First 'Alita' and now 'Mirai': is this the golden age for Japanese animation?

With his latest film ‘Mirai’ out in cinemas across the region, Mamoru Hosoda tells us what the future holds for animated movies

A scene from 'Mirai'. Courtesy Studio Chizu
A scene from 'Mirai'. Courtesy Studio Chizu

It would be all too easy to think Japanese animation begins and ends with Studio Ghibli. The Oscar-­winning company, founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies) and producer Toshio Suzuki, has dominated “Japanimation” for decades.

“They’ve been a huge inspiration since I was a child,” admits fellow animation maestro Mamoru Hosoda, whose latest film, the Oscar-­nominated Mirai, was released today.

Hosoda, 51, was in his pre-teens when he saw his first Miyazaki film – 1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro – and its influence on him can’t be over­stated. He even came close to working for Ghibli, when he was asked to direct 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, only to quit the project when many of his ideas were rejected. Miyazaki later picked the film back off the shelf, steering it towards critical acclaim and one of the company’s five Oscar nominations.

For Hosoda, who went on to work for Japanese animation company Madhouse, it was perhaps the jolt he needed. Films like 2006 fantasy romance The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and 2009’s science fiction-­tinged Summer Wars established him as a director with flair, sensitivity and boundless imagination. After co-founding Studio Chizu, Wolf Children, the story of a mother raising two half-wolf kids, arrived in 2012; Hosoda followed it three years later with The Boy and the Beast.

Drawing inspiration from real life

His seventh film as director, Mirai, is a touching film that has him looking close to home for its inspiration. The story tells of four-year-old Kun, whose loving life with his parents is disrupted when they bring home his new baby sister, Mirai. Unsettled by this arrival, Kun starts to get crazy hallucinations – like a toddler’s version of Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol as past, present and future family members come to visit him.

Hosoda drew from his own life as he was writing the script. “I had my second child and that really was the impetus for why I made this film. I have a girl and I have an older boy who was jealous of the newborn, and what happens in the film exactly is what happened to us,” he says. “Because I didn’t have any siblings, it was really intriguing for me: the sibling rivalry, vying for the parents’ love. And I wanted to turn that into a film.”

For all its cosy domestic settings, Mirai is hardly equivalent to a kitchen sink drama. Like in Hosoda’s previous work, fantasy rules. The family’s pet dachshund Yukko gets re-imagined as a human prince – complete with fluffy tail and a penchant for playing fetch. Kun also meets a school-age version of Mirai (Japanese for “future”), who provides valuable life lessons for her tantrum-throwing brother.

Kids themselves always have a sense of wonder. And that’s their perspective on the world. They’re always fascinated.

It’s a potent reminder of just how powerful a child’s imagination can be. “Kids themselves always have a sense of wonder,” says Hosoda. “And that’s their perspective on the world. They’re always fascinated. Our eyes as grown-ups are ­clouded. We all want to experience that wonderment as a child when we gaze upon the world, and I hope the film is seen that way or inspires that.”

Hosoda even brought his own kids into Studio Chizu in Tokyo, allowing his animators to observe and sketch the way children act. Not that they always behaved.

“Children are children … they won’t listen to requests,” Hosoda says. “All of my animators would have a sketch book and would be waiting for the moment for them to move and, of course, the children don’t move. We’re like: ‘Come down the stairs!’ But they’re like, ‘No, we think there’s something wrong. We’re not going to move.’”

His five-year-old son has yet to see the completed film. “But he’s seen the trailer and he was very taken by it,” the director says. “He has been repeating it many times on YouTube.”

Hosoda admits he can’t wait for his son to one day take a look at Mirai. “He will have his own interpretation as a child,” he says. “Maybe when he’s 10 years old, 15 years old, 20 … I think he will see the film in a very different light and I’m looking forward to that as well.”

A changing of the guard

In many ways, Mirai is symbolic of what is becoming a golden age for Japanese animation. When Miyazaki announced his retirement in 2013, it led to concern in the industry and the creation in 2015 of a new studio, Studio Ponoc, founded by former Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, who recruited various Ghibli animators. This included 2014 film When Marnie Was There’s Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed Ponoc’s inaugural film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017).

Director Mamoru Hosoda. AFP
Director Mamoru Hosoda. AFP

Typically, Miyazaki then re-emerged and the 78-year-old animation dir­ector is currently toiling away on the much-anticipated new feature How Do You Live? set to be his first film since 2013’s The Wind Rises.

Last April, with the film under way, his long-term business partner Isao Takahata died from lung cancer, at the age of 82. “We were saddened by his passing, that we can’t watch a new film from him and I cannot have him watch my new film,” says Hosoda. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Mr Miyazaki is certainly a titan. But we need to carry on the torch and try to continue and push boundaries and make things that will contribute to the work of animation.

Despite Miyazaki’s return, it feels like a changing of the guard in Japanese animation, as younger film­makers are emerging from the vast shadow cast over the genre by Miyazaki and Takahata. “Mr Miyazaki is certainly a titan,” says Hosoda. “But we need to carry on the torch and try to continue and push boundaries and make things that will contribute to the work of animation. So that’s something I feel – and hopefully not just for Japanese animation but for the global animation industry.”

Global interest will be vital. Holly­wood has certainly paid greater attention to Japanese manga comics and anime films of late, with the recent success of Robert Rodriguez’s live-action Alita: Battle Angel, based on Yukito Kishiro’s graphic novel. Likewise, there was the crossover success of martial arts anime film Dragon Ball Super: Broly (2018), which grossed over $100 million (Dh367m) worldwide.

While Mirai lost out on the Best Animated Feature Award at this year’s Oscars – the accolade was taken by Spider-Man: Into The Spider-­Verse – it hardly matters: “Japanimation” is hitting the mainstream.

Mirai opens in UAE cinemas today

Published: March 14, 2019 01:09 PM


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