Mamoru Hosoda, Master of Character Movement?

In celebration of Mamoru Hosoda’s newest film, The Boy and the Beast, hitting theatres in dub form in March, I though it only fair to celebrate. I’m a huge Hosoda fan, after all, so it was bound to happen eventually. The only problem was figuring out how: a review? A retrospective? An in-depth analysis, even?

I thought long and hard about this, but nothing seemed to materialize. I even tried writing a list about his brilliance, but that failed too. Then I realized I was going about this the wrong way. Reviewing or discussing Hosoda wouldn’t do his talents justice, so instead I’ll be focusing on the one element that makes him truly special: character movement.

I’ve made it no secret that I love Hayao Miyazaki for many reasons, one of them being his attention to detail in his characters. His models have overlap, true, but the characters themselves are so fine-tuned there’s no mistaking them. Chihiro’s no Satsuki, and Satsuki’s no Kiki, and even the side-characters of Yubaba and Zeniba, who are twins, don’t behave the same. Miyazaki, like many great artists, understands that no two people are alike, and this is prevalent in his films.

So it should come as no surprise that Mamoru Hosoda, who’s filling the void left from Miyazaki’s retirement, understands that too, but in a different way. Where as Miyazaki focuses on the minutiae of character behaviour, Hosoda focuses on that of character movement. It might not seem it, but by zoning in on movement he’s emphasizing behaviour. How we move speaks volumes about who we are as people, and while Person A might be still when inactive, Person B might be incapable of sitting still when sedentary. It’s this level of subtle behaviour that makes Hosoda’s work so distinct.

Makoto Konno, for example, is stubborn, lazy and selfish. Despite being sweet-natured, she’s not immune to temptation, even using her time-travelling powers to further her own goals at the expense of others. She sleeps in, redoes tests based on the mistakes she made previously and even goes back in time to enjoy the pudding she’d purchased before her sister eats it. This makes the lesson about learning to be responsible that much more satisfying, as we see the results of her selfishness play-out. This, after all, is to be expected of a teenager who’s suddenly received such a powerful gift.

All the above is shown mostly in the way in which Makoto is drawn. She’s stubborn, hence she’s pouty. She’s lazy, so she rolls around in bed and slugs around aimlessly. She’s selfish, hence her territorial behaviour. Even amidst her time-travel Makoto remains clumsy, constantly bumping into objects and landing face first. All of this is shown through body language.

In contrast, Kenji Koiso is shy, introverted and easily-flustered around girls. He’s exceptionally bright, perhaps even too bright, which gets him into trouble when he hacks OZ’s mainframe by accident. Like Makoto, Kenji’s most-defined traits are demonstrated through movement: he’s scattered, easily-flustered, nervous and uncomfortable in big crowds. He’s embarrassed by his intellect and doesn’t like bragging, but when the time calls for it he’s not afraid to take charge in his own way. The animation templates of Makoto and Kenji are similar, but the subtleties of their movement are the difference between night and day.

Of course, comparing two different movies from the same director is almost moot, but it highlights Hosoda’s style. Like I said, Mamoru Hosoda gets character movement. He understands the nuances of behaviour, and it shows. Each of his characters moves so uniquely that it’s impossible to not tell them apart. Hosoda’s characters are, therefore, unique, as they’re still discernible even when they’re sedentary.

That’s another element that makes Mamoru Hosoda stand out. I often find with anime, even those with high-budgets, that the animators cut costs by not animating background characters. Not that I fault them, anime is never allocated the resources animators get in the West, and strong character writing can’t compensate for that, but it leads to missed opportunities for environmental depth. Film is about movement, and animation, which is about a unique form of movement, allows for the most filmic results. To not capitalize on that is criminal, and that’s something I can never criticize Hosoda for. Because his characters are always in flux while stationary, making it really easy to know their thoughts.

Perhaps the best example is in Summer Wars, shortly after Granny Jinnouchi’s death. The death scene is shocking on its own, but it’s what follows that lets the situation sink in. As the film tracks from right to left, we see each member of the Jinnouchi family grieving in their own way:

The different family members are all in different positions. Some are huddled up, others have hands over their faces, a few even look lost in thought. But all of them are upset about their matriarch’s passing. It’s that level of framing that adds to Hosoda’s skill as a director and animator. It also respects the audience by trusting that they can understand what’s going on.

Hosoda’s greatest achievement in movement, however, is understanding the anxiousness of children. Not only in their mindsets, but also how they move. Yuki and Ame are half-wolves who embody childhood: Yuki is the wild kid, while Ame is more quiet and insecure. They never feel like stock characters, but rather real children. As someone who’s worked with kids, it’s refreshing to see them written and drawn so realistically.

Does this mean Hosoda’s style isn’t open for improvement? No. Aside from the occasional uses of Manga Iconography, something he’s cut down on significantly in recent years, his characters look blobby and generic from a distance. This could be a budget issue, but scenes like Hana digging up furrows for gardening are so zoomed out that you can’t see her facial expressions. You can see her movement, hence getting a rough sense of what she’s feeling, but a little insight into her eyes and mouth would be nice. But this is all minor, as Hosoda’s work is effortlessly engaging because of the aforementioned points. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that what really counts?


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