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Written by Ross Locksley on 13 Feb 2024

Distributor Netflix • Certificate NA • Price NA

Maboroshi is the tale of a town trapped in time, following a disaster at the local steel factory. The sky is cracked like glass, and then sealed by what appear to be steam spirits. Four teenage boys struggle with the curse of being unable to grow and forbidden to change, as the town collectively try to earn the forgiveness of what they've come to call the "Sacred Machine" and return time to normal. In order to do this the town has tests to ensure that everyone is exactly as they were when the disaster struck, which is no small feat when you're constantly stuck in puberty, in love, pregnant or very old.

Masamune's group of friends endure years of being trapped in the town, where the train tunnel has collapsed and the sea won't allow ships near the shore. Despite the edict for no changes, eventually the younger residents begin to uncover the mysteries surrounding the Steel Works explosion. This starts with Masamune being introduced to a teenage girl he names Itsumi ,who has little in the way of communication skills and is trapped in the Steel Works. Cared for by Masamune's classmate Mutsume, he starts to look after her too, wondering why the Sagami family has her locked away.

Eventually the boys and girls of Masamune's class come together to investigate the train tunnel, which leads to tragedy - his classmate Yuko confesses her love, and when it's not reciprocated, she shows the same cracks as the sky and is taken by the forms in the smoke. This reinforces the line held by the rather unhinged and cult-leader like Sagami's thesis that change won't be tolerated and emotions must be kept in check. Whether or not this is true forms the basis of the rest of the film. 

It's a bittersweet fantasy, as is the way with a great deal of Japanese animated films, with the mystery largely unexplained and the narrative driven instead by the human interactions between the residents of the cursed town. 

It's slow to start, but once it gets going and the urgency is instigated, it becomes a compelling ride. Masamune is a solid lead, not too bratty nor too perfect, impulsive as teenagers are prone to be but also discovering his own feelings for the first time. Mutsume is a good foil too, she's more aware than most of the reality of their situation, which makes her sad and cynical, only allowing her more playful side to the surface when she finds herself attracted to Masamune. Itsumi's connection to Mutsume forms the basis of the plot progression, but all the townsfolk have critical roles to play in the unfolding revelations.

There's no doubt that the film looks gorgeous. Backgrounds are richly textured and beautifully realised, with the wear and tear on furniture and buildings particularly eye-catching. Character designs are simple but effective, everyone looking distinct and memorable, albeit grounded in reality - no pink hair or outrageous outfits here. Stylistically it occasionally pays homage to Makoto Shinkai's azure skies and detailed landscapes, but it never quite captures his humane magic. I found the film to be more in line with Studio Colorido's Drifting Home, itself a fantasy featuring a group of children trapped in a fantasy setting. In any case, it's a real treat to look at, with never a single frame being anything less than engaging through detail and vivid colours.

I also have to praise the dub, a line I don't often take these days. Not a single voice stood out as inappropriate and I found all the emotional performances to be on point. Generally I rely on subtitles and the original Japanese talent, but here you'd find yourself well served with the Western voice cast. I was getting a little teary by the end, largely thanks to the music (which is always present but never overwhelming) and the performances by the leads.

By the time the credits were rolling, I found myself largely satisfied with Maboroshi. There were elements I wish had been expanded upon, mysteries I'd like answered (like how the kids still have to go to school for years when it's obvious they'd have nothing new to learn, or where the residents go when they start to exhibit cracks). Still, life is full of mysteries and this adds a few more without being overly irritating. Writer Mari Okada (O Maidens in Your Savage Season, A Whisker Away) has created a whimsical and thoughtful world that stays with you when the drama ends. It may not be a cinema classic, but it's a worthy and enjoyable watch with stunning visuals and a rounded ensemble of likeable characters.

Beautiful to look at and with an emotional core that resonates, it's a striking film with a bittersweet twist.

Ross Locksley
About Ross Locksley

Ross founded the UK Anime Network waaay back in 1995 and works in and around the anime world in his spare time. You can read his more personal articles on UKA's sister site, The Anime Independent.


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