Reviewby Kim Morrissy,
In a small house in an obscure corner of a certain city lives a family with a spoiled four-year-old boy, Kun-chan. When Kun-chan gets a little sister named Mirai, he feels that she stole his parents' love from him, leading him to be overwhelmed by many new experiences and emotions for the first time in his life. In the midst of this turmoil, he meets an older version of Mirai, who has come from the future.
Mirai isn't going to surprise anyone who has been following Mamoru Hosoda's films for long. Like all of Hosoda's recent films at Studio Chizu, Mirai is a sweet and humble story about family bonds, presented with a dash of magic and wonder. It feels very much like a work in Hosoda's mold, yet it's also his most refined attempt yet at portraying the complexities of family dynamics. This is perhaps due to the fact that the scope of the narrative is restrained this time around; there is no grand plot beyond the vignettes in the life of this family. Don't let that dissuade you from trying out the film, however, as Mirai wonderfully succeeds at every narrative goal it strives for.
The first thing worth pointing out is that even though the story involves time-traveling shenanigans, it's more of a magical realist element than anything. When young Kun-chan walks out into the garden, he encounters his family members at different stages of their lives. No one else ever interacts with these alternate versions of his father, mother, sister, great-grandfather, or his pet dog, and no one is ever made aware of them either. It's doubtful whether Kun-chan himself will even remember his adventures with these different versions when he grows older, regardless of the life lessons he takes to heart. The distinction between “fantasy” and “reality” is very much beside the point when the story is told entirely through a child's perspective.
In other words, the appeal of Mirai lies in how relatable you find the character of Kun-chan. I'm not a parent, nor do I spend much time around young children, but going by my own childhood memories, Kun-chan felt very true to life. He is selfish and often cries obnoxiously when things don't go his way, but there's nothing malicious about his actions. I think Mirai is the first anime I've encountered that truly captured just how exhausting children are to handle. Kun-chan constantly demands attention, and no matter how patiently his parents deal with him, you can see in their body language that prolonged exposure to their child wears them out.
Much of the animation finesse of the film is channeled into capturing Kun-chan's childish mannerisms. This is most obviously seen in his awkward gait and how he occasionally struggles to climb up or down stairs. Some character-establishing scenes are drawn out longer than expected, as if they exist solely to articulate just how a toddler navigates the world. These scenes were always a delight to watch, however; it occurs to me that had the movie been filmed in live-action, there probably wouldn't be opportunity for this kind of laser-like focus on showing what makes toddlers such distinctive creatures.
Another prominent visual aspect of the film is the architecture of the family house where most of the action is set. It's separated into different layers and sections, perhaps to symbolize the divisions between “private” and “public” places within a household. Kun-chan has a personal playroom downstairs, while the communal living area is upstairs and visible from the garden outside. The garden is structured like a courtyard, with a single tree rooted in the middle. It is this liminal space between the “house” and the “outer world” that transforms into a fantastical world whenever Kun-chan feels a keen sense of distance between himself and his family. As a result of these interesting design choices, the setting feels mundane and wondrous in equal parts. Even before Kun-chan is transported to lush jungles and soars through the sky, the audience can sense that he's exploring the frontiers within his home with an insatiable child's curiosity.
It is this sense of childlike wonder that propels the entire film, as the actual plot is rather thin. Jealous of how his baby sister has monopolized the attention of his parents, Kun-chan struggles to come to terms with her presence in his life. Whenever he becomes particularly upset, he runs into the garden and gets transported to a different place and time. Through his adventures, Kun-chan encounters a different side of his family and comes to value them more. The narrative plays out episodically, with each family member imparting a different life lesson that will help Kun-chan deal with his current situation. It's a minor miracle that this film isn't as trite as it sounds, but there's no denying that this is a children's film with a didactic bent.
It's also worth noting that the titular character Mirai has a much smaller speaking role than you'd expect. Although the older version of Mirai—the Mirai of the future—is featured prominently in all of the film's promotional materials, the focus is more on Kun-chan's relationship with his entire family than the sibling relationship specifically. On one hand, I appreciated the film's holistic approach to exploring family dynamics. On the other hand, I couldn't help but feel that it was a waste to see the Mirai of the future appear so sparingly, especially when her character exudes such effortless charisma and charm.
Fortunately, none of these complaints detract from the sheer joy and sincerity that emanate from this film. Its vignettes are clearly drawn from Hosoda's personal experiences of parenthood, from the father character's misadventures in the kitchen to his barely restrained tears of pride upon seeing his son teach himself how to ride a bicycle. If Hosoda's admiration for his own mother may have caused him to romanticize Hana too much in Wolf Children, his self-deprecation in Mirai nudges the film closer toward its truths. Out of all Hosoda's family films, this one may lie closest to my heart.
As a final note, I appreciate how the theme of the “future” (Mirai) is encompassed not just through the time-hopping little sister but also in the family dynamics generally. The mother ends her maternity leave early to go back to work, while the father stays at home to take care of the children. The house they live in is a work of modern architecture, a narrow building with multiple stairways, designed by the creatively-minded architect father. The family of Mirai is decidedly modern rather than traditional, and I expect that the film will speak to a wider audience because of it.
Overall : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Possibly the most realistic depiction of a toddler in anime, rich and detailed character animation, interesting setting
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