Since he received a 20-year ban from making films on 20 December 2010, Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi has become the master of metafictional subterfuge, as he has not only managed to produce four features, but he has also found ways to smuggle them out of the country so that they can be seen by international audiences. Following the positive responses to This Is Not a Film (2011) and Closed Curtain (2013), the jury at the Berlin Film Festival awarded the Golden Bear to Taxi (2015) and its Cannes counterpart has followed suit by presenting the prize for Best Screenplay to Panahi and co-scenarist Nader Saeivar for 3 Faces. 

While it refers to Panahi's ongoing plight, however, this ambitious road movie is more concerned with the silencing of opinion and the oppression of women and it's noticeable that Panahi has not only chosen his ancestral heartland in Iranian Azerbaijan for the setting of this audacious statement, but that he has also invoked the spirit of such docurealist pioneers as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf in alighting upon its deceptively playful tone. 

In a video recorded on her phone, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei) explains that she is about to hang herself because she has failed in her bid to become an actress after her parents and fiancé reneged on a promise to let her study at the Tehran drama academy if she consented to marry. She entreats a friend to forward the message to celebrated Iranian actress Behnaz Jafari, who is her role model. But Marziyeh can't resist complaining that she has sent dozens of messages to her idol and received no reply and feels rather let down. Taking a noose that is suspended from a branch in what looks like a cave, Marziyeh slips the rope over her head and the camera hits the ground. 

Shocked by the communication, the red-haired Behnaz travels by car with director Jafar Panahi and asks if he thinks the footage is genuine. She can't believe that Marziyeh would actually kill herself, but is eager to visit her village and discover the truth for herself. Panahi admits he can't see any trick cut in the dramatic closing image and thinks it may well be real. But Behnaz remains sceptical because she hasn't found any messages on her current phone or on the old numbers that she has passed on to her friends. 

Pulling over when his phone rings, Panahi takes a call from the female director who is making a film with Behnaz. She is cross with her for not asking permission to absent herself from a location shoot when she can't finish the picture without her. He stalls her by suggesting his colleague thinks of a way to solve her problem rather than asking him and cuts her off to speak to his mother, who is frustrated that he has gone off without telling her. He reassures her that he is merely on a trip with a friend and isn't risking the ire of the authorities by making another illicit film. 

While Panahi chats, the camera follows Behnaz, as she wanders around the car in the darkness and opens the boot to wash her face. Following a cut to the next morning, Panahi fills the radiator from a spring at the side of the road. Behnaz has been sleeping and wants to go to the cemetery at Sinan village to check for a fresh grave. She calls Marziyeh a bitch because she is convinced she has conned her and even suspects Panahi of being in cahoots with her because the footage is on his phone and he had once mentioned a script about a suicide. 

As they drive along a winding country road in the Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan region in north-western Iran, an elderly man (Hassan Mihammadi) tells Panahi to speak in his language and not Persian. He makes him beep his horn and gets a reply before sending him along the road. They pass a wedding party and this convinces Beznah that the girl hasn't killed herself, as they wouldn't celebrate in a time of mourning. Stopping again, they ask the elderly Yadollah (Dadashnejad Yadollah) about the cemetery and he invites them to tea. He recognises Beznah, but can't place her face. He tells Panahi that his Turkish isn't very good and chats in Persian about Noah and Solomon and the state of the world. Yadollah gives them directions and inquires whether they are treasure hunters because they don't look like the types who would normally hang around graveyards. Behnaz assures him that they are merely photographing the landscape and, seeming satisfied, their host waves them off. 

On arriving at the cemetery, they find an old woman (Fatemeh Ismaelitejad) lying in a burial plot with a lantern to keep the away the snakes that she believes have been sent to punish her for being bad. Panahi assures her she won't have done anything wrong and wishes her a long life. Behnaz is confused and asks again if he is sure that the film clip isn't a put-up job. As he had already given his opinion, Panahi takes umbrage with her for questioning his judgement. Giving her the car keys, he stalks off and Behnaz feels aggrieved by his annoyance and drives off (after getting herself into a tizzy over the seatbelt).

