Director Hosoda Mamoru is nearly synonymous with family themes in anime films, but his newest work, Mirai (in Japanese: Mirai no Mirai) takes it to a whole new level. Whereas his past films such as Summer Wars, Wolf Children, and The Boy and the Beast explore the value and meaning of family, Mirai is more focused on the authentic feel of raising (and being) real flesh and blood children, and the challenges that come with having a family.
The story of Mirai centers around Kun, a bullet train-loving toddler who’s meeting his newborn little sister, Mirai, for the first time. As is typical of only children who suddenly have a sibling in their lives, he quickly grows jealous over all the attention given to the new baby. However, his tantrums lead him to discover that his backyard is the gateway to something magical, and that it lets Kun discover places and times he never could have otherwise. Through these voyages, which bring him to see his family members past and present in a new light, Kun is witness to the many small steps that lead him to being who he is.
At least, that’s the way the film presents Kun’s adventures. Mirai has almost a Calvin and Hobbes feel in that they never explain outright whether it’s all his imagination or if there really is time travel, and I think that ambiguity is a strength. While Mirai leans more toward the notion that Kun is actually accessing his family’s history given the amount of details he picks up, it doesn’t discount the possibility that Kun, like so many young children, is paying more attention than anyone realizes.
What makes the film truly memorable is the way it so realistically portrays the behavior and learning process of small children in Kun and Mirai. Speaking from my own experiences, I have plenty of friends and family at this point who have raised kids of their own, and many of the obstacles the parents face in dealing with Kun and Mirai actually perfectly mirror the experiences I’ve seen in those close to me. In particular, there’s a scene where Kun refuses to change out of his favorite pants—a stubbornness I’ve seen firsthand. It can feel almost too real, as if Mirai is trying to tell parents that it understands what they’re going through. Moreover, Kun’s mother and father also have to deal with delegating responsibility in their “working mother + work-from-home father” situation that’s quite unusual in Japanese society, which leads to even more examination of the “roles” of family in the modern age. To little surprise, in an interview shown at the screening, Director Hosoda discusses how having children of his own influenced the making of this film.
But it’s not just the parents that the film successfully empathizes with; the portrayal of the experience of being a young child is just as vivid and authentic. There’s one scene in particular toward the end of the film that successfully captures a child’s fear of being in a strange and unfamiliar place. While I’ve not been a baby in a long, long time, Kun’s reaction to his surroundings reminds me of the nightmares I had as a kid, as well as the times where I got lost in a mall or similarly large and eerie spaces.
Mirai feels more like a series of small episodes tied together into a single movie, but perhaps that’s the way childhood is. There’s no grand scheme or single obstacle to be overcome. It’s a learning process for the entire family.