From Aliens to Family, From Family to Roots

Mamoru Hosoda, one of the contemporary Japanese anime directors, frequently follows certain patterns in his feature-length anime films. Certain elements are usually linked to each other by bearing symbolic meanings. Different creatures become family members. An object, usually an image, takes us back and forth in time. Tradition plays an important role in shaping modern life.

In this review, I will explain these recurring elements in five different anime films that Hosoda produced after the 2000s: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), Summer Wars (2009), Wolf Children Ame and Yuki (2012), The Boy and the Beast (2015), Mirai (2018). We will look at how Mamoru Hosoda reproduces the issues of family ties and childhood, creatures and strangers, traditions and roots, classical master-apprentice relations, country and city, time and space in his unique narrative style.

A Guest coming from the Future for the Sake of an Artwork

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) written by Satoko Okudera, appears as an interesting production that deconstructs the linear flow of time as its name suggests. The heroine of the movie is Makoto Konno, a high school student. She realizes that she can time-travel thanks to a gadget resembling a pocket watch. Leaping through time, she gets rid of the little troubles she has gone through, but things get even worse as she tries to fix things, and she eventually finds herself in a mess. Later, Makoto realizes that her chances to change the course of time are limited, so she looks for another way to understand the concept of “time”. Her aunt who works on the restoration of an old painting becomes her advisor. Then we learn that Makoto is not the only person capable of time-leaps; in fact, the gadget was brought by a mysterious person who knew that the old painting would be lost in a future destruction, and wanted to see it while it is still hung on the museum walls.

Interestingly, the link between the future and the past is established through a classic Japanese painting. As a narrative style specific to Hosoda, the bridges between the past and the future are built through a visual representation in this film. This classical artwork synchronizes different generations and gathers them in one time. The mysterious person from the future implies that there is a similarity between the periods in which he lived and the time the artwork is created: Both were on the brink of great destruction. In that way, the film reveals its critique of progressivism: We cannot be sure if the past destructions would not be repeated in the future. There is no guarantee that the future will be better than the present or the past. Even time-traveling is not enough to set things right.

Our Grandma can Pick up After the Artificial Intelligence

In Summer Wars (2009), we find ourselves in a not-too-distant future world. In this network society, all of the institutions are connected with the blockchain via a digital system called OZ. From banking transactions to the network operating systems, everything is performed through people’s profiles on this platform. OZ is also integrated with an entertainment system where people can play video games. In other words, in this cyber world which is a virtual copy of reality, the official institutions are intertwined with consumption and entertainment.

However, not only humans use OZ. Accounts managed by artificial intelligence are also a part of the system. The story unfolds when such an account breaches the firewall of the system by simply gaming during its testing phase. This problem in the virtual world suddenly turns the daily flow completely upside down. Managed by artificial intelligence, this account gets out of control and seizes all governmental systems, because it can grasp the hard-wired logic faster than humans. Since the navigation system, social services, international trade works, and many other systems are integrated with OZ, real-life becomes chaos only within minutes.

During the incident, we see a prestigious large family gathering for their grandmother’s birthday in a traditional Japanese house. It will be the ancient knowledge of the grandmother that will solve this nationwide problem. While the digital systems are falling apart, the grandmother of the family manages the crisis manually, giving instructions by making phone calls to important bureaucrats, depending on the reputation brought by her age and the prestige of the family.

However, the problem is not completely solved. Because the system is not fully fixed, a simple health problem of the grandmother falls through the cracks, and the birthday turns into a funeral with her death overnight. On the other hand, the account managed by AI gradually becomes a digital monster. The problem turns into a potential catastrophe when this digital beast takes over one of the state’s combat drones and locks onto a nuclear power plant. Against it, the teenagers of the family carry out a battle in the virtual arena, using the tactic that their ancestors used against the Tokugawa clan during the Siege of Ueda. On the other hand, the game that would bring victory is the digital version of the traditional Japanese card game Hanafuda. Family members prevail over artificial intelligence because they learned the ropes of this game from their grandmother. In this way, we see that tradition overcomes technology.

It is not a coincidence that the digital monster was coded by one of the adopted sons who left the family long ago. A great disaster can be prevented only if the family comes together as a whole. Summer Wars tacitly links the digital creature with the family and skillfully aligns regaining him back to the family with gaining a victory.

Tips for Raising Children and Potatoes

Wolf Children Ame and Yuki (2012) resembles a mythological story. The young woman named Hana marries a man that she met at university and later finds out that he was a werewolf. After her husband’s unexpected death, she cannot cope with the difficulties of living with two werewolf children in the city and moves to the countryside. Raising these cute werewolf babies and keeping them from the harms of the world become the main issues of the story.

