Mamoru Hosoda’s theatrical career started 20 years ago with the Digimon Adventure short film, so this is a good opportunity to celebrate this unusual production and the evolution of one of anime’s most sincere storytellers. Enjoy!
We often write profiles of creators that anime viewers at large don’t have a confident grasp on, be it due to their eclectic style or because they haven’t been around for long enough for anyone but the hardcore fans and in-the-know industry members to notice them. It makes sense for a site focused on the production side of things like this one to give preference to overlooked voices, even as we tend to limit ourselves to the commercial animation sphere.
And Mamoru Hosoda is many things, but an obscure anime creator he is not. His immense commercial success is easily quantifiable, and the enthusiastic critical appraisal doesn’t lag behind at all; with his recent Academy nomination for Mirai, he’s become one of the few non-Miyazaki anime directors whose existence’s been acknowledged by English media, which is a depressingly tricky bar to clear. It’s fair to say that he’s not in need of signal boosting by a niche website. If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re aware of who he is.
On top of that massive recognition, Hosoda’s in the running for the anime’s most sincere creator. He’s devoted to a consistent ethos with children as the centerpiece and has openly admitted that his mindset when directing’s reshaped entire projects. It’s no secret that the bitterness in One Piece: Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island came from Hosoda’s frustrated attempt to direct Howl’s Moving Castle at Ghibli, which turned a rather silly scenario pitch into a darker affair. Right after returning to Toei, and in his first major project after leaving them, the most iconic imagery in his works reflected his pondering about which path to follow. In more recent times, his films have been born from developments in his life to begin with – Wolf Children’s tale of motherhood after his own mother died, a father’s struggle in the form of The Boy and the Beast once he became a parent, and the downright autobiographical Mirai just last year.
That applies to his best known visual quirk as well. Kaguya-sama Love is War’s popularity has gotten people to talk about kagenashi: an approach based on flat visuals with no shading nor highlights, which artists use for a variety (thematic, aesthetic, technological) of reasons. And as we mentioned in passing during our first Kaguya-sama write-up, Hosoda argues that kagenashi’s a cornerstone of his philosophy as a storyteller; since he makes anime with children in the spotlight – both as main characters and in the audience – he wants to convey feelings with no subterfuges. Kids’ minds exposed clearly, and thus without complicated shading getting in the way. Despite being an heir to one of anime’s most ornate directorial bloodlines, Hosoda’s come to value clarity as a key aspect. It’s not that he deals with simple ideas (if anything he’s a fan of ambiguous emotions), but that he’s very invested in accessibility so that even the youngest viewers can perceive the characters’ and sometimes his very own dilemmas. Hence why it’s rather easy to get what he’s all about, even when it comes to his workflow.
So, why are we writing about an older work of his again, if he’s supposedly that easy to grasp? Because we like him, because you like him, and because Digimon’s celebrating its 20th anniversary right now. And that means it’s been two decades since Hosoda’s first movie.
Digimon posed itself as an evolution of the likes of Tamagotchi: virtual pets you didn’t simply take care of but could also use to battle your friends. A more aggressive edge to the 90s mascot craze that influenced the design philosophy of the franchise since its inception… though truth to be told, it doesn’t seem like they had a properly defined vision until Digimon‘s multimedia expansion. After multiple revisions of the toys, a manga one-shot, and other mostly forgotten enterprises, Bandai kicked up everything a notch in early 1999 with the release of Digimon World for the PS1 and an anime alongside Toei Animation. And it’s precisely the latter that we want to pay homage to, as a curious production that marked the start of a beloved director’s theatrical career.
Chances are that your mental image of an anime project meant to promote a property with aspirations of becoming a merchandising behemoth is restrictive, with countless guidelines set before the creators come into play. And while that’s true in many situations, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re meticulously planned or that producers know what they want in the first place. As mentioned by Hosoda himself, Digimon Adventure: The Movie (not to be confused with the embarrassing western mishmash) was in the works before the TV show was pitched, even though it’s now seen as nothing but its prologue. There was no real narrative to use as a springboard either, nor was there an established cast of characters; though the looks of certain characters like protagonist Taichi were determined by cross-media obligations with series that preceded the anime like Digimon Adventure V-Tamer 01, it was Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru‘s designs that served as the starting point for the cast rather being the visual realization of ideas that were already agreed upon.
