Circles, Full and Partial: Belle

There’s a general arc to the films of Hosoda Mamoru. Over time, they have been increasingly concerned with family and the raising of children, to the extent that his early works can feel like a distant memory. His latest work, Belle, feels like both a return to older titles like Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time that comes by way of his decade-long focus on parenting.

Belle (whose Japanese title translates to The Dragon and the Freckled Princess) is actually an incredibly difficult work to summarize, as it tries to be so many things at once. It’s the story of Suzu, a teen girl who inadvertently becomes the biggest music sensation in an interactive virtual community after being unable to sing due to childhood trauma. It’s also heavily inspired by Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with the aforementioned Dragon being an online version of the Beast who picks fights with everyone and has to run from a Gaston-equivalent with the power of doxxing. But Suzu also struggles with the cruelty of social ostracization at school, a self-inflicted strained relationship with her dad, relationship woes, and much, much more. 

I believe the way Belle harkens back to Summer Wars is obvious enough (virtual worlds and community), but when it comes to the teen aspect, I think Hosoda basically looped all the way back around. If works like Wolf Children and Mirai come across as explorations of how the feelings of small children influence how they behave and grow, then Belle is smack-dab in the tumult of puberty. Rather than entirely centering the world around teens, there’s a sense that the story is about watching over them as adults.

Belle is a lot, especially when you get into its various topics, including but not limited to: the Internet as a place to find oneself vs. the judgmental eye of social media, the way media facades can bring out positive qualities but also obscure dangerous ones, and the particular ways in-group vs. out-group dynamics run counter to the greater good, among others. At times, Belle seem like it’s going to burst at the seams, which makes it a full and rich experience but also at times thematically convoluted. The rich visuals and stunning musical performances help to tie everything together, keeping the package from falling apart at the end and delivering a complexity that has more merits than faults.

I don’t say this often, but I wonder if Belle would have actually been better as a long-format series. As 13 episodes or maybe more, all its components could be given more room to breathe, and the journey Suzu herself takes could have benefited from the real passage of time. The lack of a film-level budget might have meant a less exquisite presentation, but I think the themes could have rung truer.

Ahh Real Babies: Hosoda Mamoru’s Mirai

Director Hosoda Mamoru is nearly synonymous with family themes in anime films, but his newest work, Mirai (in Japanese: Mirai no Mirai) takes it to a whole new level. Whereas his past films such as Summer Wars, Wolf Children, and The Boy and the Beast explore the value and meaning of family, Mirai is more focused on the authentic feel of raising (and being) real flesh and blood children, and the challenges that come with having a family.

The story of Mirai centers around Kun, a bullet train-loving toddler who’s meeting his newborn little sister, Mirai, for the first time. As is typical of only children who suddenly have a sibling in their lives, he quickly grows jealous over all the attention given to the new baby. However, his tantrums lead him to discover that his backyard is the gateway to something magical, and that it lets Kun discover places and times he never could have otherwise. Through these voyages, which bring him to see his family members past and present in a new light, Kun is witness to the many small steps that lead him to being who he is.

At least, that’s the way the film presents Kun’s adventures. Mirai has almost a Calvin and Hobbes feel in that they never explain outright whether it’s all his imagination or if there really is time travel, and I think that ambiguity is a strength. While Mirai leans more toward the notion that Kun is actually accessing his family’s history given the amount of details he picks up, it doesn’t discount the possibility that Kun, like so many young children, is paying more attention than anyone realizes.

What makes the film truly memorable is the way it so realistically portrays the behavior and learning process of small children in Kun and Mirai. Speaking from my own experiences, I have plenty of friends and family at this point who have raised kids of their own, and many of the obstacles the parents face in dealing with Kun and Mirai actually perfectly mirror the experiences I’ve seen in those close to me. In particular, there’s a scene where Kun refuses to change out of his favorite pants—a stubbornness I’ve seen firsthand. It can feel almost too real, as if Mirai is trying to tell parents that it understands what they’re going through. Moreover, Kun’s mother and father also have to deal with delegating responsibility in their “working mother + work-from-home father” situation that’s quite unusual in Japanese society, which leads to even more examination of the “roles” of family in the modern age. To little surprise, in an interview shown at the screening, Director Hosoda discusses how having children of his own influenced the making of this film.

