Mamoru Hosoda Retrospective: Mirai
We’re finally there! Following the recent cinematic release of Mamoru Hosoda’s latest movie Belle, I’ve gone back and reviewed all of his movies in release order, starting with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, then continuing with Summer Wars, Wolf Children, The Boy and the Beast, and now perhaps his most divisive movie, Mirai.
I first saw Mirai during its initial UK theatrical release in November 2018. If I’d been writing about anime at that time, I’d have already have reviewed it, but I didn’t pluck up the courage (nor did I find an opportunity to do so) until March 2019, when I joined the AniTAY community, who at that point were linked to the Kotaku website. Well, the idiotic owners of Kotaku shut down all user blogs back in 2020, leading to AniTAY’s great move to Medium and even greater glory! (Maybe.) I’d always planned to do a retrospective of my favourite anime directors, and I’ve had fun with Hosoda’s movies, so I’ll probably move on to someone else next… Maybe Satoshi Kon, or perhaps Katsuhiro Otomo, or I could consider Makoto Shinkai…
That’s getting ahead of myself. Today, let’s focus on Mirai, a very odd movie indeed. As Hosoda’s fifth full-length non-franchise feature, Mirai sees the director returning once more to his favourite source of inspiration — family life. Main character Kun is a typical 4-year-old boy — i.e. he’s a selfish little brat, prone to tantrums and emotional meltdowns when he doesn’t get his way, and he’s unable or unwilling to consider others’ points of view. For many anime fans, Kun’s irascible nature is like kryptonite — he’s not an easy protagonist to like, let alone empathise with. For me, that’s part of the genius of the film. Hosoda is completely aware that his chosen focus character is a little shit, in fact that’s the entire point.
From Hosoda’s perspective, there would be little purpose in sanitising Kun’s personality, after all, the apparent inspiration for Mirai’s story was Hosoda’s observation of his three-year-old son’s reaction to his newborn baby sister. In the movie, Kun is deeply disturbed by the arrival of this new distraction for his parents — no longer the sole focus of their attention, he hates the small, defenceless thing that has stolen his place in the family hierarchy. This culminates in a horribly realistic but bowel-clenchingly unpleasant scene where Kun raises his hand and strikes his sleeping sister’s head with a metal toy train. The parent in me winced at that, no doubt the director’s intention.
It’s this unflinching focus on the unpleasantness of children and the ineffectuality of even the most attentive parents that really makes this a special movie, unlike any other anime I’ve seen. Kun is too young to consider the longer-term consequences of his actions, and is motivated primarily by short-term gains. We were all like that as children, much as we might have forgotten it. Those of us who are parents are acutely aware of the miniature Hitlers our own beloved children can be, and it’s our job to help smooth off those sharp, brittle edges and shape them into well-adjusted, functioning adults.
Kun’s parents are a little different to the traditional Japanese nuclear family norm often portrayed in anime. His mother returns to the office not long after giving birth (I thought the disturbing lack of paid maternity leave was mainly a backwards United States thing, but presumably it’s a problem in Japan too), leaving work-from-home Dad with the primary caregiver responsibilities for both Kun and baby Mirai. Both Mum and Dad are shown to be exhausted, grumpy, and unsure of themselves during this period in their lives. It’s very relatable, again, and for anyone who has parented young children, they’ll see themselves reflected here. Kun’s dad is an architect who designed their unusual house, which is long and narrow, split into two, divided by a small central garden/courtyard. Hosoda apparently employed the skills of a real-life architect to design the house. It shows, in an incredibly well-realised sense of place conjured for the primary space in which the majority of the film is set.
Mirai is structured as a series of interconnected vignettes with fantasy aspects. Ostensibly Kun’s daydreams, Hosoda uses this conceit to explore themes far beyond the cognition of an average four-year-old. It’s best not to think too deeply about the nuts and bolts of this, and as is common to Hosoda and his plots, he’s aiming more for emotional resonance than gritty realism here. It’s trippy dream logic. Go with the flow. Whenever a daydream sequence starts, the edges of the scenery around Kun flashes blue, then his surroundings distort and expand as his garden becomes a jungle, or the deep ocean. During these sequences, Kun first meets a mysterious man who turns out to be an anthropomorphic representation of his family dog. When Kun steals his tail and jabs it up his own ass, of course he then briefly transforms into a furry puppy person. Hosoda’s got to get his furry references in there somewhere.
Next, he meets the future version of his sister Mirai, who apparently has time-travelled back to meet him, for various unlikely reasons. Mirai literally means “future” and the full Japanese movie title is Mirai no Mirai, or “Mirai of the Future.” Whether she’s a real time-traveller, or merely a hallucination goes essentially unexplained, and it really doesn’t matter. Together, Mirai and Kun have various adventures in time and space, where he sometimes even manages to retain a valuable life lesson. One time he meets his mother as an equally mischievous pre-schooler, another time he gets motorcycle lessons from his late Great Grandad in post World War II Yokohama harbour. Later, he becomes lost in an enormous, complex and confusing train station, and in one of the most nightmarish sequences in the entire film, almost gets dragged onto the hellish train that transports abandoned children to “The Lonely Lands.” Brrrrr.
Each subsequent adventure helps Kun to appreciate his family history, and his role in it. In one climactic, emotional and incredible sequence, future Mirai shows him his incredibly complex family tree with dramatic aesthetics that recall the dizzying multicoloured virtual cityscape of Summer Wars. It’s only once Kun can recognise the value and meaning of his new role as Mirai’s big brother that he’s able to look beyond himself and appreciate the idea of living for another person. This bit made me cry. It might seem like such a basic lesson to learn, but it’s not something that comes naturally to every child.
Children are born naturally selfish, they’re wired up to prioritise their own needs, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this — it’s an essential survival adaptation. However, human beings are social creatures who can achieve so much more as a collective, and families exist as the basic building block of society, where children are instructed on how to suppress and control their selfishness and learn to care for others. Mirai is an excellent demonstration of the psychology behind this. It seems trite to say that if you’re not a parent you probably won’t understand, but it’s true.
Most criticism of this movie I’ve read has been from people without their own children. Hosoda has an intricate grasp of the emotions of children and parents that could have come only from lived experience, and I’m glad he made this film. Mirai’s story is not as compelling as that of Summer Wars or Wolf Children, and by its nature it’s not as broadly entertaining to as wide an audience. However, I applaud Hosoda for making exactly the film he wanted to make, I doubt it could have been made by anyone else. At times beautiful, at others deeply weird, often humorous and sometimes frustrating, Mirai is an anime movie like no other, for all the good and bad that suggests. If you’ve not yet seen Mirai, go into it with an open mind and a forgiving heart, like the best parents, even if you have no children of your own.
Written and directed by: Mamoru Hosoda
Production Company: Studio Chizu
Japanese cinematic release: July 20th, 2018
UK limited edition blu-ray/DVD release: July 15th, 2019
Distributor: Anime Limited
Runtime: 98 minutes
Languages: Japanese audio with English subtitles, English dub
BBFC rating: PG
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