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‘Mirai’ and the Oscars’ Best Animated Feature Problem

Mamoru Hosoda’s new film is an acclaimed family adventure tabbed for an Academy Award nomination. And that’s the issue.

Toho/Studio Ghibli/Netflix

In July, Mirai premiered in Japanese movie theaters, the latest anime feature from the acclaimed director Mamoru Hosoda. Mirai is good. For moviegoers in the market for a cute movie about cute kids tormenting their cute, if haggard parents, Mirai is a fun time, and also, you might cry. It’s the heartwarming sort of movie that will make some viewers want to have kids despite Hosoda’s characterizing young children, rather wonderfully, as terrorists who steal sleep, accost siblings, humiliate everyone, including themselves, and bring their own homes crashing down in fits over naps and toys. Life is beautiful, isn’t it? So, too, is Hosoda’s movie.

In recent years, Hosoda has struggled to match his earlier movies, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, in critical regard. But Mirai marks a high point in Hosoda’s international acclaim, if only because GKIDS is backing the film in wide release. After earning more than $23 million in Japan this summer, Mirai premiered in North American theaters Friday. It’s gotten a lot of advance press for an anime movie, and film critics are already hyping Hosoda’s chances at receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. The category rarely favors non-English animators, including anime directors, though Hayao Miyazaki did win the Oscar for Spirited Away in 2003. It’s easy to read the Best Animated Feature category, especially the winners, and suspect some prohibitive bias in favor of Disney and Pixar. (Spirited Away was technically a Disney movie too.) Last year, Makoto Shinkai’s runaway hit, Your Name—a body-swapping teen romance—seemed ideally positioned to garner an Best Animated Feature nomination. Ultimately, Coco won, and Shinkai was crowded out of the nominations.

Shinkai made Your Name, but, in general, Shinkai isn’t a kids’ movie director, which is to say: Shinkai isn’t who the Academy is looking to celebrate anyway. If any Japanese animator who isn’t Miyazaki is winning an Oscar in this decade, it’s Hosoda. His movies—including Mirai—tend to feature spunky kid protagonists, furry companions, loud and profound sobbing, and sci-fi high jinks: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a time-travel romp, and so, too, is Mirai. The later film features two young siblings—the newborn Mirai and her big brother, Kun—coming to terms with one another, and with the family dog, while launching all manners of petty rebellion against their exasperated parents. In general, Hosoda makes kids’ movies that adults might happen to enjoy, and that’s the kind of animated features that the Academy prefers. Historically, Best Animated Feature discounts animated features rated PG-13 and up. The result is a category that is really an award for best kids’ movie—a category that perpetuates the old conflation of animation and cartoons.

There’s a truism that anime critics frequently use to reconcile the form’s distinct qualities with its broad variety—anime isn’t a genre, it’s a medium, and there’s no reducing the medium to any one, dominant genre. The insight applies to animation in general. In the mainstream, TV critics celebrate animation’s great diversity in tone—there’s BoJack Horseman, there’s Steven Universe—but they also tend to ignore anime all together. In feature film animation, Disney, Pixar, and, to a lesser extent, Studio Ghibli, inform the Academy’s singular, dominant, intransigent outlook on what excellent animation must be. It’s frustrating. In TV and film, there’s a great variety of great animators. For example, Masaaki Yuasa has had a spectacular run in North America this year. He directed the bonkers Netflix series Devilman: Crybaby, an adaptation of the old Gô Nagai manga series Devilman; and Mirai’s GKIDS distributed his latest movie, Night Is Short, Walk on Girl, in limited theatrical release. Yuasa is one of the greatest animators of his generation. His punch-drunk style and his high-wire adolescent characters form a mad and wonderful universe. Yuasa’s incomparable. He’s also accessible. He’s fun. He’s also entirely unlike anyone the Western middlebrow has ever been inclined to celebrate, and it’s unclear why.

For half a century, anime has shouldered the argument for judging animated works entirely on their appeal to children. In the late ’80s and the ’90s, Akira and Ghost in the Shell captivated a global audience, and Western critics, with vulgar sci-fi and sleek, rebellious style. Meanwhile, Studio Ghibli won Western acclaim with Miyazaki’s midcareer classics, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away. There was a great coexistence. In the long term, however, Western critics have slouched prohibitively in favor of Ghibli-core and feel-good animators, such as Hosoda.

Mirai is a beautiful movie, and it’s hard to blame anyone for singing Hosoda’s praises. But for once, the Academy might celebrate the astounding movie musical about sex pests, guerilla theater, and hard drinking.