Arriving at a village with lots of kids milling about, Behnaz gets out and signs some autographs. The men look on admiringly and the women embrace her. When Panahi wanders up the road, one resident asks if he has come to help with their power and water supplies. When he says they are looking for Marziyeh, they are dismayed because no one likes her. A youngish man tells them to follow her sister to the family home, where a furious younger brother (Mehdi Panahi) tries to drive them away because Marziyeh has dishonoured the family. His mother (Narges Delaram) locks him in an outhouse and begins making tea. She tells them that Marziyeh has been missing for three days and regrets taking her to a secret audition at the conservatory because she had no idea that her daughter had the talent to secure a place. Now she has driven her fiancé to distraction and everyone else is brassed off with her antics. 

Concerned that something really has happened, the visitors go in search of Marziyeh's cousin, Maedeh (Maedeh Erteghaei). She is excited to meet them and is taken aback when she learns that Marziyeh has been missing for three days. When Behnaz shows her the message, Maedeh becomes frightened because it's been sent from Marziyeh's phone. They go to the cave, but find no evidence of a rope, even though they see the overhanging branch. Panahi suggests that the family has cleared it away to preserve their honour and cover their backs, but Behnaz isn't convinced. 

They return to the village, where the old man they had encountered earlier is explaining that they beep horns to warn oncoming cars on the narrow road. His companion declares that people need rules and curses Marziyeh for consistently disregarding them. Moreover, he avers that becoming an entertainer is a waste of time, as it was for Shahrazade (Kohra Saeedi), who had made films before the Revolution and is now a recluse. While they chat, Behnaz sees a girl by the car and wanders off with her. Panahi follows and sees Behnaz slapping Marziyeh and being equally angry with Maedeh for putting on an act. But the girls plead with her not to abandon them, as she's their last hope. Affronted at being called by her first name by an empty-headed girl with a talent for trouble, Behnaz announces her intention to leave. 

However, the road is blocked by a bull with a broken leg and his owner (Asghar Aslami) is waiting for the vet because he's a beast with `golden balls' who is worth a fortune because he once sired 10 calves in a single night. As he talks, the camera follows Behnaz as she walks up to the gently bellowing creature and tells Panahi to go back to the village. They find Shahrazade's house and he waits outside as his companion goes inside. A noisy procession of cars goes past (presumably from the wedding seen earlier). After a while, Behnaz returns to reveal that Shahrazade has nothing but contempt for the directors who had treated her so badly when she acted and had abandoned her to her fate. Panahi protests that he didn't make films back then, but concedes that lots of other performers suffered in the same way. According to Behnaz, Shahrazade has nothing but her film posters and feels sorry for her. She also feels less angry with Marziyeh and returns to spend the night with her, while Panahi sleeps in the car. 

He decides to doze and leave Behnaz to go to the village to make a phone call to apologise to the production manager she has messed around. She goes to the cafe to use the landline and bumps into Yadollah, who wishes to speak to her. He tells her about his son, Ayoub, and how he waited an eternity for a second son. Moreover, he explains the custom of a godfather burying a foreskin to determine the fate of a child and claimed he had hoped that Ayoub's would be buried in the courtyard of a palace so that he could end up there, even as a janitor. Now he has had a new son and he shows Behnaz a poster of a film starring Behrouz Vossoughi and asks if he is still alive because he is a real man and Yadollah hopes that he can take the second child's foreskin and help Ayoub to have a better life. 

Behnaz tries to explain that Vossoughi lives abroad and that Panahi can't travel to take the pouch to him. Yadollah understands, but gives her a letter detailing Ayoub's life story in case Panahi can help. As she walks back to the car, Behnaz passes Marziyeh's mother and reassures her that her daughter is okay. However, she now fears that her brother will go to Shahrazade's house and burn it down. As she walks on, Behnaz drops in on the old woman in her grave and the light from her lantern pierces the darkness. On reaching the vehicle, she sees Merziyeh chatting to Panahi about Shahrazade, who has spent her days painting since the mayor drove her out of town to her shack. She also confides that her fiancé is an army deserter, who keeps promising to return, only to disappear again. Tellingly, she also reveals that she once tried to widen the road, only for the menfolk to scold her because it's not a woman's place to interfere in matters she doesn't understand. 

