Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Mary Smith is a spirited girl who has just moved in with her great aunt in the countryside and has nothing to do until she starts school at the end of summer. When she encounters some strange flowers and a magical broom in the woods, she stumbles upon a magical world she never could have dreamed of.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first feature length film by Studio Ponoc, a company founded by former Studio Ghibli lead producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura. So did it live up to the infamous Ghibli standard?

Let’s start with our titular character, Mary. Is she interesting and fun to watch? On the whole I would say yes. At first she doesn’t have any defining character traits beyond disliking her own unruly red hair, but it’s shown that she’s a kind and lively girl and it’s easy to want her to find the adventure she craves. When a local boy teases her about her hair she stands up for herself and it was the moment I really started to like her.

Mary longs for some fun in the quiet English countryside

Mary’s feisty, fearless nature reminded me of all my favourite Ghibli heroines, but it didn’t feel like she was cut out of a formula which was really nice. Even when she gets on a broomstick it doesn’t feel like a Kiki moment, especially as Kiki was born into a witch family whereas Mary knows nothing about magic.

One thing I did struggle with was the structure of the story. Not being familiar with The Little Broomstick – the novel by Mary Stewart on which the film is based, I had no idea about any of the plot. When Mary arrives at the magical school though, I expected that she might spend some time there, maybe in lessons. I particularly thought that she would meet other pupils her own age, but she doesn’t interact with any of them – in fact, Peter, the local boy who teased her is the only character her own age that she interacts with in the entire film. Whilst this is no doubt a reflection of the film working within the constraints of the book it did mean that the movie took some time to get going as Mary doesn’t form a close bond with the adult characters she meets.

“All friends have matching cats, Peter, it’s all the rage!”

My preconceptions of the film were that it was going to be something very cutesy, and fluffy and generally child-friendly. Whilst it’s certainly as wholesome as you’d expect from a Ghibli successor studio, I was really impressed with the grandeur and intricacy devoted to the setting, with creatures and sequences worthy of the Ghibli greats such as Nausica and Princess Mononoke. Studio Ponoc fill this film with Ghibli type moments big and small, but they blend seamlessly into the film, and although some feel more like a tribute or nod to previous films than others, none of them ever feel derivative or like a lazy attempt to emulate Ghibli and the film achieves a broader appeal than just children with the inclusion of these moments.

Mary thought they must have a seriously expensive water bill at this school

I even underestimated Mary herself – in one climactic scene where it seems like all hope is lost for saving the day, I expected a deus ex machina moment that would save her, but in fact it is Mary herself who gets up and vows to carry on, a determination that in my book, earns her the status of a classic anime heroine.

As a British anime fan, one thing I really appreciated about this film was getting to see English countryside animated in the beautiful Japanese style. There’s something really special about getting to view the beautiful parts of your own country as rendered by another culture and Studio Ponoc did a wonderful job! That said, this film does lack standout animation moments that Ghibli movies are known for, other than the opening sequence there are no moments where the animation did something ambitious and breathtaking.

The beauty of England, anime style!

It would be wrong of me to finish this review without mentioning that this film also has a beautiful score. At a few points I was taken out of the scene by the music, not because it was distracting or overbearing but simply because I couldn’t help but notice how enchanting it was.

Although the pacing was for me a little messy and incoherent at times, Mary and the Witch’s Flower vastly exceeded my expectations and has earned a place in my Ghibli loving heart. If you missed the preview screening you can see it 18th May in UK cinemas and enjoy that wholesome Ghibli successor glow for yourself!

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Cardcaptors

A staple of the “magical girl” anime genre, Cardcaptors centres on Sakura, a bubbly ten year old girl whose life is turned upside down when she accidentally releases the magical Clow Cards. Also released is a small winged bear called Kerobaros who tells her, much to her chagrin, that it is now her task to recapture each card, using her wits, his guidance and a magical key which transforms into a staff.

