The House of the Lost on the Cape (or Misaki no Mayoiga in Japanese) shares a similarity in title to The Lost Village (Mayoiga), a somewhat infamous TV anime from 2016 that was distinctive for its hokey portrayal of psychological horror. The House of the Lost on the Cape doesn’t fall into the same genre at all—rather, it’s a sweet children’s story that portrays the titular “House of the Lost” as place of comfort and healing. That’s an interesting inversion of genre expectations, but the film itself is perhaps a little too mild to make a lasting impression.
House of the Lost takes an obvious leaf out of My Neighbor Totoro‘s book by opening with two girls, apparently sisters, arriving upon their quaint new house nestled in the Japanese countryside. It’s soon revealed, however, that the girls barely know each other. They were brought together by a kindly old lady named Kiwa, who pretended that they were her granddaughters when she noticed them struggling to find a place for themselves. Yui has run away from an abusive home, while Hiyori has been mute ever since she lost her parents.
The opening act of the film is the strongest, as Yui finds herself unable to accept kindness at face value and bites the hand that feeds her. It’s an all-too-heartbreaking portrayal of a traumatized kid that’s all the more poignant because it avoids any extended, maudlin sob story. All we learn of Yui’s past is fleeting glimpses and her father’s words “I’m doing this for you,” which is more than enough to establish her motivation for running away from seemingly unconditional generosity. This part of the film also plays with horror tropes, as the abandoned house seems to have a will of its own. No wonder Yui’s first impulse is to get away from it all.
After the initial conflict is resolved, the story meanders for a while, balancing scenes of daily life with appearances of staple figures of Japanese folklore. It gestures somewhat towards an episodic narrative structure of heartwarming small town adventures (think Natsume’s Book of Friends), but eventually an antagonist emerges, and the film pulls itself together for a rather conventional climax.
Although it would be too much to declare the film a “disappointment,” it does feel as if this story would have been better suited as a television series. House of the Lost has a colorful extended cast of townsfolk and yōkai, which barely gets attention despite the hints that everyone has problems they’re dealing with. The quirky kappa in particular are a delight, voiced by a comedian duo and (amusingly) the governor of Iwate Prefecture himself. Not only would it have been nice to see more of these various fun characters in their own right, the film’s climax lacks impact by glossing over their circumstances. It never feels entirely believable that the antagonist is a manifestation of the negativity in town when the auxiliary characters only get to show their cheerful and helpful sides.
On a visual level, House of the Lost has measured strengths. Although it’s not the flashy kind of animated film, it’s admirable how it manages to sell the supernatural as an ordinary part of country life through its restrained animation and designs. It’s also notable that the mute girl Hiyori manages to be very expressive through her body language without relying upon exaggerated expressions. There are, of course, still some impressive animated showcases: scenes of folklore are recounted with an appealing sketch-like animation, featuring work by the acclaimed animator Bahi JD. Overall, however, this is an animated film that deliberately subdues the larger-than-life qualities of animation in favor of romanticizing the mundane.
The House of the Lost on the Cape is a decent family film in terms of theme and subject matter, but I suspect that its lack of punch on both the storytelling and visual fronts could make it difficult to recommend. It was a pleasant watch, and I’m glad that films like this can be made that display the charms of the Tōhoku region without coming across as on-the-nose PR, but at the end of the day, it unfortunately does not leave a very strong impression to a casual film-goer.
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