Welcome to our series The Present and Future of Anime Studios, where we interview those working in Japan's animation industry. Today we’re bringing you a special edition of this feature. Our special guest is Mamoru Hosoda, the director of BELLE, opening in Japanese theaters on July 16th. In addition to the release of BELLE, 2021 also marks the 10th anniversary of Hosoda’s Studio Chizu. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into making this anniversary film.
Mamoru Hosoda has previously directed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and The Boy and the Beast. His other works, such as Digimon Adventure: Our War Game and Summer Wars, take place on the internet, so many people believe that Hosoda’s works are centered around the internet.
BELLE is another one of Hosoda’s works that makes use of online spaces, and it shows how the way that society uses technology has changed - and how it hasn’t - in the past ten years.
After all of the effort put into it, how did BELLE turn out? Keep reading to find out!
Using the Internet to Express Change
ーーFirst off, please let us know how you first started working on BELLE.
I always want to make films that take place online. I’ve been making films that take place online for 20 years, with the first being Digimon Adventure: Our War Game (2000). After that was Summer Wars (2009).
About every ten years, I've made a movie that takes place online, and the internet changes a lot in a ten-year span. So when I started planning my new film, I thought that I wanted to make an entertaining film that reflected the current internet.
For the past three or four years, I’d been thinking about what I wanted to do. At first, I only had a vague idea, but it finally came together.
ーーYou can’t even compare the internet in Summer Wars to the one in BELLE.
It’s completely different. When Summer Wars came out, the iPhone3 was on sale. So when we were making the movie, one of the topics of conversation was that the iPhone is going to start being sold in Japan.
I thought it would be a good idea to include it in the movie, so we had the character Wabisuke have an iPhone while the others had flip phones.
ーーIs that so!
Flip phones were able to connect to the internet at that time, so it was a nice detail to include in Summer Wars.
We included thumbprint verification in the movie, which was a more advanced piece of technology than what was available. However, it's been ten years, so the modern world has caught up to Summer Wars. The technology you see in that film is more or less what’s available today.
We thought that even though we can’t do this now, it would be nice if this kind of thing was available online, so that was something fun about making a movie that takes place online.
ーーNowadays, the internet you depict actually exists.
That's right. Twenty years ago, only a small group of people used the internet. Young people came along and changed the face of the internet, which is what I hoped for when I depicted it then. It was like that when I made Digimon.
Now the internet and reality are as close as they can be. Not only the good things but even the sharp edges of society can be found online more and more, so nowadays, it feels like everything is one big reality.
The younger generation is born into a world with the internet, so I kept in mind what living alongside the internet would be like when making BELLE.
ーーIn addition to present-day internet culture, this movie also has a Beauty and the Beast theme. Why is that?
I originally wanted to make a musical.
I love Beauty and the Beast. When I entered Toei Animation 30 years ago in 1991, Disney released Beauty and the Beast.
I think everyone knows how poor animators are. At that time in my life, I lived in an apartment that didn't have a shower, so I would go to the public bath thinking about how much trouble this job is. Of course, it was great that I was employed at Toei Animation, but I thought there must be better workplaces.
(Laughs) This was just before the economic bubble burst. A ton of money was being spent on commercials, so my university friends would talking about how they’re going overseas to film (commercials) while I'm just going between work and home, with the only other place being the public bath.
This was my lifestyle when I saw Beauty and the Beast. What’s more, I didn’t see it in the theater, but on video. I didn’t have the money to go to the theater. But that film was so beautiful – I couldn’t believe such a beautiful movie existed in this world – that I thought that I could keep working on anime for a little bit longer.
It was such a beautiful work that I bought the box set. I was making 1,000,000 yen (approx. 10,000 USD) a year, and that box set was 20,000 yen (approx. 200 USD).
It cost one fiftieth of my yearly salary (laughs). But it was so wonderful that I wanted it! The set contained the English version and Japanese version on VHS, the soundtrack in both languages, and the work-in-progress version that was basically an incomplete version of the movie. That was included as well.
ーーAn incomplete version of the movie?
Basically, a version with only the key animation and in-between animation (*Not a version with color, but the original lines that the animators drew). In other words, a version that hadn’t been finished.
Let me explain. Beauty and the Beast was supposed to screen at the New York Film Festival. However, they didn't finish in time, so they released this "temporary" version. The work-in-progress version received a standing ovation.
When you watch this version, it’s really easy to see how animation is done. You can see how much the camera tracked in, how loose the in-between animation is; all of this is really easy to understand. It was an excellent resource for me as a new animator.
What was so great about this movie was that it gave me the thought that if I stayed working at an animation studio, then I could make something just as wonderful one day. That is what Beauty and the Beast means to me.
