When it comes down to it, Lonely castle in the mirror is a commentary on one of Japan’s most widespread ongoing problems: school bullying. The point of view character of the film, Kokoro, has been bullied to the point where she is not only unable to go to school, but she can’t even explain to her parents what happened for fear of reliving her trauma. Of course, thanks to this lack of communication, the parents can’t understand or give her the support she needs beyond leaving her home alone for literally months on end.
Outside the castle, there is only one person who tries to understand and help Kokoro: Mrs. Kitajima, a teacher at a special school for bullied children. She goes above and beyond, checking in on Kokoro and talking to the parents and other teachers—not trying to “fix” Kokoro, but letting her know that she has someone she can trust no matter the time or place. While the film does not advocate that people like Mrs. Kitajima will be a magical solution to the bullying problem, it is quick to show that her empathy at least allows Kokoro and other children a lifeline when they need it most.
The other way Kokoro can begin to heal is through the other middle school students she meets in the castle. Each of them has a similar problem – like bullying she faces or abuse from parents. While they each have a front of sorts, being around those with similar experiences means everyone is a little more empathetic and kind – unwilling to become the monster that terrorized them. And while they make mistakes and slip up from time to time—some people don’t get along, after all—this air of companionship eventually allows many of the characters to open up about what they encounter and work together to move forward.
This exploration of bullying and how to combat it (along with other domestic issues) is tied together through a wonderful mystery. What is the castle? Where did it come from? Why was each of them chosen? How are they connected? Who is the girl in the wolf mask who acts as their gamemaster/caretaker? Can the secret room in the castle really grant any wish? And is it true that if they break the rules of the castle, a wolf will come and eat them?
Also, thanks to the ticking clock, the film always has a looming sense of urgency. Our seven heroes have just one year to get a wish granted (if they even choose to go that route) and heal enough to survive in a world without the safety and companionship of the castle. Because of this, even though the film’s primary focus is the trauma and subsequent personal healing of our heroes, it never drags. Instead, it feels like they’ll never have enough time to finish everything they need to before time runs out.
As for the visuals, the film is by no means a powerhouse in terms of animation, but the backgrounds really stand out. Through them alone, we can quickly understand the layout of the castle and know exactly where each of our characters is in each scene. This is especially important when things get more hectic towards the end of the film. The scenes depicting each of the seven children’s traumatic moments stand out, and the terror and horror of these situations come across perfectly – even if you haven’t had similar events in your life.
On the aural side of things, the music does its job but is largely forgettable. However, the ending theme, “Merry Go Round” by Yuuri, which plays during the film’s credits and emotional epilogue, hits hard – and may even make you shed a tear or two even listening to it after the film is over.
All in all, Lonely castle in the mirror is a film with an important message about an ongoing problem with no easy solution. In the most general sense, it shows how adults can help suffering children by giving them a lifeline when they need help the most and making sure they know it exists. At the same time, it shows how these traumatized children can help each other by giving each other the empathy they wish they had and regaining the confidence to succeed in the (too often unfair) world we all live in.