Once they are alone, Behnaz gives Panahi the foreskin pouch and the letter. She also presents him with a CD of Shahrazade's poetry, which he plays when she goes back to the hut. Three men come from the mayor to check that Panahi is okay and offer him hospitality, but he decides to stay in the car. The next morning, Behnaz and Merziyeh come out to see him and show him a drawing that Shahrazade has done for him. They set off for home and promptly get stuck behind a flock of sheep before delivering Merziyeh to her father, who has returned from Tehran and promises not to let her brother harm her. Indeed, the father throws the son out of the house and he kicks a stone out of the wall is his fury before crouching down to glare at Panahi. While waiting for Behnaz to return, he goes for a stroll and sees Shahrazade painting in a field. 

When they finally leave, a point-of-view shot reveals a crack in the windscreen. On reaching the beeping point, Behnaz walks ahead while Panahi waits his turn. Sporting a white headdress, Marziyeh runs after the actress and urges her to wait. As they wander on, a convoy of three cattle trucks brings heifers for the bull, but we never learn if he's alive and able to perform. Nor do we know how things will pan out for Marziyeh because it's not clear if has run away or whether Behnaz will be willing to help her. 

Working from a story he had spotted in the papers and shooting in the villages where his grandparents and parents had been raised, Panahi doesn't appear to be an artist in extremis in this playful, but deceptively sharp treatise on freedom of expression, outdated modes of masculinity and the treatment of women inside the Islamic Republic. The fact that the cast and crew members are credited for the first time since Panahi was sentenced suggests either extraordinary courage on the part of his colleagues or a subversive pride in collaborating with a supposed pariah. 

Either way, Amin Jafari's camerawork is lithe and alert, while the performances have a charming. neo-realist authenticity. Panahi makes an amusing foil to popular stage and screen star Behnaz Jafari, while the debuting Marziyeh Rezaei contributes a bustling display that contrasts with the discretion of Kobra Saeedi, who had starred in such landmark Iranian features as Masoud Kimiai's noir, Qeysar (1969), and yet is only seen in long shot and heard on disc reading her poetry to reinforce Panahi's assertions about the depiction of and discrimination against Iranian women. 

Although only seen on a poster, Behrouz Vossoughi also serves a symbolic purpose, as he was the macho star of movies like Amir Naderi's Tangsir (1973), a revenge thriller that encourages revolt against corruption and upholds the concept of the saviour hero that is gently debunked here in the teasingly ineffectual support that Panahi provides his travelling companion when they ride into town. The narrow road along which they pass has a dual purpose, as it not only represents the restrictions placed upon Iranians, but it also symbolises the route Iranian cinema has taken, with Saeedi, Jafari and Rezaei personifying its past, present and future. Similarly, the allusion to Vossoughi reinforces the satirical references to the stud bull and the fetishised foreskin. Moreover, the very fact that Panahi was able to work in the open suggests that he is growing in rebellious confidence and one can only hope that he continues to box clever and send us more missives from the Tehran trenches and beyond.

While the members of the Fifth Generation of graduates from the Beijing Film Academy drove each other on in a form of supportive competition, leading Sixth Generation lights like Wang Xiaoshuai, Lou Ye, Wang Quan'an and Zhang Yuan have been rather left in the slipstream of Jia Zhang-ke, who has become China's most important film-maker. Starting out with underground provocations like Xiao Wu (1997) and Platform (2000), Jia was only given official sanction with his fourth feature, The World (2004). But he continues to question the direction the country is taking and Ash Is Purest White represents his latest lament for its spiritual and moral deterioration. Indeed, this could be seen as a summation of Jia's work to date. Generically linked to A Touch of Sin (2013) and structurally similar to Mountains May Depart (2015), this sprawling saga is further bound into his legacy by the fact he had previously used the settings of Datong and Fengjie for Unknown Pleasures (2002) and Still Life (2006). 

