Spoiler alert: this feature reveals key plot details.

In Hosoda Mamoru’s new anime film Mirai, family spirits from the past and future take turns to bond with a toddler called Kun as he learns to share his parents’ love with the new sibling in his life. The family dog manifests as a banished prince of the household, holding up a mirror on displacement and jealousy; Kun’s future-teenage sister visits to pre-empt a jinx on her marriage prospects in a game of trust and duty; the toddler version of his mother brings him home to trash her house and incur her own mother’s wrath, distilling the double-edged drama of freedom and responsibility. His late grandfather counsels him in the art of steering a propeller plane – “Look ahead no matter what” – and the boy applies the lesson to the bold leap of cycling without stabilisers.

How do we choose our paths in life? How do our identities form and inform us? Hosoda’s films tease the question through fantasy variations: a schoolgirl deploys her time-travelling prowess to manipulate the fortunes of friends and peers (while stifling her own feelings) in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006); an introverted computer prodigy rallies the dysfunctional extended family of his school crush to save the world from a demonic online virus in Summer Wars (2009); two half-lupine siblings follow their noses, respectively, into human society and the wild in Wolf Children (2012); in The Boy and the Beast (2015), a street runaway carries his hurt into a parallel world of samurai animals, where he forms a surrogate father-son bond with a roguish fellow misfit.

In Mirai, Kun’s identity crisis comes to a head when he finds himself astray in Tokyo’s vast train station, threatened by a robotic official with dispatch on a bristlingly sinister bullet train to Lonely Land – shades of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island, via the impersonal opposite of the fantasy cat bus in My Neighbour Totoro (1988) – if he cannot assert who he is.

A young boy looking sad in a crouch pose in bed
Kun, Mirai’s young protagonist

At the same time, Hosoda is a delicate realist: to varying degrees all his feature films since The Girl Who Leapt Through Time have applied their defiantly hand-drawn animation to the depiction of relatable contemporary characters, with their problems and doubts, their pauses and stumbles as well as their leaps of action. The new film delineates the experience of new siblinghood, and the arrival of a baby into a modern urban household, with the conviction of close observation: no surprises that the film’s inspiration was in Hosoda’s own experience having a second child, just as Wolf Children had been a meditation on his own raising by his late mother, and The Boy and the Beast had channelled his reflections on fathers and sons. It’s this immediacy of inscription that distinguishes it from Takahata Isao’s more fabular (and pastoral) The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), the only comparison I can think to make with Mirai’s realism of baby steps.

Mamoro Hosoda posing with his arms folded
Mamoru Hosoda

“He’s five now, but when I was making the film my older boy was three and my daughter was a newborn,” Hosoda tells me across a meeting table in the basement of a hotel in London’s Leicester Square, flanked (as seems to be the way with visiting Japanese animation directors) by co-workers tapping at their laptops. “I was really interested to observe how he would react when he first saw the baby: would he recognise her as his sibling? How would he accept this new existence which wasn’t here before? The scene with the train [Kun hits Mirai with one of his beloved toy trains] is real: my son did that. It wasn’t a random tantrum: he was angry, he’d lost his attention, he thought he’d lost his love… His entire world was shattered because of this new creature.

“As a filmmaker, I thought there are no other movies like this, about the point of view of a four-year-old boy with a newborn,” he adds. “I wasn’t sure if it could be an entertaining film, but I thought it was quite important socially to make a movie from that point of view – not just because there’s nothing like it but because it’s a basic human condition, and I wanted to make a movie about the bare soul, if you like. I saw it as symbolic not just for children but for everyone: that’s what the loss of love does to us all.”

A child in an empty wet grey street
Kun in the street his mother grew up in

I ask about what look like the film’s wider geographic realisms: the small but imaginatively modernised town house, squeezed between bigger neighbours, in which Kun and Mirai are growing up (their home-worker father is an architect, and Hosoda found a real architect to design it for his film); and the beautiful town on a bay whose post-war growth the film records through a series of bracketing wide shots that pan down to the little house.

“It’s more conceptual than realistic,” Hosoda says. “Though I agree it looks kind of realistic – I’m glad to hear that, actually. The seaside town is based on Yokohama. It’s a port town, and went through the most changes in modern Japan: when the country opened it was the first to develop. Then there were these weapons factories during the war, and so many heavy industries afterwards, and workers’ houses. It seemed a great setting to deal with family history as a concept.

“Talking about realism: the house is not normal; it’s probably not even habitable, but I wanted to have that design as the point of view of this four-year-old. I wanted to describe that: when you’re four your house is everything, your entire world, your society. It’s not real, necessarily, but that’s how you perceive your home. And a house has many layers: it’s a growing up for the boy, so I wanted the house to present that.”

A boy pointing to a scorpion-shaped cloud
Mirai (2018)

Then again, a Hosoda film will keep on disappearing down the rabbit hole to a different dimension. Hence another Hosoda motif is the visual trip into a different plane of representation, often rendering time and space themselves as a matrix or network (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), in the superflat style of Japanese post-war illustration championed by Murakami Takashi. Indeed, the pair collaborated on the 2003 sponsored short Superflat Monogram, a spin through an elastic hieroglyphic wonderland that clearly informed the gloriously incessant transformations of Oz, the all-consuming internet playground and virtual hub under attack in Summer Wars.

But that also reprised the digital battlegrounds of Hosoda’s very first shorts, Digimon Adventure (1999) and Digimon Adventure: Playground (2000) (hashed together as the English-dubbed The Digimon Movie in 2000), the cartoons that first drew the industry’s attention to his talents. Besides its temporal leaps, Mirai slips in a note of this in the form of a journey into a family tree that turns out to be a kind of wireframe index of family memories.

