focussing too heavily on a single point of view. An oddly “flat” exercise, Shinbo’s adaptation misses the mark in its climactic moments but perhaps manages to offer something to the lovelorn teens of today if only by yanking them back to a more innocent time.


Fireworks was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The original 1986 Seiko Matsuda song reprised by Nazuna at a climactic moment.

Cleopatra (クレオパトラ, Osamu Tezuka & Eiichi Yamamoto, 1970)

Cleopatra posterMushi Pro’s first real foray into feature length (and feature length it really was at over two hours) animation for adults, A Thousand & One Nights, had earned some critical plaudits but nevertheless failed to set the box office alight. A year later they tried again as manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka and experimental animator Eiichi Yamamoto reteamed for a salacious tale of ancient Egypt. Or at least that’s what was promised by the suggestive title, Cleopatra (クレオパトラ), recalling Hollywood glamour and cinematic excess anchored by beauty to echo through the ages, but what emerges is less a tale of doomed love and imperial lust than a thinly veiled attack on the American “occupation” and associated foreign policy in an increasingly politicised age.

Because Tezuka likes to be perverse, he opens not with deserts and pyramids but with a silent ode to 2001: A Space Odyssey before a space ship drifts into view and sails into a very space age tower block filled with very ordinary corridors. Our team of space warriors are part of a colonising force hellbent on conquering nations which don’t which to be conquered. The Pasatorine have mounted a resistance and Earth intelligence has got wind of a covert operation codenamed “Cleopatra”. To figure out what the name might mean, they’ve decided to send three of their best agents back in time to hang out with the lady herself and gather a few clues.

Back in Ancient Egypt, the nation has been overrun by lecherous Roman troops who ride roughshod over the local population (which includes a number of well known characters from popular 1960s manga). Caesar (Hajime Hana) himself is a jolly green giant with skin like Osiris who turns out to be a little more sympathetic than might otherwise be assumed. Nevertheless, a resistance movement has spun into action guided by the royal nanny, Apollodoria (Kotoe Hatsui), who has convinced exiled princess Cleopatra (Chinatsu Nakayama) that their best hope for freedom lies in her body which she must use as a weapon against the lusty foreign general in order that she might seduce and betray.

Cleopatra, however, is conflicted. Molested by her old nanny and falling for her unexpectedly “decent” captor, she wavers in her conviction and begins to wonder if the best path for her people might lie in working alongside rather than against her nation’s new masters. As history tells us, she may not get to make that choice for herself for her stony general has a weakness his countrymen can exploit leaving her all at sea once again.

In 1970 Japan was about to revisit the post-war security treaty with the Americans giving rise to a wide scale protests against what many saw as Japanese complicity in controversial American foreign policy and particularly the ongoing war in Vietnam. The Romans, thinly veiled stand-ins for Americans in Japan, march in triumph, oppressing the locals and erasing traditional culture in favour of “modernity”. Yet Caesar and his ilk perhaps turn out not to be so bad as once feared, seducing with false promise as they show off their wealth and prosperity whilst subtly gesturing to their superior numbers and technology to assure any doubters. The colonisers are technically our heroes – the spacemen and women from the beginning we’ve all but forgotten about have come back in time from the position of the imperialists, hoping to find out how Cleopatra’s doomed romantic destiny might inform modern insurgency, but have discovered only a righteous loathing for “occupying” forces and their relentless tendency to ruin the lives of pure hearted women for their own nefarious gains.

Perhaps emboldened by A Thousand & One Nights, Tezuka cannot resist inserting a number of idiosyncratic gags for manga enthusiasts, including a few references to his own back catalogue, while also sending up the pop-culture of the day. Cleopatra is, on one level, a distinctly lowbrow effort filled with deliberately cartoonish slapstick, silliness, and anarchic humour but it also harbours a subversive idea at its centre which was certain to prove popular with a particular section, at least, of its target audience. Mixing live action footage with experimental animation, if retaining a cartoonish sensibility, Cleopatra is a strange interdimensional political metaphor but not without its charms even in its most outrageous moments.