But it’s not just the parents that the film successfully empathizes with; the portrayal of the experience of being a young child is just as vivid and authentic. There’s one scene in particular toward the end of the film that successfully captures a child’s fear of being in a strange and unfamiliar place. While I’ve not been a baby in a long, long time, Kun’s reaction to his surroundings reminds me of the nightmares I had as a kid, as well as the times where I got lost in a mall or similarly large and eerie spaces.

Mirai feels more like a series of small episodes tied together into a single movie, but perhaps that’s the way childhood is. There’s no grand scheme or single obstacle to be overcome. It’s a learning process for the entire family.

Don’t Fight Alone: The Boy and the Beast Review


Over his past two films, “family” has been a hallmark theme of director Hosoda Mamoru. Whether it’s Summer Wars uniting generations together or a single mother raising two very unusual kids in Wolf Children, Hosoda explores the strength of familial bonds. This trend continues with The Boy and the Beast, but it’s certainly no rehash. Rather, this newest film addresses “family” by delving into the complex dynamics between the individual and the group, and does so in a way that somehow feels both immensely satisfying and a bit under-explored.

Ren is a young boy whose mother has passed away, and whose father is living elsewhere after a divorce. Understanding that his mother’s family sees him less as the child of his parents and more as their heir, he runs away from home only to encounter a large and gruff beastman. This half-human, half-bear fighter, Kumatetsu, is one of two candidates vying to become the next lord of his otherworldly home of Jotengai, and he’s desperate for a pupil because all others couldn’t handle his terrible temperament. He then decides to make Ren his disciple and gives him the name “Kyuta” (because Ren is 9 years old). Kumatetsu’s impatience and Ren’s anger means both have a lot to learn, but they gradually form a father-son relationship that thrives off of their mutually hostile yet well-meaning personalities.

What does it mean to be a family, or father and son? What do we do for those who feel like they don’t belong? What influences do we take from those around us, and in turn how do we influence others? These are all questions that The Boy and the Beast touches upon to varying degrees. Ren feels no connection to his mother’s family, and there is a clear conflict in values when they tell Ren that he will never want for anything, as if what’s most important to him on a fundamental level is material safety rather than the warmth of family. Kumatetsu is revealed to have grown up alone, learning how to fight and be strong all by himself, and this is what makes him such a terrible teacher. Throughout the film, Ren meets other characters whose specific circumstances are different but still feel lonely even when surrounded by others, or are confused about their identity relative to their family. In a way, there might be too many facets that The Boy and the Beast tries to explore, but I’m still on the fence about that.

The growing bond between “Kyuta” and Kumatetsu is one of my favorite parts of the film, because it becomes a showcase for how much the two characters truly need each other. At one point, Ren begins to copy Kumatetsu’s movements, to learn from him without Kumatetsu having to try and teach. Eventually, after the two come to an understanding, Ren even begins to unconsciously pick up Kumatetsu’s mannerisms: he growls when angry, talks in an extremely unrefined way, and seems more and more like the “child of a beast,” which incidentally is the Japanese name of the film.

If there’s one thing that I believe might throw viewers off about The Boy and the Beast, it’s that the film has a closer connection to reality than one might initially expect given its look and feel. I don’t want to go into too many details for the sake of those who have yet to see the movie, but I think this aspect of The Boy and the Beast contributes to that individual/group/family cluster of themes that the film explores, and grounds it the question of how people themselves, especially Japanese people, view their families and those close to them within the context of their society.

