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Interview: Mirai Director Mamoru Hosoda

by Kim Morrissy & Callum May,

Mamoru Hosoda has quickly become one of the best-known Japanese filmmakers in the world. He's best known for his original films like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, Wolf Children, and The Boy and The Beast, but he attracted attention as a director well before that. Hosoda began his career at Toei Animation and directed numerous TV anime episodes, including for Digimon, Sailor Moon, and One Piece. His work on the Digimon films even attracted the attention of legendary Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, but after a short stint at Ghibli, Hosoda decided to go his own way and direct original films.

His latest work is Mirai, a story about a four-year-old child coming to terms with the existence of his newborn little sister. Hosoda has always been open about the extent to which his films draw from his personal life, but Mirai may be his most autobiographical film yet. The story is based directly on his experiences as a father of young children.

ANN sat down with Hosoda to ask about his latest work and where the filmmaker sees himself going next.

There was recently an exhibit in London showcasing your work. It's the first time something like that has happened in the UK. How do you feel about getting your own exhibit outside Japan?

London is a place I admire because I studied western art in college. They have a lot of good museums, and I've been to them many times, like the National Gallery and Tate Modern. So London is a city that has high standards in what art is. And to think that there was an exhibit showing my work…is an honor.

You regularly travel outside Japan and interact with people around the world. How do you integrate your experiences into your films?

Yes, this is truly a significant experience. To have people not just from Japan but the world to see my movie, and then to talk to those people after that is very important. Movie is a communication tool; I'm not making movies to show my friends. I believe movies exist to communicate with people really far away from you. That goes for the people making movies as well as watching movies. That's why interacting with people around the world is very important, and sometimes I meet someone who would give me an opinion I would never have thought of. Or I would meet many interesting journalists who would draw out my thoughts that are new and refreshing. That's why for people to see my films worldwide…is very important; I want to use that experience and integrate it in my next film.

You sought professionals outside of the anime industry to design certain aspects of Mirai, like the architect Makoto Tanijiri. Why did you seek out these kinds of people and what kind of perspective did they bring to the film?

This was really for a conceptual reason. Normally, when you are creating fiction, you ask an art director who excels in fiction. In my case I've been working with Anri Jojo for a long time. But for this film, the main characters are based on my children. They actually exist and are not fictional. That's why the house, bullet train, motorcycle, and picture books had to be designed by people who actually make them in real life. I wanted them to feel authentic. Conceptually, I thought it would fit better. And it was perfect.

You regularly work with some top animators on your films, but the team structure of Mirai is a bit different this time. Takaaki Yamashita is doing genga settei instead of animation supervision and Toshiyuki Inoue didn't do key animation on the film, for instance. How has your animation team adapted to those changes?

I think animators are actors. So I think of myself as casting animators to do the jobs that fit them. So it's not like I always have the same people doing the same job, but instead I adjust to the content of the film. For this film, the animation supervision is done by Hiroyuki Aoyama and Ayako Hata. They have different last names, but they are actually married. And because they are married, they were able to depict what they did in Mirai. For a married couple to be animation supervisors hasn't been done since Tatsunoko Taro (Taro the Dragon Boy). I think that was released around 1980? Yeah, it's been a long time, and Tatsunoko was done by Yōichi Kotabe and Reiko Okuyama. These two also work under different last names but they were married. So choosing Aoyama and Hata was a nod to something that happened in the past.

Mirai is the second film you've written without the collaboration of Satoko Okudera. How do you think you've grown or changed as a writer since going solo?

For Mirai, since it is based on my children…it's a very personal film, I thought it would be hard to have someone else write it. That's why I wrote it myself. Even when I have someone else write the script, I rewrite it in my own words in order to storyboard it. When I write, I write the script and try to make it as complete as possible before storyboarding it, as in…I try to be a scriptwriter when I'm writing a script. Then make the transition to being a director when I storyboard.

Your films are often referred to as “family films.” Do you worry at all about being typecast as a filmmaker? What kind of themes would you say you're most interesting in exploring?

For me, I am most interested in depicting the change of children. The change and growth of children. The children is the focus. But when you portray children, consequentially you depict the people around them, which is their family. Perhaps that is why people think of my films as “family films.” But I don't think of myself that way. But when you try to write a story about someone, doesn't that person's family play a role in who that person is? And when you don't include that person's family, would that really mean you wrote about that person? I don't think so.

Anime productions are generally pretty infamous for not sticking to schedule, so how have you managed to consistently finish a film every three years?

Oh my gosh, what are you talking about? We always barely make it on time! Really…the most recent film that was dangerous was Boy and the Beast. There was so much stuffed in as a story but we didn't have time, and it was crazy. We tried to learn from that experience and for Mirai we gave ourselves more time, and it was shorter, so we thought it would be easy, but…it was also barely made in time. We always barely make it. No matter what the circumstance, it's always tight… “(laugh)” Or rather, “(sob)”

[Translator's note: He really did say, “parentheses laugh” “parentheses cry”]

How do you ensure work-life balance for your employees at Studio Chizu?

I try to convince the employees that work is life! Just kidding. I can't do that…so…hmm. Well, historically speaking, anime has been created on that value, that work is life and vice versa, but if we continue that, it affects the quality of the work. You'll be able to tell that the creators are stretching themselves thin. So I think that it would be nice if everyone can find what's important inside their life and manifest that into their work. So to do that, yes, work-life balance is necessary. We can't keep thinking that the ones who work the hardest and longest is the best. Those values just won't work anymore. Although…then, what if we don't make the deadlines? That wouldn't be good ^_^;

[Translator's note: He really did ask me to include a kaomoji]

In other interviews, you've mentioned that there are more people in the anime industry working from home nowadays. Do you think that this will affect the problem of overworking in the anime industry?

Hmm. I think that would depend on the situation of the project. If a project has the time and budget, maybe it's possible, but…I don't know. And it's not like a good animator will choose a project that has favorable conditions. In that sense, it really depends on the project. Anime and the overworking issue isn't so simple. It's not like if you give them more time, animators won't overwork. It's about how they explore their creativity. And maybe some animators work better with more time, and some animators won't. It all comes down to the personality, decisions, tendency of the animator.

You've said before that you wanted to create a full CG film with Digital Frontier. Is that something you still want to do?

I am using more CG with every film that I release. Some may think that I'm using less CG in Mirai compared to Boy and the Beast, but I'm actually using more. So the next film will probably use more, and maybe eventually my films will be full CG someday. That may be a good thing, or it may not.

Recently, there's been a wave of anime films being released in Japan and worldwide. Where do you see the future of anime films heading?

I think the possibilities of anime is endless. There are anime made for children, anime made for fans, anime made for young adults…there are a lot of genres. And among those possibilities, what I'm aiming for is making films that can be enjoyed in various countries by audiences of all ages. Something that they can watch and think it's interesting. And I want to do that using the medium of animation. When I say this, I get comments like, “Then why not do that with live-action films?” or “No, anime is really for people who like animation.” But I don't want to think that way. I want to explore and expand the possibilities of what animation can do. I want to challenge various themes and characters that weren't depicted in animation before. And I believe that this way of thinking will open up the future of animation. This film, Mirai, has a 4 year-old as the protagonist, and that was a challenge, and I know that therefore Mirai will open up the Mirai (future).

[Translator's note: that's a Japanese pun at the end…]

Thanks to GKIDS and Mamoru Hosoda for this opportunity.

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