Arrietty, Ponyo and Mai Mai Miracle

My recent post on The Borrower Arrietty, one of many appreciative reviews for this lovely movie, started me thinking about the last Ghibli premiere I saw at the Barbican: Ponyo.

Ever since the mid-1400s, when the English poet John Lydgate stated the concept, authors including Marlowe, Shakespeare, Cervantes, John Donne and P. J. O’Rourke have quoted and misquoted the proverbial odium of comparisons. “And of comparisons engendered is hatred” says Lydgate firmly. I can see their point, up to a point. The much-attributed quote “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture” is a prime example: it has a kernel of truth but it dismisses a huge and highly pleasurable strand of shared human experience as irrelevant; unless, of course, one believes that dancing about architecture is not only fun, but can lead us to see buildings in a whole new way.  A piece of Star Trek fan fiction I read long ago had a Vulcan character dancing Surak’s Fifth Lemma. It would be interesting to dance the Sydney Opera House or the stingray-shaped Olympic pool in London. It could be beautiful.

So, comparisons of movies: Ghibli to non-Ghibli, classic Ghibli to nu-Ghibli, pre-Disney Ghibli to Mousey Ghibli – shall we dance about their architecture?

The Barbican Cinema hosted its first Japanimation double bill on 26 November 2009. Courtesy of Optimum Releasing, the London Children’s Film Festival was able to screen Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo months ahead of its official UK release. The dubbed version of the movie had opened the LCFF on 21 November, but Optimum went the extra mile and also provided a subtitled print for the Barbican’s session.  Our second feature was Sunao Katabuchi’s Mai Mai Miracle, which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival on 15 August and was released in Japan just five days before we saw it at the Barbican.

The evening was an absolute sensation. The whole audience was enthralled, and it felt as if we were really sharing all the thrills, tensions and drama of the big-screen experience. There were moments when it seemed everyone in the cinema was laughing, collective sharp intakes of breath, people moved to tears – the strongest reaction to a film I’ve experienced in that cinema since we last showed Miyazaki’s masterpiece My Neighbour Totoro.

I’m not talking about Ponyo. It was Mai Mai Miracle that blew the audience away. Oh, they enjoyed Ponyo too, especially the youngest members of the audience. Miyazaki has become the Disney of Japan. When it comes to enchanting children, he has few rivals. But Ponyo is not, in my opinion, a film that will draw adults back time and again, as many of his earlier works do.

Ponyo is a beautiful film – visually almost flawless – but it’s more like a film written by committee than by the man who gave us Totoro. I almost cried when careful characterisation was thrown away to bridge a plot hole, and came out reflecting that the same tears for a lost pet and a lost mother are not enough to acknowledge the heart of darkness that powers his other movies. Ponyo is a lovely film for small children but I don’t think it will prove to have the enduring power over adults that Totoro has. It’s the difference between craft and art, skill and genius.

Mai Mai Miracle, though – there’s a movie to make you dance in the streets. Directed and written by Sunao Katabuchi, it builds its own palace of dreams on turf that Ghibli’s two founder directors have long staked out as their own: nostalgia for a remembered childhood and a half-imagined history, a leap of faith across the gap between everyday life and true magic, the small joys and sorrows of a country childhood, the darkness that lurks at the heart of life. Katabuchi has worked alongside Miyazaki, as a writer and animator on the TV series Meitantei Holmes/Sherlock Hound and on his classic 1989 movie Majo no Takkyubin/Kiki’s Delivery Service, but he’s no mere imitator. Like Makoto Shinkai (another director often touted as heir to Miyazaki Senior’s lofty shrine at the peak of Japan’s animation industry,) Katabuchi brings his own vision and his own voice to a tale set in the Showa era, and focussed on the childlike ability to morph reality into magic.