I thought that this was what I wanted to do one day, so whenever I was asked what my favorite movie was, I would answer Beauty and the Beast.
However, Beauty and the Beast is a musical, right? I considered making an animated musical. BELLE ended up not being a musical, but the music still plays an integral part.
I made BELLE with the hopes that I could express what is “universal" in the present day, just as Beauty and the Beast expressed what was “universal”.
ーーIt wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, as a director, you make whatever your heart desires.
That's precisely why I made The Girl Who Leapt Through Time(2016). There was the original novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui (1967), there was Time Traveler (1974), the NHK drama series aimed at male audiences, and there was the live-action movie (1983) by Nobuhiko Obayashi. So when I made The Girl Who Leapt Through Time in 2006, I wondered how I could reflect present day in the work, and I really wanted it to be aimed at the modern youth.
That was the same method I used to tackle BELLE. The original is an 18th-century novel French novel, the Disney movie is from 1991, so I wanted to make Beauty and the Beast for modern audiences.
Newly remaking a classic is what makes it a classic. I think that adding new elements to a work and having it regularly evolve is what makes a classic.
ーーI see. So it’s the same reason that you made The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Well then, what made Beauty and the Beast so appealing to you as a director?
When thinking about Beauty and the Beast, I kept coming back to the idea of what a “modern beauty” would be. Personally, what I like about Beauty and the Beast is the beast. The beast is creature that changes.
However, the beauty stays as she is and doesn’t change. Of course, that’s appealing. Whether in Europe or Japan, the “beauty” is just an assigned role in a feudalistic society.
The beast has a chance to change; however, the beauty is imprisoned in the castle and doesn’t have that chance. That’s why it’s necessary to consider what a “modern beauty” is. You have to answer those questions.
A modern Beauty and the Beast, a modern beauty, a modern beast – I kept thinking about what these would be, and where I ended up was with BELLE.
ーーSo BELLE is a modern Beauty and the Beast.
How should a modern Beauty and the Beast remain faithful to the original, and how should it change?
Taking on another identity on the internet is pretty common. Isn't it common for there to be an "internet you" and a "real you"? That's pretty beastly if you ask me.
When you think about it like that, you can express the concept of Beauty and the Beast well through the internet. This idea came to me three years ago.
ーーI see… I play online games, so I understand this concept well. Just like the Beast, the way you look and how you feel are different, but you want to access those feelings. This concept is an everyday occurrence on the internet.
Isn't it? On the modern-day internet, it's basically normal for people to have two or three identities. It used to be that there was only one "you." You had your real opinion and your morals, but you hid your true thoughts. That's why they need for a second personality arose, which is a world that only the individual themselves knows.
These days, everyone has a secret account online, and your internet personality and real personality are different.
It’s a given that people will use stylish avatars, exaggerated icons on social media, and flashy usernames. That’s super common, and these things are accepted in the anonymous online world.
It seems as if living in the anonymous world is something in the far-off future. However, we're already using different personalities online. People who play online games experience this the most, I think.
Don’t online games feel as if they are their own singular world?
You fall in love and find people that you like in that world. What do you do when that happens? How do you compromise with your real-life partner?
ーーThere is a player in a game that I am kind of dating, but I'm afraid to put my real name online since that's what I’ve done up until now, and I'm in my thirties. I can’t go any further than that.
You haven’t met them offline?
ーーI have acquaintances who have. One of them even got married thanks to an online game.
That’s what happens. For our generation, using dating apps is a bit reckless (laughs), but for the current generation, it's a given.
If that kind of thing is OK, then falling in love through an online game isn’t such a bad thing.
That’s why I feel as if reality and the internet world have started to mix. Even if you have two or three identities, your emotions are still the same.
Humanity has entered unknown territory, and it’s very interesting to see what choices we’ll make from here. This is a very thrilling generation.
In the middle of all of this, I can’t help but wonder what kind of love story this generation is experiencing.
However, this has been going on since long ago. In 18th century France, masquerade balls took place, and stories like Shakespeare's A Midsummers Night Dream existed in the middle ages. No matter how uptight society is, you want secret access to the person you're interested in.
This links back to what we were talking about before, but that’s why classics are stories that you can’t throw away.
ーーSo that’s the reason why you wanted to bring the classic Beauty and the Beast motif into the present day. Even if the tools change, the actions are still the same.
Yes, exactly. What makes handling the classics so interesting is that you can clearly see what has changed from the old days and what hasn’t.
When handling Beauty and the Beast, some people asked me why I wanted to make a movie with such an old-fashioned story, but in the end, it’s still an interesting property.
When I made The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, some people said that it was a crusty old work and that I was done for (laughs), but, well, they were wrong. It’s all about how the film is made.
