After such expansive fantasies as “Wolf Children” and “Summer Wars,” Japanese animation master Mamoru Hosoda delivers a story of such intimate, unpretentious simplicity, you’d hardly recognize it as coming from the ambitious visionary behind those films. And yet “Mirai” — which inventively depicts the way a young boy’s world is turned upside down by the arrival of a baby sister — could not have been made by anyone else. It’s the work of a true auteur (in what feels like his most personal film yet) presented as innocuous family entertainment.
Who but Hosoda could have imagined a scenario — every bit as enchanted as Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” though entirely original in its own right — in which four-year-old Kun comes to accept his initially unwelcome sister via a series of hallucinatory visitations from other members of his family: past (his war-hero grandfather and decades-younger mother), present (an anthropomorphic version of the pet dog), and future (Mirai, appearing as her later teenage self)? Real siblings don’t have it so easy, yet these magical interactions charmingly convey how bumpy it can be to make the adjustment from only child to older brother.
In its home country, the film should appeal to tykes and appreciative parents alike, whereas Hosoda’s foreign followers — who’ve embraced the director as a more grown-up alternative to the relatively tame Studio Ghibli offerings that dominate the local box office — will miss seeing his most supernatural inclinations run wild (GKIDS will release the film in the States). That’s not to say “Mirai” doesn’t include its share of runaway magic, but in this case, the central narrative feels remarkably contained, right down to the fact that nearly the entire story takes place within Kun’s limited sphere: a one-of-a-kind home designed by his architect father, who’s also having to adjust, playing Mr. Mom while his wife goes off to work.
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The strange house has a key role in “Mirai,” built on multiple levels with a large garden and a special tree — which may as well be a literal “family tree” — growing between Kun’s downstairs playroom (which represents the boy’s personal space, overrun by elaborate train tracks and scattered toys) and the communal living area visible across the yard (where his parents run the show, and the shift of focus that comes with Mirai’s arrival is most keenly felt). But in that curious open space between the split halves of the house, Kun plays alone, interacting with the aforementioned family members.
The first and most surreal of these apparitions comes from Kun’s pet dachshund, who inexplicably transforms into a human prince — albeit one with a long, fluffy tail and a weakness for playing fetch. Then Kun’s mom shows up, barely more than a kid herself, to tell him how she wasn’t always the responsible adult he knows but a messy adolescent before she met his father. Grandfather takes Kun for a spin on a motorcycle, sharing advice with the boy. And finally, Mirai drops in, visiting from the future, to give her big brother a glimpse of the young woman she will become — and to win him over, not as the attention-hogging cry baby that his parents brought home but as a welcome playmate who happens to know just where he’s ticklish.
Woven throughout all of Hosoda’s films has been a special attention to the kind of connections that define a family, though this is the first time the writer-director has so directly addressed the change that can affect those dynamics. (Remember, all-time great anime classic “My Neighbor Totoro” centers on an equivalently simple setup, observing a family’s move to a country home while the mother convalesces in a hospital.) Here, Hosoda takes a realistic premise and sprinkles it with fantastical details that should feel intuitive for fans of his work, including run-ins with anthropomorphic animals (“The Boy and the Beast”) and the ability to fly or time-travel (“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”).
But it’s the small real-world touches that make “Mirai” so charming, including a moment (possible only in animation) in which Kun’s face comically distorts as he throws a tantrum and a scene where the brother and sister team up to take down a shrine that the distracted dad has forgotten to put away, potentially jeopardizing her future happiness. It all adds up to a gentler and potentially younger-skewing film than Hosoda’s previous output, and yet, emotionally speaking, “Mirai” reaches deeper, aided by a lovely, featherweight score from Masakatsu Takagi, subtly reinforcing the gradual evolution of the boy’s attitude toward his kid sister.