Mirai takes the limitless fantasy we have come to expect from Japanese anime and plants it neatly into a small garden at a house in Yokohama. The film centres on Kun, prone to tantrums and bouts of sibling jealousy. While sulking in his garden, he discovers his family’s pasts and futures open for him to explore. Here, the otherworldly fits inside Kun’s small, walled-in, four-year-old existence – through a magic tree in his garden whose roots map the routes of his family history, or simply through the enormity of his imagination.
This film showcases the capacity of animation to let us see the world through a new lens. The story continually winds between worlds with grace, shifting from slow scenes of humdrum human experience to the deepest caverns of imaginary realms. Magical cues enter the screen seamlessly, and usher in evanescent watercolour settings that look as if they could dissipate at any second, sending us back to reality.
The hand-drawn animation lends itself to the slow, clumsy movements of the young protagonist, and to caricatured facial expressions that narrate the story with greater fluency than his limited language can allow. Stretching the limits of the material world, the animation lets us see through the eyes of a child. Tokyo Station is impossibly huge, the first snowfall is like fairy dust and is seemingly infinite, Kun can playfully stretch his baby sister’s cheeks like clay, and angry adults take on monstrous appearances.
Less successful is the plot, which is unfocused and takes unusual and awkward turns. By the end it is unclear where the story is going. At times it is tedious in its pacing and the momentum of the narrative is lost. It is not a film with heroes and antagonists, but a series of encounters that cherish the charms of childhood, celebrate the unique stories buried within family histories, and explore the ways our characters are moulded by those around us.
Without a clear plot, this can err towards sickly sweet moralising in parts. Nevertheless, what Mirai lacks in coherent direction is compensated by dreamlike visuals, an innocuous sense of humour and endearing moments of perfectly observed sibling relationships.
Image: Dick Thomas Johnson via Wikimedia Commons