Ookami Kodomo no Ame yo Yuki; Wolf Children. I smile just thinking about this movie. It’s just… so perfect. Life can be complicated, and even more complicated to portray on film, but the director, Mamoru Hosoda, does it flawlessly. It doesn’t matter what mood I’m in, I find myself grinning and misty eyed. There’s so much this film offers; a view of life through the rain and snow. I have been a big fan of Hosoda’s work. I was in on the ground floor, so to speak, with first two Digimon films.
Digimon was a big part of my life as a kid. I recall rushing home from school to catch the Digi-destined battle black gears and obelisks, orange monkeys (teddy bears covering their naughty bits), vampires, and even the cuthulian root of all evil. Shout out to Puppetmon. They would collect ‘crests’ that signified a value of its possessing personality, weaponize it, then save the day with a brand new digivolve option. Pure brilliance. Hosoda took a different view on the series however.
True he directed episode 21, but consider the true first film; it’s a whimsical tale, as much as the series is. It perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the series, but it wasn’t originally designed to. During production in 1998, before the film was even completed, producers at Toei saw the storyboards and requested a television series as well. Where it not for this film, we’d be without the entire Digimon metaseries. But that’s not what sets it apart from any other episode in the series.
The series takes place mostly in the ‘digital world’ (between emails traded amongst middle-aged women and last week’s naughty snappchats), focused on the collectable digimon. The first two story arcs hinge greatly on the digimon, first with the black gears, then trying to beef them up by way of the crests, until episode 21, Hosoda’s episode. It isn’t until then that Tai (or Taichi for purists) and Koromon find themselves back in Tokyo do we get a more character-driven, a character-focused, approach. Back in his home town, we see Tai interact with everyday life, making calls, checking to see how much time has lapsed in his absence. It isn’t until then does the problem reach home, that it becomes personal; we see Tai’s little sister holding a digivice at the end of the episode. With the entire digital world at risk, we take a breather, and internalize the problem. A brilliant move.
Even before I know what a Mamoru Hosoda was, episode 21 stood out to me visually, as did Bokura no Wargame. Even sandwiched in the Robotech style release, Bokura no Wargame stood out to me. Watching it in its entirety, uncompressed, it’s no wonder. The superflat style that he would latter use in subsequent projects was placed center stage, depicting the digital world in a tasteful and compelling manner. Again, a brilliant move.
Compared to the series, Bokura no Wargame followed the character focused style Hosoda established beforehand, but with more visual creative liberty. A good percentage of film tie-ins of a meta series fall into the trap of trying to out-do its source material, and all too often this translates to biting the hand that feeds. Not so here. In fact, I would go as far to say that Bokura no Wargame could be watched independently as its own feature film, because that’s how it was designed. A nice ending to series. I wish that Hosoda was involved with the approaching reboot, but this isn’t the last we’ll see of Bokura no Wargame…
A few years latter, he directed a spot for Louis Vuitton by the name of Superflat Monogram. Though not his most important work, it shows the fine tuning of the superflat style we saw in Wargame, applied in a similar whimsical manner. It is, after a fashion, Hosoda’s DAICON. Hosoda was still working for Toei at the time, and would do so for one more film. In the meantime, after Superflat Monogram we directed the opening for Shinichirō Watanabe‘s Samurai Champloo. Again, nothing that set the world on fire, but worth noting for future reference.
The last film Hosoda directed under the banner of Toei is one that slips under the radar despite being out in the open. The sixth film to the best selling manga series of all time, One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island was released back in 2005, and depending on who you talk to, was a very strong film or a forgettable one. The omnipresent long running shonen series trap of trying to out-do its source material is deftly avoided… by focusing on the film itself as a self contained entity. What happens in the film is inconsequential, just as most film tie-ins it holds no sway or baring on main story. It’s the theme that makes it stand out.
The villain of the film, the unscrupulous baron of Secret Island is the sole survivor of a tragedy in which he lost his pirate crew. Luffy and the gang show up, and the baron grows jealous of the bond shared as a crew, making it his personal mission to destroy this bond. Staying true to the character, the climax boils down to a single moment in which Luffy, powered by the same bond that is placed in jeopardy, must overcome the baron to save his friends. You already know the ending, but the theme that ‘preserving and creating bonds is an uphill battle with superb reward’ is one central to future Hosoda works.
The following year, Hosoda left Toei, finding work at Madhouse with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Taking the concept from the light novel, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a tale of childhood’s end. At some point in our lives we all wish for a redo, a second shot at something, albeit small or monumental, and as we grow up we suddenly learn to cope with the decisions made. We also learn that these decisions affect others, and too often our selfish motivations hurt others. This is most definitely the case with this cleverly weaved modern allegory. It isn’t until our protagonist, Makoto, accepts her mistakes, flaws, and weaknesses and acts on the behalf of her friends that she finds clarity.
The film was struck a chord. Despite its limited release, word of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time spread like wildfire. At one point there where people paying to see the film, standing room only! The film went on to win the award for Best Origanal Sotry in the Tokyo Anime Awards, Hosoda being awarded Best Director as well. The superflat art comes back for if only briefly, and featured character designs by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto of Evangelion fame, a staple ever since, but what make the movie impactful was its theme.
