Of Rough-and-Tumble Women and Unfinished Films: Shoji Kawamori’s Maimu

In high school, Shoji Kawamori and Haruhiko Mikimoto bonded over a shared love of animation and illustration. Soon they’d collaborate on the Gundam doujin Gunsight-One and then they’d create Super Dimension Fortress Macross at Studio Nue. The show’s success meant that shortly after they’d work together again on 1984’s Macross: Do You Remember Love? and what was intended to be the series’ capstone, Macross Flashback 2012 in 1987. They wouldn’t work together on a finished project until Macross 7 in 1994, but in the late 1980s, they planned to create a film about a girl and her bicycle. Both that girl and that unfinished movie was named Maimu.

In the years after Macross, Kawamori and Mikimoto worked on a variety of shows, films, and OVAs, typically with a sci-fi bent. Mikimoto designed characters for good OVAs like Aim for the Top! Gunbuster, Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, lackluster OVAs like Salamander and Hi-Speed Jecy, and also worked on Macross II, a sequel that Kawamori had no involvement in. Kawamori worked on Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, the live-action film Gunhed, and the not-quite-a-sequel spin-off Advanced Valkyrie. In contrast to all that high-flying sci-fi, Maimu was intended to be a much more grounded story albeit with some fantastic elements.

Cel and watercolor illustrations by Mikimoto from the April 1989 issue of Animage.

Maimu (written with the kanji for ‘dancing’ and ‘dreams’ and sometimes romanized as “Mime”) was going to be the story of Maimu Katsuhiro, a young adolescent girl with a penchant for bicycles and fixing things, as she searches for treasure. She’d be accompanied by a boy named Takeshi, who may or may not have been just a young boy. In the April 1989 issue of Animage, the film’s producer, Masuo Ueda (Five Star Stories), described the project:

“The protagonist, Maimu, is an extremely energetic, carefree 15-year-old girl. But she isn’t the trendy type of girl we see a lot in modern times. In fact, she has a rough-and-tumble, troublemaker air about her. The story setting isn’t very complicated either, having charming characters in an easy-to-understand story, and while it’s set in present-day, it has sci-fi elements as well. Still, nothing like robots appear…

“We actually wanted to make it a more fantastical work.”

With bicycles clearly being a theme, Kawamori described the origins of the film in an unfinished TV project he conceived of around the age of 20, before working on Macross. That particular story was about a boy who rescued a princess with an anti-gravity pendant that, when affixed to a bicycle, allowed them to fly and search for a space palace called Dockingham. Similarities to both E.T. and Castle in the Sky lead to Kawamori shelving the idea.

The idea of a flying bicycle later appeared in episode 17 of Macross, “Phantasm.” In that episode, a comatose Hikaru Ichihijo feverishly dreams about his attempts to rescue Lynn Minmay with, among other vehicles, a special flying bicycle. Phantasm was one of two episodes in the original Macross that recut footage from earlier episodes to extend the show’s runtime after it was extended mid-run. According to the liner notes included with AnimEigo’s Macross DVD set, Kawamori himself personally edited the episode.

A translated interview with Kawamori on his history with bicycles and his inspiration for Maimu can be found on our Patreon. Support Zimmerit and read the full interview.

In describing the differences between the aforementioned unfinished TV project and Maimu in the July 1989 issue of Animage, Kawamori said:

“In Maimu’s case, the very fact that it’s a girl riding the bike gives it a slightly different nuance from a boy riding one. I felt like, eh, maybe they don’t have to be flying in order to be interesting. But that by itself seemed too weak, and once I thought of someone running around carrying a bike, I figured it would work out. Maimu isn’t about a girl who rides a bike so much as a girl who can run about while carrying a bike.”

Self-described as having a “weirdly good sense of balance” in elementary school, Kawamori was obsessed with bicycle trick riding as young kid. From middle school on he began to rely on cycling for transportation to and from school. His appreciation for bicycles came in handy when, following the production of the Macross film, Kawamori encountered a young girl fixing a flat tire on the side of the road. The young girl named was named Kishuu and had run away from home in Kumano only to end up in Tokyo (a trip of nearly 500 kilometers). Her encounter with Kawamori would influence the director’s direction on Maimu.

Maimu on the cover May 1989 cover of Animage.

A classic tomboy, Kishuu told Kawamori that she spent most of her time running around the hills and forests around her village with boys her age. Then the Nintendo Famicom appeared and suddenly boys her age were less interested in exploring the countryside and more interested in playing video games. Frustrated at their obsession with staying indoors, Kishuu took an ax to the power lines running into her village and cut off electricity to the community. That set off a chain of events that inspired her to hop on her bike and run away to Tokyo.

Want to read the full translated interview with Shoji Kawamori about his chance meeting with Kishuu? Support Zimmerit on Patreon for access to the entire article.

That chance encounter with an unusual but spirited young girl inspired Kawamori to come up with the idea of Maimu. Despite bicycles being a bit of a motif through Kawamori’s works, when it came time to make a pilot film for Maimu, her bicycle was swapped out for a scooter. Once production on the film itself began in earnest, her scooter was swapped again for the mountain bike seen in the film’s promotional artwork.

The Maimu Pilot Film
While Animage magazine ran regular articles in 1989 about the Maimu’s production, much less is known about the pilot film reportedly finished before the film’s production was canceled. While never released to the public (contrary to other pilot films well-known amongst fans, like for Gainax’s Royal Space Force and Route 20), design elements have popped up on auction sites over the years. While most images from these auctions seem to have been lost, the images still available online seem to show character designs that differ substantially from the designs shown in magazines.

The date on the setting material cover, May 1989, also places it as contemporaneous to the articles published in Animage in the Spring and Summer of that same year.

It’s worth mentioning the absolutely gorgeous artwork by Mikimoto that was published alongside promotional articles for Maimu in Animage. At the time, Mikimoto’s character design career was in top gear and his illustration work was some of the best stuff in the industry. It’s difficult to imagine an in-production film like Maimu without any familiar branding getting the kind of attention it did in magazines if not for Mikimoto’s art, which was perfectly poised to capture the reader’s attention in glossy color anime magazines.

Maimu was never finished. Production was canceled after completion of the pilot film and answers for specifics as to why or when are hard to find. Fans long surmised that similarities to Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service might have played a role. Ever the creator focused on originality, a recent interview with Kawamori in the Japan Times seemed to corroborate this theory. When asked about the film’s cancellation, Kawamori responded by saying “Around the same time, there were a couple titles released that had a similar feeling, so we decided not to do it. It wouldn’t have felt original.”

Looking back over thirty years later, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that Maimu did feel original. Maybe it’s the idea of Mikimoto’s character designs animated for the big screen with a big bubble-era budget or the appeal of a blue-collar contemporary Japanese setting with some sci-fi elements. In any case, helped perhaps by false nostalgia and lacking the potential disappointment of a film we’ll never see, it feels like we missed out on something special with Maimu.

Special thanks to the Animarchive for graciously sharing scans via their Tumblr.

Further Reading