Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Archives for: July 2004, 01

Thursday, July 1, 2004

08:46:17 pm , 1100 words, 13051 views     Categories: Animation, Director

Spotlight on Mamoru Hosoda

I thought I'd talk about 細田守/Mamoru Hosoda today. Nobody over here will have heard of him, because as of yet he has only directed two films, both Digimon, both short, and both of which were -- mangled doesn't quite do justice to what was done to them -- eviscerated for US audiences. You thought Robotech was bad? The Digimon movie seen here consists of random sequences from 5 different movies. Nobody over here got a chance to see how good a director this guy really is. In Japan he became famous overnight because of those two movies. They're what got him invited to direct Howl's Moving Castle.

So what's all the fuss? You'll just have to watch the films to see for yourself.

Just kidding. It's best to go back to Hosoda's first piece of Digimon, episode 21 of the TV series. Having been at Toei for a few years, I guess he was invited to do an episode of Digimon, and, not being too keen on the series, he picked the one episode that doesn't take place in the usual Digimon universe, but rather is set in modern-day Tokyo. He then proceeded to go in his own very personal direction with the episode. Here we see not monsters or adventures, but just the way kids really live today in modern-day Tokyo, ugly tenements and all, captured lovingly with slow, poetic directing of almost Tarkovskian proportions, photorealistic backdrops, and a very restrained story.

Well, the first movie, Digimon Adventure, basically picks up where this left off. With exactly the same time allotment, Hosoda created a small masterpiece really quite unlike anything ever seen in the genre. The backgrounds are no longer merely photorealistic, they really are based on actual photos taken by Hosoda around Tokyo -- see this page for examples. (And yes, I've read in an interview with Hosoda that he himself did the location hunting for both films.) This is a big part of what makes the movie so incredibly fresh and convincing. It's realism, but not the quasi-neo-realism of a Takahata. It's closer to the poetic realism of Oshii, but without the dopping helpings of self-indulgence. It's really one of the best examples of sci-fi/fantasy I've ever seen, because it doesn't think of itself as such -- it doesn't bash you over the head with the stuff -- it merely tries to capture the way kids would react to this one-time, curious, magical event in their otherwise ordinary, real world. With very little plot, Hosoda manages to create a seamless 20 minutes where every image is perfectly composed, and every moment is made to count. To give the film the relentless forward drive he wanted, in a brilliant stroke he used Ravel's Bolero as the only piece of music. As hackneyed as the piece may be, in this case it really works, and doesn't feel gimmicky. It took guts and imagination to do something like that, and skill to pull it off.

The next film, entitled Children's War Game, goes in a slightly different direction. We're still in the real world -- Hosoda is only interested in the real world -- but we're back in a situation more recognizably Digimon, with the various protagonists and the monster plot and so on. With forty minutes this time, Hosoda creates a more epic story that manages to remain simultaneously believable and fantastic. The theme is again the interconnectedness of kids. In the first film we saw the kids at their perches in the tangle of tenements communicating with each other via cell phones, while here the internet provides the stage, suggesting a wider, global scale. The protagonists are dispersed all over the country, and kids from around the world take part in the events via the internet. Hosoda again keeps the focus on real kids living their lives in the real world, with the event this time being one that they approach more like an everyday problem to be solved, rather than an evil to be defeated. It's not a monster that appears out of nowhere destroying buildings. Just a bunch of kids getting together to try to figure out how to fix a computer bug. Hosoda again subverts the genre, recasting it into something more humane and believable.

I should also mention that the animation in both of the films is absolutely superb and worth seeking out on its own merits. I was shocked when I first saw War Game, the look was so bold and obviously Ohira-school.

1 AD 山下高明 Takaaki Yamashita
2 AD 山下高明/中山久司 Takaaki Yamashita/Hisashi Nakayama.

I've seen these two guys' names occasionally as animators in odd places since then, and always been impressed by their work. The big animator in both films is Hideki Hamasu, who I believe animated the cuts of Hikari crying/coughing near the end of 1, my favorite in the film. Ken'ichi Konishi is also there. He animated my favorite cut in 2, the wobbly walk of the kid getting up to take a leak.

Hosoda has also done a lot of other stuff, of course, but no full-length movies yet. He's been active since 1995. Up until the Digimon movies in 1999 & 2000 he mainly directed/storyboarded TV episodes. Since then he seems to have shifted his focus towards commercials and short films, for example Superflat Monogram, Atagoul and most recently an unusual OVA in a new genre called "ganime", an amalgam of the word for "drawing" and "anime" to convey the idea of an anime consisting entirely of stills. For some reason he uses the pen-name 橋本カツヨ/Katsuyo Hashimoto occasionally, usually when storyboarding or doing an op/ed, as in the case of Samurai Champloo recently, where he directed and storyboarded the op.

The Atagoul pilot can actually be viewed online, and it's a really nice, infectious little musical piece. I read the original manga by Hiroshi Masumura a long time ago, and I loved it (as well as Masamura's other stuff) for its loopy, beatnik atmosphere. This pilot manages to capture quite a bit of that feeling. It's done by Digital Frontier, the digimation company that more recently did Appleseed.

Other than that, the much-talked-about Superflat Monogram is probably his main accomplishment since the Digimon movies, but it's not available anywhere yet. He's certainly shown himself to have the talent and the artistic integrity to make a great full-length movie, so I hope he does so when the circumstances seem right, as obviously he didn't feel they were for Howl. Even if he never does, he's still a name to watch. Along with Masaaki Yuasa, he could be one of the big figures of the next generation.