Even society at large is skeptical of Otōsan’s abilities. Early in the film, Otōsan is shown humblebragging in the front yard to a group of mothers, saying it’s no big deal for him to take care of the kids, while the women ooh and aah at his stay-at-home status. Otōsan goes back inside, cheerfully placing a pot of water on the stove and obviously preening. Okāsan looks up at him, irritated. She lets him know that the women aren’t fooled by his nonchalance and that they gossip about him behind his back. As she finishes her tirade, the pot boils over. Otōsan dives to mop up the water on the ground with a rag, but Okāsan coolly informs him that the cloth he’s using is meant for table spillage, not floor spillage. He slumps, dejected.
By showing us Otōsan’s efforts to feign competence and Okāsan’s refusal to protect her husband’s feelings, Hosoda complicates the idea of men as primary caregivers. Mirai doesn’t want Otōsan to be seen as a societal martyr or to receive more credit than he actually deserves. For Hosoda, Otōsan’s personal journey as a parent can’t be spurred on by optics or false confidence; he must first realize his own shortcomings by making mistakes, and only after learning from them can he become a better parent.
At times, Hosoda seems almost merciless in his portrayal of Otōsan’s blundering. This might be in part because Mirai is based on Hosoda’s own family and their experience of having a second child, which is to say that the filmmaker knows intimately what it’s like to stand in Otōsan’s shoes. Though the father is technically a supporting character in Mirai, he’s given a decent amount of screen time and is voiced by arguably the most recognizable actor of the ensemble (at least for Japanese audiences): Gen Hoshino, who rocketed to stardom in 2016 for his portrayal of the romantic lead in the superhit drama Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu (incidentally, also about different family structures in Japan).
There’s no satisfying Rocky-style montage where Otōsan gets visibly better at his fatherly duties over the course of minutes; instead, viewers are presented with imperfect moments of success and failure, jumbled together. In one poignant scene, Otōsan despairs after failing to teach Kun-chan how to ride a bicycle without training wheels, a task that feels quintessentially fatherly. By the time Kun-chan is wheeling through the grass on his own (thanks to a time slip to post–World War II Japan to visit his great-grandfather, after which he gains the ability to ride), Otōsan has accepted his uselessness as a bicycle instructor. Instead, he stands off to the side, cheering his son on in amazement and joy. It’s as if he realizes that the most important part of parenting isn’t the coaching itself, but offering unequivocal support.
Hosoda has said that Otōsan is meant to depict the “modern father,” whose existence is “difficult to express.” He points to the way families are changing and can no longer be defined by a stay-at-home mother, a working father, and multiple children. Now, he says, we’re in an age where we search for and pick our own families (a prominent theme in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, which is nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar). Though men becoming primary caregivers may not be the answer for every family, or even the solution to Japan’s myriad social ills, at Mirai’s conclusion, viewers are left with an Otōsan who’s still searching but who has chosen fatherhood for himself. He isn’t a perfect parent, but he’s committed and growing.