Review: 西の魔女が死んだ

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, 「西の魔女が死んだ」tells of the relationship between a young Japanese girl and her English grandmother. When Mai decides to stop going to her Junior High school, her concerned mother decides to take her to live with her grandmother for a few months. There, Mai learns how to become a “witch” by learning to take care of household necessities such as cooking and laundry, and in the process, learns to control her own life…

I’m no expert on the technicalities of film, so I’ll just say that the technical aspects (music, direction) all seemed fine to me. The characters were, for the most part, believable and realistic, though I really don’t think Ryo looks like a half Japanese-English woman. What interested me more was what the story said about Japanese society.

The first thing that struck me were the adults’ reactions to Mai’s decision to stop going to school. Mai’s mother simply accepts it, without asking for any more details on the situation. Mai’s grandmother does the same, until asked, upon which her response is that she thinks that Mai is old enough to make her own decisions. Mai then opens up about her problems at school. Whilst this method is, out of any situations I can imagine, the least intrusive and confronting way of getting a child to open up about any problems they may have, what if the child, unlike Mai, just waits for her parents or an adult to do something? In that case, the situation may never come to light. Of course, the other issue is that the parent might become too protective and thus prevent his/her child from ever growing a spine and thus standing up for him or herelf. Every child and situation is difficult – maybe there isn’t ever a correct way – but I personally would have tried to find out more. After all, humans usually want to talk through their problems or otherwise express them somehow, even if they don’t want advice, the important part is to have an understanding listener. That too, in my opinion, would constitute treating a child more like an adult. But should we always treat children as if they were adults?

The relationship between Mai and her parents also struck me as odd. The interactions between father and daughter in particular, suggested that he didn’t really know how to interact with her most of the time. Is it in part due to the whole “let’s treat them as adults”? Again, the grandmother seemed to pick on the slack, offering the advice and direction that Mai needed in a subtle way. Mai even recognises that, whilst she is being told to make her own decisions, her grandmother has actually been shaping the way she will be making those decisions. I encounter it when interacting with my students as well: lack of instruction and reinforcement allows children to grow into adults who do not know the proper ways to act and make decisions in society. For example, a student who chooses to chat rather than listen to their teacher in class will not listen to a speech or presentation being made to them later in life. Students who witness their teachers or elders not standing up for the national flag and anthem of their own country will not understand that they should respected the flags and anthems of other nations. You could even argue that learning the appropriate way to live is akin to learning any other subject: it never ends. As such, I believe it is important for parents and elders to realise that children still need instruction and guildance from those with more experience.

The last thing I wanted to comment on is the behaviour of students, particularly in Elementary and Junior High School. Mai mentions that the behaviour of her classmates – going to the toilet together, talking about their favourite idols etc – was something that she eventually grew tired of. The eventual result was that she was shunned completely as others seemed to fear that happening to themselves. The conversation issue certainly does happen in Australia – I remember conversations being about Friends and The Spice Girls in late elementary, moving on to various movie stars and even books in secondary school (JHS and SHS). Must admit that I spent a lot of time in the library during the equivalent of JHS grade 1, but given how the rest breaks were allocated (20 mins after the first 3 periods, then about 50 minutes for lunch), and desks were laid out in pairs or groups anyway, it was never an issue. However, the toilet break thing is very weird…especially when it’s 15/16 year old girls doing it. Is it something that manifests itself mainly in a group-centered culture like Japan’s?

In short, 「西の魔女が死んだ」 is quite an interesting expose on some peculiarities of Japanese society. Due to the connotations associated with witches, especially if one thinks back to a certain classic film, it is probably best not to approach this film by its English title. The idea of a witch in this story is far more benevolent and normal than most western literature would have us believe. That certainly threw me off, and I kept expecting the grandmother to turn manevolent or something…though I suppose it is arguable that she did. The title also presents the viewer with one certain fact in the story…but like many Japanese tales, this one isn’t about the outcome, but rather about the journey and what the characters and/or the viewers learn from them.


About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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