It's 2001 and Qiao (Zhao Tao) lives in Datong with jianghu gangster, Bin (Liao Fan). He plays mahjong in the back room of the club he runs in the rundown mining town and settles disputes between his hot-headed henchmen with cool assurance before toasting their enduring allegiance with a cocktail made by pouring bottles of hooch into a bowl. Qiao is very much one of the boys and punches people in the back as a form of friendly greeting. But she takes no nonsense, as she proves when she pays a visit to her father in the village of Shanxi and pulls the plug on the speech he is making to denounce the managers who have allowed his coal mine to close. 

She is also less than impressed when a gun drops out of Bin's belt while he is dancing to The Village People's `YMCA', as it makes him look weak. However, he saves face when powerful entrepreneur-cum-loan shark Brother Eryong comes to the club and asks Bin to deal with the rival who has been claiming that a villa development he owns is haunted. But news comes the next day that Eryong has been stabbed by a gang of youths and Detective Wang asks Bin if he knows if the victim had any enemies. They conclude that the kids were merely flexing their muscles and curse them for not adhering to the jianghu code. Qiao tries to console Eryong's widow and his ballroom dancing protégé, Miss Ma, performs as a sign of respect. 

While wandering through the backstreets of Eryong's village, Bin is whacked across the shins with an iron bar and two young brothers are quickly captured and brought before him. They insist they attacked the wrong person and Bin lets them off with a warning. Hobbling on crutches, he takes Qiao to see a volcano in the nearby countryside and she claims that the ash produced in such fierce temperatures has an unrivalled purity. Bin teaches Qiao to fire his gun and tells her that she is now part of the jianghu brotherhood. But she jokes that he has been watching too many Hong Kong crime movies and warns him that the days of the traditional mobster are waning. She even suggests moving away and starting a family somewhere else, but Bin has faith that Datong will be restored to its former glory.

Bin and Qiao call on Lin Jiadong (Diao Yinan), who has just come out of prison and his sister, Jiayan (Casper Liang), presents them with a box of expensive cigars. While returning home, however, the couple are hijacked by a motorcycle gang in the centre of town. Having watched his chauffeur get beaten with crash helmets, Bin leaps out of the car to stand his corner. But he is overpowered and the youths only back off when Qiao fires her lover's gun into the air. The gesture has the desired effect, but Qiao is arrested and jailed for possessing an illegal firearm, which she insists belongs to her rather than Bin. When her old friend Qing comes to see her, Qiao asks her to keep an eye on her ailing father and admits that Bin has abandoned her and she catches a glimpse of the club where they had held court while being transferred by coach to a prison outside the district. 

Five years pass before Qiao is released and she takes a cruise along the Yangtze River to see some of the settlements that have been earmarked for submersion as part of the Three Gorges dam project. While on the boat, a woman (Ding Jiali) steals her money and ID card while she is calling Lin to ask if he has seen Bin. She comes to Lin's office in Fengjie and is dismayed to learn that Bin has ditched her for Jiayan, who coldly informs Qiao that he wants nothing more to do with her. But she calmly avers that she will refuse to consider the relationship over unless Bin has the courage to say so to her face. 

Relying on her wits, Qiao gatecrashes a wedding in order to get some food and berates the woman from the boat after spotting her being assaulted in the market place. She also tries to scam a couple of wealth men in a restaurant (Zhang Yibai and Zhang Yi) by pretending to be the sister of their pregnant mistress. The first dismisses her with a sneer, but the second falls for her miscarriage story and gives her a bundle of banknotes to buy some vitamins. On a roll, Qiao uses the cash to hire a motorbike taxi to take her to the power plant where Bin is supposed to be working. When the driver tries to force his attentions on her, Qiao steals the bike and accuses him of rape so that the police will call Bin to verify her identity. 

Annoyed at being forced to meet up with her, Bin remains quiet as they walk along a jetty at the waterfront. Qiao suggests they get a room so they can talk and she admits to having been hurt when he failed to meet her out of prison after she had sacrificed her liberty for him. He concedes that he let her down, but protests that he is no longer a jianghu guy and left Datong after his erstwhile brothers disowned him because he was poor. However, when he tries to thank her by clasping the hand he claimed had saved his life, she points out that she is right- not left-handed and he sighs. She brings the conversation around to their relationship and mentions Jiayan, but Bin resists formally ending things and suggests that they jump over a flame to ward off the evil spirits that have been dogging them. He sets light to some paper and places it in the bed pan, but Qiao walks around the fire and goes out into the breaking storm without another word.