Although Ponyo is set in the present day, it’s profoundly nostalgic and conservative in terms of its view of relationships. Its men and women are as regulated as in the Showa or Heian eras, their lives running on separate tracks of duty. Even if the young hero’s mother is free to express her frustration and rage at being constantly left alone to keep the family going while her husband devotes himself to work, she can no more change their situation than she can stop the tide overwhelming the coastal road they live on.  Arrietty shows the negative side of modern family life, with two estranged parents too busy to tend their son before a life-or-death operation – though once again, the situation is saved by a woman taking on the family’s duties. In Mai Mai Miracle, as in My Neighbour Totoro, the realities of life in an earlier era give far less choice to both men and women, with poverty and death hovering in the background of even the most magical childhood.

Both Mai Mai Miracle and Arrietty have a less male-centred view than Ponyo, and not simply because they are made from the point of view of a girl approaching adulthood while Ponyo centres on a five-year-old boy. All the men in Ponyo view females through the same distorting filter as little Sosuke: they are magical creatures, forces of nature whose uncertain powers have to be caged by domesticity and can only be dealt with in one of two ways: by keeping them confined or by keeping them at a safe distance. Ponyo’s scientist-mage father and Sosuke’s absent trawler-captain dad treat their wives in the same way. They worship and adore these magical creatures, but they don’t share their day to day lives.  They may visit the realms of magic, but they live their lives in the world of men. Arrietty’s stolid father Pod is a traditional working-class provider, but his relationship with his nervous wife and daring daughter is depicted as a real, solid thing based on a shared life. The families in Mai Mai Miracle are equally convincing.

All three directors wisely avoid any explanation of how their world’s magic happens, honouring the principle that if you can explain it, it’s just a conjuring trick. The magic of Ponyo is beautifully depicted, nature-based and powerful as all Miyazaki magics, and it’s the only one of the three worlds where adults too become fully a part of the transformed world. In Arrietty, although the adults of Sho’s family have suspected the existence of the tiny people who live on the crumbs of their world for some time,  they have never succeeded in catching more than a fleeting glimpse of them; as the film clearly shows, not all adults are to be trusted to treat magical life forms as more than a money-making sideshow.

All children crave fantasy and hunt for magic. The magic of Mai Mai Miracle is the product of a child’s imagination reaching for wider experience, guided by loving adults and surrounded by a rich and challenging environment. The Showa era, for all the gilding, softening effect of present-day nostalgia, was a time of change, challenge and contrast. 1950s Japan was still recovering from a long and terrible era of war and the devastating poverty it created. Arrietty‘s characters developed in the same situation. Although the Ghibli version is set in a rose-tinted present, the original books were written in the midst of the Second World War, and looked back with longing to the author’s idyllic childhood before the First World War. Hero Sho is seeking the magic of other, gentler ways of life, removed from the awful reality of a looming darkness that may never lift. Their scenarios are separated by sixty years of Japanese history, and each director brings his unique vision to bear, but they follow very similar paths.

Japan’s animation industry has given the world so many beautiful films: to see three movies like this in a two-year span is a joy and a privilege. I’d be happy to dance about this architecture, because to have three magical movies with so many rewarding moments, three directors with such individual visions, two studios capable of bringing such technical skill and artistic excellence to the screen, is well worth celebrating. But, odious as comparisons are, if I were to rank these three I would put Mai Mai Miracle at number one for its sensitivity, originality, ability to ground magic in reality without reducing it to tinsel, and its sheer sense of fun. Arrietty would be at number two for its astonishing beauty and its delicate understanding of the process of growing up, and how our size or situation change only the least important details of that marvellous, painful experience. Ponyo, undeniably cute but flawed child of a mighty heritage, would come in third.

15 thoughts on “Arrietty, Ponyo and Mai Mai Miracle

  1. My question is when will Mai Mai Miracle get an English language DVD / Blu-ray release in the UK and US?

    I was at the Barbican screening and agree It’s a fantastic film. It’s one I want to watch again!

