Film director Hosoda Mamoru talks gender roles, parenthood, and identity in Japan

By: Amelia Cook November 1, 20180 Comments

Hosoda Mamoru is best known as the director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children. It was during the production of Wolf Children that he set up his animation headquarters, Studio Chizu, which went on to release The Boy and the Beast in 2015. You may also know Hosoda as the director of the first Digimon films, or even as the original director slated to work on Howl’s Moving Castle.

Hosoda has just released his newest film, Mirai, about a young boy who meets relatives from different eras after feeling threatened by his new baby sister – who also happens to show up as a teenager from the future. AniFem editor-in-chief Amelia Cook had the chance to meet Mamoru Hosoda when he screened Mirai at the London Film Festival, and asked him some questions in an exclusive interview for Anime Feminist.

AC: You’ve talked about how it’s an unusual decision to have a four-year-old boy as protagonist, but I think maybe more unusual is to have a working wife out of the home and a husband in the home, still working but at home [and primary caregiver to their children]. What led you to that decision?

MH: I get asked that question a lot, especially in Europe. I think it’s because Japanese society is perceived as kind of backwards and conservative compared to Europe, but I think our society is changing little by little.

Even looking just at my friends and colleagues, this kind of role reversal is becoming more standard. Six years ago, when I was making Wolf Children, fathers carrying their babies in slings really stood out, but now it’s so common that they don’t stand out at all. It may not be quite as much as Europe yet, but Japanese society is changing in this way.

So yes, the role reversal in the movie is still unusual, but we are actually getting there, so I wanted to represent that change in my movie.

Screenshot from Mirai: a couple sit together at the dining table in their home, the mother watching intently as the father, who is wearing an apron, tries to bottle feed their new daughter.

AC: You mentioned that your [male parent] colleagues now are more likely to take care of their children. Is that something you’ve seen the animation industry change to accommodate over the past six years?

MH: Rather than the industry changing to accommodate parents, it’s more like… I think one change before that is that couples became more likely to go beyond their traditional roles, or to work in partnership rather than being limited to traditional roles. In the anime industry, for example, there are quite a few animation creators who stay at home and work from their dining tables, myself included. I think there are many people working like the father in Mirai.

However, that’s not just in the anime industry. Nowadays it’s possible to work from anywhere, and people aren’t locked into strict roles because of their gender. How people work is changing in response to changes in society. I think so, anyway.

AC: You said when you were promoting Wolf Children that you felt female protagonists gave you more artistic freedom because they don’t have so many of their milestones tied up in career, and it’s more about family and these larger events. Do you still feel that way, or has your view on that changed?

MH: That film, Wolf Children, is about my late mother and how she brought me up, so it’s very personal. While I was making it, I thought “If the gender was different, say the protagonist was the man and a wolf woman falls in love with a human male and then he was to bring up their two children, I’m sure he would do everything differently.” I think women tend to be more liberated in ideas and more brave, less conservative.

Also, I was thinking that actually my mother didn’t have that sort of freedom. Her life was restricted, it was just how it was at the time. So I wanted to give that freedom to that character. I didn’t want her to be a negative kind of person, but it was a time when that was how she had to be. I really wanted to make that character based on my mother have that freedom and also be a very positive woman.

Screenshot from Wolf Children: a contented mother and her two small children, all wearing colourful raincoats, look at some flowers outside.

AC: The experience of making Wolf Children, where you weren’t a parent yet, and were an only child – how did that compare to the experience of making Mirai, where you were a parent of two children who were of the same genders [as the child characters in Mirai], so it was probably much easier to put relatable children on screen? How was the experience of making those two different?

MH: The mother in Wolf Children is the ideal version of my late mother. My mother died, so it’s an image of my mother, and the mother that I wanted her to be, in a way. But with Mirai, everything is very realistic. I wanted to show as accurately as I could what it was really like for me and my wife to become parents of these young children.

