Four-year-old Kun is an only child — this is, until his parents bring home a baby sister named Mirai (the Japanese word for future) and the boy gets rattled by the new addition to the household. Not much there for a full-length feature film … or so you’d think. Except you are in the presence of Japanese animation artist Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children, Summer Wars), who again transforms the seemingly conventional into a magic carpet ride of time and memory. It makes all the difference.
Released in an English-dubbed version, Mirai emphasizes that family is at the center of the universe for the lad, voiced here by Jaden Waldman. Hosoda, who founded the production house Studio Chizu, pays particular attention to the living circumstances in the modernist home designed by Kun’s architect father (John Cho), including a backyard with just one tree. This totem of nature is symbolic of the days when the older kid alone dominated this world, with support from dad, mom (Rebecca Hall), a kindly grandma (Eileen T’Kaye) and the family’s lovable dog, Yukko. Each detail of the house is subtly rendered to show the impact on a child whose life has been knocked out of joint by a bawling, baby (Victoria Grace). When his mother goes back to work, leaving Pops to mind the kids, the tantrum-throwing Kun — he’s not above popping his sister on the nose or whacking her with a toy train — feels lost enough to run away from home.
Hosoda divides his film into the fantastical visits that Kun receives from the past, present and future, like the drop-bys that Scrooge receives in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. His war-hero grandfather offers friendly advice, along with a younger version of his mother. Even the dog gets into the act by transforming into a human prince (Crispin Freeman). But it’s the flash forward to the teen Mirai that most affects him and sparks the boy to adjust his view of his initially unwelcome new sibling.
Some have complained that Mirai lacks the deep-dish complexity of the director’s other films, such as The Boy and the Beast (2015). Not so: Hosada’s tale of children at war has an emotional resonance that defies its conventional underpinings. And you shouldn’t mistake the dazzling delicacy of Hosoda’s cell animation, enhanced by the beauty of Masakatsu Takagi’s score, for the work on an artist resting in his laurels. Mirai casts a spell that works on children and adults alike, but in different ways. Its creator’s artistry and empathy are the connecting links. It may be the animator’s smallest film, but it stands tall. You’ll be enchanted.