By Tom Speelman
Mamoru Hosoda, much like other legendary creators in the anime space, has found great creative and box office success. That’s the power of his original, lavishly and lovingly made anime films.
After his early career at Toei Animation resulted in him directing the first two shorts in what would become Digimon: The Movie in the West, Hosoda was tapped by Studio Ghibli and announced as the director of Howl’s Moving Castle in 2001.
But a year after production began, Hosoda left. Because, as he would put it in interviews, “The difference between the film I wanted to do and how they wanted to do it was too great, so I had to get off the project.”
After that, Hosoda returned to Toei where, among other projects like collaborating on a Louis Vuitton ad with Takashi Murakami, he made his feature film debut directing the One Piece film Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island in 2005. The following year, he jumped to the legendary Madhouse, where he began a run of films that would eventually see him leave Madhouse to found his own—Studio Chizu—and eventually score a 2019 Oscar nomination for his most recent work, Mirai.
In honor of his birthday (he turns 53 on September 19 at the time of this writing), let’s look at a handful of Hosoda’s films to see what’s made him so beloved. If you want to watch them, each one of these is available either on Funimation streaming or at The Funimation Shop!
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
A loose sequel to the famed 1967 novel of the same name by Paprika author Yasutaka Tsutsui, and with a screenplay by Satoko Okudera (who’d collaborate with Hosoda on his next two films), Hosoda’s original anime debut follows laid-back goofy high schooler Makoto Konno (Riisa Naka, Emily Hirst).
After seeing the message “Time waits for no one” written on a blackboard at school and finding a strange walnut-looking device, all seems doomed when the brakes on her bike fail on the way home, sending her careening down a hill, into a railroad crossing and in front of an oncoming train.
But miraculously, Makoto doesn’t die. She winds up back in time to the moments before her accident. Confused, Makoto confides in her “Auntie Witch,” art restorer Kazuko Yoshiyama (Sachie Hara, Saffron Henderson)—who, it turns out, is actually the protagonist of the original novel—and learns that she’s suddenly unlocked the power to leap back through time.
“It happens to a lot of girls your age,” Kazuko explains (which is essentially the closest we get to learning how time travel works—and the movie is better for it).
Skeptical, Makoto eventually realizes her power is real and naturally does what any teen would do with such abilities: namely, avoid being late for school and getting bad grades, make a karaoke session with her best friends last for 10 hours, and even maneuver events to get her friend together with smitten first-year, Kaho (Mitsuki Tanimura, Natalie Walters).
But all time travel has consequences and Makoto finds this out when Chiaki awkwardly confesses to her, setting in motion a chain of catastrophic events.
The shortest of Hosoda’s films so far at 99 minutes, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time packs its heart into every minute. Hosoda’s direction brims with confidence—a stunning late scene sees the music drop out entirely, with Makoto’s ragged breathing the only sound on screen for a solid minute—and he expertly shades this particular anime love triangle with nuance, leading to a resolution that dashes your expectations but makes the film’s ending all the better for it.
A stunning debut and, once you watch it, you see why it attracted standing-room-only crowds in Japan and won the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year.
Summer Wars (2009)
In a semi-alternate present, everything from sports to gambling is handled in the social-network MMO, OZ.
Kenji Koiso (Ryunosuke Kamiki, Michael Sinterniklaas), wallflower teen and wannabe math Olympian, works part-time as a low-level maintenance monkey in OZ. Seemingly content, he, in a fit of bluster, volunteers for a part-time job offered by his beautiful, popular classmate Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba, Brina Palencia).
Said job, to his shock, is not just traveling to Ueda and the sprawling estate of Natsuki’s extended maternal family for a celebration—he’s also meant to be playing the part of Natsuki’s fiancé.
As if that wasn’t awkward enough, the festivities are interrupted by the sudden reappearance of family black sheep Wabisuke (Ayumu Saito, J. Michael Tatum), back in Japan after stealing the family fortune and absconding to America 10 years before as a master programmer.
Feeling more out-of-place than ever, a reeling Kenji, randomly sent a complex cryptogram in OZ via his cell phone, spends all night solving it in an attempt at normalcy. But in perhaps the biggest lesson possible of “don’t engage with random messages on the internet” in film history, that turns out to be a bad idea.
See, the cryptogram was sent to Kenji and 53 others around the world by a malicious AI known as Love Machine. Taking over Kenji’s avatar and, in a short time, billions of others, Love Machine wreaks havoc on OZ’s systems, causing widespread chaos throughout Japan.
With the help of Natsuki’s 13-year-old NEET cousin Kazuma (Mitsuki Tanimura , Maxey Whitehead) aka “King Kazma,” it’s up to Kenji, Natsuki and the entire Jinnouchi family to not only save OZ but, in the end, the world itself from Love Machine.