Having attended a concert by the band whose singer had given her a flower in the street, Qiao takes the train to Shanxi and finds herself sitting opposite a garrulous fellow from Karamy (Xu Zheng). He claims to be heading to Xinjiang to set up a UFO-spotting service for tourists and invites Qiao to come with him when she reveals that she once saw something in the sky. They change trains together and hold hands via a water bottle, as they meander along the platform. As darkness falls, the stranger hugs Qiao because she feels like a prisoner of the universe and she shrugs when he confesses to running a convenience store not an adventure firm. When the man dozes off, Qiao disembarks at a remote station and promptly sees an alien craft zoom through the darkness. 

Years pass and Qiao returns to Datong to take a job at the club Bin once owned. One day, out of the blue, she gets a phone call from him and discovers he is confined to a wheelchair. She takes him back to the mahjong parlour and former underling Li Xuan (Li Xuan) is pleased to see him. But the staff have no idea who Bin is and treat him with such disrespect that he loses him temper and Qiao threatens to throw him out unless he calms down. He fumes that he was paralysed after suffering an alcohol-induced stroke and scoffs when she asks why his wife and children deserted him. She claims to want to see him pay for betraying her, but he knows she still has feelings for him and is ready to exploit her pity.

Qiao is pleased by the reception Bin gets from some of the old gang when she wheels him back into the main parlour. However, Jia has not forgotten a past slight and suggests a wager with Bin's wheelchair as the prize. He wins and Bin is humbled in front of his friends. When Qiao takes him out for air, he asks why she took him back when she no longer has feelings for him and she taunts him about still being bound to the jianghu principles that he had abandoned. 

Indeed, she even finds a doctor who is willing to treat him and Bin recovers sufficiently to walk towards her when she wheels him out to the volcano. Shortly afterwards, however, he shuffles out of the club on New Year's Day and sends Qiao a phone message to let her know he's left. Stunned by his treachery and her own folly at believing Bin could change, Qiao props herself against the wall beneath a surveillance camera, whose image is too indistinct to allow us to see her expression. 

This closing sequence appears to be the most cunning of the swipes that this compelling saga takes at post-millennial China, as the decision by General Secretary Xi Jinping to give the propaganda ministry the final say in all matters cinematic means that directors like Jia Zheng-ke will be placed under much closer scrutiny. One hopes that he continues to demonstrate such ingenuity in his future state of the nation bulletins, as he is too valuable a commentator to allow himself to be silenced - although he did have to acquiesce in the domestic removal of ace director Feng Xiaogang's cameo as the doctor after he became caught up in the Fan Bingbing tax scandal.

Among the recurring pleasures of Jia's cinema is the presence of his wife and muse, Zhao Tao, who gives the best performance of her career in their seventh collaboration. Combining impassivity with complexity, Zhao excels as the moll who turns out to have a better understanding of the jianghu ethos than her perpetually inconstant lover. However, Liao Fan is every bit as impressive as he was in Diao Yinan's Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014), with which this film shares much in terms of its tone, pacing and social critique, as Jia notes that humans remain pretty much the same, even though trains get faster and phones get smarter. 

He and French cinematographer Eric Gautier also incorporate changes in camera technology into the picture. The opening shots were filmed by Jia in 2001 and show ordinary people travelling on a bus. They set the mood for the action to follow, but also enable Jia and Gautier to switch from an Academy Ratio digital video format through Digibeta to HD formats that give the imagery a textural fluidity that matches the ebb and flow of a narrative that takes its cue from Anton Chekhov and Jean-Luc Godard's musings about the dramatic potency of guns. Gautier also has a keen outsider's eye for landscape and architecture, which is reinforced by Liu Weixin's production design in the same way that Nikolas Javelle and Gwennolé Le Borgne's sound mix is complemented by the Lim Giong soundtrack that is enhanced by the telling inclusion of Sally Yeh's theme song from John Woo's heroic bloodshed classic, The Killer (1989), one of the Hong Kong triad movies that has helped corrupt Bin's sense of jianghu.

