It’s no fault of his own, and hardly undeserved, but the shadow of anime Emperor, Hayao Miyazaki — and his Studio Ghibli — looms almost Godzilla-like over Japanimation. Even more so since the patronage of former Pixar head and super-fan, John Lasseter, Miyazaki and Ghibli have become the de facto Eastern equivalent of Walt Disney: almost shorthand for an entire country’s art form. Which, frankly, is total Ghib-berish.
Yes, manga fans still laud the likes of Mamoro Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. But modern anime, minus the Ghibli brand, can easily get overlooked. And so it is with visionary director Mamoru Hosoda, who — five impressive features into his career and with his own Studio Chizu — is still somewhat of a niche name outside his country. His latest, Mirai, from its buzzy Cannes film festival premiere onwards, is looking to change all that.
HOME – AND FAR, FAR AWAY
Those who do know Hosoda’s previous work — most recently the more overtly fantastical Wolf Children (2012) or The Boy and the Beast (2015) — might be surprised at how his latest starts out. It looks like a traditional, if highly polished, contemporary domestic drama, as four-year-old Kun struggles to adapt to life with newborn sister Mirai. No longer the centre of attention for both his long-suffering mother and easily flustered father, Kun’s epic sulks and temper tantrums even develop — much to the family’s horror — into a more worrying physical resentment of his baby sibling. Which is when — out of the blue — things begin to get strange; or, if you’re Mamoru Hosoda, back to business as usual…
A flamboyant, 18th Century prince is revealed to be a version of Yukko, the family dog (the floppy hair, and its resemblance to Yukko’s ears are the giveaway). Yukko divulges his dismay at once being the family favourite, until Kun arrived. And that’s just the beginning of Kun’s strange encounters. He is transported back to wartime and his grandfather as a heroic young engineer; and, ultimately, even receives a visitor from the future; Mirai herself, as a teenager.
Few Mirai reviews don’t reference Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which spoilt Ebeneezer Scrooge is haunted by ghosts past, present and future, to show him the error of his miserly ways. There’s good reason for the comparison. Yes, young Kun is far less deliberately selfish or malicious than Scrooge, but ultimately these spiritual visitations share the same objective: life lessons and perspective to help a character’s emotional growth.
But whereas Dickens’ ghosts are all pretty logical and directly connected to Scrooge’s personal experiences, Hosoda goes for a more abstract, expansive approach. The most obvious example is Yukko the dog, in a twist that seems more suited to a full-blown fairy tale. But the other interactions, too, use these episodes to tap into more reflective, suggestive ideas. Kun’s determination to share a liberating motorbike ride with his grandfather taps into a more evocative desire for fun and freedom than any finger-wagging moralizing. Instead, the connections here are subtler. Kun is obsessed with his toy train set and the big climax is set at a huge, futuristic train station of cavernous tunnels and supersized platforms.
THE IMAGINATION OF ANIMATION
Hosoda’s previous films have shown his facility for establishing tactile family environments. The hand-drawn art and design in the domestic settings is usually very simple. Kun’s family home though, is an eccentric marvel, a series of modernist stepped rooms leading down to his own playroom at the bottom and connected by a courtyard with an old (family?) tree. This is Kun’s own imaginative space and it’s intriguing that these magical moments happen only to him; and perhaps only in his mind. But it simply doesn’t matter.
These episodes allow Hosoda’s creativity full rein. The list of Japanese animated films in which characters don’t suddenly take flight must be a very short one, and the kinetic aesthetic of Mirai and Kun’s elevation, and the speedy disorientation of the climactic train station scenes — the adult faces a clever blur as they would likely appear to a lost child — are a feast for the senses. Other filmmakers might struggle to bridge mundane, exhausting child rearing with epic, exhilarating fantasy, but here it all feels of a piece. If showing the world through a child’s eyes is the goal, then Hosoda succeeds in conveying that feeling of wonder, fear and mystery.
YOU KNOW… FOR KIDS?
All that said, this ultimately isn’t really a film for kids of Kun’s age at all, and Hosoda and Studio Chizu are clearly aiming a little higher than the Ghibli Ponyo or My Neighbour Totoro age-bracket. Yet, for a more advanced audience, a few of the film’s shortcomings are more painfully obvious: the relative lack of screen time and character development for grown-up Mirai (which is a little misleading, given her prominence in all the promotional material), and the tendency towards a more saccharine take on its story, reinforced by Masakatsu Takagi’s sweetened score. In fact, the cutesy pop hit that opens the film strongly hints at a cloying take on childhood that, thankfully, never fully materialises.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
If Mirai is pitched at a gentler pace, the sheer artistry and ingenuity of Hosoda easily wins through. Though he’s no restless youth himself (he turned 51 recently and split with Ghibli over plans to take on Howl’s Moving Castle back in 2006), his recent work is proof of anime’s strength in depth. Add in Makoto Shinkai’s recent smash hit Your Name — now Japan’s highest-grossing animated film of all time — and the likes of Yoshitaka Takeuchi’s aptly-titled Flavours of Youth, and there’s ample proof that Ghibli doesn’t have the monopoly on great Japanimation. But, like Mirai, sometimes you need a nudge from a vision of the future to really recognise it. This highly personal and enchanting film is a great signpost to the way ahead.
Mirai hits UK screens today (November 2) and US cinemas on November 30.