Here’s a dark confession from the pits of my shame-filled soul: Mirai was my first Mamoru Hosada film. Not Summer Wars, not The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, not even goddamn Wolf Children. Mirai, his seventh major feature directorial work, was my first taste. By all accounts, this is kind of a leftfield departure for one of Japanese animation’s most acclaimed voices, being a small-scale domestic family movie whose fantasy elements are explicitly left as metaphorical rather than driving the plot. For much of its runtime, Mirai is an intentionally featherweight and charming little trifle with a pretty genius conceit. Centred around a comfortable family of three – a Father who works from home as an architect (Gen Hoshino), a Mother who is the main breadwinner of the household (Kumiko Asō), and their four-year-old son Kun (Moka Kamishiraishi) – that’s just blossomed to four with the arrival of the titular baby girl Mirai (Haru Kuroki). Since Kun is four, this alternately makes him very excited and extremely jealous because the new baby is commanding his parents’ attention more and more with Kun fearing he’ll be left unloved, causing him to act out. But every time he does, time-travelling members of the family show up from the tree in their garden at the middle of the house (it’s a weirdly-designed house which is apparently “what happens when [you] marry an architect”) to try and teach Kun to get over himself.
So, It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol but for a developing young boy at the age where he’d start acting out even before he felt his position being threatened by the arrival of a younger sibling. Hosada’s script is shockingly accurate when it comes to depicting the family dynamics and individual characteristics of the three family members capable of doing more than babble and cry. The Father trying to win some cred with the other mums in the neighbourhood by making out that he’s a super-awesome stay-at-home dad so that his wife can forward her career, but being alternately a panicked wreck or easily-distracted workaholic behind closed doors. The way that Mother and Father (neither are given names in the script) get into half-arguments over little things but not in a malicious way or anything. Both of them sharing fears about their fitness as parents, always worried they’re not good enough because Mirai cries when Father holds her or because Mother shouted at Kun during one of his many temper tantrums and she knows she shouldn’t have. Father trying to help and encourage Kun with learning to ride a bicycle and being utterly inept at it. The comedic and dramatic material that Hosada mines from the well of parenting easily outstrips anything Brad Bird tried with Incredibles 2 earlier this year; these feel like autobiographical scenarios and conversations pulled from Hosada’s own life, possibly because they were.
But it’s in Kun that the film finds its most specific characterisation. Not since the first Rugrats Movie have I seen a depiction of jealous unruly older siblings as accurate as this one. The way that Kun flips on a dime from being incredibly excited about his new baby sister because it means she’ll totally be as obsessed with trains as he is, to emphatically deciding he does not like her and trying to hit her on the head with one of his toy trains simply because his Mother and Father are ignoring him. The scene where he gets his first bicycle and immediately demands the training wheels off because he saw some older kids riding around without them up ahead and he’s at that age where he wants to grow up right now reminded me of my own brother when he was four. Kun’s stubborn insistence that things MUST go his way at all times otherwise he devolves into a full-on paddy, including one over being forced to wear blue shorts because his favourite yellow ones are in the wash, was my favourite guilt-tripping tactic growing up. Hosada’s animation team even get the movement and physicality of a four-year-old down perfectly, how they swing themselves around with purpose but aren’t physically developed enough yet to do so in any way that isn’t awkward and gangly.
Mirai is exactly what it sounds like. There are no big surprises, no unique twists, and no additional subtext beyond the central metaphor. That, for the record, is perfectly ok because it is an extremely sweet film which, even with the fantasy diversions that allow Hosada the chance to make the story a bit more cinematic, still feels like something refreshingly different from much of the current animation landscape. It looks extremely pretty, it hits a lot of emotional truths, and it can be really properly funny. But then, at the exact moment Mirai threatens to float off into the ether as an episodic breeze but not much more, Hosada unleashes his knockout blows with an ending that ties together the tighter story of Kun and Mirai with the entire prior history of his family into a gorgeous and extremely powerful bow celebrating all of the little miracles that bring each of us here to this point in time. A reminder that life, in all of its folkloric proposals and insurmountable physical struggles, is a series of beautiful happy accidents that can be impossible to fully appreciate unless spelled out in front of us. Hundreds of decisions and events, big and small, responsible for getting us to this particular moment right here, none of which exist in a vacuum and all of which bring us together, visualised via a fly-through of Kun’s family tree.
Like a magician, Hosada snaps his fingers and everything comes into focus. Where the low-key and at times genial family movie briefly widens its scope for a big emotional payoff without alienating its all-ages audience before snapping back shut again, and it’s my favourite individual sequence of the entire year, one that would have caused me to hug my mother extra-tightly were she not currently located several hundred miles away. Mirai’s powerhouse ending definitely elevates the movie, but it’s more of a coup-de-grace for an already very good film that pushes it into true greatness rather than a last-minute rally to finish strong. If this is what Hosada’s deliberately minor works are, I cannot wait to find out what his classics look like!