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It’s all too tempting to draw comparisons between the work of Japanese animation director Mamoru Hosoda and the Studio Ghibli productions of Hayao Miyazaki. The two filmmakers share similar interests in family ties, childhood and the mundane trials of coming of age – all of which they depict unfolding within exquisitely realised fantasy worlds.
But the comparison does them both a disservice. Hosoda was certainly influenced at one time by Miyazaki (he was originally down to direct Howl’s Moving Castle), yet he has a very distinct voice of his own, his personal experiences heavily channelled into each and every work.
For some time, Hosoda rather curiously stood in the middle as what has been described as a kind of polarisation of anime film – the work of Studio Ghibli being considered exceptional, everything else considered disposable. But his filmography proves that it’s impossible to draw such a distinct line down the middle of an expansive medium.
Visually, Hosoda’s aesthetic is defined by clean lines and the use of simple, single shades of colour. His emphasis on normalcy amid the chaos of his stories shows through in the very design of his characters. There’s no outlandish hair colours or giant eyes.
Despite its supernatural concept, the narrative of his breakout film The Girl Who Leapt through Time (2006) is completely focused on the emotional journey of its main character, Makoto. In a more modern take on Yasutaka Tsutsui’s book, Makoto finds herself with the power to (literally) leap back through time – a more active power than the time loop of the 1983 Nobuhiko Obayashi adaptation of the same story.
Her newfound power may be outlandish, but Hosoda keeps things grounded by focusing on the frivolous desires she uses it for: retaking exams, repeating karaoke for eight hours, saving face in front of her peers. All until she decides to use it to help her friends. That choice is something that Hosoda is very interested in, empathising with youthful self-centredness and feelings of isolation. The self-understanding required to better connect with others is a theme throughout his films.
Springboarding off The Girl Who Leapt through Time’s success, Hosoda made Summer Wars (2009), an original story that incorporates many of his preoccupations up to this point, particularly those from his time on the Digimon franchise. Based around a virtual world named OZ, the film follows a young boy named Kenji. He’s roped into travelling to his schoolmate Natsuki’s huge family estate during the summer to masquerade as her boyfriend and impress her ailing grandmother.
Summer Wars is also the film in which Hosoda begins to more explicitly feature his personal life on screen. The story was inspired by his own experiences with his extended family, and his upbringing as an only child. Its hyperactivity comes from the chaos of a family gathering as much as the action. What connects the two is a theme of communication: the family has to discuss their painful history in order to move forward, and also save the day.
The whole film is built around the idea that even if a family can be combative or obnoxious, everyone can contribute. A strong family (blood-related or not) is one that recognises this, and works together for the betterment of the whole.
Hosoda’s focus on mundane, everyday existence continues in Wolf Children (2012), one of anime’s most powerful films about motherhood. Even the initial romance between protagonist Hana and the werewolf father of her children (who remains unnamed) begins under pretty normal circumstances: the pair are university students who, after a brief meet-cute, fall in love.
Wolf Children is both familiar and truly empathetic in its depictions of Hana’s struggles and joys as she raises her children as a single mother. Hosoda again draws from his own life, building the film around the experiences of his own childhood and impending parenthood.
It’s also about his own mother, who, like Hana, raised him as a single parent. Even the farming town it takes place in is based on his childhood home. The dynamics between parent and child, and between siblings, take precedence here, the children each discovering their own identities and struggling with their place in the world.
Hana isn’t a perfect mother. She’s perhaps overprotective, and unable to fully help Ame and Yuki understand their dual identity. But Hosoda’s empathy with those flaws – and his understanding of the pride and pain of inevitable separation as they move on with their lives – truly packs a punch.
His following work, The Boy and the Beast (2015), also continues the themes of Summer Wars’ surrogate families and blood ties. There’s nothing left for Kyuta in the real world of Tokyo following the death of his mother; the Shibuya ward appears drab compared to the more vibrant pastels of Jutengai, the world of beasts. Though the student/mentor relationship at its core is predictable, Hosoda does well to complicate his story about the surrogate family that forms around Kyuta. He explores the social role of the family while having Kyuta figure out his place between the two worlds.
Kamatetsu and Kyuta’s adversarial but loving relationship recalls the idea in Summer Wars that a combative family doesn’t necessarily mean a bad one. Being challenged is as important as being supported without question.
Ironically, it’s their struggle to be open with each other that illuminates Hosoda’s greatest strength: the emotional honesty in his work. Even the most mundane feelings take priority among outlandish environments and concepts. Each of these journeys feel familiar and personal. At their core, they’re built around Hosoda’s own personal introspection.
The latest example of this is Mirai, his 2018 film about a young boy processing the birth of his eponymous younger sister. Her name itself means ‘future’, and the film jumps back and forth in time, exploring Kun’s family history and all the little moments that led to his being there now, as well as how his actions in the present will later affect his sister.
This examination of how an individual fits into a family extends to Kun’s father. If Wolf Children is about motherhood, then Mirai is about fatherhood. The story of the second-time parent learning to take more responsibility for his family was borne from the guilt that Hosoda felt after his work as an animator kept him away from home during the earliest days of his child’s life.
These films share the same sense of intimacy, despite their fantastical trappings. Empathy with well-intentioned but flawed people has come to characterise Hosoda’s work. No matter how strange his films get, Hosoda never lets himself get too carried away with spectacle. He remains focused on exploring a specific emotional arc, more interested in quiet moments and conversations than in action.
“Every apartment has a little world inside,” a character in Wolf Children says early on, and the philosophy that this story is but one of many, even with the supernatural circumstances, is the considerate and humanist core of all his work.