Kun’s life is turned upside down when his little sister is born. At first he is enchanted by this new, amazing thing that has become a part of his family, but soon he realises that all the attention has been taken away from him and life seems to have changed for the worse. He starts acting up, and even tries to hit his baby sister Mirai with a toy, causing his parents to have a meltdown. Then, strange things start happening.
Each time Mirai gets into a temper, something odd happens, often to do with some kind of time travel. First he meets his dog as a human, then his baby sister turns up as a teenager. Later he goes back in time to meet his great-grandfather, and then his mother as a child. Finally he travels to a fantasy world where a train station becomes his worst nightmare.
I have read reviews that complain the events of the film are beyond the imagination of a four-year-old, but I think that misunderstands what’s going on here. However we interpret what happens to Kun, his time jumps certainly don’t make sense as mere figments of his imagination. Like Penguin Highway, which I wrote about last week, there is little attempt to making everything boring with rational explanations, and if this movie has you fretting about how the things we are seeing can happen then I think you’re missing the point. This is about Kun learning how to cope with life’s challenges.
The fantasy sequences are hugely varied. The human version of Kun’s dog is absolutely hilarious, and he alone would have made the film worth watching. The animation is incredibly clever, because there are moments where he has turned back to a dog but you can still recognise the expressions of his human version on his face. There is a great sequence with Kun, his sister from the future and the human dog trying to get an important chore done that the father has failed to do, sneaking around and trying to escape the notice of the father. It’s really funny stuff.
Each time Kun gets angry and slips into a fantasy world, he learns something important. The most significant one is probably the encounter with his great-grandfather as a young man. Kun has tried and failed to learn how to ride a bike, but a horse ride with his great-grandfather teaches him the technique he needs, but also instils a determination in him that makes him face up to the problem and keep fighting until he achieves what he wants. The meeting with his mother as a little girl shows how she was just like him (naughtier in fact) and it humanises her. She wasn’t always the party-pooper in his life.
The film takes a real turn for the sinister in the big fantasy sequence where Kun runs away, boards one of his beloved trains, and ends up lost in a huge train station. This is a really frightening sequence, and is basically horror movie stuff, with a terrifying black train with demon passengers. In one classic horror moment, Kun sees a line of women who all look like they could be his mother. They turn around to reveal a bunch of crazy-looking clones, and then the one in the middle turns round and has a hideous demonic face, a distorted, nightmarish version of his mother, the witch he has accused her of being. Oh, by the way, the BBFC saw fit to give this a PG certificate in the UK, once again demonstrating that the age rating system here is worse than useless in my opinion. It sits on my shelf among a sea of 12 rated anime films I am quite happy to show to my kids, but, I would never put this PG horror flick on for them.
Having said that, this is a film that is probably even more disturbing for adults to watch than children. I think anyone who has had kids will find it enormously stressful to watch. I would like to think we have never made the mistakes that Kun’s parents make here, allowing one child to feel abandoned when a new baby comes into the house. But seeing them trying to cope with everything going wrong at the same time, with one child having a tantrum while the baby screams, hits a bit close to home for any parent of young children and had me squirming in my seat. I could have also done without the horrendous cliché of a useless dad, who can’t cope with domestic chores.
In 2019 Mirai became the first non-Ghibli anime to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Compared to the many amazing anime films of the last few years, frankly that’s not justified. It is, however, a very impressive film indeed, and the way Kun learns about life through encounters with his family over time makes for compelling viewing. The one thing that really spoils it, I have to say, is that Kun is just about the most irritating brat I’ve ever had to watch in a film. I get that there are reasons for that, and it’s far from being entirely his fault, but that doesn’t alter the fact that watching a four-year-old being a little sod just isn’t fun. That’s the difference between this and a Ghibli film, and the reason why it didn’t deserve its Oscar nomination. Studio Ghibli knows how to throw a child into a bizarre world and make you care about them. They know how to show us kids who have character flaws (as we all do), but are still fun to watch. In contrast, this shows us an irritating little boy learning how to be a bit less irritating. Luckily, it does that in a very entertaining way, and the whole film has a strong theme of the importance of family. It also shows how circumstances change people over time. Can Kun’s mother really be the same person who trashed the house for a laugh as a little girl? Can any of us really say we are the same people we were a week ago, let alone our childhood selves? Without Kun’s ability to interact with the past and the future, we’ll probably never be able to answer that question. RP