Fantasy and science fiction have always offered an incredible amount of possibility to storytelling. When you have rules and worlds you can make up and change at the whim of a keystroke it can be easy to get lost in the nuts and bolts. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. Some very good films are made almost completely predicated on the viewer getting swept up in the guidelines and imagery of a place conjured purely from an imagination and a lot of ambition (I’m looking at you, Tron: Legacy), but the ones that tend to stick with us the most are those that integrate a human component directly into the DNA of the world itself.
The Matrix and Zion are aesthetically fascinating and the mythology surrounding them is dense but without Neo’s journey of discovery and the subversion of the monomyth through humanity’s ability to simply choose, both those worlds are rendered to be nothing but great production design and lore. Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the most dark and entrancingly beautiful movies made in this century but if you take away all of the fantasy elements of the film, then you’re left with a stark and impersonal examination of a little girl coming of age under a violently fascist regime change. You need the fantastical and far-out to bring forth the importance that lies within the mundane and vice versa. Seemingly for almost two decades this has been Mamoru Hosoda’s entire modus operandi. His five feature-length movies all in some way deal with young protagonists not only having to cope with the inherent dangers of the wondrous world they inhabit (both big and small) but also with their own inner conflict and the conflicts that arise from their interpersonal relationships. Believe it or not, it all kind of started with his work on Digimon.
Mamoru Hosoda wanted to be an an anime director from the age of 12, having been inspired by Rintaro’s Galaxy Express 99 and Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro. After graduating college he applied to Studio Ghibli as an animator but was rejected. Miyazaki himself sent Hosoda a personal letter, the gist of which Hosoda says was along the lines of “If we hire you now, we’re worried that it will end up being to the detriment of your talent. So we have decided to let you develop your gift elsewhere for now.” Taking the advice in stride, Hosoda went to work for the world-famous Toei Animation where he would get his chance to show off his directing chops on a short film that would serve as “episode 0” for the Digimon television series. The film, Digimon Adventure, about two young boys discovering a digital egg that manifested from their computer and grows into a giant fire-breathing battle dragon, was such a hit that Hosoda was asked back to direct a follow-up movie called Our War Game. Heavily inspired by 1983’s WarGames, the film takes characters from the show and has them do battle with a chaotically neutral virus that not only starts destroying Japan’s digital infrastructure but also poses a serious threat to the physical world as we know it.
The film is a barn-burner (even setting its final 20 minutes in real-time to ratchet up tension) and that gusto finally snared the attention of Studio Ghibli. Seeing how his talents had developed, Hosoda was tasked with directing Miyazaki’s adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle. This unfortunately was a collaboration that bore no fruit. In interviews, Hosoda has been civil, stating creative differences. He said, “I was told to make [the movie] similar to how Miyazaki would have made it, but I wanted to make my own film the way I wanted to make it.”
This proved to a be a boon for Hosoda’s career. In 2005 Madhouse Animation, best known for their work with visually inventive Gen X directors like Takeshi Koike (Redline) and Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Paprika), picked up Hosoda to work his magic on a loose adaptation of Yasutaka Tsutsui’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the story of a high school girl mysteriously gaining the power to travel back through time whenever she wants to, but instead of going on a giant magical adventure she uses the power to battle the impermanence of youth and put off having to make tough choices. The film was a hit and brought Hosoda to what was the breakout project that launched him into the stratosphere: 2009’s Summer Wars, a film that is 50% a direct remake of Our War Game (at points, shot-for-shot and beat-for-beat) and 50% Hosoda’s experience with getting married and having to meet his wife’s giant extended family. In addition to the Our War Game digital story and action, it’s about a young mathematician who’s a moderator for “Oz” (a program that can described as “what if Second Life and Fortnite became one thing and then Apple bought it?”) being called to action by a goodnatured but headstrong and selfish young woman (who he doesn’t know) to join her at her grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration, only to find out that he’s posing as her fiancé.
Summer Wars takes the ideas from his two Digimon films and expands on them in ways that are a lot more subtle than children’s animated films tend to be. Hosoda is enamored with the idea of the rapid change that children are capable of and the magnificent growth they can go through that adults become less capable of. In Digimon Adventure, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, all the protagonists go through major evolutions in subtle ways. Makato (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) begins the film as an average person looking to keep her status quo the same, even if it’s to her detriment, yet the film slowly guides her along to the realization that impermanence and branching out is the only way you can develop relationships with other human beings. Kenji and Natsuki (Summer Wars) have to understand that being closed off in their own worlds isn’t beneficial to anybody; it’s only when they enter a different one on their own accord that they can change the course of their lives drastically. Tai and Kari (Digimon Adventure) start off on opposite sides of accepting this strange creature into their lives, Tai being hesitant and suspicious and Kari fulling embracing it, but as the creature evolves so does their relationship to it. In all cases, Hosoda doesn’t exactly play these with big revelatory moments but instead chooses to have them occur inch by inch through each film. Like I said, it’s somewhat subtle in execution but major in effect.
After Summer Wars, Hosoda left Madhouse and went on to start his own studio with his producer Yuichiro Saito (producer of Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) called Studio Chizu. There, he’s made what has functionally become a trilogy about the struggles of being a parent and the loss of his mother: 2012’s Wolf Children, a film about a widowed mother forced to raise her half-human, half-wolf offspring as they discover the two worlds they come from; 2015’s The Boy and The Beast, in which a child who runs away from home from his widowed father finds himself in a world inhabited by anthropomorphic warrior beasts and finds a surrogate father in a gruff bear-man; and 2018’s Mirai about a little boy going on a time-hopping adventure with his little sister from the future as their parents struggle with the day-to-day of balancing work and family.
In this shift we see Hosoda’s biggest stylistic interest: fantasy and science fiction not used as escape but as a way to better understand hardships of everyday life. It’s not a new idea. I mentioned Pan’s Labyrinth up top because it strikes similar territory, but Hosoda’s external antagonists and conflict are not as black and white as a fascist sociopath. Most conflicts in his films have no truly evil antagonist. The viruses in Our War Game and Summer Wars are more there for competition than malice. The big bad in The Boy and the Beast is more symbolic than an actual impediment and his other films have no real direct roadblock. Hosoda, like his idol Miyazaki, understands that the most thrilling adventures in far-off worlds don’t end with our characters simply achieving some goal or winning some prize or even a new station in life. They end with them having changed in some meaningful way. Because like the fantasy and science-fiction worlds they inhabit, growth and evolution are limitless.
Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai will be screening at the IU Cinema on April 7 at 1 pm as part of the Cinema’s CINEkids International Children’s Film Series, East Asian Film Series, and International Arthouse Series.
The IU Cinema will also be screening the Wachowskis’ magnum opus of world-building, The Matrix Trilogy (The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, and The Matrix Revolutions), on June 1 starting at 1 pm. This event, The Matrix Revisited Series, celebrates the 20th anniversary of the landmark first film.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.