Due to the success of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Madhouse was granted the ability to make another film, this time it could be a completely original concept. Hosoda was chosen to direct the project, and given creative freedom. During this time, Hosoda was introduced to the family of his then-fiance in the city of Ueda where Summer Wars takes place. Soon to be married, he was trusted into new relationships of a whole new family. In an interview conducted by Justin Sevakis, Hosoda mentioned this in regard to the motif:
After The Girl Who Leapt Through Time wrapped up, I got married. And it was great, but you know, being an animator I’m pretty used to my solitude. Getting married means in-laws. Suddenly I had all of these new family members, and I was really struck by how those interpersonal relationships work. It takes a lot of effort, and sometimes those new family members are hard to deal with, but you can also make a very deep connection with a total stranger. That really meant a lot to me. I never really thought about the idea of “family” being the theme of a film before, but somehow it just clicked into place.
The idea of unity is central in Summer Wars, in particular, family unity. As the networking giant OZ is slowly eaten alive from the inside, our hero, Kenji, is trying to build get along with a family that was dropped into his lap by his surprise pseudo-fiancee, Natsuki. ‘Bonds’ are broken in OZ, and because of that chaos ensues in the real world; so too with the family, as the prodigal son’s return creates an emotional maelstrom due to the unwillingness to forgive. Only when the bonds are reformed, strengthened with love, compassion and forgiveness, does the family (and the entirety of the world for added drama) pull though (in more ways than one).
Hosoda has commented:
My experience of marriage has been great. I’d been scared with stories of complexities and contracts, but they were wrong. But when I went to meet my fiancée’s relatives, people I had never met before suddenly became members of my ‘family’: that was something I found very mysterious and interesting. I wanted the film to convey some element of that experience.
Summer Wars is a combination of everything Hosoda has done since 2009, a successor visually and thematically. Now having ‘grown up’, (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) family has become the focus (Summer Wars). Yoshiyuki Sadamoto again contributes amazing superb character designs. The superflat art gives a sharp contrast between family life and the world of OZ, making the narrative easy to follow without alienating its better half. The pacing is spot on, not a single shot is wasted in the film, every frame is needed, but at no point does the film feel like skin and bones. It is a classic for the ages in all senses of the word for generations to come.
I felt a deep connection to the film in several moments, so much so that I was literally moved to tears. Even now, having seen the film multiple times, I still wish, somewhere inside, that everyone could become one human family, in our internet world of OZ or with the people thrust into our circle of influence. That’s the message of the film, and it’s a deeply human one. So much so that reclusive otaku and casual family viewers can both enjoy Summer Wars for the same reason. It’s the sign of a good film. It’s the sign of a masterpiece.
This past Christmas I traveled back home to see family, gifts in tow. I had something planned for everyone, but the one that made me most nervous was the gift I wanted to give my mother. I saw Wolf Children and was profoundly touched by it. I could think of nothing better, and no better time. My mother is not too keen on the medium, and I knew that would be a hurdle, but I felt if she could just see past that she would see the same thing I did, and it would mean something to her as it did for me.
The day finally came, and we sat down to watch it together, and it was nothing short of magical. I knew the character of Hana would be one my mother could relate to, struggling as most parents do with children that sometimes act more like heathen animals than beloved children. And as the story unfolded, any inkling of aversion was washed away. Though we where touched by different moments, maybe even for different reasons, we both understood. It was the sign of a masterpiece. Life had been captured on film.
Just as you can’t stop the snow and rain from falling, you can’t stop children from growing up, but it’s a beautiful thing that Wolf Children depicts near flawlessly; preserving and creating bonds is an uphill battle with superb reward. The superflat trick that Hosoda perfected just last film is shed, it would have cheapened the experience. The music is intricate and complex, but so facilely elegant you find yourself swept away in its jovial nature. Sadamoto’s work once again compliments everything, every character carries a light in their eyes. Whimsical enough for even a child to enjoy, mature enough for an adult to understand.
Hosoda’s newest film, Bakemono no Ko, is slated for theatrical release this Summer with his newly founded Studio Chizu and I couldn’t be more excited. So many times people look at the great anime directors and see them in their age and ask, ‘Who will replace them when they’re gone?’ This question has troubled me since Satoshi Kon’s passing, and is exasperated with Miyazaki’s most recent retirement, but when I see these films, I am assured, we’re in good hands. Mamoru Hosoda knows what he’s doing, and he hasn’t said all there is to be said.
Really, each of these films deserve their own spotlight, they are marvelous works of art. Every one of them, especially The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and forward, are so human in their struggle, and humans tend to make life complicated. But we need to remember one thing. Life is simple, beautifully simple. Life is not fair, and painfully so, but as long as we keep smiling, and honor the memories we have of each other, then the sun will always shine after the rain.
I originally paid a similar tribute back on the Animeshon Podcast
Please be sure to download and listen to the episode as it may give a better idea of my feelings on Mamoru Hosoda