Mirai is a beautiful and perceptive anime from Mamoru Hosoda about family connections. Light on plot (though full of heart and memorable moments) Mirai is ripe for interpretation and has plenty to offer for children and adults alike.
Mirai is the new anime written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda; known by some for a number of the Digimon films, and by others as the name behind The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children. It is a beautiful film about the nature of family connections, full of richness and emotion without being too sentimental.
Although the film is named Mirai, it actually centers on Kun, a four-year-old boy. As the film opens, Kun is restless, waiting for his parents to return from the hospital with a new baby. This is his sister, Mirai. At first, Kun struggles to accept her and resents her taking up all of his parents’ affection. A little while later, he has a couple of strange visitors, first the family dog in the form of a young man, and then the teenage form of his sister from the future: these visitors show him a new perspective on his family and help him to see meaning in his relationships. Mirai presents this not as a plot so much as a series of lightly connected scenes, some of which involve Kun traveling to a different time period; for example, to see his mother as a young girl, or his grandparents courting.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a favorite anime of mine; partly for the beauty of the art, and also for the imagination in the plot. In both films, time travel is a device to present the issues the main character faces as part of growing up. Makoto in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was in her mid-teens, much older than Kun in Mirai; thus the device itself and the scenes Kun visits via time travel are much simpler than those in the earlier film to reflect the issues a typical four-year-old might encounter.
For Kun, it is nearly all about family… and of course: a young child’s whole world is his family, revolving around him. Kun has to develop past that, learning that each of the people important to him have experiences and personalities which are – surprise, surprise – quite separate from Kun himself. His new sister is a person, not just a novel visitor or doll, which he learns when he meets a teenage version of her. His grandparents share an exciting and romantic history, which one would never guess from only meeting them in their old age. Kun’s mother was a child once! That must be a bizarre revelation to a child. And even the family dog is a person in his own right. These reflect typical discoveries which a child goes through at that age: Mirai is, therefore, a study of childhood and family for adult viewers, though it is also an adventure story for children to watch.
If you were to ignore the themes of the film and simply watch it for its plot (that is, watch it as a child would), Mirai would appear extremely simple. In fact, there is barely a plot at all: the story simply follows Kun developing an understanding of himself and his family over the course of about a year. But in that way, it is ideal for young viewers: there is nothing complex that needs following, simply a boy to relate to, which happens very naturally and very early on. Even the time travel model is presented without explanation: perfect, as it varies with every use, and a child watching the film would simply accept “this happened” without looking for nuts and bolts as to why or how it happened. In Mirai, the simplicity of content works. My eleven-year-old son, who had asked specifically to go and watch Mirai, got to the end of the film and told me he loved it without having even noticed that the plot was so slight.
I think it worked for my son because throughout the whole film he felt he was right there with Kun, experiencing his life and being part of his family; and that does not require a plot. It was due partly to the details in the writing, and also how well the writing was complemented by the images and the characters. A key example, which my son highlighted, was a scene in which Kun traveled back many decades to visit his grandfather as a young man, who taught him horseriding. “That’s exactly what riding a horse can be like,” he told me “and I can imagine just how Kun would feel.”
As you can see from the images here, the animation is beautiful, and it really does draw the viewer right into Kun’s world. Who cares which bits are real or imagined? If my son felt he was there, and I wanted to be there, the art of Mirai contributed to it being a great film. Every setting evokes the right atmosphere, whether it is nostalgia, excitement or anxiety. There is also a great deal of attention paid to the depiction of Japanese culture throughout Mirai, so that it too is woven right into the atmosphere of the film: customs, food, buildings all form a natural part of the film’s environment.
I must say the pacing can seem a little odd, for adults and children alike. I wondered a couple of times whether it was going to “go somewhere yet”, and my boy is certainly used to more blatantly exciting films. The leisurely (more conversational than dreamlike) style was apt for this film, though, as Kun does amble through his life at age four, and observes what life is like for his parents, etc. rather than being really engaged with it. As the film progresses, though, the pace does gradually (almost imperceptibly) pick up, so that the end can seem a little abrupt. It didn’t take long to acclimatize to the slow pace early in the film, or indeed to accept the ending either: Kun had come to the next stage in his childhood development, he had learned a lot, and that was a fitting place to close the film.
There was only one aspect of Mirai which I felt was below par and that was the voice acting; one in particular. We saw the dubbed version at the cinema and John Cho played Kun’s father as though he was reading a newspaper. Cho is usually a terrific actor (I admired him a lot in Searching), but perhaps the quality of his craft is more in his face and manner than his voice. I won’t go into all the other actors, except for the boy who voiced Kun (on the screen for most of the time), Jaden Waldman. This was his first major role and he did extremely well: the voice was part of a believable character, so much so that the poorer one did not spoil my enjoyment of the film.
Overall, Mirai is an experience, rather than a story; and an experience to be shared with a child if you can. I’m hoping it comes to one of the streaming services, as A Silent Voice and Your Name did not long after they were at the cinema: I’m looking forward to seeing it again, with subtitles this time.