Mamoru Hosoda is one of the most storied directors in contemporary anime. Creator of such works as The Girl Who Leapt through Time, Summer Wars, The Boy and the Beast and yes, Wolf Children, Hosoda’s films number among some of the best and most canonically significant anime movies to have come out in the past two decades. A recent inductee to the Motion Picture Academy, the 51-year-old director’s star is rising and with it anime’s continued global prominence.
Hosoda’s latest film, Mirai, depicts the life of a four-year-old boy named Kun struggling to cope with the arrival of his new baby sister and his new role as an older brother. In his journey to understand his place in the larger history of his family, Kun is visited by the spirits of his loved ones from both the past and future in order to be taught a valuable lesson in what it means to love and be loved.
On the eve of Mirai’s North American premiere at the Animation is Film festival in Los Angeles, Paste had the opportunity to speak with Mamoru Hosoda about the film’s production, lessons from his career, architecture, and the importance of family.
Paste: Tell us about the origins of Mirai. When did you first start writing the script and what inspired you to tackle another time-travel story?
Mamoru Hosoda: The idea for Mirai came to me about three years ago in December. I have an older son who was an only child, and when we welcomed our new baby girl three years ago, my son was very surprised seeing the baby. That made me think [about] how he would understand this is his sister and how he relates to her. So that’s where the story began to form. I wanted to do a story about a child learning their family history and through learning that history, he would learn how to love his sister. This mysterious garden at the center of the house was a tool to see that family history. I think that the idea of using a garden as a portal into another time or world comes out of western stories where the main protagonist would find out something about their family through a garden or a yard. So it’s not really about time-travel per se, but about one’s history.
Paste: You’ve talked about how becoming a father taught you what you described as, “the meaning of life.” How has that experience shaped your approach to filmmaking? In what ways do you create films now as a parent that you didn’t before?
Hosoda: The moment I became a father, I felt as though I existed specifically to become the father of my children. That really is the meaning of life; that’s what happens when one becomes a parent. I think everyone is looking for the meaning of life in some form or another, and hopefully by watching this film the audience can glimpse a part of that. In searching for the meaning of life, I feel that the answer is the connections formed between people, of families and how they are connected.
Paste: In the past you’ve said, “Because I directed Wolf Children, I was able to do The Boy and the Beast, and it’s because I directed The Boy and the Beast that I was able to do [Mirai].” What lessons from creating The Boy and the Beast did you apply when creating Mirai?
Hosoda: The Boy and the Beast was about, “How do I become a father?” I’ve got a son, but I just don’t know what I can do for my son, so how can I grow to become what he needs in a father. With Mirai, it’s about how Kun felt like he lost his parent’s love and the process of relearning what love is by giving love. How to obtain love by giving love. So they are connected. Because I did The Boy and the Beast and I thought about how a father can change and how they can give love to their children, I was able to depict Kun in how he learned to obtain and give love.
Paste: Though the story jumps back and forth across time, the film takes place primarily in Kun’s childhood home. What inspired your choice to set the film in one location, and what were the challenges in writing that scenario?
Hosoda: I really wanted to show a four-year-old’s world within the house and to make sure that only the family members are the main characters. Because I restricted the story to taking place in a single house and this particular family, I feel as though that restriction actually emphasizes the whole family history element. It was very difficult because the story begins and ends inside the house and certain parts, such as the mother being a career woman and going back to work, aren’t depicted at all. But because of that difficulty, everything was tied neatly within the family and inside the house.
Paste: Toyama Prefecture, your hometown, has been the real-world setting for most of your original stories in the past. Does Mirai also take place in Toyama? As a lifelong resident, what’s so special about that area?
Hosoda: Wolf Children was based in Toyoma because it was based on my mother who passed away. If I was going to write a film about my mother, I felt I needed to set it in the place where she became a mother. At first I was unsure about making it the main setting for the film, but when I went back to Toyoma for research I rediscovered how beautiful and full of nature it was. Mirai is not set in Toyoma but rather in Yokohama, which is a port city that was one of the first cities to be modernized because of its contact with the West. I chose Yokohama, a city that is constantly changing, because Mirai is a story about how a family can change but always remains itself.
Paste: We learn early on that Kun’s father is an architect who built their family home. We even glimpse shots of the house’s renovation throughout the film’s opening. What inspired your decision to make Kun’s father an architect? Were there any architects you looked to for inspiration in designing the layout of the house?
Hosoda: When writing the film, Kun’s father originally had a different occupation. But when I thought about designing the layout of Kun’s house, usually an artist-type person would design their own home. So I asked a real architect, Makoto Tanijiri, to design it. He’s known for making a lot of family homes that are interesting or different. While I was collaborating with Tanjiri, I learned that he too had a son and was working at home to help raise his children. His life felt so similar to the story that I was writing that I put his setting into the film itself.
Paste: You’ve spoken in the past about how directors like Terry Gilliam, Victor Erice and Isao Takahata have inspired your work, even in particular scenes of Mirai. Who are some other directors whose films, whether live-action or animated, inspire you as a creator?
Hosoda: I have a lot of directors who influence and inspire me. Victor Erice, in particular his film The Secret of the Beehive, is one of my favorites. Edward Yang, Akira Kurosawa—if I start naming only the directors that I like, it would be around 300 names.
Paste: What was your favorite scene to animate during the production of Mirai?
Hosoda: I had fun in drawing Kun. I took care in realistically depicting a four-year-old boy. Their head is a little heavier, so their center of gravity is a little off. The way they go up and down the stairs, their clumsiness—it’s very different than older children or adults. So that was really fun. Regarding settings, it was really fun drawing Yokohama in about 1946, right after the war. I researched a bunch of materials to depict how it looked accurately, and I learned that if I really wanted to learn how to accurately draw images of how it was right after the war, I could do that.
Paste: Have you shown Mirai to your children yet? What would you want them to take away from the film?
Hosoda: I did show my children Mirai. They had known for awhile now that I was making a film about them so initially I was worried what their reaction was going to be. Would they be embarrassed about it? But when they actually saw it, they really enjoyed it. Especially because my son likes trains, so he really enjoyed when Kun would play with his trains. He was actually jealous that Kun had way more toys than him [laughs]. After my family and I went to see the movie together my wife told me, seeing this movie and through this movie, you could tell how much I loved my children. So that felt good.
Toussaint Egan is a culturally omnivorous writer who has written for several publications, including Kill Screen, Playboy, Mental Floss, and Paste. Give him a shout on Twitter.