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Photo: Mamoru Hosoda/Studio Chizu

An Introduction to Mamoru Hosoda

In the somewhat narrow world of mainstream anime, a few names stand out: Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Makoto Shinkai. A fourth name that comes to my mind, belonging to arguably the most consistently great anime director of the past decade or so, would be Mamoru Hosoda. Hosoda, like Shinkai, got his start at the turn of the millennium — but unlike Shinkai, whose films often feel perennial and yet youthful, Hosoda’s films feel distinctly modern; they express concerns about relationships between parents and their children, between siblings, and between all these people and modern life. Whether it be science fiction or fantasy, a Hosoda film seemingly always takes place in the “now” or just a few years from today — next Sunday A.D., as is said regularly in ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000.’ The tendency toward covering modern issues has apparently paid off, too; Hosoda remains, so far, the only anime director outside of Studio Ghibli to have gotten an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature.

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Hosoda started out on humble ground; his first feature-length project (as co-director alongside Shigeyasu Yamauchi) was ‘Digimon: The Movie’ in 2000. ‘Digimon: The Movie’ is a Frankenstein monster — an amalgamation of three ‘Digimon’-related short films, cut for American audiences, and two of these shorts were directed by Hosoda. The film is quite goofy, if also entertaining under certain circumstances, but the takeaway here is ‘Digimon: Our War Game’, one of Hosoda’s shorts, and the one that would act as a blueprint for one or two of his future projects. Hosoda’s solo debut feature would have been ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, over at Studio Ghibli, but he left early in production due to creative differences. Indeed, Hosoda’s actual solo debut, ‘One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island’ in 2005, is often ignored when evaluating his body of work — and true enough, I haven’t seen it myself.

‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time’: The Breakthrough

What stands as Mamoru Hosoda’s first true time in the spotlight is ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time’, released in 2006 and produced by Madhouse. 2006 turned out to be a watershed year for Madhouse, a major animation studio that had been around since the 1970s, with not only ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time’ but also ‘Paprika’, the final film from the late Satoshi Kon, another modern master who would have dominated the 2010s alongside Hosoda and Shinkai, had cancer not taken him from us. This film is a curious one; it operates on a mind-bogglingly simple premise, with Makoto (our heroine) falling into a time loop just as she is about to be killed by a train in a bicycle accident. Why is Makoto stuck repeating the same day over and over? 

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‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time’ is a fun sci-fi romp that also feels weirdly insular for Hosoda; there are a few principal characters, but there isn’t much examination upon the family dynamic, which would get much more attention in later films. Without spoiling anything, I’m not fond of the explanation given for the time loop, and indeed, the third act is generally weaker than the preceding two. Even so, this is a fine choice if you want to get the uninitiated into non-Ghibli anime, and to this day, it remains one of Hosoda’s most popular outings. I don’t think it’s without meaning that the image of Makoto leaping (as seen on the poster) would later become the logo for Studio Chizu, an animation studio Hosoda co-founded in 2011. Before we get to Hosoda’s work at Studio Chizu, though, we still have one more movie at Madhouse — and, without wanting to sound hyperbolic here, it’s one of my favorite animated movies of all time.

‘Summer Wars’: The Family and the Internet

From a thematic standpoint, ‘Summer Wars’ has to be the most pivotal in Hosoda’s career, and it’s also a contender for my favorite of his. Released in 2009, and Hosoda’s last full collaboration with Madhouse, ‘Summer Wars’ is both a family drama and a cyberpunk adventure of epic proportions, with the extended (and dysfunctional) Jinnouchi family collectively acting as the film’s true protagonist. We get a scorching family chronicle, about betrayal, infidelity, theft, and forgiveness, but we also venture into the digital world of OZ, a virtual reality platform that seems somewhere between Second Life and VRChat — but more ludicrous than either. The premise of ‘Summer Wars’ is eerily similar to that of ‘Digimon: Our War Game’. Hosoda takes the skeleton of ‘Our War Game’ and not only refines it tremendously, but takes advantage of a feature-length runtime to give the premise a proper sense of scale — a grandiosity of vision that would not be outdone until ‘Belle’, more than a decade later.

