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A guide to the fantastical cinema of Mamoru Hosada

Ahead of the release of his new film Belle, we explore the anime pioneer’s magical career through five key works

From his very earliest works, anime pioneer Mamoru Hosada has imagined vivid worlds where reality and fantasy collide to reveal profound truths about the characters that inhabit them. Whether it’s exploring the intricacies of love and missed opportunities through time travel in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, or navigating society’s pressures to conform in Wolf Children, Hosada’s films are deceptively simple. His stories are located in seemingly mundane settings, rendered in soft hues and photorealist details, before they’re disrupted by otherworldly forces (magical or technological). Introducing these alternative realities highlights the inner conflict present in the characters’ lives that prevent them from realising their true selves.

An extension of this is Hosada’s preoccupation with the transformative potential of digital worlds. With its vast virtual highways and epic depictions of 8-bit Digi-eggs hatching and consuming the internet’s data, Hosada’s film debut, Digimon: The Movie, marks the filmmaker’s preoccupation with the internet since its earliest days – and is perhaps one of the first films to explore the impact of the virtual on the real. This is a theme Hosada revisits in 2009’s Summer Wars, in which a rogue AI wreaks havoc on a virtual world. Importantly, technology isn’t depicted as good or bad, but rather as a plot device to unveil complicated family dynamics and feelings of love, grief, and loneliness.

His upcoming film, Belle, takes this one step further, with its depiction of a rich metaverse called U, where five million users take the form of zany avatars that manifest their inner qualities.

DIGIMON: THE MOVIE (2000)

Channelling the excitement of new technologies at the turn-of-the-century, Hosada’s film debut Digimon: The Movie follows on from the original anime franchise. A corrupted Digimon hatches on the World Wide Web and begins to consume data at an astonishing rate. A global network of kids, AKA the DigiDestined, must galvanise their Digimon army and save the world.

Besides being a cultural staple for anyone growing up in the early aughts, the Digimon film perfectly captures the innocence of the early-internet through its young protagonists and Hosada’s cutesy yet crudely-drawn cyberspace. Straddled between the cityscapes of Tokyo and the kinetic, Microsoft 95-esque Digiworld, there’s epic Digi-battles, 8-bit Digi-eggs, and a hilariously Americanised y2K soundtrack featuring everyone from Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” to Smash Mouth’s “All Star” to this iconic theme song.

THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME (2006)

Commonly regarded as Hosada’s breakout hit, The Girl Who Leapt Through TIme is a temporal coming-of-age film about a high school girl, Makoto, who gains the ability to literally travel through time. She initially uses her power for trivial things, like scoring an A on her homework, or sleeping-in a few extra hours in the morning. But, as the plot develops, she begins to realise that her actions have consequences that reach beyond her. 

Despite the metaphysical storyline, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is essentially about the experience of being a teenager in all its messy, awkward glory. Makoto’s stubbornness is palpable as she attempts to literally jump through time, sometimes struggling to catch up to the speed of the camera frame in the process. Her emotional growth is most pertinent as the film unfurls. Past, present, and future blend together until they become indistinguishable from one another – Makoto’s emotions are continuous, and perhaps the only thing stopping the dimensions from falling into disarray.

SUMMER WARS (2009)

Nearly a decade after his film debut, Summer Wars, feels like an evolution of the ideas explored in Digimon, with its depictions of a metaverse-adjacent social network named Oz running all aspects of daily life. Hosada juxtaposes this surreal cyberscape with the IRL story of a high school maths nerd pretending to be his crush’s fiance at her family gathering. When a malevolent AI named Love Machine unlocks the master password to Oz, the family must work together to prevent the AI from wreaking havoc in the real world.

A lvl-up from Digimon’s rudimentary digiscape, Hosada portrays Oz as an immersive computer network kingdom with brightly coloured, pixelated vistas and populated with whimsical virtual avatars. Predating the onset of then-new social media platforms like Instagram and WeChat, Hosada’s digital kingdom feels undeniably current in its renditions of a virtual network as inseparable from the physical world. Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse could never.

WOLF CHILDREN (2012)

This is one for the heart strings: Wolf Children tells the story of a single mother, Hanna, who moves to the countryside to raise two werewolf children. Lush, photorealist animation gives the film a fairytale quality, as Hanna watches her cubs navigate peer pressures, feelings of loneliness and self-loathing. It’s an apt metaphor for puberty and how external forces mould us into the adults we become. Ultimately, Hanna must watch as her children inevitably choose their own paths as either full-time humans or wolves. A touching coming-of-age film with huge emotional pay-off.

MIRAI (2018)

Returning to the theme of time travel, Hosada’s Oscar-nominated Mirai follows four-year-old Kun adjusting to the emotional turmoil of becoming a big brother. Told across multiple time loops, Kun interacts with his family members in different stages of life, such as his mother when she was his age, or his sister as an older version of herself. The spirit of the family dog even appears at one point, who experienced similar feelings of abandonment at Kun’s birth. Through these temporal impossibilities, Kun begins to reassess his relationship with his family, allowing him to understand them on a deeper level and see beyond his own experiences.

Belle is out in UK cinemas on February 4