Review: The Lonely Castle in the Mirror

What do you do when school is no longer a safe place? For thirteen-year-old Kokoro Anzai, the answer is simple: you step through your bedroom mirror and accept the Wolf Queen’s invitation to find refuge in her lonely castle. Only, when Kokoro does this, she discovers that there are certain rules she must play by and that she won’t be playing alone. Six other teens await her in the castle’s grand entrance, each carrying his or her own burdens from the real world. There are two girls: shy Fuka, who doesn’t play piano anymore, and natural-born leader Aki, who has a knack for changing the subject when things get too close to home. Joining them, are four boys: the quiet chess genius Subaru, who shocks everyone by turning up one day with bleached hair; Ureshino, who falls in love with every girl he speaks to; Masamune, the gamer and inveterate liar; and Rion, the handsome soccer star. In the weeks and months to come, these seven young people will embark on a quest from the Wolf Queen to search out the Wishing Key that lies hidden somewhere within the lofty vaults of her domain. If found before the end of the school year, the key will unlock the power to grant one teen’s wish, at the cost of all seven losing their memories of their year spent together. Will they find the key? And if so, will someone use it?

And so the fantastical adventure begins, as the youths’ newfound friendships are put to the test on a journey that will see them find renewed hope and the courage to overcome their fears. Right? 

Not quite. Although The Lonely Castle in the Mirror begins with this type of setup, familiar from director Keiichi Hara’s last film, The Wonderland, it quickly disrupts these predictable plot beats and instead, for most of the film, the Wishing Key serves as a MacGuffin. Rather than a fairy tale adventure in pursuit of a magical object, Kokoro and her new acquaintances embark on the far more risk-laden path of healing bruised hearts and rediscovering the ability to form new bonds and trust again. And they do so through spending time with one another. The castle, with its common rooms for gaming and tea parties, and seven perfectly equipped rooms designed with each teen in mind (books for Kokoro, a piano for Fuka, and so on), is an ideal space for walking that road from loneliness to tentative community. In this way, Lonely Castle offers an homage to classic Western children’s literature and the fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers, while introducing the very Japanese theme of iyashikei, or healing through everyday tasks and interactions.

As a result of this uncommon plot structure, the first two-thirds of the film are closer to slice-of-life than a fantasy adventure, albeit slice-of-life with a persistent undercurrent of tension, deriving from the plethora of unanswered questions. Who are these teens and to what end has the Wolf Queen drawn them together? Who exactly is she as well, and can their growing friendships translate to the real world? For the most part, the protagonists themselves avoid facing these questions head-on, shying away from discussing the riddle wrapped in an enigma that they enter each time they step through their bedroom mirrors. But this hesitancy is itself evocative of their status as social outcasts who have learned to hold their secrets close and keep their musings to themselves. (Except of course for Ureshino, who wears his heart on his sleeve, much to the annoyance of the girls!)  

It is only after an accumulation of small moments shared together that the teens’ story takes a more heart-pounding turn. But when it finally does, hold onto your seats! The revelations come fast and thick in the final half hour, making for a sense of plot whiplash, but the result is the kind of ending you can sink your teeth into, layered with connections and inspiring audiences to rethink many of the preceding small moments. Some of these reinterpretations are spelled out quite literally, in a way that is perhaps unnecessary, rather than being given more room to breathe as in the original award-winning novel by Mizuki Tsujimura, but they’re engaging nonetheless, and lead to a satisfying ending. 

The animation is similarly mixed (somewhat of a surprise for A-1 Pictures), with pleasant, if somewhat routine character designs, and an airy visual concept for the castle (by illustrator Ilya Kuvshinov, who collaborated with Hara on character designs for The Wonderland) that isn’t used to its full capacity in terms of layouts. The animation during the climactic sequence is a tad underwhelming: although the vision is ambitious, the 2D and 3D elements do not always work together well, and the reference to Revolutionary Girl Utena’s iconic transformation sequence falls a little flat.

Even so, this crucial sequence remains conceptually rich, as the many fragments of mirror imagery dotted throughout the film come together with metaphorical force. From the reflections in the highly polished marble floors, to the frosted glass that separates Kokoro from her mother and her classmates, obscuring her reflection, to the silent, flickering television screen that fails to mirror Kokoro’s life—all these images come together in a final, cathartic scene as Kokoro both defies and transcends the mirrors that have sought to define and confine her in isolation all this time. The Kokoro reflected in a row of mirrors at the pivotal moment in the film shows a changed young woman, as she reclaims her agency and chooses to act. It is a powerful visualization of the incremental transformation that Kokoro has gone through from May to March, rebuilding her shattered heart shard by shard and opening up to the possibility of friendship once again. Through this visceral visual encounter, the film achieves something profound that the novel could not.  

This is key, for The Lonely Castle in the Mirror is not just another fantasy tale of youthful escapism for director Hara. As he shared in a speech before the recent Annecy Animation Film Festival screening, Hara sought to convey through this film a message of hope that would resound for viewers–and particularly for young people. As he held up a sign reading ‘514’, Hara explained that last year, more school-aged children in Japan had taken their own lives than at any other time in the nation’s history. Five-hundred and fourteen young people had lost their faith in their schools, families, and Japanese society, he said; they had lost their hope. Hara had no answers for how to address this tragic situation, and indeed, Japan is only just beginning to join the discussions of mental health and well-being that have broken the silence on many taboos in Western societies this past decade. But he did have a message to share:

Dear children and young [people], 

You are living in a stupid world. 

But don’t be afraid, someone is waiting for you.

– Keiichi Hara, director

Despite a few weaknesses in the pacing and animation, the expansive heart of The Lonely Castle in the Mirror beats strongly and clearly, while its message of hope resounds: “It’s OK, grow up to become an adult.” May this message find its way to the hearts of audiences the world over.

The Lonely Castle in the Mirror is distributed in the US by GKIDS and is playing in cinemas on June 21 & 22 only. Thank you to the Annecy Film Festival for the opportunity to view an advanced screening!

*Images from the official film website


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