Fujio Akatsuka's pioneering shojo manga Secret Akko-Chan is one of the true classics of the genre. Created in 1962 and running as a web manga to this day it was first animated for television in 1969, remade twice in the Eighties and Nineties, sired a feature length anime and now this live-action adaptation that refashions the premise as the basis for a rom-com. Make-up loving ten-year-old Akko (Ai Yoshikawa) receives a gift from a kindly spirit (Teruyuki Kagawa) of a magical compact mirror that enables her to transform into any person or animal she wants. Adopting a beautiful adult alter-ego (Haruka Ayase), Akko lives out her little girl fantasies of life as a grownup. In the process she befriends Naoto Hayase (Masaki Okada), a handsome twenty-seven year old junior executive struggling to save the ailing Akatsuka Cosmetics Company (a cute tribute to the manga's creator). Taken with Akko's youthful energy and idealism, Naoto takes her on as an assistant. While Akko's childish enthusiasm causes no end of chaos amidst the otherwise straight-laced office, she helps them take on stuffy board members scheming to ruin the company. All while falling for Naoto who has no idea she is really a child.
At a time when kick-ass action heroines are becoming more widely-celebrated as role models for little girls, Akko's Secret comes across as a throwback to a 'softer' traditional concept of femininity. Very much a 'girly girl' Akko's adventures unfold in a world of sunshine and lollipops, embracing makeup and pretty clothes and celebrating the importance of respecting others, hard work, gentle resolve and nurturing a positive work environment. Wisely the film takes the premise at face value, does not play for irony and rather than posit one set of feminine ideals as superior to another, simply imparts their worth in modern Japanese society. The set-up re-stages Akko's origin from the anime, beat for beat with an appropriately magical atmosphere, charming pastel-shaded production design and picture perfect casting. It greatly benefits from not one but two ingratiating leads. Child actress Ai Yoshikawa perfectly embodies the wide-eyed charm of young Akko while beautiful Haruka Ayase delivers a beguiling comic turn. In stark contrast to her solemn turn as a blind samurai girl in Ichi (2008), the talented Ayase here quite brilliantly conveys the manic glee and childish naivety of a kid inhabiting a grownup's body.
However the film's second act deviates from the source material treading a path very similar to the classic Tom Hanks comedy Big (1988). Or more aptly the derivative Jennifer Garner vehicle 13 Going on 30 (2004). As in those comedies the kid-in-a-grownup's body lands a high-flying corporate job, inadvertently mires themselves in executive intrigue and falls for an 'older' colleague. This latter aspect is potentially troubling, particularly given their 'meet-cute' happens while Akko is still a child. However the way the relationship actually plays out is a chaste, cutesy girl's manga ideal of romance. Naoto is drawn very much a child's idea of a love interest: boy band handsome, non-threatening, sensitive and supportive. Yasuhiro Kawamura over-relies on wacky fast-motion sequences as a means to sustain a manic cartoon energy. A bigger problem is that the tone is often at odds with the plot's fixation on dull corporate politics, stocks, shareholders and hostile takeovers. Which is curious subject matter for a children's movie (see the Eddie Murphy vehicle Imagine That (2008) for a similarly misconceived mix of kid comedy and the stock market). Yet for all its dull stretches, Akko's Secret does convey a message about the importance of Japan's corporate society reconnecting with the simple, honest, humane values established in Japanese elementary schools that proves surprisingly poignant. After a thematically apt though hardly thrilling climax wherein a public debate decides the future of the Akatsuka Cosmetics Company the film contrives an absurd action movie finale with a race to dispose of a ticking bomb. Thereafter Kawamura crafts a definitive end to Akko's story likely to rankle fans of the manga but satisfy those following this purely as a rom-com. It is a silly, sugary confection, not a patch on the anime but with its own modest charm.