Over the past few years, Mamoru Hosoda has solidified his place in the animation industry as a juggernaut of the art form, mostly with his success in the family-oriented genre of movies. As a result, he has often been compared to his more well-known contemporaries such as Hayao Miyazaki. However, Hosoda is different in many ways, and one of those is what I would like to posit as his underlying theme in all of his movies: Familial bonds driving the plot of his narratives forward.
Hosoda’s predisposition with these themes can mostly be seen in his original films, starting with his breakout hit The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Makoto, the titular lead, discovers her powers to go backward in time thanks to the conversation she has with her aunt. It is implied through multiple interactions with her that she might have had a similar encounter with this time-leaping device in her youth. This would not be the last time that Hosoda would use time mechanics and familial connection as a plot device.
After the production of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Hosoda got married and this life-altering event is what inspired him to create his next film, Summer Wars. The film’s plot is about a young teenage girl renting one of our protagonists, Kenji, as a boyfriend for her grandmother’s 90th birthday. As such, thrusting this young and uncertain man into a new environment, forcing him to quickly adapt to his surroundings, learn their family history, and do his best to impress them is most likely a sharp allegory to what Hosoda felt like being new to marriage and having a brand new family of his own.
In an interview with ANN, when asked about the film, he replied,
“getting married means in-laws. Suddenly I had all of these new family members, and I was really struck by how those interpersonal relationships work. It takes a lot of effort, and sometimes those new family members are hard to deal with, but you can also make a very deep connection with a total stranger. That really meant a lot to me.”
The climax of Summer Wars involves Sakae Jinnouchi, the grandmother and matriarch of the family, wrangling up all of her past connections and influence around Japan to avert the crisis that Love Machine, the computer virus and main antagonist of the movie, has inflicted on society as a whole. The most interesting aspect of the films’ themes about family and conflict resolution is the eventual revelation that Natsuki’s uncle Wabisuke is the developer of the same virus whose mishaps led to the malfunction of Sakae Jinnouchi’s heart monitor, causing her to lose her life. The immediate reaction from the family is anger and exile. However, by the end of the film, Wabisuke does his best to undo the work he did on the programme to help Kenji defeat the Love Machine. It should also be noted that in the numerous dinner scenes when the extended family is talking over each other, a number of embarrassing family scandals are brought up, but it is the family’s resilience, spirit of forgiveness, as well as tight family bonds that keep them together through some of their most trying times.
Summer Wars was in fact Hosoda coming to terms with the politics and emotional baggage of dealing with an extended family, or, as he so succinctly put it, forming a deep connection with total strangers who can be very difficult to deal with.
Wolf Children, his next film, features an odd young couple: Hana, a college student, and a Wolfman shapeshifter. Together, they have two children – a son, Ame, and a daughter, Yuki – who inherit their father’s shape-shifting trait. Their father dies tragically in an accident when they are both toddlers, thus leaving Hana a single mother who has to learn how to deal with raising two Wolf/Human Children.
Wolf Children is my personal favorite of all of Hosoda’s films because it has themes that hit very close to home. I was raised by a single mother and have one other sibling as well. Hosoda manages to capture what life as a single mother to two different and adventurous children is like. The most fascinating aspect of this film for me is the growth of Ame and Yuki’s personalities over time, and how Hana is forced to learn and adapt to these changes as well. Wolf Children explores both the relationship a mother has with her children as well as how siblings relate with each other.
Yuki is a precocious and curious girl who, when forced to move to the countryside, finds it hard to fit in at school in the beginning. She is independent and initially finds solace and joy in her wild wolf-like tendencies, but this gradually changes after she gets enrolled into school and starts favoring her human side more. Ame, the boy, starts off meek and extremely attached to his mother; as he grows older, however, he gets more interested in the forest and even finds a mentor in an old wolf. The two siblings’ personalities contrast each other in both personality and growth trajectory, even culminating in a fight about their true nature and whether they should ultimately embrace their human or wolf sides.
This dichotomy is fascinating because it forces Hana to navigate teaching them both that either path is perfectly okay without alienating anyone. She has to learn on the go without the guidance of her husband or really anyone else who has had a similar experience, trust that her daughter would not expose her secret to the world, and, when the time eventually comes, have the courage and will to let go of her meek baby boy into the unknown wilderness. The siblings also have to discover what they want for their future through themselves and each other; Yuki rescuing Ame from drowning is the inciting incident that helps Ame find courage in his wolf-like form, thus igniting his adoration for the wild. Meanwhile, Ames’ ease with which he conforms to human society is what encourages Yuki to try harder to adapt to life at school. Despite the extraordinary circumstances of Hana and her children, the challenges they face and the lessons they learn are utterly and profoundly human; as an anecdote, I came across a tweet that read Wolf Children as an allegory for raising special needs children, and it couldn’t be more apt.