“I’ll struggle to explain this, but I’ll try,” he says. “A person is not one-dimensional. You’ve got your appearance, what people can see, but that’s not all you are: you’ve got other aspects that maybe you don’t know yourself. So that kind of duality or layering makes us attractive for whatever.

“And I think the world is like that: it consists of different dimensions, different aspects. So Boy and the Beast you’ve got Shibuya and the other Shibuya; Summer Wars you’ve got Oz and the reality. In order to express that concept, I use those leaps through time and space to show that what you see isn’t all of what there is.”

Summer Wars (2009)

Hosoda caught the animation bug at an early age, with a comparable peek behind the scenes. “I liked paintings and drawings when I was a child, but I saw this storyboard of an animation movie – it was on a magazine programme or something,” he remembers. “I was stunned. It was like a blueprint. If you’re building buildings or cars then of course you have a blueprint, the cross-sections and everything. But films – they’re not a thing you can actually touch and build. So I got really excited about it and wanted to become a film director. And the storyboard I saw was Miyazaki Hayao’s The Castle of Cagliostro [1979]. Seeing that was the beginning of my career.”

Another touchstone is less expected: “The Spirit of the Beehive, made in 1973, but I saw it in 1988 when I was an art college student.” (He studied at Kanazawa College of Art, like Arrietty director and Studio Ponoc co-founder Yonebayashi Hiromasa after him.)

“My major was oil paintings, fine art. I knew I wanted to be a film director, vaguely, but I saw the film and thought, ‘Wow!’ The concept was amazing, and I wanted to make something like that – I’ve been studying the film for the last 30 years, ever since I saw it. The Digimon movies your kids watch are hugely influenced by those Spanish bees. It’s about this Frankenstein figure, and the two sisters see it and their perceptions of the Frankenstein are different from one to the other. Digimon is the same: their perceptions of Digimon are all different.”

After college, Hosoda took his first job at Toei Animation, the studio behemoth, working as an animator, doing drawings. “I wanted to be an artist, but I wanted to be a filmmaker too, and there are so many new movies with new styles, so I wanted to develop into that. Anime just happened to be the method I chose.” The studio had a hit on its hands with the series Sailor Moon and needed to recruit more directing talent, preferably internally. “So they introduced this exam test system and I passed. But it took me six years.”

I suggest the Digimon work looks like a springboard to his stiller, less generic later features, but he demurs. “I don’t think so. It was an important step for me: I was able to make what I wanted to make then. Many people say on programme pictures like Digimon the directors are not given artistic freedom, but you’re able to become creative within the framework, which makes what you make yours.

Digimon Adventure (1999)

“Digimon was more like a school – the whole of Toei Animation was like a school to me. I was able to make movies, get paid and study more about filmmaking, so I learned a lot on the job then. I feel the same even now – like I’m trying to understand film, this huge entity, and really want to understand more. I just can’t see the whole of movies in general. I feel like I’m still on the way to doing it by making movies.”

He also caught the eye of Studio Ghibli, which was looking for new talent to fill the shoes of Takahata and Miyazaki. Producer Suzuki Toshio brought him in to direct an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s fantasy Howl’s Moving Castle.

“I was so excited: finally I get to make a feature film, brilliant!” he says. “But to cut a long story short, it was hard work. I didn’t realise how hard filmmaking was. Prior to that I sort of thought that once you start a film you actually get to finish it, but I learned in a very hard way that it’s not the case. Loads of things, people involved, various factors and contributions… so basically Miyazaki took over and I had to leave the project.” It’s taking nothing away from the marvel that Miyazaki made to wonder what different sort of film Hosoda could have created, with his different sensibility.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

Instead, he made his way, via some now-celebrated anime episode work, to Madhouse, the company behind films by Kon Satoshi, Rintaro and Kawajiri Yoshiaki. “Luckily Mr Maruyama [animator and studio co-founder Maruyama Masao] at Madhouse contacted me for The Girl Who Leaped Through Time, so that’s how I got my second step. Great!

“Now, Toei’s films are normally shown in 300 cinemas nationwide – I imagined we’d get a release like that. But when our film opened, we only had six cinemas showing it. Obviously they thought it wouldn’t collect money. I thought, ‘Right, that was the beginning of my career and now it’s ending.’ But luckily audiences liked the film; so I was given the chance to make Summer Wars. And again, we had huge followers, but Madhouse was on the verge of bankruptcy, so I thought, ‘Oh God, they’re not going to make Wolf Children.’”

Wolf Children (2012)

As a consequence he and producer Saito Yuichiro set up their own firm, Studio Chizu (“The word ‘chizu’, which means ‘map’ in Japanese, manifests their wish to navigate uncharted waters in the world of animation films,” notes their website). Wolf Children, The Boy and the Beast and now Mirai have all been made at his own studio; the first two continued his run – with four consecutive films since The Girl Who Leapt Through Time – of winning the Japanese Academy’s Animation of the Year prize, and were top ten domestic box-office hits. And he’s a rising star internationally – in May Mirai became the first anime to make its world premiere at Cannes. In short, he’s now self-sufficient, working with some control and confidence – right?

“Control, in a way, yes; but confidence, I’m not quite sure about that. Because each film is different; OK, Summer Wars was a huge hit, but I can’t keep on making Summer Wars 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7… as a creator I want to challenge myself, to make different things. And we can only make one movie in three years, and you have to pay a huge tax bill out of it, so profit-wise it’s always challenging; a bit like walking on tightropes. So I’m not quite sure about the confidence bit.”