Mamoru Hosoda’s films are about families, and so far they’ve each taken a different angle on that theme. Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island dissects how the Straw Hat pirates function as a surrogate family unit, Summer Wars explores the dynamics between a large extended family, Wolf Children is about a single mother’s struggle to raise her two kids, and The Boy and the Beast is about a boy’s relationship to his adoptive father, and later reconciling a relationship with his birth father. Hosoda’s interests seem to lie in nontraditional families, those that subvert traditional ideas of what a family looks like. His characters deal with crises of identity, questioning what it means to be a family and whether they truly belong to theirs. It’s quite remarkable that despite Hosoda’s fascination with families, Mirai is his first film to depict a nuclear family unit; two parents with two children. Yet once again, Hosoda refuses to portray a stereotypical, conservative idea of what a family looks like. Rather, Mirai’s family reflect modern families in that they subvert traditional gender roles, demonstrating flexible and changing dynamics between the parents as caregivers. When their first child was born, the Father continued working while leaving the majority of child care to the mother. After the birth of their second child, however, the Mother resumes working out of the home while the Father starts working from home, becoming their children’s primary caregiver. The film shows how the family adjusts and embraces these changes, told through the lens of four-year-old Kun and his emotional development as he learns to better appreciate his family.
Though Hosoda has previously explored motherhood and fatherhood in Wolf Children and The Boy and the Beast respectively, Mirai’s depiction of parenting feels more authentic and articulated. In GKids’ interview with Hosoda, shown after the ending credits of the film’s theatrical screening, he revealed that he got the idea for the film from his son’s jealous of his newborn daughter, and his experiences raising his children. While Wolf Children and The Boy and the Beast are tributes to Hosoda’s real-life family members, the depictions of mothers and fatherhood in those films are idealized. They seemed to reflect Hosoda’s ideas about what he thinks makes a good mother and father, but don’t draw from his experiences. In contrast, Mirai is expressly autobiographical, simulating genuine struggles he and his wife have had in child-rearing.
Depicting how the Mother and Father cooperate, sharing and shifting their responsibilities, presents a more fully-formed vision of what motherhood and fatherhood look like than in Hosoda’s previous films, where his idealistic portrayals presented unrealistic and questionable expectations for what makes a good mother or father. In Mirai, Hosoda presents fallible parents who are still learning on the job. They’re always uneasy, constantly worried about doing a good job and panicking at the unexpected, causing them to make very understandable mistakes that shake their confidence. One particular scene of note is one where the Mother is trying to teach the Father how to properly hold their baby and feed her, and the palpable stress as the Father becomes increasingly unsure of himself and the mother becomes progressively frustrated with him, as they both try to ignore their son’s attempts to get their attention. Later, after scolding their son and threatening to throw away his toys, the Mother vents her worries about being a good parent to her mom, questioning the efficacy of her parenting and whether she’s spending enough time with her children. The parents’ struggle with situations like this, trying to maintain a work-life balance while still paying attention and being patient with their children and each other, and their insecurities over whether they’re good parents, are genuinely true-to-life and more realistically relatable than the allegorical problems the families in Hosoda’s past films have faced.
While Hosoda’s musings on parenting is a large part of the film, Mirai’s core theme is focused on how much we are a product of our families. Kun is in the most self-centered stage of childhood, barely registering the feelings and emotions of people besides himself. He’s focused on his wants above the needs of his family, and throws tantrums and makes threats when he doesn’t get his way. Kun feels like a real kid in ways most anime children aren’t, from the way he slowly understands or reacts to new situations, his blunt and thoughtless thoughts, and his unpredictable moments of sweetness and selfishness. He’s often frustrating, but easy to empathize with, and the film is about him learning to treat his family with more respect and understand their feelings.
Mirai structures itself through a series of conflicts involving Kun and a member of his family, which each results in him interacting with a version of them that he can better relate to, learning more about them and appreciating them a lot more. Rather than simply learning that he needs to be nicer to them, he starts recognizing that they’re people just like him that have become who they are thanks to their experiences. The film’s climax challenges Kun’s perception of himself, exposing how little he knows about his family and examining how he defines himself as a member of that family. None of Kun’s family members besides Mirai are given names in the film, emphasizing that Kun only recognizes them by the roles they have in relation to him and doesn’t understand who they are as people. When he’s lost and can’t tell the Lost and Found attendant his parents names because he doesn’t know them, he realizes he doesn’t know enough about his family, something further emphasized when future Mirai shows him defining moments in their lives that provides new context for their previous interactions with him. By exploring different generations of Kun’s family and seeing how the decisions they made in their lives affected the people they became, Hosoda posits that a person is not simply a product of their experiences, but those of their family as well.
Unlike Hosoda’s previous films, the characters of Mirai don’t coexist with or occupy a magical world. Kun is the only character in the family that engages with fantastical elements, and it’s left up to viewers to interpret whether these experiences were real or imagined. The ambiguity of Kun’s time-traveling interactions helps preserve the relatability of the setting and the family’s struggles while excusing the surreal blending of imaginative imagery contrasted alongside the mundane without it feeling out of place. For instance, when Kun calls his mother a witch, her face transforms into the face of a witch from his storybook. We’re never under the assumption that her face literally changes; this is a visual gag that reflects and exaggerates Kun’s perceptions and feelings. The rest of Kun’s fantasies, including his time-traveling interactions with his family members from the past and future, operate much the same way. These events might not really be happening, but that doesn’t matter, because both Kun and the audience are experiencing and engaging with them emotionally. It’s a good compromise that allows the film to convey a grounded, personal story while still indulging in spectacular set-pieces.
Hosoda’s films feature brilliant character animation that beautifully communicates the interiority of his characters. One scene that particularly encapsulates the emotional fidelity of the film’s animation is when Kun plays with his mother as a little girl. Her mischievous body language when she proclaims that things being better when they’re messy says so much about her personality, as does Kun’s slowly-processed, shocked responses to her bold statements. The chaotic, bouncy energy of when Kun’s mother jumps off her chair with her fists pumped, bouncing away sideways as Kun follows mimicking her, really captures the jubilant excitement of the children and highlights Kun’s impressionability, depicting him following her example. Mirai’s animation is complemented by an evocative score and masterful performances that come across as down to earth and human rather than cartoonish. Jaden Waldman’s performance as Kun is particularly vital to the dub’s success, communicating believable nuances in his voice and inflections that authentically reflects what and how a kid his age would say. Mirai’s characters feel like real people whose emotional nuances have been enhanced by the expressive dynamism animation allows.
Mirai is a wonderful display of Hosoda’s growing maturity as a filmmaker. It demonstrates his evolving ideas on parenthood, and new perspectives on what makes a good parent and what constitutes a family. Moreover, it’s his most personal film yet, directly based off his anecdotes as a parent and made in response to conflicts his family experienced after the birth of his daughter. Mirai can be seen as Hosoda’s personal message to his son, teaching him life lessons and sharing his philosophy with him to guide him through this particular time in his life. It also can be seen as a tribute to him and his wife’s trials as parents, reflecting on how far they’ve come since their most turbulent days. Regardless of how you interpret it, it’s unquestionably ambitious, and successfully articulated. If Mirai is a new benchmark for Hosoda’s films to aspire, then we’ve all got a bright future to look forward to.