Execs would vaguely nudge the staff in certain directors and sometimes veto their wildest ideas – we’ll never have Hosoda wacky Digimon comedy set in the 60s and led by Taichi’s dad – yet never offer constructive guidance. This kind of situation, where creators are freely creating without actual freedom, is rather common at Toei Animation due to the kind of mainstream projects they deal with, but Digimon took it to a rather extreme extent. With not one but two groups of creators left to their own devices, it’s obvious how a big tonal gap could open between the two Digimon Adventure anime in spite of the mandates to fit everything within one same continuity. Since the movie was due to be screened as a short piece within Toei Anime Fair 99 just one day before the broadcast of the TV series, Hosoda and company had to condense the thrill of a kaiju movie down to a few minutes while also introducing a series that wasn’t in the cards when pre-production started. A tricky goal that turned out… pretty well, actually?
The first aspect that stands out in Digimon Adventure: The Movie, especially in contrast to its televised sibling, is the Digimon’s fierceness. This franchise’s not one to shy away from dark plotlines and scary villains, but the ferocity of creatures we’ve assumed to be benevolent is presented in such a natural, matter-of-the-fact way that it’s simply chilling. Though this short film is devoted to the friendship bonds between Taichi and his fated partner, the source of the conflict isn’t so much the external menace in the form of Parrotmon, but rather Big Agumon’s ambiguous (a)morality, these creatures’ dangerous innate instincts to fight, and how damaging their mere presence in the human world is. The hero’s ally is larger, it loses the ability to communicate verbally, and there’as something very palpable to the destruction it causes. Quite the animated debut for Bandai’s marketable creatures. Yukio Kaizawa and Chiaki J. Konaka would later pick up on some of those ideas for Digimon Tamers, but nothing reached the animalistic dread that transpires in the franchise’s big screen debut.
That fearsome side of the Digimon is seen at its grandest during the fight between Red Greymon and Parrotmon, in no small part because of the exceptional animation. The movie’s non-verbal communication is carried by the articulate acting throughout and, when the action hits, it does so with tremendous authenticity. Children’s first experience with animated Digimon fights was a visceral showcase of physicality from a technical standpoint, and damn horrifying to watch in plain terms – something very deliberate considering the tone. Regular Hosoda allies like Takaaki Yamashita (supervisor for the first of many Hosoda films) and Hideki Hamasu (ace animator of sorts, a role he’d also reprise in multiple occasions) are joined by people like Mitsuo Iso who need no introduction, but it’s the hyperrealism in Hisashi Mori‘s animation that anchors the battle to reality in such hair-raising way.
When judged as a Mamoru Hosoda movie rather than a Digimon one, this short film’s also interesting as the beginning of a stylistic shift. As you might know, Hosoda’s mentor was none other than Kunihiko Ikuhara, as well as the sadly undervalued Shigeyasu Yamauchi who served as a reference for multiple generations of directors at Toei Animation. They had a huge aesthetic influence in Hosoda’s works as episode director at the studio, be it with the weaponized solitude he learned from the latter or the former’s usage of intricate architecture for framing purposes (do yourself a favor and watch Hosoda’s contributions to Ashita no Nadja). He also embraced a very Ikuhara-esque feeling of rhythm, with that same calculated repetition but more of a focus on the role audio can play over familiar visuals; that’s pretty clear in Digimon Adventure: The Movie, whose only BGM is a loop of Bolero de Ravel that Hosoda managed to sell both as a grandiose tune and a punchline for a pooping creature.
It’d be a lie to claim that Hosoda moved away from his mentors’ teachings, but there’s a gradual evolution from Digimon onwards as he began to find the kind of stories he wanted to tell and adapted his repertoire to his own tone. The usage of shots framed with the same angle (同ポ) remained, but he began ditching that expressionist edge that’s so easy to associate to Ikuhara with a much more clinical approach to the layouts. The recurring everyday snapshots that have served as the backbone of Hosoda’s movies for years couldn’t have been possible without the likes of the aforementioned Takaaki Yamashita, capable of drawing many detailed, true to life layouts. Hosoda’s latest movie Mirai goes as far as structuring its storytelling around a house designed by a real architect, which feels like the culmination of something he started in Digimon Adventure: The Movie with its apartment complex setting. Even the idea of containing the action there took into consideration children’s perception of the events, already showing his dedication to creating works that can resonate with both parents and children whether they’re able to pinpoint why or not.
And as far as I’m concerned, that’s something to be admired. There’s no shortage of people who miss Hosoda’s more experimental works and sharper edge (his style peaked within Doremi as far as I’m concerned), and while I understand that feeling, I can’t bring myself to feel anything but happiness when I see a creator so devoted to honesty. So happy 20th anniversary Digimon, and happy 20 years of Mamoru Hosoda theatrical projects!