Lonely Castle in the Mirror Is an Unflattering Reflection of Its Novel
Lonely Castle in the Mirror inherits all its best qualities from its source material. Based on Mizuki Tsujimura’s 2017 novel of the same name, the latest film from director Keiichi Hara seldom matches the narrative ambitions of its text. But while it’s not a follow-up feature of the same caliber as Hara’s 2015 Miss Hokusai (also distributed by GKIDS), which helped cement his reputation among international audiences, what Lonely Castle in the Mirror attempts to do makes it worth a critical look.
The premise is straightforward enough: Seven junior-high children can’t go to school because of violent bullying. With various reasons behind the trouble at school probing at a larger social issue in Japan, the children who spend much of their days stuck at home are spirited away through their bedroom mirror to a castle straight out of a fairy tale. The rules of this story are introduced by a mysterious little girl wearing a wolf mask: There is a key hidden somewhere in the castle that can grant a single wish. The kids will have nearly a year to search for it but are only allowed in between 9 AM and 5 PM. If the key is found and a wish granted, they will forget their memories of the place and each other.
It proceeds predictably from there, and you’ll likely piece together the big twists before the characters do. As you might expect, the group spends more time finding strength in each other than a single wish that could fix all their problems back home. It’s not a mystery story, however, and the castle is nothing more than a setting. It’s a shame, because Lonely Castle in the Mirror needs something in the face of all the expected constraints that go along with adapting a novel. Without the affordances of prose, which let the original text explore the thoughts, memories and feelings of its protagonist, Lonely Castle in the Mirror ends up feeling like an abridged version of the book, already translated into English in 2021 by Philip Gabriel.
As a thematic follow-up to Colorful’s depressed teens and Miss Hokusai’s feminist storytelling, Hara and his returning collaborators make a promising team for this adaptation. Produced at Sony-owned A-1 Pictures (Sword Art Online, Kaguya-Sama: Love Is War), the animation is competent, but its art direction is thoroughly uninteresting. The sets and backgrounds, while not always imaginative, are gorgeous. This seems in part due to contributions by AKIRA animation director Takashi Nakamura, who is thanked by Hara as the final credit of the film. Contributions from other past collaborators, including Miss Hokusai screenwriter Miho Maruo and composer Harumi Fuuki, also make the movie a well-executed adaptation. But again, Lonely Castle in the Mirror offers nothing as a movie that the novel doesn’t already deliver.
The only time the Hara really tries to do something with animation beyond the literal visual storytelling of the text comes at the film’s climax, in which the single protagonist embodies the memories of the other six children in the castle. There she witnesses a sexual assault on one of the main cast. It’s handled very similarly to the depiction in the novel, but again, we lack a full understanding of the relationship dynamics. We don’t know that she has just lost her grandmother, the only person who ever really took care of her. We don’t realize that her abusive, alcoholic stepfather is the perpetrator. We don’t realize that the person she attempts to call for help is a boyfriend who later abandons her. Little is done to make up for this lack of characterization. The novel tries to say something about gendered violence in these moments, but the film left me in a daze—its acoustic soundtrack suddenly morphs into orchestral rock, and the art direction goes through stylistic changes, like blurring the stepfathers faces, adopting more interesting camera angles, and moving to a first-person perspective. But it’s all over quickly, and the sudden weight looms over the remainder of the film.
I don’t want any reader to think that anime can’t pull off the thematic and narrative feats of a novel, though. There are just more interesting explorations of these themes and questions in other anime. Depression, bullying, trying to grow as a person while others around you only see your past self—anime can and has explored all these topics. Wonder Egg Priority uses animation to explore its cast’s mindscapes and make something visual out of their psychotraumatic experiences. Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai maintains a magical realism, but its narrative structure is utterly captivating and the screenplay affords much more characterization to its cast. And Shingo Natsume’s masterpiece Sonny Boy has shown that anime can say something wholly original with the structure and tone of the philosophical novel (a la Camus or Kafka).
Perhaps Lonely Castle in the Mirror will at least offer something more accessible to American audiences (especially children) than its translated novel, but then, it’s only getting a limited theatrical release from GKIDS and more likely to see a Blu-ray release than hit a streaming platform later this year. Ultimately, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a competent, unambitious adaptation that has little of its own to say. In this case, the book was better.
Director: Keiichi HaraWriter: Miho MaruoStarring: Ami Touma, Takumi Kitamura, Sakura Kiryu, Rihito Itagaki, Naho Yokomizo, Minami Takayama, Yuki Kaji, Mana AshidaRelease Date: June 21, 2023
Autumn Wright is a freelance games critic and anime journalist. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.