This movie’s central character is not the title character. It’s a lad aged about four named Kun (Moka Kamishiraishi). While it is his journey and growth in maturity the film chiefly follows, his whole family also has to adapt and change and it’s all thanks to their newest member, baby Mirai.
The features from director Mamoru Hosoda and team have been consistently good and occasionally great, and with Mirai Studio Chizu has created a film both for all ages and for the ages. As much as Hosoda’s films are compared to the work of Studio Ghibli, another apt point of comparison are the films from Pixar — who are avowed fans of Ghibli to be sure — and particularly those directed by Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.; Up; Inside Out; Soul), which fuse heartfelt character stories with quirky and whimsical world creation. Mirai is likewise an ideal match of animated film with subject matter. The mundane and the magical fit together like a perfect carpenter’s join, strengthening the whole creation.
The fantastical elements of the story, as in Hosoda’s earlier work — the time leaping in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the virtual world of Oz in Summer Wars, the parallel realm of beasts in The Boy and the Beast — never distract from the story with pointless razzle dazzle, always adding depth to the characters by challenging and stretching them. And what vivid characters! The attention to detail in bringing these people, especially Kun, to life is incredible, both in the script that animates their relationships and interior lives and the artistry that animates their forms on screen. They are grounded and believable, the emotional impact of their motivations and choices so strong, the extraordinary aspects of the setting are made more believable in turn.
The art and animation throughout Mirai is gorgeous. On multiple occasions a wide view of the town is laid out for the audience to soak in, as the camera tilts down to, or up from, the house where Kun lives. Designed by Kun’s architect dad, this unusual domicile is long and narrow, with multiple terraced levels and an open air grassed courtyard with a single tree. As the home base the film centres around, it’s packed with all the clutter a young family so easily accumulates. On top of this effort in traditional anime detail, Studio Chizu continue to integrate a wider array of animation styles into their films. 3D art is integrated so naturally into many scenes it’s almost invisible, a motorbike ride in the golden afternoon light a prime example. As things get more strange later in the story, the animation takes some experimental turns which do stand out, but intentionally so, as they emphasise the fraught emotional tenor of the story. As in many fairy tales, there are some dark and uncanny moments here too. Balancing this tension, there is a generous dose of humour and joy, often arriving courtesy of well planned camera framing and editing.
The manner in which the extraordinary breaks into Kun’s everyday experience is something I’m going to leave extremely vague, as the first appearance and progression of these sequences is a wondrous delight. Through these forays beyond the normal unfolding of day to day existence, Kun meets a succession of characters that broaden his understanding of life and his family. The fuzzy dream logic of these encounters mostly doesn’t matter and preserves their mysterious nature, but does bring up my only, very minor, off key note in enjoying the film. The extent to which these otherworldly excursions can affect the real world is not fully defined, which makes the stakes, particularly in Kun’s biggest moment of crisis, unclear. The emotional weight he feels in that moment is however very strong, which is what matters most.
It’s a brave move to centre a feature length film around such a young child, but Studio Chizu accomplish this feat admirably with Kun. It’s another way Mirai capitalises on the medium of animation, as trying to coach a toddler through a performance that is the foundation of a film would be near impossible. With Kun being animated he can be made to do everything juuuust so. Which is not to say the animators had an easy job, but they might be the only ones able to create a character like this. Setsuko in Grave of the Fireflies is another example that springs to mind, but Kun is next level amazing if only because the focus on him makes the work that went into his portrayal more noticeable. An early scene momentarily makes him something of a cousin to the youngsters in Wolf Children, but apart from this Kun is a thoroughly believable small boy. The various methods he uses for negotiating stairs, or the way he shuffles around nervously when meeting a stranger in a warehouse, are low key moments of stunning animation.
The way Kun speaks and acts is just as fully realised as his visual depiction. He is young yes, but not simple — just inexperienced. He’s curious about the world around him, pulling references from what he knows to try and understand more. Family folklore says his great-grandfather’s proposal to his great-grandmother was accepted on the condition he could beat her in a race, so when Kun realises a teenage girl he meets has a crush, he innocently asks if she will have a race too. He’s also extremely interested in trains, playing with toy locomotives constantly, wearing train t-shirts, warping a picture book to be all about trains and so on. He’s not all cute though. Kun’s endearing persona can turn to petulance; his determination to obstinacy, and the way Mirai, with a soft touch bordering on tenderness, chronicles his first steps in consciously becoming more selfless and growing up is beautiful.
Kun’s mother (Kumiko Aso) and father (Gen Hoshino) have their own struggles to face, and in a more subdued and mature fashion these moments are also effective. Everyone has layers behind their actions, sometimes brought up in conversation, or quietly highlighted by the surrounding context the film has so carefully built up over its run time. There’s a multi-generational story fleshed out bit by bit throughout and it all comes together in a deeply satisfying and enlightening manner, for Kun and the audience.
Every part of Mirai is so well considered that it never feels like anyone involved in its creation is showing off. Another part of this understated approach is the music. The core of the soundtrack is gentle piano notes; at times playful, wistful, or melancholy, yet it is never intrusive. This restraint lets the audience apply their own life experience — triumphs, struggles and all the routine in between — to the narrative, finding resonance or new perspectives at any point along the way.
In the day to day business of life, it can be difficult to take a God’s eye view of our own journey; even harder to understand all the complexity behind the faces of our fellow sojourners. Mirai reminds us a view like this is possible, even when at ground level such a sight seems almost too distant to imagine.