Film

Tokyo International Film Festival welcomes audiences to the animated world of Mamoru Hosoda

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

The Tokyo International Film Festival, whose 29th edition unspools from Oct. 25 to Nov. 3, offers something for everyone — from golden oldies in the Japanese Classics section to films for kids in the new Youth section. However, as Japan’s biggest film festival, as well as one of the most important in Asia, TIFF aims to be more than a cinematic smorgasbord.

Once criticized as a dumping ground for films rejected by other more prestigious festivals, TIFF’s Competition section has improved noticeably under the leadership of programming director and dedicated cinephile Yoshihiko Yatabe.

The festival has also added a section called World Focus, which presents award-winning films from other festivals that have yet to secure a Japanese distribution deal. That is, quality has taken precedence over the (mostly meaningless) number of world premieres.

At the same time, the festival has sharpened its well-known focus on Asian cinema with Crosscut Asia, a section that spotlights rising Asian filmmakers — this year, Indonesia’s. Also, the Japanese Cinema Splash section, which under a different name was once a refuge for the dregs of the indie world, has become a highly anticipated launch pad for films from some of Japan’s best young directors.

Under director general Yasushi Shiina, who took charge in 2013, the festival has also become a major event for fans of anime. In addition to offering more animated films in the Special Screenings and other regular sections, TIFF has been presenting retrospectives dedicated to animation masters such as “Evangelion” series creator Hideaki Anno (2014) and “Gundam” series godfather Yoshiyuki Tomino (2015).

This year the honoree is Mamoru Hosoda, who has been an animator for two decades, but truly came into his own with “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” (“Toki o Kakeru Shojo,” 2006). This fantasy about a high school girl who becomes unstuck in time won a shelf of prizes, including an Animation of the Year award from the Japan Academy. Since then, Hosoda has moved from triumph to triumph — commercially and critically — culminating with his fourth feature, “The Boy and the Beast” (“Bakemono no Ko,” 2015), the second-highest earning Japanese film last year at ¥5.85 billion.

But when The Japan Times interviewed Hosoda about the retrospective and his career, the 49-year-old director wanted first to talk about, not one of his many successes, but a rare failure. In 2000, Studio Ghibli — the creative home of anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki — commissioned Hosoda to develop and direct the film that was to become “Howl’s Moving Castle” (“Howl no Ugoku Shiro,” 2004). But due to various creative and personal issues, including the life-threatening illness of Hosoda’s mother, work on the film was stopped in April 2002 and Hosoda left Ghibli under a cloud. Miyazaki later directed the film himself.

After that, Hosoda worked on an episode of the TV anime “Magical Do Re Mi” (2002), which he specifically asked TIFF to include in the retrospective.

“It has a very deep meaning for me,” he explains. “I didn’t get to finish my own take on (‘Howl’s Moving Castle’), so I gave form to my unexpressed feelings about ‘Howl’ through (‘Magical Do Re Mi’).”

Did those feelings include a hint of the desire for revenge against Ghibli?

“No,” says Hosoda with a laugh that’s not entirely nervous. “But not being able to finish your own film is a very frustrating experience for a director. So I had a strong urge to re-create it in another form. ‘Magical Do Re Mi’ led to ‘The Girl Who Leapt through Time,’ so it’s important to me. It’s only one episode of a TV anime, but I made it with the same passion I would put into a film.”

One thread connecting Hosoda’s features in the retrospective — including “Summer Wars” (2009), “Wolf Children” (“Okami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki,” 2012) and “The Boy and the Beast” — is the theme of family, though Hosoda’s family groupings are hardly conventional. In “Wolf Children,” a single mom raises two children who are half-wolf, half-human. In “The Boy and the Beast,” an orphaned boy finds a sort of surrogate dad in the titular beast, who is a bearish, hot-tempered warrior in a parallel “beast” world.

“The image of the ‘family’ is always changing, it’s not set in concrete,” Hosoda explains. “Today you have working mothers and stay-at-home dads. Couples don’t necessarily have to marry or, even if they do, have children. But all of us need to think about the important things that never change. Why do we need a family in the first place? Why does family make us feel like home, make us feel comforted?”

Though there is a focus on family, Hosoda’s films are anything but typical Japanese family dramas; instead of the usual sentimentality their mood is often comic, their imagery vividly fantastic.

“Most of all, I want to make my films to be enjoyable,” he says. “So I turn a child into a wolf, a stepfather into a bear. Isn’t that more fun than human characters?”

He didn’t always want to be an animator, however. As a college student contemplating careers Hosoda wavered between making animation, his childhood passion, and directing live-action films and TV commercials. When he graduated in 1991, Japan’s economy was still booming (soon to go bust), but the animation industry was “at its poorest.”

“Normal students would choose to go into the advertising industry, because you could make a lot of money,” he says. “So if you went into the anime business you were basically an idiot.”

Hosoda, however, reasoned that “a business able to struggle through bad times will be strong when times change. When it’s at rock bottom, it has the most potential to grow.” So he opted for animation and has never looked back. “I am all about anime,” he says.

The director hasn’t switched over completely to 3-D computer graphics, the de facto animation format being used in Hollywood these days, though he admits that “every year the amount of handmade animation I use decreases.”

However, Hosoda insists he is still attracted to the beauty of hand-drawn animation.

“It’s part of Japanese anime’s uniqueness,” he says. “If all the animation in the world used the same method, like 3-D CG, it would be boring. Every country should have its own unique way of creating anime.”

Hosoda is working on a new project at his Studio Chizu animation house, but for now he declines to give any details.

“I found a way to make a film interesting by using new methods,” he says. “I can’t say much more at this time, but I hope you will all look forward to it!”

Though each of Hosoda’s films since “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” has earned more than the last, he says he feels no pressure to equal his former employer as a box-office king (“Howl’s” made a resounding ¥19.6 billion).

“A director should be interested in creating a good relationship with the audience, not in the profits,” he says. “I’m just striving to do better from one movie to the next.”

Tokyo International Film Festival takes place at Roppongi Hills and other venues from Oct. 25 to Nov. 3. The World of Mamoru Hosoda section at TIFF is comprised of films that will be screened throughout the festival. A special screening of “The Professionals Mamoru Hosoda’s Job” and a talk session will take place at Roppongi Academy Hills 49F Auditorium on Oct. 28. For more information, visit www.tiff.jp-net.