I’m gonna slip into first person for a second because…I love this movie. Unabashedly, uncritically love it. It’s one of my favorite films ever, definitely my favorite anime film ever and, in my opinion, the best film of Hosoda’s career over a decade later.
Satoko Okudera’s screenplay is immaculately constructed, from the way each plot beat falls into lockstep, to the way minor unfolding subplots parallel the main narrative. The visuals, spearheaded by collaborators like character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (who also worked on Neon Genesis Evangelion), action animation director Tatzusou Nishida and art director Youji Takeshige, are stunning.
Plus, digital animation studio Digital Frontier’s CG work on OZ has only improved with age, alongside the social network’s pristine, Murakami-influenced aesthetic. An absolute corker; if you watch only one film on this list, make it this one.
Wolf Children (2012)
Hosoda’s next film saw him leave Madhouse and form his own Studio Chizu, co-founded with fellow Madhouse alum Yuichiro Saito, although Madhouse would still co-produce the finished film.
Wolf Children, dealing as it does with man’s relationship to nature, is an intensely personal story involving a family. It’s also where a lot of rumors around Hosoda being the “next Miyazaki” began to coalesce. But the film it recalls more than anything in execution and mood is Isao Takahata’s classic environmental film, Pom Poko. Though, where Takahata had a wider focus grounded in ancient folklore, Hosoda opts for a smaller-scale story still tinged with the fantastical.
While drifting through college in Tokyo, the sunny Hana (Aoi Miyazaki, Colleen Clinkenbeard) falls for an enigmatic, taciturn older man (Takao Osawa, David Matranga), who is never named in the film (and only called “The Wolf Man” in the credits). Opening himself up to her as he has no other person, the man reveals his deepest secret: he can shape-shift into a wolf and, being descended from the now-extinct Honshu wolf, is the last of his kind.
Not for long, though, as Hana and the Wolf Man move in together and have two children: the impulsive Yuki (Haru Kuroki/Monoka Ono, Jad Saxton/Lara Woodhull) and the sickly, sensitive Ame (Yukito Nishii/Amon Kabe, Micah Solusod/Alison Viktorin). Tragically, The Wolf Man dies shortly after Ame’s birth while hunting in his wolf form.
With no other options, Hana raises the kids by herself, a struggle that’s both comedic—a sick Yuki leaves her unsure of whether to go to the pediatrician or the vet—and heartbreaking: she’s nearly investigated by social workers concerned the kids are unvaccinated.
Wolf Children depicts nature in an astonishingly gorgeous way. It also has what’s probably the most bravura sequence of Hosoda’s career: a mostly wordless romp by Hana and the shape-shifting kids through an idyllic snowfall, with sumptuous, swooping first-person camerawork and Masakatsu Takagi’s stirring, lyrical score.
A true crowd-pleaser that yanks at the heartstrings, Hosoda won another Japan Academy Prize for this, and it’s easy to see why.
The Boy and the Beast (2015)
This film was Hosoda’s first time writing his own screenplay (he and Okudera co-wrote Wolf Children) in addition to directing. What results is a really fun action movie grounded in even more great character work.
After his mother is killed in a traffic accident, with his divorced dad nowhere to be found and his uncaring relatives eager to whisk him away, overwhelmed nine-year-old Ren (Shota Sometani/Miyazaki, Eric Vale/Luci Christian) runs away onto the streets of Shibuya. Starving and miserable, he is shocked when he’s approached by the beastman Kumatetsu (Koji Yakusho, John Swasey) and asked if he wants to be the shiftless swordsman’s pupil.
Horrified at Kumatetsu’s bearlike appearance, Ren refuses. Out of curiosity, he follows Kumatetsu and his companion, monkey-man Tatara (Yo Oizumi, Ian Sinclair), back to Jutengai, the world of beasts, who can reincarnate into gods while humans cannot.
Learning that Kumatetsu has been told by the beasts’ Lord (Masahiko Tsugawa, Steve Powell) that he has to take a pupil in order to be considered for the role of his successor, for which he must duel the far more popular and well-adjusted Iozen (Kazuhiro Yamaji, Sean Hennigan). Ren agrees, and, as he refuses to tell Kumatetsu his real name, is renamed Kyuta (a pun on the fact that Ren is 9 years old). Even as they repeatedly bicker with each other, Ren and Kumatetsu form an unlikely pair that just might reshape their dual worlds.
The Boy and the Beast is frequently funny and captivating and well worth a look, if only to see just how well-rounded a filmmaker like Hosoda can be when he puts his mind to it.
So now that you’ve learned about the core of Mamoru Hosoda’s work on his birthday, go experience them for yourself! From the time travel hijinks of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time to the magic of family in Mirai, you’re sure to find a new favorite.