A small 4-year-old boy named Kun plays with his trains in the living room. His exasperated grandmother tries to clean up the house. Soon the boy’s parents come home from the hospital with Kun’s newborn sister in tow. She does not have a name. Later, Kun is amazed by her and the reality of being an older brother – it feels like a small revolution. The rest of Mirai is an extension of this first feeling, witnessing the thousand private awakenings which constitute a childhood, the growing awareness of the self and others.
The bird’s eye view. In Mirai, it works two ways: in the beginning it directs our attention toward the family home, one among many, situating the film among the essentially domestic; later, we drop from the sky, not toward the domestic, toward realism, but rather toward the fantastic, the characters going from the past to the future. Mamoru Hosoda’s strategy is to combine these approaches – to illuminate the realistic through the fantastic. In Hosoda’s best films, Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the balance between these is almost right–neither is overwhelmed. In Mirai, the results are mixed.
Going back to the family living room. Kun whines for attention while his parents busy themselves looking after the baby; soon enough he loses patience and begins to cry as he’s ignored. Instinctively he understands that his little sister is monopolizing his parents’ attention so he strikes out, hitting her with a toy train. Kun’s mother loses her tempers and yells at him. All of this happens fairly quickly, each action escalating inevitably until we’re left is crying children, frustrated parents, and a quiet domestic chaos. Variations on this scene happen early in the film–Kun is ignored, lashes out, rinse and repeat. After establishing the family dynamic (the mom wants to go back to work, the dad is going freelance to watch the children), Hosoda introduces his fantasy.
Initially, the switch toward fantasy seems entirely unmotivated and it risks being a minor disaster. Kun walks down a few steps, the scenery shifts around him and all of a sudden the family dog is turned into a character called The Prince, who remembers when Kun was born, and his parents stopped paying attention to him. The film then resets and the pattern is established: each domestic mishap is followed by a flight toward fantasy. Kun meets his sister when she’s in middle school. He meets his mother when she’s a little girl and they make a huge mess. He meets his great grandfather who takes him on a bike ride. But soon enough these encounters grow in depth, and when at film’s end we revisit these characters on last time, Hosoda has made perfectly clear the million tiny tremors across his family tree which paved the way for Kun.
But this idea that it’s all quite arbitrary does not quite go away. Kun’s leaps through time eventually lead to him losing his way, ending up in a giant train terminal with no one there to recognize him. Although the design of this train terminal is quite impressive and the details behind the challenges placed in front of Kun ring true to his experience (he’s four so he doesn’t actually know the names of his parents, they’re just mom and dad), it does not feel natural. The logic which has developed the scenario seems tossed out the window for an impressive design; something similar occurs at the end of The Boy and The Beast, where the emotional narrative conclusion is suddenly resolved by defeating a weird giant spirit whale. The emotion which leads Kun to recognize Mirai as his sister feels true, but it is surrounded by an abstraction which seems at odds with the feeling which is animating it. The finale of Wolf Children is instructive in this respect. Hosoda achieves a perfect harmony between the realistic and the fantastic – the final emotional leaps of his narrative are set against roaring winds and heavy rains, the transformative power of nature understood as necessary, just as much as the inner revolts that forever change our characters. Mirai does not reach the same heights; perhaps there’s something more powerful and immediate about breaking away from family, asserting your own individuality, rather than accepting that you are a part of a continuum of people and choices, understanding your place in the whole big thing. Perhaps it is just harder to get to a place like that when dealing with the growing consciousness of a four-year-old like Kun. Instead of leaving feeling like Kun is forever changed, Hosoda leaves us with the idea that this is just the beginning – the first of many small revolutions which mark a child’s life. No doubt we will return to the bird’s eye view, and one day see a small memory of Kun being passed along to someone else. Another growing consciousness.
Mirai was previously reviewed by Sean when it played at VIFF (here’s the link)