The Boy and the Beast does not have the flash and splendor of Summer Wars or the deep, moody atmosphere of Wolf Children, but it strikes a nice balance of light darkness and populates its world with colorful characters. Jotengai in particular is a vibrant, rural throwback to an earlier era of Japan (roughly Edo period?), and the beastmen who call it home are varied and full of personality. The lord of Jotengai, an adorable elderly rabbit man, is a highlight of the film, and I would honestly consider owning a figure of him. The animation often has a kind of pleasantly minimalist feel to it, even though there’s so much to look at, and the CG, while still noticeable in how it differs from the 2D work, is a step up from Wolf Children.

Out of all of Hosoda’s films, I think The Boy and the Beast might be my least favorite, but that is certainly no knock against it. I still think very highly of the movie, and I am impressed by the way it tries to tackle so many elements of the theme of “family.” Perhaps it’s stretched a little too thin, but I believe it was worth trying, and it’s gotten me thinking about the idea of the “sword within your heart”—a simple part of the movie that carries a lot of potential meanings. As for breaking down those meanings, I will save that for a future post.

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Traveling the World One Story at a Time: Ashita no Nadja

Two of Toei Animation’s most enduring franchises are Ojamajo Doremi and Precure. Magical girl anime that are as different as they are similar—the former is four seasons following the continuing adventures of the same core characters, while the latter is currently running 10 years strong and changes its cast almost every season)—the two are chronologically separated by only one year. What filled that gap was a 50-episode anime known as Ashita no Nadja. Literally meaning “Nadja of Tomorrow,” the title points to the idea of a young girl who, in spite of all hardships, continues to look forward.

Unlike the shows that bookend it, Ashita no Nadja is not a magical girl series, though it is similar in being a shoujo series geared towards a Sunday morning children’s audience. The anime’s story follows a young English orphan in the early 20th century named Nadja Applefield as she travels the world as part of a traveling troupe of entertainers in search of her mother. Initially unaware that her quest will get her entangled in the complications of European nobility, along the way she makes lifelong friends, a few bitter enemies, and manages to make almost every guy she meets fall in love with her energy and honesty. While Doremi and Precure thrive on varying degrees of entertaining “filler” episodes combined with the occasional dramatic climax, Nadja more or less continuously builds up its narrative, though not without throwing in an aggravating twist of fate every so often, to emphasize the small tragedies of Nadja’s life, and by extension her never-give-up attitude.

In this way, Ashita no Nadja bears similarities to both melodramatic 70s shoujo series such as Candy Candy, as well as World Masterpiece Theater series such as Anne of Green Gables. Namely, while the main narrative isn’t about romance, it is a constant presence in the series, and in that respect it’s also similar to Candy Candy in that Ashita no Nadja is sort of a reverse-Bechdel Test. There is rarely a single conversation in the series between two men that doesn’t somehow involve Nadja. Men rich and poor, young and old, and on all sides of the law fall for Nadja Applefield.

If this makes it sound like Nadja is something of a Mary Sue, that’s not necessarily all that far off, but it also doesn’t mean that Nadja is a bad character. The anime as a whole just wouldn’t quite work without Nadja being a strong protagonist both in terms of personality and what she contributes to the overall story. While she does have certain elements of wish fulfillment for a young audience, she always comes across as very human, maybe even ultrahuman (as opposed to superhuman). What I mean is that her humanity, her emotions, radiates seemingly without end.

This is not to say that the series is endlessly optimistic. While I’ve already mentioned that the show has tragic elements at times, I want to emphasize this point again because Ashita no Nadja can get surprisingly dark at times. Although it’s not exactly butchering people left and right, it’s not afraid to take away a beloved character or sprinkle in a bit of betrayal. Notably, the series addresses the gap between the rich and the poor during the period in which it takes place. For example, two aristocrats frustrated at the system also vehemently disagree over how to solve this problem: one believes in working within the system, using his family’s money to help the needy, while the other believes in attacking the system Robin Hood-style. Rather than confine this theme to an episode or two, or using it merely as flavoring, this portrayal of a turning point in history, when nobility is on the verge of becoming a relic of bygone times, is actually a persistent plot point throughout Ashita no Nadja.