If Wolf Children is a film about motherhood, then The Boy and The Beast, Hosoda’s next film, can be read as one about fatherhood. Our protagonist is a young boy named Ren who has had no contact with his father due to divorce and loses his mother at a young age. He decides to live on the streets instead of with his relatives. He despises his absentee father for not being there for him and this breeds hatred in his heart. Kumatetsu, the Beast who adopts Ren as his apprentice, is one of the citizens of this alternate world, vying to be the next Grandmaster ahead of his rival Iouzen. Unlike Iozen, Kumatetsu is brash and lazy, which is why he is not the favored to take the role.
To me, The Boy and The Beast attempts to scrutinize what happens to men when they lack a paternal relationship. Kumatetsu is initially depicted as a man who is rambunctious, irreverent and lazy – attributes that the beast society deems as inapplicable to fatherhood and leadership. Ren in the beginning harbors similarly dark traits, including his deep hatred of his father and family members. On the other hand, Iozen, a father of two children, is calm, collected and humble, and his children are obedient and model citizens.
Over the years Ren gets to learn martial arts by mimicking Kumatetsu, and this dynamic relationship earns Kumteatsu respect and followers. Both Ren and Kumatetsu learn and grow from each other, but Ren remains unable to let go of the seething and underlying hatred that he has for his absent father. This void eventually turns out to be the final big bad in the film. Here, Hosoda clearly implies that the hatred born from a lack of familial connection can only be overcome by forming new connections or repairing them. Ichirohiko, Iozen’s son, had similar circumstances to Ren, but he could not come to terms with the emptiness in his heart. The connection between Kumatetsu and Ren is what ultimately absolves Ichirohiko from the spirit of evil plaguing him.
In the end, The Boy and The Beast is about how the standards by which society define “good” or “bad” paternal figure are not necessarily true. Beneath all of that loudness, Kumatetsu was kind and persistent, and this persistence is what connected him to his adopted son, a trait that Ren would in turn use to overcome his own hatred and forge new connections of his own.
Hosoda’s film Mirai is based on his own children, once again getting inspiration from real-life milestones of his own life. Mirai is about a toddler, Kun, coming to terms with the reduced attention he is getting from his parents, thanks to the arrival of his baby sister Mirai. Kun is taught the importance of positively embracing this new addition to the family by a future version of his sister who, with the aid of a magical tree in their yard, transports Kun to various points in the past and the future.
Kun, who is impatient, possessive, and untidy, gets to go back to the past and spends an afternoon with a four-year-old version of his mother who has very similar tendencies to his own. This helps him empathize with her situation and allows him to be less impatient with his mother. The encounter demystifies the aura of his mother as an adult in his life to one with whom he can connect with.
In another sequence, Kun gains the confidence to learn how to ride a bicycle without training wheels thanks to an encounter he has in the past with his great grandfather. His great grandfather used to be an engineer who worked on vehicles, and the ride that Kun has with his great grandad on a motorcycle inspires him to keep trying to learn to ride no matter how often he falls over.
Mirai feels like the culmination of all of the family connection-oriented themes Hosoda has attempted to put onto the screen. This time, he not only depicts the importance of current familial bonds, but ancestral and future ones as well. A line from the film that stuck out to me is: “If grandma hadn’t let grandpa win that race, we wouldn’t be here. Small things like that add up, into something greater than ourselves.” The decisions we make today and in the past can dramatically affect the lives of our future family members. It’s probably why he chose to name the film Mirai, which translates to “future”.
With Mirai looking to be a fitting capstone to his family-oriented themes, Hosoda’s upcoming feature film Belle might be the beginning of a new chapter in the director’s repertoire. In an interview with IGN, he stated that the next film he would work on would always be different from his previous work, but growth would probably be a shared theme.
Hosoda’s upcoming film Belle is about a 17 year old girl who has been living with her father and lost her mother. She travels to a virtual world called ‘U” where she becomes a famous virtual singer. She gets to meet a mysterious being with whom she connects with and goes on adventures.
Having tackled almost every aspect of the connection within nuclear families. Belle seems to be a film that will focus on dealing with loss and creating a new relationship with someone who isn’t family. I will be eagerly awaiting to see what the Academy Award Nominated Director has to offer next.
About The Author
Dennis ‘Kidd’ Banda is an architect, writer and COO of Nerd Otaku. He has been an anime fan for about 15 years and can often be found watching long form video essays or watching VTubers online. Follow him on Twitter @Kiddtic