Warning: this review is not entirely spoiler-free. I discuss specific scenes that occur later in the film and talk generally about the movie’s larger themes. If you want to go into this movie completely blind, leave this review, go see the movie, and then be sure to come right back!
Four-year-old Kun leads a happy life with two busy yet loving parents, plenty of train sets to play with, and a dog he can chase in the yard. Everything is perfect until his mother brings home her second child, a baby girl named Mirai. Suddenly, his mother and father are paying more attention to the new baby, and Kun feels abandoned and unloved. Thus begins a series of temper tantrums and time travel shenanigans, as young Kun meets the different members of his family at various stages of their lives.
While Mirai no Mirai was initially not at all what I expected it to be, the film’s story is actually a logical progression of Mamoru Hosoda’s previous work. Like Wolf Children and Summer Wars, Mirai no Mirai depicts a singular family and explores the key dynamics within that family unit, with particular attention to intergenerational relationships. Although some critics have dismissed the film as boring and uneventful, the film is more of a fascinating character study and exploration of mundane life. On the surface level, Mirai no Mirai is just a story about a toddler who is jealous of his baby sister and gradually comes to accept her into his family circle. However, underneath the surface, the film is teaching us about empathy and depicting the kinds of sacrifices and changes people must undergo when they are a part of a family.
I’ve read a number of reviews that criticize the film for depicting what the reviewer sees as negligent parents and bratty children. However, I think that kind of criticism misses the bigger picture. Kun’s behaviour is indeed childish, but that’s because he is a child. His jealousy about a new baby sister is still an understandable emotion that accurately reflects how toddlers often feel replaced by younger siblings. Similarly, his parents’ mistakes are exactly that: mistakes. But, if we jump to criticize the characters for their failings, we are no better than the spoiled and bratty Kun who rages against and condemns his family without thinking. Instead, Hosoda invites us to step inside others’ shoes to understand why they act the way they do. From Kun’s eyes, his mother’s outbursts of anger are nothing more than the behaviour of a hag. But from the mother’s perspective, her short-temperedness with her son’s antics is a result of the stress of working a full-time job while caring for two dependent children.
Kun’s time traveling and interactions with his family allow him (and the viewers) to see the similarities between himself and his family. My absolute favourite scene in this film involves Kun meeting his mother when she was his age. Not yet a mom, his mother as a young girl is free of responsibilities and stress, often making messes, vexing her family with requests for a pet cat, and inciting her mother’s ire. As Kun and his mother play and talk together, we realize that Kun’s overtired and cranky mother was once a mischievous child too and that spoiled children inevitably grow up to become the responsible parents of their own ill-behaved children. This cyclical pattern is not meant to be disheartening, however; the knowledge that everyone is more alike than they think, albeit living at different stages of life, is meant to stimulate our empathy and encourage us to be more accommodating of others’ failings and peculiarities.
In addition to the effective delivery of its message, the film is technically proficient as well. In particular, the animation and art-style vividly bring the central family to life and ground the film in a sense of realism. Particularly incredible are the animations of Kun and baby Mirai. As a baby, Mirai doesn’t speak, and while the animators could have gone the easy route of making her facial expressions an obvious indicator of what she’s thinking, they don’t. Instead, like Kun, we’re unsure of what to make of baby Mirai. In fact, one of the film’s earliest scenes involves the parents debating whether Mirai is staring at her new big brother or whether she’s even fully awake. Like any baby, Mirai’s thoughts and feelings are a mystery, and the animation brilliantly reflects that.
Similarly, the work on Kun is incredibly detailed and accurate to the behaviour of actual toddlers. One minute, Kun is delighted by something only he can see and the next he’s pouting and petulantly refusing to do whatever is asked of him. Little moments like Kun aggressively marking up paper with crayons or carefully side-stepping down tall stairs perfectly mimic the movements of an energetic child. While there are a few visually trippy and imaginative scenes where the animators get to show off some pretty incredible techniques and ideas, the animators are equally invested in rendering the mundane in a vibrant and unique light. Kun’s childlike glee as he dumps toys and books on the floor is given just as much attention and detail as any of the fantastical set pieces. Such attention to detail is what makes each of the film’s flawed characters feel real and sympathetic.
Mirai no Mirai doesn’t attempt to dazzle us with new and fantastic ideas, like Hosoda’s other films do, and that’s actually its greatest strength. The film invites us to consider with empathy the people in our lives and to grant each other leeway, as we all must inevitably adjust to changes in the comfortable family dynamic. After all, it is only through our relationships with family, both those that we depend on and those that depend on us, that we can learn and change for the better. Combining such a heartfelt and thought-provoking message with gorgeous visuals and impressive animation, Mirai no Mirai is the real deal. If you’re looking for a new anime movie, you should definitely give this one a shot.