The surprising level of consideration for Nadja’s world and the interplay between tragedy and hope are such prominent parts of the series that it even affects the merchandising engine that Ashita no Nadja was supposed to be. Like Doremi and Precure (as well as Sailor Moon, of course), Ashita no Nadja was a vehicle for selling toys. Indeed, the show is full of conspicuously toy-like products, from pink castanets to umbrellas, and even a flashy typewriter for some reason. However, at one point in the series, a male character gives Nadja a kaleidoscope, with the meta-intent being that kids will surely want this exciting new product, but the back-story they created for it is anything but joyful. It turns out to be the most prized possession of his dead mother, who lived a sad and lonely life inside the mental and emotional prison known as aristocracy, and the closest she could come to seeing the outside world was that kaleidoscope. That’s Ashita no Nadja, a show where even “BUY OUR TOYS” comes with an element of sadness.

The last thing worth mentioning about Ashita no Nadja is its visuals. Generally the show looks decent enough, full of vibrant colors and just an overall cute aesthetic. Some episodes better than others, as is expected of such a long series. In some cases, though, the animation will punch well above its weight class. While this also happens with Doremi and Precure (especially when it comes to Precure‘s fight scenes), here it is even more noticeable. In particular, episode 26 (seen above) has such eerily gorgeous character animation, set design, and atmosphere that it’s absolutely unforgettable, and even a little difficult to capture in screenshots or clips. It might come as no surprise that the episode director (and one of the key animators) was none other than Hosoda Mamoru, acclaimed director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children. He also directed the opening (seen at the beginning of the post) and ending for Ashita no Nadja, which by themselves probably endorse the show far better than my humble words.

As each episode finished, I actually found it hard to skip that ending. It’s compelling and strangely addictive, which also describes Ashita no Nadja as a whole.

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Thoughts on Wolf Children

It’s been a month or two since I watched Wolf Children so my thoughts on it aren’t really fresh. I’m calling this a “review” I guess, but it’s more an evaluation of what’s left of my impression of the film. Given my usual meandering, this may turn into more of a real review than most of what I write.

Wolf Children is about a human mother raising her half-human/half-wolf son and daughter. Directed by Hosoda Mamoru, it bears some similarities to his previous movies, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, but the changing perspectives of Wolf Children between the older sister Yuki, her brother Ame, and Hana the mother veers it away from the heavy teenager focus of the other films. Both Yuki and Ame are still children, and through Hana we get to see the two half-wolves as a mother would. This three-sided view, along with the fact that those individual views change significantly along the way, is core to the movie’s strength and emotional weight.

In order to fit into human society, the two wolf children are taught that they must hide their wolf sides, which is difficult for them because they transition between the two almost unconsciously. Having to keep their true selves a secret is one of the recurring themes of the movie, especially in terms of how difficult it is both on a pragmatic level and on a psychological one. Making them choose, even unintentionally, between human and wolf worlds clearly has an effect on how they view themselves.  There’s a racism aspect to it, but also the idea that ultimately children decide their own paths, even if their parents disapprove or worry that it wasn’t the right choice. The fact that the “wolf” in them is actually the Japanese wolf, a once-indigenous and now-extinct species, the concept of the other that has been pushed out of society mingles with a softer message concerning environmentalism.

The visuals of the movie are quite beautiful, though one thing that really stands out to me is the variety of animation techniques on display. Throughout the movie there’s a mix of traditional animation, heavy rotoscoping in moments you wouldn’t expect it, compositing, and (I think) even some 3-D animation. It lends the movie a somewhat jarring feel at times, which didn’t jar me out of the film, but at least presented an interesting plethora.

Though talking about the specialness of anime is easily derided (and I’ve done so myself quite often), the use of the mother protagonist and the incorporation of a subdued supernatural element makes me think that such a film would not easily be made in, say, the United States, at least not as a mainstream film or even an animated one. In contrast, Wolf Children did enormously well in Japan. Like all of Hosoda’s movies, it’s worth seeing, and I think it shows a different side of his work.

