Nearly two decades ago, Mamoru Hosoda made a decision that easily could have tanked his career as a filmmaker before it was ever really given a chance to begin. Having been tapped by the beloved Studio Ghibli to direct Howl’s Moving Castle with only Digimon: The Movie under his directorial belt, Hosoda soon discovered that his creative vision for the film was not in line with that of the studio’s — a stalemate that would result in him quitting the project altogether.
To abandon an opportunity with a workshop already renowned at the time for animated features like Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away might seem foolish, but Hosoda held onto his vision, believing to this day that he made the correct decision.
Roughly a decade after his brief stint with Studio Ghibli, Hosoda co-founded his own animation studio, Studio Chizu, having already released his first two personal features, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) and Summer Wars (2009). In the years since, Hosoda has released three features under the banner of Studio Chizu: Wolf Children (2012), The Boy And The Beast (2015) and his newest, Mirai (also known as Mirai Of The Future), which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May of this year.
Leading up to a U.S. release in select theaters on Nov. 30, Hosoda took time to discuss Mirai, via translator, while touching on his family‘s influence, his own childhood and tapping into those memories to tell youthful stories with honesty and attention to detail.
What is it that originally drew you to animation, and why is that the medium you decided was best to tell your stories through, as opposed to live-action?
I always wanted to be a painter, so in college I studied oil painting and Western arts, including modern art. But I also liked movies, so if I wanted to combine the two — making movies and continuing to paint — then animation was the best medium for me.
You tend to tell very youthful stories with your films. Where do you draw influence from to tap into a younger mindset?
Well, Mirai is based on a four-year-old boy, and the reason I can accurately depict a four-year-old is because Kun [the main character] is based on my child. He’s not unlike my child, who was around three or four when I was making [Mirai]. Also, by interacting with my children and spending time with them, you can return to your childhood and relive it through them. So I wanted to make a movie that depicted a view of the world through a four-year-old‘s eyes.
You have this common theme throughout your films that all focus on different familial relationships. Was that your intention from the beginning? Or is that a thread that developed naturally as you created each movie?
My family inspires me a lot — including my wife and my children. Of course, when I was younger I was inspired by foreign filmmakers or past artists, but now I’ve come to realize how important family is and the importance of parents protecting children, so I guess that’s just manifesting in my current films.
I think [even when] having restrictions on the films you make, you can still make a good movie, but I think that what’s important when creating films is trying to explore new possibilities of what we can do. I think to get more innovative with new and challenging films, you do have to give a sense of authority to the director. In Mirai, the protagonist is a four-year-old. There aren’t really any films where the protagonist is a four-year-old, other than maybe The Boss Baby [laughs], but he’s not really a kid. But to realistically and accurately portray a four-year-old‘s everyday life is innovative. It’s important to create these new values of what a movie is, and if the director doesn’t have the chance to be innovative then the audience won’t have the chance to assess these new types of films. So I really think it’s necessary to let the directors have more freedom like this.
It is personal, but this film was made more from a feeling that I got. Because I live with my two children, I’ve been reading a lot of Western children‘s literature, and I’ve realized the importance of living in your own small, quiet world and how happy that is. So I wanted to convey that warm, happy feeling and also the importance of children‘s role in this world.
Kun’s mother is very strong-willed and assertive, and you do a great job of showing the stresses and struggles of balancing work and parenting by putting the father at home to deal with something he had clearly taken for granted previously. Was this based on the women in your life at all?
I was very inspired by my wife. I think maybe people in the Western world think Japan is very traditional and old school, but it’s actually really changing right now. The reversal of gender roles is very happening in Japan right now, where the mother will go out to work and the father will have a job that allows him to stay at home and watch the kids as well. So I did want to show the possibilities of how a family works, and I think it’s important as a society that we break the old, “traditional” gender roles. I also wanted to show a father at home, being with his children, so he could realize how much happiness spending more time with the children can bring. I think that’s important not just in Japan, but in the world, so that’s why I made this movie.
I love the use of different types of animation for the scarier moments, like once Kun gets to the train station. It really amplifies the child‘s imagination and how we tend to perceive things as much scarier than they might actually be.
I’m really happy that you said that because I think we tend to believe we’ve forgotten most of our memories from when we were a child, but I think everyone, if they tap into it, has memories of their childhood, especially from times when they got lost. Because until then you were always protected by your parents, then suddenly you’re all alone and you don’t know if you’re going to be able to get home. I think everyone’s experienced that, so I hope that by watching this movie people can tap into those memories — not just the scary parts [laughs] — to remember what it was like when they were a kid.
Going into this, I thought maybe it was risky expecting audiences to relate to a four-year-old as the main character, but as I was watching the movie I realized how easy it was to sort of connect with that feeling of what it was like as a child, experiencing family and living within your imagination at times.
Thank you for saying that. It was risky. While I was making this movie, we were like, “Are we sure we can do this? Are we sure we can pull this off?” Even as the movie came out, the audience wondered, “Is this a movie for me to watch? Who exactly is the target audience?” But I don’t want to make movies that are easy to watch, or ones where it’s obvious who the target audience is, because if we keep making movies like that they’re all going to become the same. I want to explore the possibilities of what we can do in filmmaking. I think the idea of making a risky movie is important. It paid off, because people like you are able to recognize and appreciate it, so thank you so much.
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