One of the popular hits at the second annual Animation Is Film Festival, “Mirai,” from famed Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda (who was admitted into the Academy this year), could deliver GKids’ 11th feature nomination.
“Mirai” marks Hosoda’s most personal movie yet about family. The enchanting, time-traveling fantasy about a four-year-old boy jealous of his baby sister is also unique for animation. “The story is about a secret garden showing the secrets of their family, and that was inspired by western children’s literature,” said Hosoda (“Summer Wars,” “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time,” “Wolf Children,” “The Boy and the Beast”).
“We learn about the family tree through different methods,” he added. “On the other hand, unlike children’s stories, it’s not a fable with a lesson to be learned, other than children understanding the importance of experiencing family.”
“Mirai” (named for the sister) was inspired by personal experience. When Hosoda and his wife first brought home their newborn, the three-year-old son gave his sister a suspicious look. “And when I saw that, I wondered how he was going to accept his role as an older brother,” Hosoda said. “But because we were so busy dealing with the baby, he threw a tantrum and shouted that his sister stole his love. The way he expressed his feelings like that was how an adult would act when they lose a love, so I wanted to depict a story based on my son.”
The result is a fascinating reversal of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” with a child experiencing a journey about love, responsibility, and family. But Hosoda admits he met early resistance. “When I first brought up making a four-year-old the main character, a lot of people said it was really reckless. Not much has happened to him. Why don’t we make him older so he’s more relatable? But I thought he has so much to learn and I wanted to depict the magic of ordinary life.”
In the garden, the boy meets an older version of his sister, and plays with his pet dog transformed into a prince. He’s also transported back in time, where his great-grandfather teaches him how to ride a bike. Yet the director was surprised by how the resulting theme embraced the lifespan of the family in this manner.
“There are various cycle looped together and it’s like passing a baton to your next of kin,” said Hosoda. “It’s hard to tell in your everyday life that this is happening, but it’s a time travel through a full history that shows that parents had parents and those parents had parents.”
“Mirai” is also unique in the way that it transforms the house and garden into multi-dimensional worlds. Made at Tokyo’s Studio Chizu, the director and his team fully embraced CG as a way of embellishing the gorgeous hand-drawn animation with texturing for buildings, trains, a motorcycle, and Tokyo Station.
“The garden is very simple with an oak tree, but I extended it into different worlds through his eyes,” Hosoda said. “When it was a story about his dog, it became an old ruin church, but when it became the older version of Mirai, it became a jungle because it’s very full of life.”
The odd-looking house was designed by an architect to lend a greater sense of authenticity. There are no walls and all the windows point to the garden as the focal point. “I added many stairs to the house so you can see what the family’s doing on each level,” Hosoda said. “One level was for playing, another for working, another for eating.”
And Hosoda made Tokyo Station scary as well as immense. “When he gets lost in the train station, I tried to remember when I got lost as a child,” he said. “What did the outside world look like? It’s very vast with a lot of unknowns. And the creepy train was designed by the actual designer of [Japan’s] bullet train [Hideo Shima].”
Hosoda additionally hired a children’s book author to design the Lost & Found cut out characters and then used CG to move the art around. “It’s very analog but intentional,” he said. “Why not use them both? Mr. Miyazaki is renown for not using CG, but I wonder about that because it’s a lot of work, so there should be a balance.”