The demands of adulthood are apt to overshadow any young teen’s life, but you can’t shake them off just by lying in bed and refusing to age. So the heroine of Keiichi Hara’s The Wonderland (バースデー・ワンダーランド, Birthday Wonderland) discovers as she determines to hideout from emotional complexity, waiting for the storm to pass and cowardly failing to defend a friend in the process. The last thing she wants is the responsibility of being “the chosen one”, but the thing about that is that you don’t get to choose and if the universe has plans for you it would be very irresponsible to refuse.
After (not) getting involved in a minor spat amongst friends about coloured hair clips, Akane (Mayu Matsuoka) decides the best solution is to feign illness, turn off her phone, and avoid going to school. Her kindly mother (Kumiko Aso), seemingly aware she’s not really ill, decides to let her stay home anyway but all she ends up doing is mistreating the cat in frustration and moping about, so her mum despatches her to her aunt Chii’s (Anne Watanabe) place to pick up her birthday gift which she presumably can’t open until the big day tomorrow. Truth be told, Akane doesn’t much like her aunt Chii, she’s far too free spirited and unpredictable for the neurotic teen, but she could stand to learn something from her irrepressible lust for life.
Akane gets the perfect opportunity to do just that when she sticks her hand onto a palm print in her aunt’s shop and is promptly greeted by a dapper-looking man with a fabulous moustache and his tiny minion (Nao Toyama) who crawl up through the hidden basement to explain that she is the “Goddess of the Green Wind” they’ve been searching for and must come with them right away because their nation is in peril! As expected, Akane doesn’t want to go, but is chivvied along by her overexcited aunt and a strange amulet the man, an alchemist named Hippocrates (Masachika Ichimura), places around her neck.
The amulet, he tells her, helps you move forward even if you want to go back. That is, in a sense, Akane’s entire dilemma as she finds herself on the cusp of adulthood, afraid to step forward and accept the responsibilities of maturity while longing to return to carefree childhood days when there was nothing much to worry about and always someone around to look after her. Like any good fairytale, she finds her mirror in the other world in a melancholy prince who remains so reluctant to take part in an essential ritual that he is almost willing to burn the world to avoid having to acknowledge his royal responsibilities.
Meanwhile, Akane is slow to adjust to the charms of her new Wonderland, refusing to engage and loudly stating her desire to go home while her aunt tries to encourage her to embrace a sense of adventure. Chii, the film’s best asset who proclaims “no alcohol no life” while thoroughly enjoying sparring with the uptight Hippocrates (who perhaps is also enjoying the challenge though might not want to admit it), might in some senses be a barrier to Akane’s self-actualisation but is also an important source of safety for her in an unsafe world and just irresponsible enough to push her niece towards taking the right kind of risks in order to do the right thing and save the kingdom.
The reasons the kingdom is in peril in the first place are hugely symbolic – an ongoing water crisis caused by governmental negligence is draining the world of colour while literally drying it out. Getting used to her new surroundings, Akane begins to see their charm. This world, near identical to her own in many ways, diverged around the industrial revolution. Where “our” world rocketed into a frenetic lust for convenience, the rhythms of this one stayed the same, a perpetual village society in which cheerful people live laidback lives surrounded by the beauty of nature – something Akane later comes to worry her own world is losing. Gradually letting go of her fear and getting a better idea of the kind of life she might want, Akane gains the courage to embrace responsibility through directly supporting someone else as they learn to do the same.
A whimsical coming of age tale, The Wonderland excels in world building but somehow never quite achieves the level of emotional engagement it seems to be looking for even as its sullen, detached heroine perhaps begins to realise she did a great disservice to her friend when she failed to defend her during the silly hair ornament argument largely because she personally didn’t want to rock the boat and put herself in the firing line. Her horizons suitably expanded, Akane finds she no longer needs an amulet to keep moving forward even when longing to look back and resolves to step into adulthood with an easy, laidback confidence learned from her palls on the other side.
The Wonderland was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)