Hosoda Mamoru’s Mirai will perhaps be most appreciated for the visual design of its fantasy sequences, though it also boasts an impressive attention to individual details that lends its depiction of everyday, middle-class Japan a naturalistic quality. This is evident in the film’s young protagonist, Kun (Jaden Waldman), drinking a juice box and its sides compressing slightly, and in the boy’s great-grandfather (Daniel Dae Kim) walking with a jacket slung over his shoulder and the coat shifting precisely with the momentum of the man’s gait. Such meticulous detail, accomplished largely through traditional cell animation, gives Mirai‘s imitation of physical reality weight and consistency. You believe its characters really inhabit this illustrated world.
The film begins with Kun’s father (John Cho) and mother (Rebecca Hall) bringing home a new baby daughter, Mirai (the Japanese word for future), which prompts Kun to throw a series of tantrums. The young boy antagonizes the infant by pressing on her nose and hitting her with toy trains, throws demonstrative fits when his mother is nursing, and refuses to allow his father to take over domestic duties. Throughout these scenes of domestic tension, the characters tend to express themselves in dialogue that’s of a piece with the imagery’s sobriety but shares little of its attention to particularities. Even if Kun’s outbursts, and his parents’ coping with them, are presented in realistic fashion, it’s realism in the style of an outline.
Kun’s turmoil begins to manifest itself as a series of fantastical encounters. First a human manifestation of the family dog, Yukko (Crispin Freeman), appears to offer him advice, and then an incarnation of Mirai from the future arrives to ensure that their parents don’t ruin her chances of getting married at a young age by not removing ceremonial dolls celebrating her birth from their altar at the right time. Aside from the unsettling cultural conservatism of this subplot that posits early marriage as the overriding goal in a teenage girl’s life, the film gives way to a certain narrative disarray round this point.
Once Kun and the teenaged future version of Mirai have solved the most pressing problem of her marriage, other relatives begin to visit Kun—in a kind of genealogical Christmas Carol scenario. The lesson here, which Kun will come to recognize by the film’s climax, is that Kun and Mirai are two points on a family continuum that stretches behind and beyond them. Kun learns that loving his family means embracing its future as well as its past.
But the fabric of the fantasy world depicted in Mirai lacks the cohesion of the film’s central theme about appreciating one’s place in a family tree. That one of Kin’s spiritual family visitors is a handsome, long-haired man in a leather coat who claims to be both a prince and Kun’s dog doesn’t quite jibe with the rest of the mythology laid out in the film. And many of the subsequent fantasy flashbacks seem only to exist to exhibit the technical proficiency of the animators, as in the attention paid to the reaction of leaves in the rain or the multitude of moving parts in a jet engine. Instead of emphasizing the potentially fun surreality of such a mish-mash of fantasies, the film forces onto these strange sequences a cloying, romanticized tone.
It also often feels like Hosada’s wildest imagery is run through a hazy visual filter, with soft piano laid underneath it and ornamented with the occasional sentimental motif, such as the butterflies that dance around the frame whenever Mirai’s future self visits Kun. Even if Mirai lands on a meaningful message about heritage, it’s hard to imagine the film appealing strongly to the young kids who need this lesson, or, on the other hand, to adults who might expect more well-defined characters and a deeper fantasy world.