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The Studio Ghibli disciple who became an anime master

As his new film Mirai screens at London Film Festival, here’s a brief guide to the work of Miyazaki student Mamoru Hosoda

The story of revered Japanese anime auteur, Mamoru Hosoda, is indelibly intertwined with that of his childhood hero, Hayao Miyazaki – though the relationship is a complicated one. The 51-year-old’s dreams of becoming a director date back to his childhood, when he saw storyboards from the Studio Ghibli boss’s first film, The Castle of Cagliostro, published in a magazine. The pictures offered a tantalising glimpse into another world, says Hosoda. “It was like a skeleton plan for a building... I never thought films could be made this way; it had a huge impact on me.”

Soon after graduating from university, Hosoda applied for a job with the fabled anime giant, only to be gently rebuffed by the late Isao Takahata, the studio’s co-founder and director of Grave of the Fireflies. But his biggest brush with Ghibli – and the daddy of all anime directors – came with Howl’s Moving Castle, which he was headhunted to direct, before being axed to make way for Miyazaki, who came out of retirement to complete the project.

It was a bitter experience, says Hosoda, who felt that “I’d failed (Ghibli) twice, because I didn’t get the first job and I didn’t get this one either.” Ultimately, though, his departure “opened the door” for him to develop his own style. Now, Hosoda has a slew of successful films to his name and a sparkling new fantasy-drama, Mirai, screening at London Film Festival this weekend after its premiere at Cannes in May.

“I was told by someone at Ghibli, ‘You have to make something Miyazaki would make,’” says Hosoda. “Those were their literal words! But in my opinion, if you can make a Miyazaki-esque movie, you’re not a director. If you’re a director, you have to create something original.”

Though he got his break with franchise fare like Digimon and One Touch, Hosoda’s own standing as a true anime original rests on the run of films he made following his brief stint at Ghibli – from his wickedly inventive sci-fi, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), to Mirai, a touching tale of a young boy vying for his parents’ love. Hosoda’s unique talents will be on show at a new exhibition in London, the first of its kind for an anime director in the UK, from today (October 13). To celebrate, here is your one-stop guide to his magical work.


If you could go back in time, when would you go back to? For high-school student Makoto Konno, it would only be far enough to prevent her sister from stealing dessert out of the fridge – such is the joy of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a time-travelling fantasy that riffs on the distinctly small-world concerns of many teenagers. Hosoda’s debut was a word-of-mouth hit on its release in 2006, establishing the director’s themes of identity and belonging. “It was a turning point for me,” says Hosoda of the film, an influence on Makoto Shinkai’s box office record-breaking anime Your Name (2016). “I’d failed to make a feature film with Howl’s Moving Castle, so this was my second chance. I read somewhere that a director’s first film has everything in it that (will appear) in their later works, and I think looking back at this one, it’s true.”


If The Girl... drew inevitable comparisons to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Summer Wars was the film that saw Hosoda finally “step out of (his) shadow”. Bringing classical storytelling smarts to a tale of AI gone awry, Hosoda wowed critics with his inventive CGI rendering of Oz, a virtual reality environment that wreaks havoc on the real world when its security is breached by a demonic AI.

Interestingly, one reviewer compared the film’s digital sequences to the work of pop artist Takashi Murakami, who worked with Hosoda on a short film for Louis Vuitton in 2003. Says Hosoda, who was approached to direct the project soon after his exit from Howl’s Moving Castle: “That was an important one for me – it was interesting as a project, but it was great moral support too; it boosted my confidence. (Murakami) showed me this proposal with a screenshot from (Hosoda’s 2000 short film) Digimon: Our War Game, and said, ‘This is what I want, please make something like this.’ After it went out people were saying, ‘Oh God, you made Digimon in the Takashi Murakami style!’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s the other way around!’”


Hosoda made his quietly epic tale of a single mum raising two kids as an “apology” to his own mother, who died during the making of Summer Wars. It’s a beautiful tribute: part-Twilight, part-My Neighbour Totoro, the film finds rich, emotionally resonant ways to explore themes that have since become Hosoda staples – the feeling of being torn between two worlds, and finding ways, as a parent, to let your kids be true to their own nature. The lush pastoral imagery – as fine an advert for the charms of rural Japan as anything Ghibli ever devised – doesn’t hurt, either.


After the death of his mother, nine-year-old Ren runs away from home to train as a warrior under Kumatetsu, a quick-tempered swordsman from an anthropomorphic realm known as the Beast Kingdom. Kumatetsu is a rotten teacher, but Ren, sensing the heart beneath his master’s bristling exterior, proves a devoted student, and the pair embark on an epic journey that will bring them closer together even as it forces them to confront their own demons.

Blending odd-couple comedy with bits of Star Wars mythology, Hosoda’s film is a story about father figures, and about how children remind adults of their capacity for change. “Everyone should spend some time in their life with children,” says the director. “It doesn’t have to be your own kids – it could be your nephews, nieces or friends’ kids. It’s important to look at children growing up; it will make you reflect on your own life.”

MIRAI (2018)

Following his two biggest hits to date with a deliberately small-scale adventure, Hosoda wrote Mirai as a love letter to his eldest child, who felt threatened when the director recently became a dad for the second time. “The world for a four-year-old is very small,” says Hosoda of the film, told through the eyes of its titular young protagonist. “But actually what I dealt with in the film is much bigger than anything I’ve done in other movies. It might look small, but I think it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done.”

Flitting between sweet-natured scenes of domestic life and fantasy set-pieces that bring Mirai face-to-face with past and future members of his family, Hosoda drew extensively on his own family history in bringing life to the film, which he hopes his kids will one day show to their own kids. “It’s like a family album, in a funny way.”

The Works of Mamoru Hosoda is at Noho Studios in London October 13–20