By Andrew Osmond.
Mamoru Hosoda’s Oscar-nominated film Mirai is a time-travel fantasy that might look like Hosoda’s own journey into his past. After all, his breakout film was another time-travel yarn. But whereas 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time featured a familiar kind of anime protagonist – a mishap-prone schoolgirl with some confused feelings about boys – Mirai’s hero is more unusual. He’s a boy called Kun, and he’s all of four years old.
Kun is a typically boisterous toddler. He’s curious, energetic and cheery with a chance of squalling tantrums. As the story opens, Kun is about to face his first profound existential crisis. He’s no longer the only baby in his family. Suddenly, he’s gained a little sister, and she’s usurped his place as the coddled centre of his parents’ attention. Kun’s reaction is thermonuclear jealousy, until something magical happens and he finds himself meeting travellers in time, and embarking on his own journey.
The adventures that follow will give the four-year-old a fourth-dimensional perspective on his family. He’ll meet his great-grandpa as a young man, his mother as a child, and his pesky baby sibling all grown up as a big sister. The sister’s name is Mirai, incidentally, which means “future” in Japanese. She’s voiced by Haru Kuroki in her third Hosoda role; she was previously the wolf-girl Yuki (as an adolescent) in Wolf Children, and the child version of the troubled boar-boy in Boy and the Beast,
But Mirai is Kun’s story, about a little boy who’s meeting big ideas. Kun realises he’s part of a cycle, binding him with people who come both before and after his birth. “As our lives basically repeat themselves,” Hosoda confesses, “what is passed down from generation to generation, from our parents to us and us to our kids, but the eternal continuity of existence? Through a house, a garden and an ordinary family, I wanted to evoke the great cycle of existence and this circle of life that we all weave, individually.”
Of course, Hosoda is not new to family stories. The subject has become his motif, as recognisable to fans as the painfully separated lovers in the work of Makoto Shinkai. Hosoda’s family relationships run from the bond between the girl and her wise “Aunt Witch” in Girl Who Leapt; through the rambunctious in-laws of Summer Wars and the determinedly smiling mother of werewolves in Wolf Children; to the Jungle Book-style adoption in Boy and the Beast.
These films closely reflect Hosoda’s life. Summer Wars drew on his experience of getting married and gaining in-laws. Wolf Children was his tribute to his mother, Boy and the Beast his message to his new child. It’s no surprise to learn that Hosoda has had a second baby since. “Our eldest one got the impression that this new baby stole her parents, which made her ferociously jealous,” Hosoda told the trade paper Variety.
“Each project allows me to develop, to show something new, while at the same time staying coherent with my previous films,” Hosoda continued. “This is because I share my life with very young children. The experience gives me the sensation of finding back my own childhood… How life repeats itself, how lives and time overlay one another. There is this flow of life and time in my new film.”
Some of Mirai’s elements have precedents in animation. Time-travelling family members have been a much-imitated trope since 1992’s Mama is a Fourth Grader, which sent a girl called Mirai back in time to pester her mother-to-be. It unexpectedly won Japan’s top science fiction award, the Seiun, and was a clear influence on the later Sailor Moon. More recently, two anime films by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, When Marnie was There and Mary and the Witch’s Flower, have young girls magically connecting with their relatives in other timeframes and realising that everyone was young once. Mai Mai Miracle by Sunao Katabuchi has a child coming to a similar awareness, via her obsession with a girl from a millennium ago. There’s also a rather forgotten Disney CG cartoon, 2007’s Meet the Robinsons, which has a boy meeting his (future) relatives through time travel.
Mirai also has touches of other fantasies, such as a sequence set in a train station – a fascinating but scary place for children – that turns surreal and menacing, in the tradition of terrifying old Hollywood cartoons like Disney’s Pinocchio. In a lighter vein, some “furry” cartoon humour in Mirai, including a dashing prince who represents a certain non-human member of Kun’s family, can’t help recall the wolf/tyke transformations in Hosoda’s own Wolf Children.
But despite its fantasy, Mirai is strongly rooted in a very specific setting – Kun’s unusual family home. The building was so important that it was designed for the film by a professional architect. According to the press notes, “the architect worked on the project as though he were planning an actual house, carefully studying the space, light and materials. This resulted in a house that is neither typically Japanese nor Western, one more akin to a theatre stage with its succession of landings and absence of partitions.” In short, this is a house as a four year-old might see it.
“As Kun experiences wild adventures with his sister from the future (his baby sister all grown up), his feelings start changing,” Hosoda says. “By the end of the film, his relationship to Mirai has evolved.” The director adds that although Mirai may not be a sensational film in appearance, it still carries Hosoda’s deep personal ambition. “I want to encourage children from all over the world,” he says, “and to celebrate what they’re going to become.”
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films.
Mirai is released in the UK by Anime Limited.