The Boundless Frame of Mamoru Hosoda

The director of BELLE has been quietly pushing the boundaries of animated storytelling for over a decade

Images: Mad House, Funimation, GKids and Studio Chizu

You ever think about the phrase “beyond the edge of the frame?” There’s something extra special to a film that feels like a small picture of a whole rather than a contained diorama. Whether it’s a deeply moving drama or a fantasy / sci-fi adventure or a period epic, the feeling that there’s a life to the world and the characters beyond the strict boundaries of the narrative is often as subtly ineffable as it is effectively enriching. However, the inherent artificiality of animation can make this difficult to achieve, leading to even some of the most well-regarded (for good reason) animated films from studios like Disney and Pixar to feel more like deliberately-engineered Rube Goldberg narrative machines rather than unfolding experiences.

Which is why I find it fascinating to examine how Mamoru Hosoda (director of Wolf Children, The Boy and the Beast, Mirai, and others as well as Belle) plays with the tools afforded by the medium to push at the limitations thereof. And while it’s never overly showy, he does this — in varied but complimentary ways — in every movie he’s made since 2006.

(NOTE: this piece will inevitably contain a few major story spoilers for the five films herein, but I’ll try to keep it as vague as possible)

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

“Aw hell, Makoto’s time leaping again!”

Hosoda’s breakout film (based on Yasutaka Tutsui’s serialized science fiction novel from 1966) slides nonchalantly into frame in media res, with visuals and narration that are initially unassuming but are shortly revealed to be as unstuck in time as its titular heroine. One of the film’s signifying visual trademarks is how it contrasts the still and the dynamic, as the story of a schoolgirl stuck at a collection of crossroads in her life (between academic tracks, possible relationships, and so forth) is both frozen in place and — once she accidentally gains the ability — constantly moving back and forth through time.

Mokoto is limited both by the confines of the story (which takes place over the course of a few days, with variety of repeated events) and her experience (which in turn affects her use of her time-traveling powers). Hosoda underlines this both by the repeated static shots of characters in moments of stillness (there’s a reason there’s a bunch of baseball, particularly the waiting between cause and effect of the sport), and showing permutations of the same events over and over again. This culminates in one climactic scene where the entirety of a busy Tokyo crossing is frozen in place aside from two characters.

However, he also knows how to break these very deliberate boundaries. To compliment his use of static shots, he regularly departs from his minimalist tableau for character entrances and exits. Makoto’s signature physical attribute is literally leaping into and out of frame and arriving (often with chaotic results to her surrounding environment) sometimes without context until moments later in the scene. This characteristic comes to a head during her final sprint with the camera racing ahead of Makoto as she struggles to stay in frame, until she matches speed and outstrips the camera itself.

(Note: watch out for those lateral tracking shots, that’s coming back a lot)

We can also see the beginnings of how Hosoda approaches expanding his narrative. The story broadens with the addition of a second time traveler, and the film lays enough narrative track that a revisit allows the viewer to pinpoint the moments where the film is telling multiple narratives across different intersecting timelines. And Hosoda’s intentionally minimalist visuals allow the moments where The Girl Who Leapt Through Time goes full 2001 with its depictions of time travel (or the short traumatic bursts of genuine physical danger) to be as impactful as possible.

Summer Wars (2009)

Natsuki’s family reunions are more eventful than yours.

These elements all carry over into Hosoda’s next film, Summer Wars, which follows Kenji, a high school boy who poses as his classmate Natsuki’s fiancee during her family reunion to celebrate their matriarch’s 90th birthday. The evolving use of contrast between still tableau and frenetic action are furthered by the film’s split between the events in the “real world” and the Second Life-esque massively multiplayer virtual network of OZ, where user-created avatars communicate across the globe and engage in worldwide finance, sports, or compete in super-powered martial arts bouts. A narrative device that, a couple decades ago, once needed multiple info dumps by a sunglassed Lawrence Fishburne, is now just presented as a matter of fact as characters seamlessly move toward their goals between the nebulous boundaries of these contrasting worlds.

The film seeks to surround the viewer, not just with keeping track physical and digital goings-on, but with the overwhelming numbers of the Junoichi clan. Kenji is thrown into a deep end comparable to the Mariana Trench with relations he’s determined to impress, and the camera reflects on the immensity of that with how it slowly pans across the packed house. Hosoda’s deliberate static frames become halves of conversations as various aunts and cousins talk to each other from across the room or off-screen. It’s a visualization of Spielberg’s signature “conversational cacophony” as well as making the audience feel as embalmed in this family’s drama as Kenji is himself.

Summer Wars also showcases Hosoda’s proclivity for telling the story you expected to be the whole movie in Act 1, leading to the rest of the film being an open road of possibility — which he only doubled down on over his next couple films.

Wolf Children (2012)

As if motherhood wasn’t challenging enough.

By the time Hosoda’s next film released, Japan was one of the last places regularly producing 2D animated features. While no stranger to the use of 3D (there’s a lot of CGI during the OZ segments in Summer Wars), Hosoda has proven as careful and deliberate with its use as he is with moving his camera.