Although Studio Chizu has always operated in the shadow of Studio Ghibli, it has done its bit to popularise Japanimation around the world. In particular, the films of founder Mamoru Hosoda have demonstrated how it is possible to use fantasy to comment on such real-world issues as individual integrity, the fragility of the environment and the importance of family, Now, following such dynamic adventures as The Girl Who Leaps Through Time (2006), Summer Wars (2009), Wolf Children (2012) and The Boy and the Beast (2015), he draws on his own parental experience to chart a young boy's rite of passage in Mirai. 

Four year-old Kun (Moka Kamishiraishi) plays with the family dog, Yukko, in the house designed by his architect father (Gen Hoshino). His grandmother (Yoshiko Miyazaki) is minding him, while his mother, Yumi (Kumiko Aso), gives birth to his baby sister, Mirai, Having been spoilt rotten, Kun finds it difficult to share his mother and acts up when he doesn't get enough attention. Father is also finding the transition to house husband difficult and Yumi reminds him that he will have to do his bit now that there are two children to look after. 

Frustrated at having to play by himself, Kun hits Mirai with one of his toy trains and he accuses Yumi of being an ugly old hag when she reprimands him. He stomps into the courtyard, which seems to transform into a ruined abbey as a well-dressed stranger (Mitsuo Yoshihara) appears from behind the tree. Introducing himself as the prince of the household, the man explains how he was once the apple of Mother and Father's eyes and he deeply resented Kun when he stole his limelight. But he learned to accept the newcomer and suggests that Kun does the same with Mirai. When the prince shows an unexpected interest in Yukko's squeaky ball, Kun realises that he is the dog in human form and yanks off his tail and attaches it to himself to go yomping around the house, much to the bemusement of his parents. 

After three months, Grandma and Grandpa pay a visit and Kun clamours for their attention when they try to take pictures of Mirai. They notice that the baby has a red birthmark on her right hand, but Yumi insists it is nothing to worry about. She has placed a collection of dolls on a sideboard in order to ensure that Mirai finds a good husband. They discuss the Doll Ceremony over lunch and Kun gets bored. When Yumi returns to work, she reminds her husband to put the dolls away before the end of the day or Mirai's marriage prospects will be compromised. 

Bored at being left to play alone, Kun covers his sleeping sisters face with whale cookies before wandering into the courtyard. Once again, the enclosed area undergoes a transformation and Kun finds himself in a giant domed greenhouse. He follows a trail of whale cookies and bumps into the teenage Mirai (Haru Kuroki), who chides him for being so mean to her. Kun protests that he can't help disliking her, but he agrees to remind Father to put away the dolls to ensure she can marry the man of her dreams. However, he is too preoccupied with work to pay attention and Mirai sends Kun to distract him while she and the Prince pack away the dolls according to the ritual. This proves trickier than they had anticipated, however, and a baton held by the emperor doll gets stuck to Father's trouser leg and they have to sneak up on him to retrieve it. 

When their mission is accomplished, Mirai asks Kun if he is better disposed towards her and he shruggingly admits to thinking she's okay for a girl. But he soon gets cross with baby Mirai again when Yumi dotes on her during a rare day off after showing him some old photograph albums. Strutting into the courtyard in high dudgeon, Kun discovers it has changed into a vast underwater valley and a shoal of fish sweep him away from the scolding teenage Mirai to deposit him on a rain-soaked street that he doesn't recognise. He sees a young girl crying on the opposite pavement and discovers Yumi at his age. She is writing a note pleading with her mother to let her have a cat and she explains how she always gets her own way with both her parents and her younger brother. 

They head back to her family home, where she tips out all her sibling's toys so that Kun can play. She also treats him to some snacks in the kitchen before leading him on a merry dance of destruction around the house. When she hears her mother return, however, Yumi ushers Kun outside and he listens in some distress as a blazing row ensues, in which Yumi begs for forgiveness and promises not to be so naughty in the future. 