Sakura captures her first card in her pyjamas - impressive
Sakura captures her first card in her pyjamas – impressive

Cardcaptors works off a formulaic structure. In each episode, a released card begins causing trouble through strange, unexplainable events. Sakura has to track down the card and capture it. So far, so straightforward.

Whilst each episode uses this simple premise, Cardcaptors throws in enough elements to keep things from becoming stale. For starters, Sakura has no idea what she’s doing, which makes for a great character development arc as she must learn to understand and master each card she captures, and know which to use for future captures.

Sakura must also keep her card capturing life hidden from her family and friends, with the exception of Madison who loves to make elaborate outfits for Sakura to capture the cards in, and film her capturing them.

Madison always makes Sakura's outfits a little OTT...
Madison always makes Sakura’s outfits a little OTT…

Li Syaoran also later comes onto the scene, a budding magician from a magical family who begins as Sakura’s rival for capturing the cards and later becomes her friend and ally, and even falls for her.

Whilst some of the goofy, over the top antics and humour might be too much for some, Cardcaptors did not shy away from more adult topics, particularly tackling how Sakura and her older brother Tori dealt with their mother’s death. The original manga by all female team CLAMP also included same sex romance (Julian’s feelings for Tori, Madison’s for Sakura and Li’s crush on Julian), cross-dressing and suggested one of Sakura’s friends was in a relationship with a teacher – most of this was left out of the English dubbed version. You can read more on the changes made from the original here – http://ccs.wikia.com/wiki/Cardcaptors

Madison's heart eyes for Sakura are purely platonic in this version
Madison’s heart eyes for Sakura are purely platonic in this version

Everything that was included however, was dealt with in a sensible and mature way, especially by Sakura herself who often displays a maturity beyond her years, despite her tendencies to sleep through her alarm clock and put off her summer homework til the very last minute.

If you’re looking for a light hearted magical girl anime, that ticks all the boxes (cute outfits, cute mascot, pretty staff), then Cardcaptors is definitely worth a shot. The series ran for 70 episodes, with two sequel movies, the second using a different English cast. If you haven’t grown up with the English dub you might find some of the voices a little grating, so it’s always worth checking out the original Japanese.

The English dub also had a few original songs created for it, I’ve included one below:

 

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Puella Magi Madoka Magica looks like a cutesy, fluffy magical girl anime, but do not be fooled by its colourful, innocent exterior – this one packs a heavy emotional punch.

The story opens in a typical manner, Madoka and Sayaka, two Japanese schoolgirls, one day meet a strange catlike creature named Kyubey. Kyubey explains he is looking for girls like themselves to become magical girls and battle witches in exchange for one wish.

Sayaka is the first to become a magical girl, and Madoka is quickly brought into a world of death, destruction and torment. Where anime like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptors tended towards sassy comebacks and routine attacks and transformation sequences, this anime presents a more realistic portrayal of what it means to battle evil forces, placing these young girls into danger, pain and suffering over and over again that is at times painful to watch. The witches that the girls battle are not humans or human-resembling, but strange abstract patterned creatures that add a surreal atmosphere to the ongoing struggle for victory. Battling an unknowable force has a strong effect on the young women and they come into conflict with themselves and each other as their moral instincts clash and they struggle to reconcile their duties with their personal desires and hopes.

The nature of the magical girl lifestyle isn’t the only area in which Puella breaks the mold. Madoka’s own family life is structured of a househusband and a working mother. Although Madoka largely conceals her knowledge of magical girls from her family, she does confide in her mother when the stress of worrying about Sayaka begins to take a visible toll on her, and the relationship she and her mother share is a mature, trusting one. Madoka and Sayaka’s friendship is also more subtly nuanced, taking a nice step away from pure hearted youthful exuberance into the confusing world of adulthood as the two maturing women try to continue to be there for one another whilst making consequence laden decisions – these consequences having world altering ramifications.

More than just a mouthful to say, if you’re looking for a more grown up magical girl anime, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a must see.