I had the privilege of watching Hosoda Mamoru’s Mirai at this year’s Animateka. I gave it a shot simply because the movie has yet to come out in regular distribution. Verdict? It didn’t betray my expectations, which were at the low end of the spectrum after watching the trailer. Today, we will not be discussing its gorgeous animation and other capable aspects of it. Unfortunately, all of those are overshadowed by the fact that Mirai is not a very enjoyable movie.
The bad things can mostly be attributed to the protagonist, Kun-chan. A four year old who is discovering the world around him while being as loud and as annoying as a small child can possibly be. Suffice to say, if it was meant as #ChildFree propaganda, it did the damage it was looking to do, however I suspect that that’s not the case. While this show is primarily meant for children, I would argue it is equally trying to exploit the parent. Most of the scenes remind us adults that despite becoming one with our life partners and having children who become centers of our universe, parents are still individuals with their own desires and limits. I cannot speak for parents of the world, but for me this kind of emotional manipulation is not enough. I don’t go to the movies to feel sorry for myself, which is why for me this was strike number two.
So is there anything relevant to discuss? This is where the spoiler warning pops up.
The movie follows Kun’s adventures traveling through time and meeting his parents and his predecessors with the help of a magical tree growing in his courtyard. In one scene Kun gets transported to an unmanned train station in the middle of nowhere, where he meets a gloomy young guy whose identity is hard to pin down at first, but from the way he talks to Kun it’s heavily implied that he was supposed to be Kun from the future. In an unfiltered, merciless fashion, the guy proceeds to criticize the kid by pointing out his instances of childish behavior. The point of this past vs. future juxtaposition is that if Kun-chan, who is a demonstrably terrible little psychopath, doesn’t change his ways he will end up like the person right in front of him. His unpleasant mannerisms and the scenery of nowhere paint Future Kun as a loner. Blaming himself for becoming a prick, he is determined to get Kun-chan to board the next train to Tokyo, as if this was his last chance to reform. Kun boards the train as he is told.
There are other interesting bits to point out here. Recognized from the shot of its name board, the Isogo train station has recently overturned the negative daily passenger trend into a positive one. The low point was in 2007 when on average only 19,047 people used it. This number might not seem that small, as it is still a train station in Yokohama, however do note that Isogo’s background art does not visually match the station in the real world. For the animated version of Isogo, Hosoda copy-pasted the scenery from the Ecchuu-Nakamura train station from Toyama, which is located on the local Chihou Railway line. The latter reflects the scene from the movie far more accurately.
During Kun’s ride to central Tokyo, the train stations on the Yamanote line all seem a little too big to be real. It’s the future, of course! As Kun gets off the train, we are treated to a visionary scene of future Tokyo, in which the most striking novelty is the diverse palette of commuters – yellow, white, brown, and black – all equally present. Tokyo Station gives off the vibe of an international airport, with travel instructions written not just in standard Japanese and English but in a variety of other languages as well. Even though Tokyo these days has the biggest share of foreigners than most other places in Japan, racially it’s still very homogeneous, with the share of foreign residents floating around 3 percent. Interpreting the scene as future Japan becoming racially balanced cannot be dismissed. Hosoda sees or wishes Tokyo to become a racially mixed supercity, which might just be par for the course given the rapid decline of Japan’s population and the long-term need to import outside labor to support the elderly.
In the version of the multiverse in which Kun fails as a human, places like Nakamura are dying with no hope in sight. However, the supercity of Tokyo to which Kun hesitantly decides to go has a bright future ahead of it. A future that’s not racially homogeneous. My friends, if that is not a political statement, I am not sure what is.
Under normal circumstances I would not be turned off by this idea, but the reason Kun-chan quite literally goes on board is not due to his ideological reasoning. Kun-chan boards the train to Tokyo because his future self is quite desperately urging him to go. While getting ushered to the train, young Kun was scared and unsure. Things get uglier in Tokyo where he gets lost. He queues up to a Lost and Found desk where he is received by a scary-looking service robot. In order to help him, the AI asks Kun a couple of questions about his parents, and after failing to answer all of them, since he is just a kid, the robot demands to know his parents’ real names. The entire scene was super freaky. I can just imagine watching this as a tiny kid and being terrified by the idea of never returning home again just because I couldn’t remember the names of my mom and dad.
In the end, he remembers the name of his baby sister. The lesson needed to be learned was to treat people as individuals, giving them the respect for performing the societal and familial roles that they do. But this is still a tall order to ask from a four year old. The robot threatens the little dude with a scary-ass looking train, whose car doors are about to suck him up and take him to the Land of All Alone if he doesn’t answer.
For those that haven’t watched the movie, Kun doesn’t exactly get along with his sister Mirai, given that she’s the new baby in the house. The entire premise of the movie is based on the fact that Kun-chan cannot keep his parents all to himself anymore. He throws tantrum after tantrum, sometimes putting Mirai at the risk of getting hurt. By the end of the movie, Kun learns to treat his parents and his sister better, however this was hardly a result of his parents doing their job right. He didn’t have a change of heart because he, at the age of four, had the mental capacity to realize that he was a shitty little dirt eater. No, he caved under pressure. He essentially made a practical decision to prefer his less than ideal situation at home over being sent to The Land of All Alone. Already at age four, Kun got to experience how power works against the individual.
“Let’s get along” is practically Japan’s national slogan. The last time I saw it in a movie it was a couple of months ago when I watched Koe no Katachi. It’s a story about a group of teenagers that basically don’t like each other but force themselves to get along anyway, just because that is what you are supposed to do. I like Japan, but some aspects of how Japanese society ought to function look pretty messed up. Noticing this mantra repeat in two watches so close together felt jarring. That being said, I don’t believe that Hosoda made an animated case study of individuality with Mirai, as his message just wasn’t very consistent.
Finally, this movie doesn’t deserve the praise it got in places like Rotten Tomatoes. Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo and Summer Wars carried Hosoda through his furry phase, but for me right now, he is kind of a mixed bag. In the feature-length film space he has to compete with guys like Shinkai Makoto, who is currently peaking. Every flop he produces now makes Hosoda look less and less relevant.