Founded in 2008, GKIDS is an animation film distributor that prides itself on its dedication to independent animated cinema from nations all over the country, with the niche of Japanese anime being the most prominent. Now, for a select few dates only in the coming weeks, GKIDS has a new theatrical release in the form of Mirai, a film that succeeds in telling an emotional coming-of-age story with science fiction elements that should enrapture audiences of all ages.
When a young boy’s life becomes complicated upon the birth of his younger sister, he discovers a magical garden in his backyard that allows him to meet older and younger versions of his immediate family.
In the years following the closing of Studio Ghibli, there hasn’t been a more overlooked niche in the field of animation than the medium of anime. Since the iconic studio released The Red Turtle in 2016, the Japanese technique of animation maintains a constant presence in multiplexes, but iconic films in the art form appear to be as easy to find as a needle in a haystack; with the only recent exception being Toho Company’s emotional standout Your Name in 2017. But with the help of independent distributor GKIDS, the prolific Japanese film production company has brought another feature back to stateside theaters in the form of Mirai, a new time-bending adventure from writer-director Mamoru Hosoda (Digimon: The Movie, Summer Wars, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time).
While Mirai spends less time on the science fiction/fantasy elements at play as it should, and isn’t as thematically ambitious as other films in its subgenre, it does a stellar job of developing its characters, giving the audience time to feel all the emotions throughout the journeys of its characters, and tells a fun, light-hearted coming-of-age story that teaches good lessons for children, and crafts a large world within its isolated confines through an intriguing concept and gorgeous animation.
Mirai follows Kun (voiced by Jaden Waldman in the English dub), a four-year-old boy who lives in a suburb in Japan with his parents. He spends most of his days playing with his multitude of train sets until his Mother and Father (Rebecca Hall and John Cho) come home from the hospital with a new baby sister, which they name Mirai (the Japanese word for ‘future’). The stress of nurturing an infant daughter occupies Kun’s mother, leaving his father to assume her duties, which frustrates Kun to the point of acting out, upsetting Mirai and his parents.
But then, he storms onto the backyard and discovers a beautiful garden that gives him the ability to travel through time. Through this garden, he comes to meet a teenage version of Mirai (Victoria Grace) and even a humanoid version of his dog, Yuko. Kun comes to meet other versions of his family members, with each encounter providing a necessary life lesson for Kun to learn in order to accept his new role in life as the good brother, son and person he is destined to be.
Like most films in the genre, Mirai is involving on the stylistic front thanks to the strength of its visuals. The worlds Kun discovers are vibrant with gorgeous colors, and explored in vast wide shots that succeed in conveying the domestic yet hectic life of Kun’s parents, in addition to the nostalgic moods of the time periods through which Kun travels. Meanwhile, Cho and Hall lend their voices well as Kun’s parents (credited only as Father and Mother, respectively), as they portray their stresses of raising a middle-class family together in a realistic and grounded fashion. And in his first-ever theatrical voice acting role, Waldman succeeds in portraying Kun as a child whose as fascinated with trains as he is with the world around him.
And where Mirai excels more than most animated features is its character development and direction. Hosoda spends a lot of time making domestic life as grand as fantasy by establishing the life of this family from every perspective, and exploring the psychology of Kun in a way that endears the audience into feeling his emotions and wanting to see him change for the better. His overactive imagination manifests itself in an early scene when he feels excitement to show his baby sister the outside world, as Mirai’s nursery disappears behind them. The siblings appear to be in a beautiful green field populated by dragonflies and animal-shaped clouds until his mother interrupts them, to Kun’s disappointment. This occurs again later when during one of Kun’s tantrums, the toddler protagonist’s angry mindset causes him to perceive his mother as a monstrous witch from one of his favorite stories. It could be easy to find Kun’s childish outbursts annoying at first glance, but they’re relatable in every instance. After all, what child hasn’t felt separation anxiety from his parents when a younger sibling comes into the picture, or when their mother goes away on a business trip?
The excellence of Hosoda’s storytelling extends to the fantasy aspect of Mirai. The past and future versions of Kun’s family tree that the plucky toddler meets over the course of the film serve as manifestations of Kun’s state of mind at certain points of the film. Through them, he learns how to overcome jealousy, the importance of memory, the magnitude of life’s smallest moments, and even how his mother and father are more like him than he ever realized. The lessons come in ways that pack a hefty emotional punch at every turn.
However, as successful Hosoda is as a storyteller, Mirai does spend the majority of its duration in the real world, rather than on Kun’s journey through time. It isn’t until the halfway point where he is finally washed away into a time unknown. It’s also worth noting that while the romantic/sci-fi anime Your Name had more ideas about the ancient Japanese culture, time, love and separation, Mirai doesn’t make a lot of points of its own, and carries scenarios geared toward a younger audience that could test the patience of certain moviegoers. Although, those are few and far between up to a haunting, but enthralling climax.
Overall, Mirai isn’t very complicated, but it ultimately doesn’t need to be. It keeps children entertained for its runtime with gorgeous hand-drawn animation, vibrant colors, and a relatable protagonist in the character of Kun. Adults will be engaged in those elements, as well as the character progression and psychology at play. Older audiences will also be enamored with intrigue turned to awe as the film takes its turns for the fantastical, and struck with the emotional punches of its compelling narrative. Kids will have to be patient for the fantasy at play to fully kick in, but once it does, kids and adults are in for a surprise, because Mirai is another achievement from director Hosoda and GKIDS, and is a film worth seeing on the big screen.