Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2018

Mary and the Witch's Flower

Cloudy with a chance of genetic engineering

On anxiety nightmares, Mary and the Witch's Flower, and the inherent dangers of unregulated magic

Mary and the Witch's Flower
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Screenplay: Riko Sakaguchi and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, based on the novel The Little Broomstick, by Mary Stewart
Starring: Hana Sugisaki, Yūki Amami, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Fumiyo Kohinata, Jiro Sato, Shinobu Ôtake and Ken'ichi Endô
Rated PG / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release
(out of four)

Young-adult fantasies are often predicated on the pronouncement of their central young adult(s) as uniquely powerful, one-of-a-kind, very-very-special. The fulfillment of a prophecy, the secret to a mystery, a long-awaited savior. With one hand, Hiromasa Yonebayashi's Mary and the Witch's Flower embraces that custom, and with the other subverts it.

Its adolescent heroine, Mary (Hana Sugisaki), does indeed possess - in a manner of speaking - magical powers beyond those of even her similarly gifted but more highly trained peers. And she is indeed discovered by powerful adults who see her as the extraordinary diamond-in-the-rough they've long sought, not just a rare figure but the missing ingredient to their own objectives. And her discovery, like so many before it, is a kismet-like response to her own insecurity and self-doubt and juvenile discontent.

But whether any of that is ultimately such a good thing is a trickier question altogether. Imagine, to cite a different but related genre, if the Fairy Godmother's magic spell were not wish fulfillment but warning. This movie is practically a PSA to Magic Responsibly. If one is to Magic at all, that is; perhaps, Mary argues, doing so is generally inadvisable. There's probably good reason why the "fly-by-night" - or witch's flower - Mary stumbles upon after getting herself lost in the woods is so rarely found. The flower only blooms every seven years - presumably never in the same location(s) - but its magical properties are legendary. Its rarity seems like the universe's way of telling anyone toying with magic and sorcery - veteran and fledgling alike - to tread carefully.

Not that everyone is inclined to listen. Grownups especially. After Mary picks up the fly-by-night and is flown - by day, via broomstick - to a mysterious magic academy hidden in the clouds, she's breathlessly whisked into its orbit by the headmistress, Madame Mumblechook (Yūki Amami), and soon afterward introduced to its reclusive star professor/chemist/wizard, Dr. Dee (Fumiyo Kohinata). And once those two discover what she is - or what they think she is, anyway - they suddenly have grand plans for her. (The kind of grand plans that they have to bend over backwards to keep secret. Let's just say they don't believe in moderation.)

But what places Mary in a narrower subcategory of YA fantasy heroes and heroines is, first, that she has only found herself at Endor College by accident. It was all the flower bulb's doing. Mary is plagued by impostor syndrome from the jump, and quite understandably. Which makes both her introduction to the school's magical surroundings and, especially, her rapid ascension to legend status play more like nightmare comedy than empowerment fantasy. As the film takes on an increasingly manic tone, Dr. Dee puts Mary through a rigorous series of tests, which she keeps acing for reasons mostly beyond her control. She can't even get in a word of protest as each success only reinforces her prodigious talent in Dee's mind. Even when she's eventually able to do some things voluntarily, it's because she swiped a book of spells from Mumblechook's office. (I mean, what else is she supposed to do? If they're so insistent that she's a rare genius, she might as well lean into it. Wouldn't want to disappoint her new teachers. Even if she's about to discover that they are, in fact, her adversaries.)

Secondly, Mary's journey does not rely on her embracing magic the way many similarly designed narratives would. This is not a story of a girl who self-actualizes as a powerful wizard to defeat an evil one. Yonebayashi's approach to magic is more cautious, more sober. Instead of going all in, Mary's struggle is to find ways to contain magic, and manage even her own access to it. Her biggest and boldest action involves attempting to undo magic - specifically, the warped things Dee and Mumblechook have done with it.

Mary's delirious introductory afternoon at the college is funny and tense in its own right, playing out like something of a bad trip; she floats, she flies, she becomes invisible, she makes things explode, and as she feels less and less in-control of what she's doing and what's happening to her physically, Yonebayashi's pacing continues to accelerate as if to reflect her deepening anxiety. But equally as important is what the sequence reveals about Dee and Mumblechook. They're both welcoming and sinister, gregarious and intimidating, but the way they accept - or rather, insist upon - Mary's ability exposes them as the zealots they are, even if we initially interpret their reaction as mere enthusiasm for a prodigious pupil. As things move along a little further, they are revealed as not just zealots for wizardry but god-complex mad scientists with diabolical ideas about magic's potential and a thing for elaborate genetic engineering.

That is what Mary is fighting against. And that fight is mostly up to her, with only the neighbor boy Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and his cats Tib and Gib as her allies and sounding board.

Witch's Flower, based on Mary Stewart's 1971 novel The Little Broomstick, doesn't reach the heights of Yonebayashi's previous effort, the haunting When Marnie Was There, nor the best of Studio Ghibli (from which this film, and the fledgling Studio Ponoc as a whole, got much of its creative braintrust). But despite some flimsy narrative choices and a general sense of familiarity, there is still plenty here that works on its own, irrespective of the Ghibli barometer that hovers around it. I really like the way it tugs and pulls at Mary's self-image throughout the film, particularly how the things she dislikes most about herself (i.e. the frizzy red hair she keeps complaining about) turn out to be the very things that make her special (she discovers that red-haired witches are always the most powerful).

And once that striking lavender blue of the witch's flower has caught her eye and changed her life, the film itself opens up to reveal a world of dazzling dream imagery - contortions of the elements, explosions of anachronistic color combinations - that's a joy to witness even when the screenplay falters. As a wall of conflict builds between Mary's life on earth and the possibilities awaiting her in the clouds, Witch's Flower settles into a groovy sense of equilibrium between reality and possibility (and all the danger and distortion that may result), with Mary herself holding in her possession the delicacy that may tip the scale one direction or the other.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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