Ranking the Films of Mamoru Hosoda

by Matthew Roe,

What exactly makes a director “great”? We often talk about the tropes and techniques of the perceived masters of Japanese animation; from the wondrous splendor of Hayao Miyazaki, the stark sociological investigations of Mamoru Oshii, or the reality-bending roller coasters of Satoshi Kon. These individuals' distinctive approach to the medium have made them household names with throngs of avid followers across generations. However, that doesn't mean that popularity necessarily equates to anything or anyone being “great,” just as the endless debate over any variation of Sword Art Online continues to prove. Though there will always be debates over the lasting impact one filmmaker may have on the library of history, Mamoru Hosoda is arguably one of the most profoundly recognizable talents in contemporary anime.

Hosoda's professional career began at Tōei Animation in the early 1990s after getting rejected from Studio Ghibli. Over the course of the next decade, he would hone his growing talents by storyboarding and key animating for the likes of Revolutionary Girl Utena and Dragon Ball Z, eventually making his directorial debut with the two OVAs: Digimon Adventure (1999) and Digimon Adventure: Our War Game! (2000). These OVAs were notable early signs of Hosoda's maturing narrative and thematic focus, and his pensions for kinetic visual compositions and innovative 3D animation, with both OVAs being used to craft the majority of Digimon: The Movie (2000). However, because that movie is a combination and restructuring of three separate existing short films, I am not considering it in this breakdown of his feature films.

Hosoda was tapped by Studio Ghibli in 2001 to direct Howl's Moving Castle (2004), though he failed to come up with a concept “satisfactory to his Studio Ghibli bosses.” After directing several more episodes of Digimon, he would helm the short film Superflat Monogram (2003) with Takashi Murakami, commissioned for Louis Vuitton. This short film is strongly defined by the colorful imagery and familiar subjects that would come to be heavily present in his first three feature films, with some elements almost being carbon-copied.

His first big break theatrically would come by way of the veteran reigning champion of global media franchises, One Piece. After directing an episode in the anime serial, he was chosen by Tōei to direct the sixth entry in the theatrical series, Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island (2005). It premiered and held steady in the Top 10 of the Japanese box office for nearly six weeks when originally released, though it received mixed critical reviews due to its heavy deviations from the mood and style of previous entries in the series. The film's surprisingly dark tone involving a malignant lifeform hungry for Luffy and the gang interestingly explores the hollowness and loneliness of losing one's friends and family, and how much other people make this life worth living. While the film has moments of Hosoda's budding style that would come to hallmark his oeuvre, it is majorly defined by that classic One Piece swagger, quick wit, and humor - not much else. As entertaining as it can be at times, it suffers through pretty predictable setup-misdirection-reveal plotting and some stretches of subpar animation. Though the film's ending is pretty standard with our pirate protagonist fighting the principal baddie, it does have some tidbits of animated eye candy to keep us going. Overall, it remains the weakest film in Hosoda's catalogue; though this can easily be seen as a new director being hired onto a project and taking liberties where they could. It's simply okay - and fractioningly unnerving toward the end, which is fantastic.

After leaving Tōei in the mid-2000s, while serving as OP director for the Samurai Champloo anime serial, Hosoda would seek out more creative control over his films with Studio Madhouse, which allowed the freshly unleashed director to truly begin flexing his creative muscles. This would result in two of the most critically and commercially successful collaborations of late 2000s anime.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) is the fifth adaptation of the 1967 Yasutaka Tsutsui novel of the same name. While taking major liberties with the narrative and characters to make it more applicable to contemporary audiences, it also explores themes not present in the source material - themes that would come to consistently permeate all of Hosoda's subsequent work. Cause, consequence, responsibility, and sacrifice are thoroughly explored through subtle introspection meshed with grandiose spectacle. This exploration is supported through a gorgeously flowing continuity and ever-evolving understanding of time and space (which is pretty damn crucial in a movie about a teenager leapfrogging back and forth across time). The film would also feature the first inclusion of his (in my opinion) many trademark tracking shots. This instance follows Makoto Konno on a tear-filled run to reach Chiaki Mamiya near the end of the film. While Hosoda's understanding of this tactic is very present, this was more of an impressive aesthetic choice rather than a thematic one, possessing no particular depth. Also, while the first two-thirds of the movie is concise and possesses some excellent production design and utterly vivid characterization, the final act falls into plot holes the size of planets and stumbles across the finish line as a borderline soap opera saturated with exposition dumps and sappy one-liners. While a fascinating and fun experience for its premise, remarkably emotional revelations, and gorgeous color pallette, it is evident that Hosoda was still in the early stages of developing his craft, but hadn't yet worked out his many strengths and weaknesses, and where he wanted to go.

Summer Wars (2009) was initially conceived by Hosoda and Satoko Okudera as a story about a social network and an individual's connection to a strange family. Under production for nearly three years, and boasting a sizable ensemble cast, this film released as one of the most well-crafted extravaganzas ever to be released by Madhouse or Hosoda. Its characters managed to represent the throngs of a whole country's citizenry while still retaining a thorough uniqueness unto themselves, all the while buttressed by some of the best 3D and 2D animation combinations in anime history. It may seem that my tone has shifted in a big way, and it absolutely has; all of the issues present in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time are either improved upon or avoided entirely in Hosoda's third (and awe-inspiring) feature, showcasing how much the previous film had taught him about crafting a compelling and succinct narrative and world. Themes involving the innocence of childhood, the responsibility of adulthood, and the import of family and community are made ever the more poignant through understated character interactions against the film's hyper-charged aesthetic - a successful blend of sleek post-cyberpunk and whimsical slice-of-life. This also boasts the most heartbreaking and ingenious tracking shot in Hosoda's filmography. While spanning the emotional landscape of the entire Jin'nôchi family, the shot takes stock of the mounting catastrophe Love Machine is causing in context of Sakae's death. When it finally rests on Kenji Koiso and Natsuki Jin'nôchi observing a skyline which (shortly) may not exist, it is made abundantly clear that these two teens hold the entire story's fate in their hands, all the while struggling (and failing) to keep themselves composed. It's a masterful piece of visual storytelling and mounting narrative tension, which could also be said about the entire film.

