Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Lonely Castle in the Mirror, from GKIDS

This portal fantasy world keeps bankers’ hours: nine to five, Japanese time. To get there, seven troubled middle-schoolers literally travel through the looking glass. What they find is more like a clubhouse than Narnia, but its rules still need to be respected in Keiichi Hara’s Lonely Castle in the Mirror, from GKIDS, which screens today and tomorrow nationwide.

Kokoro has almost entirely stopped attending school, after the bullying she faced drastically intensified, but she is too ashamed to explain it to her parents. Just when she really sinks into depression, “Ms. Wolf” pulls Kokoro through her mirror to a remote, fantastical castle, entirely surrounded by water, where six other confused middle schoolers are waiting.

They will have the run of the place until one of them finds a magic wish-granting key. Once they wish for their heart’s desire, all seven will lose their memories of the strange castle and of each other. Until then, they can spend as much time there as they like, as long as they leave by five. If they are caught after hours, they will be eaten by “the Wolf.”

Slowly, the seven become friends and discover the secrets they have in common. There always seem to be exceptions to their conclusions, but there are always good reasons for them. It is not entirely unfair to think of
Lonely Castle as a Breakfast Club portal fantasy, but there is more to it than that. For one thing, it riffs on Little Red Riding Hood (Ms. Wolf sometimes even refers to the seven misfits as her “Riding Hoods”), much in the same way Belle riffed on Beauty & the Beast.

There is a liberal amount of sentimentality in
Lonely Castle, but it always lands hard. This is the kind of anime that will have fans weeping like babies, in much the same way Your Name did. Like that film, Miho Maruo’s adaptation of Mizuki Tsujimura’s novel has an achingly tragic logic, which pays off crushingly. It should be noted Hara addresses issues of abuse in very frank terms, which definitely makes Lonely Castle more appropriate for pre-teen viewers and up. However, parents should also be assured the film stakes out no positions in the current culture wars (no drag queen story hours).

Although the animation is not quite Ghibli, the film still has some striking imagery. It is probably the best fantasy film of the year (and fantasy is the category it best fits). Hara shamelessly manipulates our emotions, but the film’s earnestness is also refreshing. Ultimately, it reminds fans why they first fell for high-end anime cinema. Highly recommended for animation and fantasy fans,
Lonely Castle in the Mirror screens at select theaters nationwide tonight (6/21) and tomorrow (6/22), including the AMC Empire in New York.