Mystic Shrine Maiden (2019) by Takeshi Sone

A local shrine maiden discovers a past tragedy in this whimsical drama. Toko (Miyu Yoshimoto) works as a maiden at the shrine in her small hometown, performing chores for the priest and making frequent visits to the residents who are always happy to see her. When she is told that the town festival will not take place due to some peculiar ancient prohibition, Toko takes it upon herself to prepare for the celebration herself. She later meets a young girl at the lake nearby, causing a panic in her father who tells her the lake is off-limits to those from the village. With a little help from a geeky visitor, Toko uncovers the mystery behind this unusual prohibition.

Director Takeshi Sone is better known for his gruesome horror tales, but with writer Motoki Nakamura creates something cheerful and uplifting in “Mystic Shrine Maiden”. The film touches on folklore and tradition, with darker elements, but for the most part things are kept upbeat. The opening musical number performed Miyu Yoshimoto, who plays the gleeful, eternally optimistic Toko, creates an atmopshere of joyful whimsy, with some fantastic camerawork. The direction is well-done, with a charming freshness that becomes both a strength and a weakness. What begins as a comedy becomes darker later on when we discover details of Toko and Mayumi’s past, and what happened to Toko’s mother; however many of these moments are brushed over without much time to delve into the tragedy. At a sprightly 70 minutes the film could have benefitted from a little more focus on the characters, who are largely left as charicaturish figures: a wannabee magician, a hopeless mime, a woman who likes playing hide-and-seek. All of these could have been fleshed out and tied into the central narrative. As it is the film remains an insubstatial and innocuous drama.

Toko is brought back to life through her mother’s sacrifice with survivors guilt leading her to uncover the mystery and rejoin her old friend. There is also a dark twist on the coming-of-age story which would see Toko passing on to adulthood following her discoveries, but her sees her passing over to the other side. These darker elements are woven into a story that on the surface appears as an enchanting exploration of youthful joie de vivre, with an unconventional subtext.