Compared to when the original The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was made, the influence the internet has on our lives is more significant, which is why I wanted to express what it was that hadn't changed.
The Link Found through All of the Movies
ーーSince you brought up The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, I have to ask you what influence your past works had on BELLE?
Films have a continuity to them. If you consider what makes a movie interesting and what you can do to make a kind of movie that you never have before, then the themes link with one another.
BELLE certainly links back to my films, back from The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
It’s linked to Summer Wars through the theme of the internet.
I changed the shape of what was expressed. For example, I’m usually always thinking about how I can express the family problems or the process of growth for children or young people.
Wolf Children is also quite similar to BELLE. A wolfman and a woman fall in love, which is like Beauty and the Beast. It’s what happens after “happily ever after” (laughs).
The English title of Bakemono no Ko is The Boy and the Beast, which is the same kind of title as Beauty and the Beast (laughs).
Therefore, there is a link between all of my films in a way. From the start, I intended to make a modern-day version of Beauty and the Beast, so it's a love story, and I've done that in the past, too (laughs). Indeed, Beauty and the Beast was a huge influence.
ーーWell, Beauty and the Beast is your roots as a director.
Yeah. Of course, there are many other works that I consider to be my roots, including The Spirit of the Beehive, The Seven Samurai, and Ashita no Joe 2.
Many different motifs have been embedded in me, so I have to consider what kind of movie I would make.
Even so, my movies are made in my style. BELLE also has the plot point of two boys around one girl, just like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
There are also scenes where characters walk along the riverbank. BELLE takes place in Kochi Prefecture, and there is a big river where the characters go to and from school called Kagami River. Towns with rivers are the perfect spots for movies. They’re very picturesque.
You can’t really find such scenery in Tokyo. For The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, we went all the way to Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward to get such a shot. A lot of the rivers in Tokyo run through a deep ditch.
I like Sai River in Kanazawa and Kamo River in Kyoto. It’s nice to walk along the river with someone in your youth.
That’s also the reason I chose Kagami River in Kochi. The town was an excellent backdrop to tell a story about youth.
I Have the Most Fun When I Make Movies
ーーStudio Chizu, your animation studio, has been around for ten years now. Do you have any reflections on what you’ve done so far?
What’s good about Studio Chizu is that it is autonomous. In general, we’re not a studio that takes orders from outside companies.
Our style is planning movies even though no one asked us to. We have everyone present their case and work together to become one and make the film.
At the start, we wonder what we should make, but we pay respect to movies for what they are. If we didn’t have this style, Wolf Children and Mirai never would have been made.
Our anime movies are released during the summer holidays, yet Wolf Children depicts a widower and her children, which you wouldn’t think we could do (laughs).
ーーThat’s true (laughs)!
Isn’t it? (laughs) That usually wouldn’t be allowed. We could make that movie because a lot of people went to see Summer Wars. Hearing about the plot, you’d think that it wouldn’t go through (laughs). However, we’re a studio that makes these kinds of movies.
I believe that there are still a lot of movies that haven’t been made into animated movies.
Tales of planetary destruction and catastrophe make anime such a joy to watch, but some stories that aren't like that haven't been told yet.
Many people wondered what the purpose of animating The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was. It only screened in one theater, so it was often said that it didn’t make any money and that it would be my final film.
But if there was no The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, then there would be no Summer Wars, so I think of it as a challenge. There might be a failure, and then we can't do the next project, but that is the nature of film. Even when the film is made, a State of Emergency may be declared.
ーーThese past two years have been rough for movies.
Movies generally take on risk. Even so, there are interesting things that occur, so we can face the challenge of making something new. That is what Studio Chizu is all about.
ーーAs both a fan and on a personal level, I want you to remain an active director for the rest of your life. What do you want to do, though?
I don’t know if I’ll be making films for the rest of my life. It’s fun - making movies is the most fun. It’s kind of boring when it’s completed.
I've experienced the fun parts and the excruciating parts of making movies, but I haven't yet discovered what movies are quite yet. I think it's great to study and make a good movie.
It's essential to have the opportunity to experiment. It’s useless to just chase after some quick money. It's boring just to make money.
If I’m able to express many different things in my work, then those who make movies after me, as well as those who watch them, will be able to experience a variety of emotions when watching them.
ーーI think the fans will like that.
Thank you for saying that. It gives me courage. I'm always thinking about what kind of challenges I want to take on, but there are times when I think, "who actually wants this?”
This time I had the strong desire to make something related to Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t know if others want that.
Even with that in the back of my mind, as I was making the film, I couldn’t help but think that if the film was made well, then there was meaning in doing it.
[Interview by Haruka Ishibashi]