Everything That is: Summer Wars

In a time where an interactive online community known as “OZ” has become so popular that even the governments of the world participate in it and treat it as a second reality of sorts, a young high schooler named Kenji is roped into attending his classmate Natsuki’s family reunion. When a mishap sends OZ into disarray, its consequences ripple outward into reality, affecting people of all ages and showing that, while everyone has different priorities in life, they can all come together for the common good.

I gave the above description to convey just a little of what Hosoda Mamoru’s Summer Wars is about, but it is hopelessly insufficient on its own, as Summer Wars defies categorization. But to get some idea of what kind of movie it is, perhaps we should first look at the title of the movie itself.  Summer Wars is designed in nearly every way to be a “summer movie,” and I mean that in the absolutely best way possible. When people talk about “summer blockbusters” that “the whole family can enjoy,” Summer Wars is it.

It’s all-encompassing, it’s down-to-Earth, it’s subtle and personal and yet also powerful and grand, simultaneously appealing to audiences young and old and of different values. There’s romance, there’s epic battles, and yet through all this the whole film never feels manufactured. Within the context of the movie, even simple actions take on incredible meaning as you relate to Kenji and Natsuki’s family. The characters are treated with the utmost care, and its story is solid and natural, even if it stems from a digital world.

Often times when a movie or a cartoon portrays any sort of “advanced technology,” it is very clear that the people responsible for these portrayals have no real or direct experience with that technology, but such is not the case with Summer Wars. Whether it’s an old countryside in Japan or the elaborate world of OZ, the animation is gorgeous and sensible and goes a long way in helping to make the movie as strong as it is. Clever art direction in both realms makes both OZ and the real world seem like separate entities, and yet I was never jarred out of the movie when it transitioned between the two. Its integration of various incongruous elements into a cohesive whole is so organic that everything just feels right, just like the entirety of Summer Wars.

In all truth, I almost don’t want to review Summer Wars, as there is so much to the movie that if I were to talk any longer I would give away too much or would risk spoiling the experience of watching it yourself. In fact, if you’ve read this far, there’s a chance I may have ruined the experience for you forever. And I know that Summer Wars isn’t just the kind of movie you can go and see easily, as I saw it as part of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, but if you can get to a theatrical showing or something at a con, I highly recommend you do so.

Speaking of the NYICFF, I had the fortune of being at a showing where Hosoda Mamoru himself was in attendance. After the movie was over, Hosoda went up to the stage for Q&A. I managed to ask him a question about the strong theme of closing generation gaps and his message to people of all ages, to which he responded that it was basically “to get along with one another.” But the real stars of this session weren’t me or Hosoda, but the kids. The children’s questions blew the adults’ questions out of the water, mine included. Many were surprisingly insightful and intelligent, and to me it showed me just how well-made Summer Wars is at communicating to both adults and children.

When I went to watch The Girl Who Leapt Through Time at NYICFF three years ago, I could hear the kids in the theater asking their parents, “What’s going on?” as the themes and topics were perhaps a little too mature for them. But such things did not happen with Summer Wars. Here, you have a movie which allows both adults and children to enjoy it without patronizing or insulting the intelligence of either. To me, that is the clearest sign that no matter your age or origin, Summer Wars is a movie which can keep you riveted through even the simplest of moments.

Summer Wars Tomorrow in NYC

Regretfully it’s too late to buy tickets now so for those who were unaware of this event in the first place I extend my apologies, but I will be attending the New York International Children Film Festival‘s opening night showing of Hosoda Mamoru’s Summer Wars. I’ve been highly anticipating this movie, especially because the year I attended my first NYICFF was when I saw his previous film, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

I am going in blind. I have no knowledge of Summer Wars whatsoever, not even its basic premise, which should tell you a thing or two about how high my expectations are for this movie. Am I setting myself up for disappointment? I highly doubt it, but we’ll see.

Hosoda Mamoru himself will also be there, and it will truly be an honor. The last time I went to a showing where the director was there was for the Otokojuku movie. While I don’t expect Hosoda to be putting on a display of swordsmanship, I really hope the audience is able to deliver some solid questions. I know I’ll be there with my hand raised.