It is not uncommon for a film to be based on material from a different medium. For one, it allows the filmmakers a sense of whether there’s a desire for the film before they even start pre-production. For two, audiences often have a desire to experience stories in different ways, whether it be print translated to live-action or animation *or* vice versa. First created by author Mizuki Tsujimura and published in May 2017, the novel Lonely Castle in the Mirror was then translated into a manga with art by Tomo Taketomi from June 2019 — February 2022. By December 2022, Lonely Castle in the Mirror would make the jump to theaters in the Keiichi Hara-directed (Colorful) feature-length adaptation, which would be distributed by GKids Films in the U.S. in June 2023. Now, thanks to a partnership with Shout! Studios, fans of Lonely Castle can own the film in physical and digital formats.
Junior high schooler Kokoro (voiced by Ami Touma/Micah Lin) stops going to school after bullying from her peers grows too much. One day, after refusing to go back, a portal opens in her bedroom mirror which, upon making contact, transports her to an isolated castle in the middle of a seemingly endless ocean. She is not alone, however, as there are six other children about her age there, plus an enigmatic figure in a wolf’s mask who gives them a task: they can work together to find a key which, if found, will grant one of them a wish. However, they must follow explicit rules for existing within that space and any infraction will result in them being eaten by a wolf. Can these strangers learn to work together? Can they make their wishes come true? Or will they be fodder for a beast?
The immediate presumption about Lonely Castle is that it’s a film filled with wonder given the premise. Where did the children go? Will they achieve their goal? Will they make it home? The execution clears up these questions rather rapidly as the children are allowed within the walls of the castle anytime except for a specific period. During that period, they go home and discover that time has continued to pass as usual in their absence. Therefore, rather than being trapped and having to discover a way home, the children, instead, are essentially offered a refuge from their lives. This clears up so many of the questions that elicit tension, enabling the film to reveal itself more slowly through new mysteries. Additionally, the relationships between the kids, selected for no immediately discernable reason, grow fairly natural, going from initial cliques into a collective of support. It’s this journey that hits on the larger themes of the film involving the universality of adolescence: the alienation that comes from perceived social status and the desire for support. These are things that cling to us, even as adults, shaping who we are and how we see the world. Though the film is narrowly focused on Kokoro and, to a slight degree the other students, even adults are present so that we understand the systemic failures that persist, allowing the perpetual cycle of bullying and isolation to continue from one generation to the next. In this way, Lonely Castle is a bit of a coming-of-age tale, but it’s a twist on it as an undercurrent theme implies that the “rite of passage” that is surviving junior high and high school is a bunch of bullshit that should be nipped quickly before victims are made and survivors decided.
What works against the film is going to be a specific cultural one, I suspect. Either that, or, given this reviewer’s experience with film so far, I’m just prone to a specific response to certain stories involving kids of different personalities being forced together, ultimately realizing that they share a specific connection and are stronger together. If not for the fact that Lonely Castle takes place over several months rather than a single Saturday in detention, the correlation to John Hugh’s teen dramedy classic The Breakfast Club (1985) would be far stronger. Instead, that just lingers in the back of the brain, humming “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” the entire time, until the narrative makes a shift toward the hidden discoveries and twists that lie near the final act. It’s a good shift that, should the audience be dialed in with the film, will really amp the emotional impact as a whole, but the journey to get to it is mired in all-too-familiar tropes and traits.
Sharing more in common with Shout’s DEEMO (2023) home release than New Gods: Yang Jian (2023), the physical release of Lonely Castle only boasts three pieces of materials. The first is an English language dub, the second is an art gallery featuring storyboards and character drawings, and the third is a series of trailers for the film. There’s nothing from the director, the cast or crew, or from the originating author. One presumes that there’s a significant enough fandom to have created the interest in a feature-length film, let alone to conceive of creating one, so it’s odd that there’s nothing included with this home release that would allow fans to explore the story further.
There are things that work in Lonely Castle’s favor for being universal and then there are things that work against it. What works appears in the form of the animation, smooth and realistic, yet possessing a sense of wonder and whimsy so that whether in the “real” world or the castle, there’s a seamlessness that persists. What works is the way the narrative explores the cruelty of adolescence and the ways in which adults either forget or move on, creating a perpetual misery machine for future generations. What works is the way it approaches grief and healing, acknowledging that asking for or receiving help is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, particularly the exploration of community as a bond between people who uplift others, not drag down. What works to a lesser degree is how universal the narrative is, so much so that its approach feels to hew too close to the classics rather than distinguish itself. This alone makes engaging with the characters in a meaningful way difficult as we’re distracted by the expectations created by those same stories. Even keeping the bulk of the focus on Kokoro does little to alleviate this narrative/character overlap. However, even with the lack of bonus features, if one is a fan of the book or manga, having the chance to see it in motion is a lovely enough thing to make the story feel novel.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror Special Features:
- English Language Dub
- Art Gallery
Available on Blu-ray and digital September 26th, 2023.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.