Mamoru Hosoda has made a name for himself as the director of fantastical anime, though as weird as his films become, they remain centered on the emotional journey, and providing catharsis that the real world rarely offers.
His latest work Mirai, and one of his earliest, the 2006 film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, both ground high concept sci-fi in coming-of-age tales. Mirai follows four-year-old Kun who, after the birth of his baby sister, is visited by versions of his family members from the past and the future. Through these impossible interactions, he begins to reassess his relationships with his new sister, as well as the rest of his family. While The Girl Who Leapt Through Time explores how your actions affect the people around you. These films have their characters learn of greater worlds beyond themselves, and each frame of this process is immensely detailed and textured, every scene brimming with imagination.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was a breakthrough for the director; while not his first feature, having worked on Digimon: The Movie and the sixth installment of the One Piece films before that, this was the real beginning of the styles and themes that he’s carried throughout his work ever since. A loose sequel to Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel of the same name, the film follows Makoto Konno, the niece of the book’s protagonist, as she discovers her ability to literally leap through time.
The film feels spiritually connected to the work of another anime master: Satoshi Kon. Like Kon does with the protagonist Chiyoko in his film Millennium Actress, Hosoda links Makoto’s transitions between the past and present with one fluid motion, connecting her leap from the present to her (often inelegant) landing in the past with a single cut. As her aunt explains, “time itself doesn’t go back: it was you who went back”, and film’s animation embodies this idea of time travel is a physical act. Also like Millennium Actress, reality and memory blend together until they become indistinguishable from one another. The most important thing is the emotions that connect the dimensions.
While it’s pretty high concept, the stakes remain low for the most part, as Makoto mainly uses time travel to pursue fairly trivial matters — whether its getting a quiz right at school, or giving herself the ability to perform 10 hours of karaoke, plus any other decadence that a teenager can think of. Being more of a young adult story, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is perhaps more regretful in tone than Mirai, contemplating what things might be like if you had the power to enjoy the simpler days of your life. Makoto spends her time amplifying the good and side-stepping the bad, granted the freedom to overcome the constant dissatisfaction and self doubt that comes with being a teenager.
Up until the final stretch of the film, Makoto’s stepping over other people to make herself feel more exceptional. She prioritizes her own feelings, which is fine, to an extent, but it soon becomes neglectful and damaging; at one point her aunt pointedly asks ‘don’t you wonder if anyone is suffering for your good fortune?’ The film suggests that seeking an easier life at all costs can be an isolated and selfish way to live, and Makoto learns that sharing your heart with other people can be painful. When the truth about her power is revealed, the film begins to look outward, at the lives of others; the moment that she realises that her powers involve more than just her own worries is punctuated by a montage of people we don’t know, just going about their business.
Mirai is concerned with an earlier stage of development, focusing on a toddler named Kun. The child is a whirlwind, a loud and somewhat spoilt brat who doesn’t really give a second thought as to the consequences of his actions. As the film begins, his spot as the center of attention soon changes as his parents return home with a new addition to the family, his younger sister Mirai. The film is roughly split into vignettes, each sort of episode following different temper tantrums from Kun as his anger, frustration and insecurity over being replaced takes over.
Each of these episodes usually begins with Kun storming out of the house and into the garden — as he steps outside, the boundaries of his home melt away, the visual camera revolving around him as we transition from the real world to the magical/imaginary one, the world of Kun’s family tree. The garden of his home becomes a courtyard of a castle, a jungle, and a gateway to the past, as Kun interacts with a family member at a stage of their life that he otherwise couldn’t, such as his mother when she was his age, or his great grandfather as a young man. Throughout he’s visited by future version of Mirai, appearing to him as a teenager.
Kun takes on lessons from each of his travels through time with his relatives to deal with his newfound circumstances and mature through them. He learns how to better share his home, treat his mother, and act as part of the family, as well as learn about the significance of each member. The film works to expand Kun’s frame of thinking, leading him to see outside of just what is happening to him, but also leading him to engage with his heritage and consider what his family has been through. As the film progresses, its view of the world changes, from taking place solely inside this one home from this boy’s perspective, to viewing past events from a space outside of time, gesturing at how small events and choices that people make add up to form the present.
These shifting viewpoints are matched by the film’s visuals. Hosoda observes spaces from different angles than most (but not all) anime. Many shots mimic wide angle camerawork in small spaces, and places virtual camera at an angle so to create more depth than the typical painted background. At one point, 3D animation is used to create a tracking shot, moving up the house as Kun’s father cleans it. The technique is used to signify an escape from the real world, both in Mirai, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, even in other works like Summer Wars - representing otherworldly dimensions with large, mostly blank white spaces, the outlines of characters changing to a light red.
The image of the real world melting away around Kun shows that Hosoda doesn’t disparage the often self-centered nature of children, but instead celebrates their resilience, imagination and potential. Hosoda’s films are based around interactions that are impossible and mostly unexplained, these opportunities for personal growth and epiphany that the real world doesn’t afford. All this care that goes into creating these spaces makes the mundane feel fantastic, after all, the only thing that is at stake is children learning not to be selfish. He treats engagement with the family as an adventure, and adolescence as a challenge.
In both cases, the films are about seeing outside of yourself, and de-centering your experience as the most important one. It’s a very real stage of human development, brought about by wild, impossible anime weirdness. Each character emerges changed and more mature, by means that we’re not privileged to in the real world, and the way Hosoda constructs these films makes this personal development feel as fantastic as any of the high fantasy it takes to get there.
Mirai is out now in limited theaters.