We’re definitely not perfect parents. We’re inexperienced. Our son is three years old, but that means we’ve only been doing this for three years! And then we’ve got jobs, we’ve got to bring up these two kids, we’ve got friends and social events… We’re struggling. We cannot just be one person, we cannot just play one single role, because we have more going on in life.

And I think we’re not unique in that, it’s how modern families, any families, are, and I really realised that when I became a parent. So the parental figures in Wolf Children and in Mirai are totally different because of this experience, but that’s also exactly why I thought it would be interesting to show parenting in a different way this time.

AC: And have you found that reactions to the two films and their representations of parenthood have been different?

MH: It’s more interesting to me to portray different types of families, making movies about the same type of family all the time would be pretty boring, so yes, you might see a movie of mine with great parents, with different kinds of children as characters, maybe with different types of relationships between men and women, and so on. Society’s changing, social values are changing, and I think movies mirror that change in society and life in general. As an artist you’re influenced by the direction society is going in.

Having said that, I get criticised for how I represented the couple in Mirai. “The mother’s not doing her job! What is she doing?” and also “The father, he’s not working! What is he doing at home? Where’s his job?” I don’t agree with that. That said, it’s good to have that kind of debate. I do believe society is changing for the better, with not everyone playing traditional roles, but as we are still in a transitional period I think it’s healthy to provoke some sort of discussion.

Screenshot from Mirai: a young boy and a teenaged girl float down from the clouds above, both with their arms and legs spread out like a starfish.

AC: You have said that the name [of the four-year-old male protagonist of Mirai] ‘Kun-chan’ is supposed to be somewhat ambiguous, including gender ambiguity. Can you talk a bit more about that decision?

MH: It’s actually not just the gender that’s ambiguous, I gave him this name to imply that his sense of self is ambiguous, even to him. Using the name ‘Kun-chan’ conveys that ambiguity in Japanese [because of the suffixes ‘kun’, most commonly implying a boy’s name, and ‘chan’, most commonly implying a girl’s name]. Kun-chan is a boy, but you can’t really call him ‘Kun-kun’, it sounds very funny, but putting ‘chan’ at the end of his name means you’re not quite sure what his gender is.

Kun-chan doesn’t know who he is, and that’s what I wanted to represent: he doesn’t have a sense of self, or identity. Now he’s got this younger sister, so he’s got a role to play, but he really doesn’t know how to deal with it. He’s supposed to love her, but he doesn’t know what to do or how to do it. The story is about him discovering his sense of self. So I really wanted to be totally ambiguous about everything, which is actually the state of his mind. The entire existence of Kun-chan is ambiguity. That’s why I gave him that name.

AC: You’ve said in interviews before that a lot of your films were about identity but you’ve said Japan’s not that interested in identity. Can you explain what you mean by that?

MH: Yes, I did say that, and I’m still wondering why it is the case.

I’m not sure how much Japanese people consider what defines you as ‘you’. I think there’s a tendency for people in Japan to be comfortable playing their roles, but role and identity are two different things.

I think it’s considered more important in other countries for  you to question who you are and where you stand, but in Japan there’s this mindset that everyone is the same. I think outside Japan there’s the idea that “Everyone’s different, so we have to respect each other.” Inside Japan it’s more like “Everyone’s the same, so we have to respect each other.” I think that’s quite unusual, and the reason I would say that there’s a higher number of people in Japan who don’t really know what their identity is.

That’s exactly why I wanted to make this story about Kun-chan discovering his identity. I really wanted to emphasise the importance of self and sense of self, but I’m not sure how much audiences understood what I really wanted to say.

However, this is changing in Japan. I want to believe that it’s changing. My generation grew up in the 70s and 80s, and conformity was the key in education, more important than individuality. We went on to reject that, and Japan is where it is today.

Promotional poster for Mirai from the UK: A teenaged girl in school uniform leans down and holds the hand of a small boy, both in the clouds over blue sky.

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