After the overwhelming success of his two Madhouse productions, Hosoda would make a break with the anime giant and form Studio Chizu with producer Yuichiro Saito. Co-produced with Madhouse, Hosoda's next feature Wolf Children (2012) would be a remarkable gear-shift from his previous three films, and will determine the direction in which his career would continue. Possessing no formal narrative structure, we traipse the many ups and downs of parenthood in a constantly evolving (yet fully-fledged) world, far more alive and realized than any earlier Hosoda project. This film impresses as if the world is constantly moving past the story regardless of what our protagonists do, as opposed to revolving around it, thusly adding further to the world's realism. Hosoda and screenwriter Satoko Okudera use the myth of werewolves as an allegory on the evolution of our individual personalities, and it mostly succeeds in highly relatable and emotionally resonant ways. Technically, while montage exists in his earlier films, Hosoda now blends his stellar usage of tracking shots with an impressive rolling montage of years passing by and priorities changing, a dichotomy of personalities fluctuating with time through cause and effect. Though there are instances of overinflated exposition cheapening some scenes, the surprisingly relatable story and flourishes of visual grandeur (especially in the breathtaking scene where Hana, Yuki, and Ame are all running through the snow) are so palpable, that it easily overtakes problems with the dialogue. Becoming the fifth-highest grossing movie in Japan in 2012, it remains the strongest critical and commercial success of Hosoda's career to date.

The Boy and The Beast (2015) was number one at the Japanese box office during its opening weekend, further cementing Hosoda as a major box office pull and critical darling, though it did not ultimately take in as much as its predecessor. This film on the nine-year-old Ren becoming trapped in a parallel world of the Beast Kingdom as a highly begrudging student of the beast Kumatetsu, is emblematic of our changing personalities as we age and branch off from what we know, so we can discover who we are, and the pain that comes along with it. Though Studio Chizu's animation quality and Hosoda's distinctive direction continued to exponentially improve and expand with this project, the normal seamless integration of spectacle and subtle introspection and character building seems to have faltered along similar lines of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, being occasionally riddled with absolutely unnecessary exposition downpours, and a third act littered with some phoned-in morality play and lazy plot contrivances. These pitfalls are so tragic considering how much effort and talent was poured into this production, and though the film is not completely undone by it (and much of the film is a visual wonder exploring the maturing of a pair of highly believable characters), enough genre cliches and questionable choices are scattershot throughout that they can seriously sour the ride. Though not possessing nearly as many issues as his first two films, it ranks as the most underwhelming feature of Hosoda's accomplished track record.

This now takes us to the present day. Despite similarities in the posters, and the fact that the title is literally “Mirai of the Future,” Hosoda's latest feature film MIRAI (2018) is not a sequel or in any way connected (as far as I can tell) to The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. However, it does share Hosoda's continued fascination with time, consequence, and finding a place in the world. In addition to these foundational themes, this work also focuses on the challenges and compromises of raising a child, though this instance is primarily from the child's point of view, as opposed to the divvied focus between the children and adults of the other Studio Chizu films. However, unlike every other film before it, MIRAI is not defined by a tangible supernatural or extra-natural element. It directly explores the power of a child's imagination as a way for processing how the world changes, and the realistic responsibilities of modern working parents. Though Hosoda has been compared to Miyazaki in the past, and certainly The Boy and The Beast had the stellar production quality to compare, our 4-year-old protagonist Kun is the first of all of Hosoda's protagonists to truly feel like a Ghibli-esque character, and I'm not sure if that's a good thing. This was the first time I felt as if I weren't watching a unique protagonist by Hosoda or one of his collaborators, but more of a regurgitation of what would be the easiest personality to work into this particular narrative arc. The film lacks the unique emotive resonance of his earlier works, settling for more traditional slice-of-life circumstances and a veritable avalanche of exposition dumping, yet it could be considered the most honest representation of Hosoda's style and focus more than any other film before it (also possessing the least amount of typical anime tropes). MIRAI is also another step up in Hosoda's evolving technical prowess, host to his most visually and contextually impressive montages, tracking shots, and compositions; as well as a creative plethora of fantastic scenarios and settings illustrating the sizable expanse of Hosoda's imagination.

While Hosoda's films have continued to receive a higher polish and refinement as he continues his stunning career, the pinnacles of his filmography continue to remain his one-two punch of Summer Wars and Wolf Children, with the former standing above the rest as his reigning magnum opus. However, does this pair of films, and the cumulative elements of his other films make Mamoru Hosoda a “great” director? Absolutely. Though each film excels and suffers in different ways, the unique stories, thematic depth, and distinctive visual trademarks make Hosoda's latest film and preceding filmography a solid investment that will likely stand the test of time.

MY FINAL RANKING:

  1. Summer Wars (2009)
  2. Wolf Children (2012)
  3. Mirai (2018)
  4. The Boy and The Beast (2015)
  5. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
  6. One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island (2005)

So what are your favorite (and least favorite) Mamoru Hosoda films? Be sure to share your own rankings with us in the forums!


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