Partway through this largely traditional 2D animated film, Hosoda finally breaks loose visually in a sequence of pure joy at freedom of movement, as he fully untethers his camera to follow the focal family of Hana and her two shape-shifting children. As the kids shed their clothes and their human forms to run as wolves through the wilderness, the perspective shifts to a continuous first-person shot racing through the snowy woods, not only adding heretofore unexplored (and literal) depth to the frame, but bringing the viewer as close the the characters as the barrier of the screen allows. But true to form, Hosoda delivers a counterpoint later that’s as understated as it is subtly heartbreaking.

Video Essayist Tony Zhou already covered Hosoda’s most impactful use of his now signature lateral tracking shot in the series Every Frame a Painting, so I won’t belabor that. However, in spite of how effective Hosoda is at using an historically objective and distant camera move to create intimacy with the titular wolf children (Yuki and Ame), it also cracks the entire film wide open. While Hosoda fudged with physical space in some of his “real world” shots in previous films, here he intentionally breaks both time and space to move back and forth through different focal points of the siblings’ school years. And because he ends with Ame exiting the frame while “out of shot” (leaving the classroom when the camera’s not on him) you feel that you’re not only moving through a world, but that the world is “happening” whether you’re looking or not.

The Boy and the Beast (2015)

Kyuta and Kumatetsu arguing over breakfast

Hosoda reuses this particular trick a couple of times in his animated fantasy adventure — a film which cleverly riffs on Journey to the West, The Karate Kid, Alice in Wonderland, and the Rocky films. Here, however, he not only manages to create the illusion of the “boundless frame” previously referred to, it’s a deliberate thematic move.

Because The Boy and the Beast is about the struggle to contain the darkness inside one’s self, choosing when to show violence allows Hosoda to heighten the impact. The first time Kyuta returns to the human realm and uses his fighting skills to stop some bullies, not only is the scene not played for the sort of catharsis most directors would revel in, it’s not even shown. Once again, it happens during a continuous lateral tracking shot (similar to the one in Wolf Children mentioned above, but contained in space and happening in real time), and we only see the high schoolers reacting to the ass-kicking. It allows us to question our narrative priorities as well as making our window these two worlds as expansive as possible.

And speaking of two worlds, Hosoda has used the story opportunities offered by making as much use of both the human world and the beast world of Jutengai to create perhaps his ultimate example of “I thought this was gonna the whole movie, whaddya mean there’s still an hour left?” A boy running away from home, finding a magical land of talking animal folk, and training under a slobby loudmouth with a heart of gold is a concept you could guess the act breaks of almost in your sleep. But, similarly to how Hosoda created a quietly epic family drama in the years he spends with the characters in Wolf Children, Beast refuses to be done with the viewer until it’s damn good and ready. And because the film is so deft at both pacing itself as a rollicking good time while also loading the bases for a rather staggering finale, it makes for an exciting discovery rather than an overlong slog.

Peter Beagle once wrote in The Last Unicorn that “there is never a happy ending, because nothing ever ends,” which is the kind of weighty truth a story can use to balance out a great deal of lies. The Boy and the Beast embodies this, showing what could be “and end” for its story multiple times only to continue to greater heights (even the Pixar version of this would end at the championship match), because the characters are going to keep on “living” after we leave them.

Mirai (2018)

Kun is decidedly not impressed with his little sister.

Which brings us to Hosda’s smallest film as well as arguably his most expansive. Mirai is your run-of-the-mill family drama about a boy who’s having trouble adjusting to sharing his parents’ love with a younger sister, so he uses the magical oak tree in the middle of his split-level house to move back and forth through time and space to meet members of his family at different ages and gain their wisdom.

You know, standard stuff.

Hosoda doesn’t make up a whole new bag of tricks for this one, but from the moment the camera pans down from the skyline to zoom in on Kun and his family’s odd little house, you can feel the movie encouraging you to sink into it. The camera is constantly trying to pull the viewer into frame, both with its repeated emphasizing of the environment to make maximum use of the space (as well as show the scale of even a single-family home to the eyes a 3-year-old) and how it will interrupt these “time jump” sequences. Hosoda occasionally breaks the boundaries within the fantasy itself (like a lateral tracking shot serving as transition between a horseback ride and a motorcycle journey), but also allows the “mundane” to intrude on Kun’s adventures (like how “Mirai from the future” has to revert to “baby Mirai” whenever the parents are watching her). It recalls the flights of fancy of Stupendous Man and Spaceman Spiff from Calvin and Hobbes, but involving multiple generations in the shenanigans.

Then, during the finale, Hosoda literally puts his cameras and his characters into freefall. Using a repeated motif of zooming in on a focal point, Hosoda uses his own frame as though it were an endless series of portals into other points in time as Kun and Mirai fall through time and space, pulling the viewer relentless downward. Each new vignette is a culmination of previous events presented like a Russian nesting doll of inextricably connected characters and stories, creating a chain through time that we fall through link by link.

They grow up so fast.

I’m excited to see how Mamoru Hosoda continues to push at his stylistic limits and those of the medium with further projects like the upcoming Belle (which hits U.S. theaters on January 14th), but I hope he keeps finding small unexpected ways to challenge himself. It’s folly to call Hosoda “the next Miyazaki” — because it both misses the point of what makes Miyazaki special and how differently Hosoda approaches similar material. What the two do have in common, however (aside from being uncanny at capturing the physical mannerisms of kids), is a knack for focusing on characters we’d be happy to just sit down to tea with and throwing them across the horizon on a grand adventure.

But that takes some real doing to accomplish that when your characters never even leave their yard.

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