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  3. I managed to get hold of a DVD (region free I think) with English subtitles a few months back. I can’t remember at the moment where I ordered it from, just that I searched the net quite a while and eventually tracked something down on some specialised site selling animated films. I’ll try and rack my brain…. The entry on my credit card statement didn’t give me any useful details, but it might be in my bookmarks somewhere.

    I’m just watching Mai Mai Miracle now (and loving loving loving it!) and plan to review it in the next few days.

      • If it’s not a legally licensed copy, you’re just taking income away from the makers by buying. (You may also be supporting organised crime, since bootleg DVD factories are sometimes linked to other criminal activity.)

      • I wonder now… if it is, it’s a pretty good copy (don’t have the DVD with me to check all those things suggested in the guide). In any case, if it isn’t a legit copy, it certainly wasn’t intentional on my part to buy it then because I agree, licensed copies are the way to go! In fact, the only reason I buy DVDs is because I want a real, legitimate copy!

        I did consider for the longest while to get the German subtitled version (which is available on and legit) but didn’t because I thought I could not watch it with anyone else then (since most my friends do not speak German).

  4. Very enjoyable article. I recently stumbled upon Mai Mai Shinko, and what a beautiful film it was. I am a great fan of Studio Ghibli, but it is hard not to feel that the Ghibli style has been fading as the more recent works of even Miyazaki himself still did not match his great films like Totoro. And I cannot take seriously elevations of directors like Makoto Shinkai to that level.

    Mai Mai Shinko is the first film in a while to give me faith that this style of filmmaking can continue. It is, in different ways, both similar and influenced by Miyazaki while pleasantly presenting its own take on that style. What a shame that it is so little known in the English anime community, while “superstars” like Shinkai or Hosoda eat up all the press with prettier, but not nearly as engaging, films.

    • In defense of Shinkai, it is other people that have called him “the next Miyazaki”. But I think what he does (and does well) is something completely different from Studio Ghibli. It’s really only his last film, Hoshi o Ou Kodomo, which seems to try to enter Studio Ghibli territory (and does not succeed for that very reason).

      I guess what we see in Mai Mai Shinko that is familiar from Studio Ghibli is the level of human observation – noticing the tiniest details, the most mundane things, that are so easy to miss, but add immensely to the film.

      My jury is still out on Hosoda – he has only done two animated films after all (one which I loved, the other I found okay).

      • I guess my take on Shinkai is a little more skeptical. I feel that he does one particular story very well, and has essentially remade that story three times, with an attempt at divergence (Hoshi o Ou Kodomo) simply not being very good. But I will admit that the constant comparisons of Shinkai to the far more versatile directors are what fuel this scepticism.

      • I would agree with you that Shinkai only does one particular story well, up to now at least. I don’t consider him a ‘story teller’, but rather someone who manages to lyrically express certain human feelings (loneliness and human distance specifically) unparalleled to anyone else. I can appreciate his films purely for this (plus his magnificent landscapes and the interplay of light & dark). He has only made a handful of films so far, and it would be great to see some growth or diversity in the future.

        Truth be told, I would like Shinkai to work with a scriptwriter or study the art of storytelling in depth. Hoshi o Ou Kodomo had plenty of potential, but a script that needed someone who knows how to tell a story without any plot holes. (I reviewed the film on my blog, in case you are interested, and said precisely this.)

      • I think we made a huge fuss about Shinkai for two reasons: one (let’s not forget this because it matters), Voices of a Distant Staris jaw-droppingly, heart-achingly lovely, and two, we were in love with a fairytale: guy working at home on his computer makes astonishing anime.

        We’re still in love with that fairytale, and he still makes lovely anime. But making the same lovely anime can get stale. I think he badly needs to extend his range – but hey, you could say that of a lot of the industry, including many people with less talent.

        Anyway, he still hasn’t really made enough anime to evaluate in terms of career progression and potential. As Chou En-Lai would probably remark, it’s far too early to say.



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