Available on blu-ray from Third Window Films as a part of double release with Eiichi Yamamoto’s A Thousand & One Nights.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

A Thousand & One Nights (千夜一夜物語, Eiichi Yamamoto, 1969)

one thousand and one nights poster 2The “Godfather of Manga” Osamu Tezuka had been a pioneer of what later became the mainstream of a burgeoning industry, kickstarting TV anime in the process with the long running Astro Boy. His ambitions, however, increasingly ran towards the avant-garde and he feared that the heavy association between his production company, Mushi Pro, and genial kids’ cartoons would only lead to diminishing artistic returns even if the increasing merchandising opportunities would perhaps allow the studio to engage in other less profitable areas such the adult-orientated anime he longed to produce. By the late ‘60s, Tezuka’s polite, inoffensive brand of child-friendly adventure stories were becoming distinctly old hat while the “gekiga” movement, acting more or less in direct opposition, continued to gain ground with older readers keen to move on to more adult fare. The Animerama series was intended to prove that Tezuka still had something new and dynamic to bring to the table and that there was a market for “racy” animation which embraced mature themes and experimental artwork.

The first of the Animerama films, A Thousand & One Nights (千夜一夜物語, Senya Ichiya Monogatari), is, as the title implies, loosely inspired by classic Arabian folktales as its hero “Aldin” (Yukio Aoshima) finds and then loses true love, overcomes the urge for vengeance, is himself corrupted by wealth and power, and then is returned to the very same state in which we first encountered him walking off into the sunset in preparation for the next adventure.

The tale begins with a slave auction at which the lowly water seller Aldin first catches sight of the beautiful Milliam (Kyoko Kishida). He tries to buy her but is too poor while the son of the local police chief (Asao Koike) outbids all to win the prize. However, in the first of many strokes of luck that will befall Aldin, a sandstorm allows him steal away with Milliam who falls in love with him too and gives herself willingly to a man she sees as an equal rather than a master. Sadly, their true love story is short lived and they are soon separated sending Aldin off on a quest to return to his beloved that will only end in tragedy.

Despite the later protestations that the love of Aldin and Milliam is one of equals in which there are no masters or slaves, only a man and a woman, it remains true that Aldin watched the slave auction with a degree of titillation and would have bought Milliam had he only been able to afford her. Surviving on his wits, Aldin is a cheeky chancer waiting for that big lucky break he is sure is waiting somewhere round the corner but he is not, perhaps, above becoming that which oppresses him. Later, having become a wealthy and powerful man, he uses his wealth and his power in the same way that others use theirs against him in pressuring a vulnerable young girl to become his mistress against her will, ripping her away from her own true love in the same way he was once ripped away from Milliam by another man wearing a crown. As a “king” he wonders what “power” is, pushing his as far as it will go in order to find out and risking “losing himself” in a way he’d once thought he’d overcome in rejecting a pointless act of vengeance that would forever have changed him.

Milliam, and later Jallis – the daughter of Aldin and Milliam raised by their worst enemy, Badli (Hiroshi Akutagawa), fight for the right to decide their own romantic destiny. Like Madlia (Sachiko Ito), the feisty bandit’s daughter, they resist the social codes of their era in which women are merely prizes divided among men and actively attempt to free themselves through love only to find defeat and despair. Yet love, or more precisely lust, can also be a force of constraint and or ruin as Aldin discovers on a paradise island when he unwisely decides to abandon Madlia, who has also fallen in love with him, for the empty pleasures of orgiastic sex with the voracious islanders whose unrestrained desire soon threatens to consume him whole.

A picaresque adventure, A Thousand & One Nights is a bawdy, flippant retelling of the Aladdin myth in which the hero begins as a poor yet free and cheerful young man before experiencing what it is to be wealthy and all powerful and discovering that it only makes him mean and miserable. Shifting from model shots to live photography and abstract to cartoonish animation, Yamamoto’s direction may appear restrained in comparison to the more outlandish and surreal Belladonna of Sadness but is a masterclass in finding artistry through budgetary limitations. A psychedelic odyssey through freedom and constraint, desire and obsession, A Thousand & One Nights is a forgotten landmark of experimental animation as relentlessly strange as it is endearing.


