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Mirai (2018)

Awash with wondrous fantasy as it is with acutely observed drama, Mirai is a distilled blend served by an assured hand.

Following the arrival of his newborn sister, 4-year-old Kun is beset with confusion and jealousy. No attempt to distract his parents with cuteness or hit Mirai in the head with toy trains is enough to turn the spotlights back on him. As his parents are wedged into reversed roles, their modern home is no longer Kun’s castle, he is unsettled, but after a tantrum in the courtyard, he is thrust into a dizzying fantasy realm.

Rather than Wonderland, this unfixed place is built of sprawling memories of others in the family. He begins to discover its use to him, the inexorable ties binding him to this past, and an older girl who seems incredibly familiar.

Intimate in scale, the film draws a portrait of the young family establishing their own branch on the family tree with observations that are unsentimental, funny and relatable. As Kun’s literal interactions with the past and future lead him to wondrous discoveries, such as the fact that his mother was once his age, he approaches a great humbling.

The simplicity of the structure allows space for cutting and honest observations to play out steadily and escalate naturally. A self-satisfied yet clueless aproned husband struggling to cook a simple meal, the slapstick and one-sided rivalry between the young children, and even how the now dethroned dog figures into it all are presented at a distance, invitations for us to observe.

The ability to flit between cartoony moments and those that feel like sketchbook observations come to life is something director Mamoru Hosoda carries with apparent ease. In this restrained arena, he is as concerned with making domesticity as transporting as lush flights of fantasy, and as much as comparisons of Hosoda to Hayao Miyazaki are often misguided, perhaps in this sense, Mirai is analogous to Totoro in the film’s confidently sparse list of ingredients.

Eschewing traditional narrative, Hosoda seems much more concerned with other things, like the magic trick of capturing things one might get for ‘free’ in live action such as the fading of breath on a window, subtle dancing shadows and exquisite observations of toddler’s movement. In this considering of the film's craft, there are parallels with the manner in which Isao Takahata depicted the everyday, with a hint of the photographic flourishes found in Makoto Shinkai’s films. However, bolstered by this poetic attention to detail, what could be a plain story hums with life.

A tradition of family dramas is something to which Hosoda's films have always carried a kinship, so it is perhaps no surprise to learn he has a mutual admirer in the live-action director Hirokazu Koreeda, whose light, borderline documentary touch seems to be an influence in the arrangement of certain moments, such as the saga of Kun determined to overcome that most gargantuan hurdle, learning to ride a bike. It’s a set piece crafted with wit, innovation and it carries weight without the clunking gears of plot impeding on its simple charm. These parts are where the film shines, the fantasy isn’t as much a destination as it is a vehicle to moments that seek to capture the purity of memory and experience. Even the films’ fantastical finale is built of imagery in a way that is truly surrealist, a twisted and misremembered reality that is about how it feels to be lost, with half-remembered snapshots of reality that feel unsettling because of their uncanny construction.

Mirai eschews convention and follows its own whims, gracefully reaching a quiet yet resonant landing point without a heavy full stop. Its carefully and truthfully observed poeticism makes it a lyrical work of steady ambition.