Back at university, the proposal for my dissertation about Mari Okada was almost rejected by my project supervisor, who felt that a screenwriter with only one director credit (at the time) was not worthy of being studied for inclusion in the hallowed halls of film snobbery: the notion of “auteur”. However, in a post-Demon Slayer world where it feels like even middling paint-by-numbers franchises are clogging up the big screen, it’s refreshing to see films like Maboroshi that still provoke a range of reactions, encourage debate, and so unabashedly wear the hallmarks of its creator that they cannot be considered anything but the work of an auteur. However, does that necessarily make it a good film?
Marking Mari Okada’s second time in the director’s chair, Maboroshi is the story of a town frozen in time. Following an explosion at a nearby steel factory, the residents of Mifuse are left in an ever-repeating winter, unable to age while the sky above cracks like a mirror. Their situation is blamed on divine punishment from a god of the nearby mountain the factory was mining in, and the citizens are warned against changing in any way, in case they end up too different when they’re finally allowed back into the outside world. However, there is one age group where change is constant, beautiful, and ugly.
Masamune Kikuiri was 14 when time stopped. Every day he goes to school, refuses to hand in his career self-monitoring forms, and spends his free time doing reckless things with his friends. However, he soon becomes involved with Mutsumi Sagami, a classmate tasked with taking care of a mysterious girl confined to the steel factory. As the two tend to this girl, who is physically a teenager but mentally a young child (and sometimes a feral animal), they learn of a fate that ties them together – and could potentially free the town from its curse.
Before watching Maboroshi, I had a decision to make: to watch with family or by myself. Everyone in my household loved Maquia, but I also know that Okada can be… Okada. Not five minutes in, I was reassured by my decision to watch it alone. Opening the film with teen boys ogling the back of their female classmates’ knees clearly and, depending on your mileage, uncomfortably signals that this is undoubtedly a Mari Okada film. After all, no-one knows how cringe-inducing teen sexuality can be quite like the author of O Maidens in Your Savage Season.
Indeed, while set to the backdrop of a science fiction premise, Maboroshi is fundamentally about something Okada has been writing about for most of her career: the turbulence of teen love. The threats about never changing are realised by this emotional instability, when a girl humiliated by rejection starts to literally crack. In one of the film’s more poignant moments, one character describes the feeling as a “sweet pain”, which really encapsulates the emotional centre of the film: love hurts, but it’s still an experience worth having. Of course, being Okada, the way this theme is communicated isn’t always conventional, resulting in an ending that has proved controversial to those I have discussed it with – especially as Okada has ample opportunity to swerve away from certain implications, only to double down instead (unfortunately, going into more detail risks unfurling the entire plot!).
Certain implications aside, Maboroshi really showcases Okada’s well-honed talent as a screenwriter. The script is tightly written with developments threaded subtly enough to neither feel obvious nor pulled out of thin air, and aside from a particularly cartoony antagonist who serves his role well enough, the characters feel refreshingly three-dimensional, and human. Their emotions are felt but not always understood, their actions are clear yet contradictory, and in having to navigate the purpose in living, they find the fleeting ecstasy of each other, culminating in one of the most satisfying kisses in anime. Okada is a great writer not just because she has decades of experience writing for the screen, but also because she understands teenagers, and what an absolute mess they can be.
Animated by the popular Studio MAPPA (Attack on Titan: The Final Season, Jujutsu Kaisen), the film paints a haunting yet captivating image of a post-industrial graveyard, where a furnace has been repurposed into a Shinto shrine, and the sky shatters like glass. The film has a gorgeous and unique visual identity crafted by a team including Maquia alumni such as art director Kazuki Higashiji, making it a crying shame that Netflix, who have acquired the international rights to Maboroshi, seemingly has no desire to let these stunning visuals be experienced on the big screen they were designed for.
Maboroshi is a fascinating film. If Okada held herself back by wanting Maquia to be a more commercial film, then the gloves are off here. Maboroshi is as beautiful as it is transgressive – it is Okada gloriously unfiltered for better and for worse. On the whole, Maquia still holds up more as a masterpiece, but Maboroshi deserves its place as a cinematic curio. It will certainly not be for everyone, but I loved it.