Available on blu-ray from Third Window Films as a part of double release with Eiichi Yamamoto & Osamu Tezuka’s Cleopatra.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう, Mari Okada, 2018)

maquia poster 1Perhaps because of its often adolescent target audience, the “hahamono” or mother movie is a relatively rare genre in the world of anime despite its importance in other Japanese media. Wolf Children aside, most anime prefer to focus on the problems of young people dealing with an absentee or unreasonable parent who unwittingly enables the teen to undergo the adventures shortly to ensue. Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう, Sayonara no Asa ni Yakusoku no Hana wo Kazaro), is an exception to the rule in examining the complex nature of motherhood with a sideline in the legacy of familial disconnection, alienation, and the cyclical natures of life and memory. Flawed if ambitious, the first directorial feature from scriptwriter Mari Okada is a sprawling fantasy epic but one with its heart firmly on its sleeve.

Maquia (Manaka Iwami) is a member of the Separated Clan – an Iolf who weaves time and life into being. The life in Iolf is idyllic, if dull, and consists of little other than weaving. Maquia’s tomboyish friend, Leilia (Ai Kayano) rejoices in daring stunts and precocious flirtations that the shy and introverted Maquia can only dream of, while Maquia, an orphan, feels herself alone and remains somehow incapable of bonding with the other children. When Iolf is raided by Mesarte soldiers, Maquia is carried off by one of their great stone dragons. Now forced to explore the world outside of Iolf, Maquia chances on the remains of a ruined camp, stumbling over bodies only to discover a howling baby boy still held in the icy grip of his mother who tried her best to protect him even as she died. Perhaps identifying with another soul so completely alone, Maquia picks the boy up and decides to raise him though she is barely more than a child herself.

As the Iolf age much slower than the average human, Maquia’s quest to find true connection through maternity is destined to end in tragedy. Maquia christens her son Arial (Miyu Irino) and finds a home with a kindly ranch woman raising two sons of her own alone after her husband was killed by a rabid dragon, and begins to bond with her little boy. Meanwhile Leilia has been kidnapped and forced married to the Mesarte prince in the hope that his heir will inherit some Iolf lengevity. While Maquia is beginning to find connection, Leilia now tastes isolation as an imprisoned minority in the imperial court where she is also separated from the daughter born from a non-consensual union but loved all the same.

Though she already feels so alone, Maquia is warned by her Elder that if she wants to experience true loneliness she need only fall in love with a mortal. Maquia falls in love, or rather tries to, but as a mother rather than a lover. Pouring everything into her child Maquia knows the day will come when she must lose him, but for her it is in a more concrete sense than the normal breaking of a mother/son bond. The notion of mortality and differing lifespans is somewhat uncomfortably dramatised by the passing of the aged family dog who reaches the end of his journey long before his master. Though the message is sound is enough it does rather negate Maquia’s insistence that Arial is not a toy, implying that humans are almost like pets to the long-lived Iolf, something to be loved and fussed over in knowledge of its impermanence but something to which a lesser attachment is formed. 

Maquia, however, hurtles in the opposite direction, vowing to sacrifice all of herself in service of her son. Turning down a suitor in order to remain true and pure as an idealised mother figure, Maquia perhaps takes a retrograde step in agreeing to negate her own personality to become “a mother”, but like the classic hahamono, her overwhelming love proves too much for her growing son who grows tired of the burden of a mother’s expectation, longing to be free of her somewhat suffocating need to protect him while belittled by the knowledge that he, a mortal yet still a man, is incapable of protecting her. Maquia must find the strength to let her son go if she is to see him grow, but to do so will require a shift in self-knowledge born of truly learning what it means put another’s interest above one’s own.

Maquia’s struggles play out in parallel with the ongoing political drama surrounding the corrupt and oppressive Mesarte regime which seeks to rule by fear and violence, stealing the gifts of the Iolf only to abuse them. No matter the genesis, Prince Hazel seems to have formed a genuine attachment to his stolen bride (even if it is not returned) and does what he can to “protect” her, while her former love from the Iolf, Krim, has gone half mad through love denied, kidnapping Maquia to rope her into a half-baked rescue plot before threatening to burn the world if he cannot have his love for the price he is willing to pay.

The question is one of whether it is better to connect fully in the knowledge of a coming heartbreak, or hold back in self protection. In this Maquia learns the true meaning of her Elder’s instruction and begins to realise that the fabric that she weaves is spun from love and memory. Nothing is ever truly lost, merely laid down for someone else to pick up, and while parting is inevitable meeting is not and is something to be treasured no matter how painful it may be.