The only memory left from the deceased father is the photo on his ID card. No matter where the family goes, this photo takes its place at the center of the house. This is also an item that Hana frequently talks to when she has a problem. Settled in her new house in the countryside, she wants her children to grow up in a comfortable environment without being marginalized. Hana later learns traditional farming methods from the elders and establishes a new life for the family; making the countrymen the real teachers of this university-graduate in her life struggles.

When the wolf children grow up, the elder one finds her place amongst other people, while the other one prefers his wolf identity over being a human. A fox becomes his master in the wildlife. We see that the mother prefers country life over the urban, as her son prefers wildlife over the modern education system. Hana is not able to do anything but to support his decision to live his life as a wolf, despite working hard to integrate him into the school.

Welcome to the World of Beasts: Darkness Cannot Enter

Among the anime films written and directed by Hosoda, The Boy and the Beast (2015), resembles the classic master-apprentice relationship, but reverses it. The wild beast Kumatetsu is a very self-confident swordsman and resembles a bear in appearance. He has never had an apprentice in the world of monsters because of his short-temper. By chance, a nine-year-old little human boy named Ren comes to the world of monsters and becomes his apprentice. The boy is at least as stubborn and grumpy as his master. The two make it difficult to decide the roles when they are bickering. The master-apprentice relationship is not the only reversed element: we find out that in the world of beasts, humans become the “other”. Being the only human in the world of the beasts, the boy is marginalized because, in the clean and orderly world of monsters, it is believed that human beings carry darkness in their hearts.

On the other hand, we find out that Ren took refuge in this world in the first place because of his broken family. After his mother’s death, it was his relatives who undertook his care. Ren is also angry at his father as he was not there for his son after the divorce. While redirecting his anger at his beast master, he realizes that they have a similar past. Just like the boy, his master grew up alone too, so he had nobody to guide him. While Kumatetsu is training him, he also learns how to be a good master. The two constantly exchange their teacher-student roles.

Returning to the human world after eight years, the boy finds his missing father by coincidence. This time, the director takes us to the concept of “family” via the boy and the beast duo, who begin to act like father-son. Neither the real father nor the master is a perfect guide. When Ren realizes this truth and accepts them with their shortcomings, the question of the film also changes: Perhaps the problem is with the perfect masters?

Raised by my Little Sister Coming from the Future

In Mirai from the Future (2018), we leap in time through the eyes of a child. We see little Kun’s coming up with his new identity as a big brother after the birth of his sister. The family bonds with both present and past ancestors are again very important in this film. The photos in the family album blend into the dreams of a pre-schooler. In these dreams, Kun travels to both his family’s past and his newborn sister’s future. In the film, the audience is invited to travel outside of the linear concept of time by twisting it back and forth.

Time is not the only concept that is rearranged in this film. The director also plays with classic family roles. The mother goes to work, and the father takes care of the children while working at his home office. In the film, the characters do not break their ties with tradition when adapting to modern conditions. Although they are living in different conditions from the past, they bear the traces of their ancestors. For example, Kun learns that his naughtiness is inherited from his mother. Even though the everyday activities and environment have changed, the characters have a strong connection with the past.

The Curtain

Mamoru Hosoda’s anime films usually follow a certain track, but the concepts often break from their classical meanings. The director rearranges them within the universe that he has established. Although Japanese culture and tradition have a role in the narration, Hosoda handles these concepts with a fresh touch. When we look at all of his films from a broader perspective, we detect these patterns. In his films, creatures become family members, family bonds tie them to tradition, and the images take us on a journey through time. Hosoda not only deconstructs classical flows, but he also reverses them. Sometimes we see a migration from the urban city-center to the countryside. Sometimes we travel back in time with a gadget or the dreams of a child. A boy can teach his master. Yet, the director’s interference with these flows is not destructive. The tradition is deliberately mixed into the day not in a fanatic but in an artistic way.

Z. Nihan DOĞAN

Cinema researcher, born in 1992 in Istanbul/Turkey. After graduating from Department of Turkish Language and Literature of Istanbul University, she got her master's degree in Cultural Studies at Şehir University with her dissertation titled "The Making of a Cinema Culture through Cinema Magazines in Early Republican Turkey (1923-1928): The Business, Stars, and Audience". She currently is a Ph. D. Candidate in Media and Communication Studies Program of Galatasaray University, working on her dissertation about contemporary Turkish cinema. Among her fields of interest can be mentioned vernacular cinema, society of consumption, postcolonial studies, and semiotics. She has a specific interest in traditional Islamic art, learns manuscript ornamentation, likes being behind the scenes, and has recently been learning Japanese. On Günce Sinema, she aims to focus on East Asian Cinema, popular culture, and audience studies.
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