As Kun keeps dreaming during his afternoon nap, Yumi chats with her mother in the kitchen. She admits she had been a wilful child and only became house-proud after she got married. Her mother teases her about being a pest as a girl and jokes that Kun is very like her with his tantrums. Yumi hopes she can be a good mother and, when Kun wakes up to see her sleeping with Mirai on the couch next to him, he pats her head and a single tear trickles down her cheek when he tells her that she's a good girl. 

Father takes Kun and Mirai to the park for fresh air. Kun sees other boys riding their bicycles without stabilisers and asks if his can be removed. However, when Father tries to teach him how to balance on the grass, Kun keeps toppling over and he loses his temper when Father rushes back to the bench because Mirai has started crying. Flouncing into the courtyard, Kun finds himself in a workshop full of large engines. A man with a limp (Koji Yakusho) explains that they were built for aeroplanes during the war and he takes Kun to a nearby stable and offers to take him for a ride on horseback. Despite his misgivings, Kun enjoys the sensation and is soon speeding along on a motorbike with the stranger, who bears a curious resemblance to his father. 

The next time they go to the park, Kun manages to ride alone and the bigger boys invite him to play with him. Father is proud of him and tells Yumi what a hero he was. She compliments him on getting better at nursing Mirai and Father wells up, as he realises how magical family life can be. Turning the pages of the photo album, Kun recognises the man who had taught him so much and Yumi is amused when he confuses him with his father. She reveals that he is Kun's great-grandfather, who had built aero engines before being injured while serving in the navy. He had worked in a motorcycle factory and had only died the previous year. But Kun sees the connection and remains grateful to the man in the picture and his dad for helping him conquer his fears. 

Kun's contentment doesn't last long, however, and he throws a strop over a pair of shorts when Mother and Father have too much else on to cope with his mood. Deciding to run away, Kun hides in the bath and a wardrobe before packing a bag and strutting into the courtyard. This morphs into a country station and Kun ignores the advice of a youth in the waiting room and boards a train. He is excited to see the full-size versions of all his toy engines and is particularly thrilled to see a bullet train, as they arrive in Tokyo. But he finds the station a frightening place and becomes frustrated when the man at the Lost and Found booth keeps asking questions about his family that he can't answer. 

Dispatched to catch the service to Lonely Land, Kun refuses to get on board and has to race the length of the platform to prevent Mirai from crawling through the sliding doors. As he recovers from his tumble, he sees a hand with Mirai's birthmark reaching out to him and she plucks him into the air and they land in a tree top. However, this is the family tree and they see episodes from the past that brought them to this point in time: Father falling off his bike; Mother tending to a baby bird that had been mauled by a cat; Yukko saying goodbye to his mother as a puppy; and Great-Grandfather swimming ashore after his ship was bombed and later racing against the woman who would become his wife after she let him win so that he would propose to her. 

Mirai (whose name means `the Future') explains that lives are the sum of such small incidents and accidents and Kun returns to the present with a valuable lesson learned. As his parents pack the car for a holiday, they muse on how their children have made them better people. Kun sees Mirai in their playroom and they share his banana before he teaches her how to shout and they smile at each other and a lifelong bond is forged.

Repurposing Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol to teach a self-centred brat to appreciate the people around him, this may not be Hosoda's most ambitious storyline. But, named as it is after his own daughter, it's undoubtedly his most personal and accessible and tweenage viewers should be able to follow the English-language version easily enough. Much of the anime that reaches this country is primarily aimed at adult audiences, however, and new parents will find this intimate tale particularly relevant. 

As always with Hosoda, the graphics are sensational. The aerial views of Kun's town are splendidly detailed, while the different portal sites for his flights of fancy are charmingly atmospheric. A couple of sequences linger overlong, with the Doll Ceremony episode being teased out to a feeble punchline, while the sequence at the mainline station drifts between thrill and terror without creating sufficient awe or dread. The tumble through the family tree similarly feels less momentous than it should. Some of the close-ups of Kun and Mirai crying and laughing also feel a little gauche. But, with the aid of Masakatsu Takagi's jaunty score, the shifts in time and tone are otherwise handled with a dexterity that reflects Hosoda's insights into the minds of his toddling protagonist and his stressed parents.