Distributed in the UK by Anime Limited

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Note: there seems to be some variation in the translation of the names of various characters, this review uses Anime Limited‘s list.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2017)

Mary and the witch's flower posterWhen Studio Ghibli announced that it would be ceasing production, it couldn’t help but feel like the end of an era. The studio which had made Japanese animation an internationally beloved art form was no more. Into the void stepped a brand new animation studio which vowed to pick up the Ghibli gauntlet – Studio Ponoc was formed by former Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura who enlisted a host of other ex-Ghibli talent including Arrietty director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. 

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (メアリと魔女の花, Mary to Majo no Hana), Ponoc’s first feature is, like Yonebayashi’s When Marnie was There, an adaptation of a classic British children’s novel. Part of the ‘70s children’s literature boom, Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick was more or less forgotten until the film, paradoxically, brought it back into print. Like many post-war children’s novels, The Little Broomstick is the story of a clever and kind little girl who thinks she doesn’t quite fit in. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is no different in this regard, even in updating the tale (seemingly) to the present day as its spiky heroine finds herself taking on mad scientists and crazed witches in a strange fantasy realm all while trying to get used to the comparatively gentle rhythms of country life.

Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki) is bored. She hates her frizzy red hair which a horrible local boy, Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki), uses as justification to describe her as a “red haired monkey”, and fears that the rest of her life will merely be a dull exercise in killing time until its inevitable conclusion. Mary has just moved in with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake) in the country while her parents are apparently working away and, as she still has a week left of summer holidays until school starts, she’s desperate for something to do. Unwisely following two cats into a misty forest, she chances upon a mysterious flower – the “Fly By Night” which blooms only once every seven years. With no respect for nature, Mary picks herself some of the pretty bulbs to take back to the gardener but unwittingly opens up a portal to another world. Taking hold of an abandoned broomstick, she finds herself swooped off to Endor College – an elite institution of witchcraft and wizardry where she dazzles all with her magical skills. Thinking she’s finally found her place, Mary is content to go along with everyone’s assumption that she is the new student they’ve been waiting for but on closer inspection, Endor College is not quite all it seems.

Mary’s initial dissatisfaction with herself is somewhat sidelined by the narrative but there’s something particularly poignant about her loathing of her red hair. In British culture at least, those with red hair often face a strange kind of “acceptable” prejudice, bullied and ostracised even into adulthood. Thus when Peter calls Mary a “red haired monkey” it isn’t cute or funny it’s just mean and she’s probably heard something similar every day of her life. When she rocks up at Endor and they tell her that her red hair makes her special and is the sign of high magic potential, it’s music to her ears but it’s also, perhaps, reinforcing the idea that simply having red hair makes her different from everyone else.

Feeling different from everyone else perhaps allows her to look a little deeper into the world of Endor than she might otherwise have done. Despite her conviction that she doesn’t fit in and is of no use to anyone, Mary is never seriously tempted by the promises of Endor which include untold power as well as a clear offer of acceptance and even respect. When she realises that the couple who run the school – a witch and a scientist, have been abusing their powers by committing heinous acts of experimentation on innocent “test subjects”, Mary learns to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves even if she couldn’t have done it for herself.

Messages about the seductive power of authoritarian regimes exploiting feelings of disconnection, the scant difference between magic and science, and the need for respect of scientific ethics in the pursuit of knowledge, all get somewhat lost amid Mary’s meandering adventures, as does Mary herself as her gradual progress towards realising that she possessed her own “magic” all along ticks away quietly in the background. Yet the biggest problem Mary and the Witch’s Flower faces is also its greatest strength – its ties to Studio Ghibli. With echoes of Yonebayashi’s previous adaptations of classic British literature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower also indulges in a number of obvious Ghibli homages from the Ponyo-esque flying fish and Laputa influenced design of Endor to the overt shot of Mary riding a deer on a rocky path, and the unavoidable girl+broomstick echoes of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Even if Mary and the Witch’s Flower cannot free itself from the burden of its legacy, it does perhaps fill the void it was intended to, if in unspectacular fashion.


Mary and the Witch’s Flower will be released in UK cinemas courtesy of Altitude Films in May 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)