A Conversation with Mamoru Hosoda

Studio Chizu’s ‘Mirai’ began its release this weekend, and we got to interview the director.
By  · Published on November 26th, 2018

The award-winning animator’s new film comes out in the US on November 30th.

So, update: I never ended up finding a date to the premiere of Studio Chizu’s Mirai (2018). Instead, I was invited out to the Animation Is Film Festival in Los Angeles last month to attend the US premiere and do a one-on-one interview with director Mamoru Hosoda.

The film is lovely. Unlike Hosoda’s previous films, which all have something overtly magical or exciting about them, Mirai is much more like a Miyazaki movie, and focuses on “the in-between” moments of life. It’s much less about plot and much more about tone and mood. Before the screening, Hosoda himself introduced the film by saying “nothing happens in this movie,” and, well, he’s not wrong. Mirai is a lot more My Neighbor Totoro than Summer Wars. Hosoda stated that the film was inspired by his own young children, and the seemingly boundless energy of toddlers is beautifully recreated with Hosoda’s bouncy, lively style of character animation.

This was my first time doing an interview with someone this famous, and I was about as on edge as you can get. But as I walked into the interview room, Hosoda-san and his translator both greeted me warmly.

HANS QU: Hi Hosoda-san! Nice to meet you.

MAMORU HOSODA: Nice to meet you too!

HQ: So let’s get started. I want to start from the beginning, more or less. Before you made features, you worked in “commercial” animation, on stuff like Digimon and One Piece. What would you say you gained from that experience?

MH: I studied modern art in college, and after I graduated I joined Toei Animation. At Toei I learned that mass appeal products can be fun and have depth too. From those experiences, I started to think about how to make mass appeal products that can have serious artistic merit as well.

HQ: At what point did you decide to start making original features? Was it something you went into this business aiming to do?

MH: I wanted to be a director when I learned about storyboards in 6th grade, watching Castle of Cagliostro. I found out that the storyboards were the starting point for a movie, and that got me interested. As a creator, you always want to create your own original work, so I think that originals were always part of my plan.

HQ: Time for the Miyazaki question. He is known for his dislike of computer animation. You seem to use it without any problems, throughout previous films and here as well. Mirai is notable for many computer animated elements, including, I believe, the house, and a lot of the props, like the fruits and the cars. Why is that?

MH: I don’t think it’s that Miyazaki-san hates CG, really. He started as a manga artist and drawing is how he expresses himself. In my opinion, it all depends on artistic style and artistic sense. I want to create films that reach the audience, that they can enjoy, and animation is just the medium for that, so between traditional and CG I just incorporate together them to the best of my artistic sense.

HQ: For context, about how much of Mirai is CG?

MH: About 50%. We deliberately tried to make it inconspicuous. There are parts of the film that are CG that you didn’t even mention, and those parts are a secret.

HQ: I’ve noticed this distinct and interesting element of your art style, where you tend to avoid using shadows and just flat cel-color characters. Why is that? Do you do it on purpose? Or is it something that you haven’t even realized?

MH: It definitely is on purpose. I’ve been doing it since Digimon, and I might be the only guy in anime right now who does it. Japanese animation has been undergoing this trend where they use shadows to create a lot of detail in expression and characters, but in adding detail the characters lose that essence of “human-ness.” If you go back and watch old Disney or Toei films, you’ll notice that those characters don’t have a lot of shadows on them either. I’m just going back to this style.

HQ: Yeah, I’ve noticed that your character animation is very bouncy, lively, doesn’t care about staying on model, and in general is very much more “cartoonish” than a lot of anime. It’s very full of that “life.”

MH: Yes, I also feature a lot of animals, while mainstream anime is starting to use less animals. But again, if you look at older Disney and Toei films, all the characters are animals already. It’s all about going back to the roots of animation.

HQ: What’s your favorite of your own films, and why?

MH: It’s hard to say; I’m attached to all of them, even ones that aren’t my original work, like Digimon and One Piece.

HQ: Fair enough. You mentioned at the Mirai premiere that your family is what gives you inspiration now. Conversely, is there any particular thing you want viewers to come away from your films feeling?

MH: Children, and spending time with children, is very important. There is a perception, currently, that children are a hassle, insignificant, immature; I felt the same way before I had them. While that is all definitely true, spending time with my children has also brought me immense happiness. It reminds me of my own childhood, and allows me to see life through that lens again.

HQ: So as far as inspiration, you noted during the Q&A that you don’t garner any from other anime or media, really. But is there any anime, movie, or other thing that you particularly just like?

MH: The father in Mirai is played by Hoshino Gen. At dinner once, he asked me if I have any hobbies and I was like “no.” And then I asked him if he had any hobbies and he was like “no, just work.” It’s pretty hard to choose what I like right now, because all my time is split between my family and my work. I do still try to watch anime and movies, though. Recently I watched a movie by a Korean director called Poetry, which I enjoyed very much.

HQ: Any tips for aspiring artists/animators/filmmakers?

MH: It’s hard to say what making anime is like because it’s so different from anything else, and so interesting. Especially in Japan, animators are seen as poor people, and as doormats to IP owners and big companies. But the happiness you get from it is so vast, that if you’re trying to do it, I advise you to keep going. Currently anime films are thrown to the side; they’re not considered as big or as prestigious as live-action films. But the animation medium is really the forefront of innovation, it’s where all this interesting work is happening. So if you’re working to succeed in that field, I encourage you to continue.

Arigato, Hosoda-san! And a very heartfelt arigato to all the people at the Animation Is Film Festival for this opportunity, and making me feel welcome on my first real press outing. Mirai opens in the US on November 30th.

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Hans Qu is an animator with Strong Opinions about animation. Along with said opinions, his art and animation can be found on his Bird App account: @NerdyChineseBoy