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Now, despite the cyberpunk hijinks that go on, and despite the threat that the film’s antagonist poses to thousands of people, the internet is ultimately depicted as a positive force in the world. Thinking about it, Hosoda has to be one of the only mainstream directors (inside or outside of animation) who openly sympathizes with the internet’s best traits and potentials. OZ is not a perfect community, but then neither is the Jinnouchi family, and helping the former also helps the latter. It’s refreshing that Hosoda acknowledges the internet’s profound capacity to bring people thousands of miles apart together. ‘Summer Wars’ was Hosoda’s first masterpiece, one of the great animated features of the 21st century while also being for the 21st century.

‘Wolf Children’: An Unbridled Masterpiece

Cut to 2012, and Hosoda’s Madhouse days are more or less behind him, with the realm of animation (Japanese or otherwise) being particularly in flux at this time. Satoshi Kon had passed away in 2010, and while Madhouse would continue producing quality TV anime well into the 2010s, it had lost its place as a great studio for Cinema. Disney was also entering what would become a new renaissance with ‘Tangled’ in 2010 and ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ in 2012. Pixar, which had a virtual stranglehold on quality 3D animation in the 2000s, was slowly but surely losing its crown. In the midst of all this, Hosoda put out what will probably be remembered decades from now as his most culturally significant work: ‘Wolf Children’, in 2012. ‘Wolf Children’ is a deeply heartfelt (and occasionally even harrowing) look at a single mother as she tries to raise her two children; the catch is that the father was a werewolf, and the children are able to transform into wolves at will. 

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‘Wolf Children’ has nothing to do with the internet; in fact, unlike Hosoda’s previous two features, this one is a straight urban fantasy. This is also the first Hosoda movie to be produced at Studio Chizu, which would serve as Hosoda’s base of operations into the present day — indeed, as is seemingly indicative of a new studio, the animation quality of ‘Wolf Children’ is not quite on par with that of ‘Summer Wars.’ Minor technical setback aside, the intimate family struggle at the heart of ‘Wolf Children’ might just help edge it out over its predecessor; it’s certainly a more relaxed film, under the direction of someone who is now more confident in his abilities, resulting in something that feels like the work of someone who is either a master of his craft or is about to become one. I want to bring up, also, how Hosoda’s filmography is generally family-friendly, in the sense that children above a certain age will not only understand everything, but will be able to take great enjoyment in it — yet mature-minded viewers are not alienated from these warm and often gentle slices of Cinema.

‘Mirai’ and ‘Belle’: A Promise Fulfilled

We’re here to talk about ‘Mirai’, released in 2018, and an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature — the first for a non-Ghibli anime movie. Like most of Hosoda’s filmography, ‘Mirai’ is a family ordeal — this time about a young boy who has to learn to love his baby sister, being helped by his sister… from the future. Hosoda had conjured a child protagonist or two previously, but not only is Kun unquestionably the main character, Mirai being his sister, but he is written as a fairly realistic child: he is egotistical, obnoxious, amoral, and he probably smells bad. Some people are bothered by how Kun is written, but I don’t mind a warts-and-all treatment of a child protagonist; the important thing is that he at least starts to learn the error of his ways. Feels odd to say this, given that it’s an Oscar-nominated film, but I would say ‘Mira’ is unjustly underrated.

Hosoda’s latest feature, which I’ve already reviewed for the site,  don’t want to repeat myself. ‘Belle’ premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, and earlier this year, it saw a theatrical release in the States — in both cases, it garnered a healthy amount of well-earned acclaim. Truth be told, I even thought ‘Belle’ would earn a nomination at this year’s Academy Awards, but you can’t have everything. ‘Belle’ is not my favorite Mamoru Hosoda movie by any means, but it feels like the logical continuation of Hosoda’s thesis from ‘Summer Wars’, about the internet as a force for good that may actually nudge humanity in a more social direction, as opposed to anti-social. I’ve written this before, but I do feel compelled to repeat the fact that we rarely get optimistic takes on the internet, and regardless of what Hosoda’s next film will be like, it will probably continue the thread that he’s been weaving for the past twenty years.

By Brian Collins

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