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January 23, 2024
By Shelley Pallis.
Kokoro (Ami Touma) has a name that means “heart”, but feels that hers is constantly being stamped on. She is constantly harassed by mean girls at school, so she eventually gives up and stays home due to a stomachache. While lying in bed, feeling sorry about herself, she discovers the bedroom mirror is actually a portal that takes her to a mysterious, rocky castle perched high above a savage, rocky sea. There, she finds herself on an escalator with six other teenage girls. The masked girl known only as The Wolf Queen (Mana Ashida) tells them that they have been selected for the ultimate game – they have a year to explore the castle, and whoever finds a hidden magical key will have a wish granted. Oh, and if anyone breaks the rules of the game, they’ll get eaten.
“I think that kids today have a lot of issues to deal with in the world, and by using fantasy I was hoping to redirect that negativity to a better place,” director Keiichi Hara told Carlyle Edmundson at Screen Rant. “So yeah, recognizing that there is the negativity and the issues that exist in the world, and then bringing it to a positive place.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the set-up for Mizuki Tsujimura’s original novel of Lonely Castle on the Mirror was the same as a zillion other children’s books, all the way back to Narnia. And there is certainly a symbolic, modernist element in the way that her teens find solace and companionship with a bunch of strangers in a remote, after-school game, as if they’d all met up slaughtering each other in Call of Duty online. But the long, long game at the Lonely Castle encourages a very different approach – as time marches on, the various troubled teens come to realise that they are getting more out of hanging out together than they are chasing around after a magic key.
“As a student, [Tsujimura] hated school,” Hara explained to Richard Eisenbeis at the Anime News Network. “She felt that she couldn’t enjoy school like every other kid.” Hara explained, “Yet all of her books are set in schools. And when a reader pointed that out, Tsujimura said that she thought she was probably rewriting the school days she wished she had.”
The Wolf Queen’s announcement that the six other players will forget their time at the castle if their wish is granted is particularly poignant.
You, dear reader, may wish to be able to see the world through your eyes. It is a good idea to useWipe away all memories of sitting through a series Big Brother, but for Tsujimura’s teens, the social network they form by exploring the castle becomes much more valuable to them than any possible wish…. Or does it? It would only take one of them to actually play the Wolf Queen’s game, and all their adventures would be forgotten.
The team of Keiichi Harada and Miho Maruo (whom SLA attendees might remember from their appearance at the Scottish Unveiling) has produced many fantasy animes. Miss HokusaiIn 2015, they will be releasing their album Colorful, which was a flop but has a lot of melancholy. In 2011, their underrated Colorful received its UK premiere in SLA. In an environment that had been deprived of Ghibli’s fantasy films for many years, they showed their Birthday Wonderland in Scotland in 2019 – Lonely CastleShares with WonderlandIlya Kuvshinov is credited as the architect of the castle. Like that movie. Lonely Castle is an adaptation from a novel, conspicuously tapping into the concerns of the shut-ins and truants that seemingly form a sizeable component of anime’s Japanese audience. There aren’t a whole lot of anime that deal with the school bullies (although A Silent Voice is a notable exception) – instead it’s their victims that get all the movie attention, those kids who are afraid to go to school or feel that they get more out of life after-hours than they do in the midst of the approved curriculum. Before the anime was released, a manga adaptation of Tsujimura’s novel also ran in Ultra JumpPreparing the teens of Japan for a cinema trip.
Hara himself picks out a quote from Tsujimura that goes right to the heart of her work’s appeal: “When it comes to your bullies, there’s no need to forgive them.” The Japanese school system would rather play touchy-feely politics, and shrug off the effect that bullies have on their victims, but Tsujimura’s comment has an anger to it that recalls the work of Mariko Ohara – another famous truant, who parleyed her school absences into an anime-writing career.
“As a film director,” says Hara, “I really want to help these kids change how they feel. Rather than going out and changing the school system administratively, I’ve been given the chance – and the opportunity and the skills – to create anime. And that’s the medium through which I can help children to see things differently… Using fantasy as our platform, we’re trying to show through these kids that there is hope.”
Lonely Castle on the Mirror is screening around the UK as part of the Japan Foundation’s nationwide touring festival in February 2024.