In a robust year for international animation—with a record eight Japanese films on the Oscars shortlist—Mamoru Hosoda brought a most personal project to Cannes, trying for a historic first. The first Japanese anime to premiere at the prestigious French festival—and the Directors’ Fortnight’s sole animated entry this year—Mirai was ambitious, taking as its protagonist a four-year-old boy.

Undoubtedly, small children have featured into many an animated film over the years. It’s the way children are handled, though, that sets Mirai apart, in its approach and the level of complexity at hand. As a point of comparison, Hosoda references The Boss Baby, a 2017 film starring Alec Baldwin as a briefcase-carrying tot in professional dress. “Boss Baby is a character. He’s not really a baby, because it’s an old man [playing] the baby,” the director reflects. “I really wanted a realistic four-year-old as the main character, and we really had a challenging time because it’s about the way they move, and the way they act, and the things that they say.”

Something of a time travel adventure, Mirai examines themes Hosoda has examined before, with 2006’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The story’s centerpiece is Kun, a boy enmeshed in family and an overactive imagination, who deals with sibling envy, when his parents bring home their second child. Coming across a magical garden, Kun travels in time to important moments from his family’s past and future lives, learning how to love and be loved in return.

Bringing the film to life with paint and paper as more tactical forms of animation wane, and CG continues to rise, Hosoda paid tribute to the aesthetic he loves while there was still the opportunity to do so. “I really wanted to emphasize the beauty of what paint and paper could show,” he says, “as opposed to digital things.” It was with the help of his children—who serves as models for his central characters—that Hosoda was able to achieve the realism he sought with the GKIDS release, fully reexamining what it means to be a kid.

In what ways was Mirai a personal project for you?

I chose a four year-old as a protagonist because it’s based on my kids. I had a son, and we welcomed a baby daughter, and when we brought home the baby, I was really curious how my son was going to accept his little sister—how he was going to change from someone who used to receive love, to someone who gives love towards his sister.

How did you approach the notion of hanging a full-length film around such a young child?

Because this is an anime, I didn’t really want him to go off on a big adventure, or for some traumatic thing to happen to him. I wanted to tell a story about a child and his small family living their everyday lives. The lifespan of a four year-old isn’t that long, but once I started to decide what [age] I wanted to pick, we came upon this whole theme about life, and how all lives are connected. Because there’s a son and his parents, but then their parents also have parents. All lives are connected in one loop, and I feel like that loop represents the cycle of life in general.

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How exactly did your children factor into the film’s production? What did you observe in the process?

I brought them to the studio and all the animators surrounded them and sketched them. Not only that, but we touched them, held them up just to feel the weight of their body—the softness, or even the thinness of their hair. Because their center of gravity’s different, their heads are bigger, so they walk differently. That was really a challenge [to replicate].

As much as Mirai aspires to reality, it’s also concerned with an imagined world—the one Kun dips in and out of throughout. 

Because there’s so many fantasy elements in this movie, a lot of people ask me “Is this a sci-fi?” But it really is a story about a child, through a mysterious garden, finding out about his family’s secrets—and I feel like that is actually a theme or style that is explored a lot in Western literature. There’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, and Narnia, and The Secret Garden. Then, some people have said this is similar to A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life. So, it’s more about finding out who you are through this mysterious garden that he just happens to have.

What were you thinking about, in visualizing the world as Kun sees it?

I believe that the way children see the world is so much broader than how an adult sees the world. When a child is taught to grow up and be an adult, we’re really telling the child how to live in human society, so then they only think about the world in terms of human society. But then, children don’t really think that way. They see these mysterious things in their imagination, or they don’t question when something mysterious happens because it’s a first for them. They don’t see fantasy as fantasy, and that’s sort of the theme that I wanted to explore because it’s through a child’s eyes. He doesn’t even question it. His pet dog suddenly starts talking to him, but he doesn’t say, “Why is this happening?” He just talks to the dog, like, “How cool.”

What informed the organic look for the matrix of time Kun travels through?

In order to express how time passes or the different times that the family had experienced—the family tree, and the family history—I wanted to use leaves to indicate the different moments in time. If you look closely at the leaves, they have tags on them—[like those] that used to be in drawers, in the library index, a long time ago. Like a lever, you get to jump to that exact moment in time, so that’s how the visual design of the whole time travel fantasy part was.

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The Japanese train station is another stunning space.

I wanted to really depict how the world looks when a child gets lost. When you’re an adult and you get lost, the world looks different—unfamiliar—but the world looks like the world. But when a child gets lost, because they’re so anxious and their imagination goes wild, the scenery changes into a scary, vast space. It’s based on Tokyo Station, but I wanted to make it huge and scary, so the adults watching the movie could experience it the way the lost child would. Even though Tokyo Station is about 30 minutes from the [animation] studio, we actually flew out to Paris and London to research old train stations to make it look vast and creepy, and a little uncanny.

Adding to this sense of the uncanny is the bizarre-looking Lost and Found attendant, with a miniature clock running up and down his arm. What did that character represent?

It’s interesting that all of the journalists ask about that. He’s a really important character because he’s the one who asks Kun, “Who are you?” He asks about his identity or the meaning of his existence, so it really had to be a different character style, different from the other characters that appear in the movie. We were like, “Well, how are we going to showcase that”? What we ended up with is using cut art—so, you cut out the art and then they move it by CG. We wanted to give him a different look, but also creepy. But because he asks about Kun’s identity, his expression was really important because he had to be someone worthy of asking Kun that question.

What did you intend to express or capture about contemporary Japanese life?

A lot of people, especially in Europe, have focused on the father staying at home and watching the children, and the change of gender roles. They tend to ask me, “Was that a message? Was that a wish that you wanted to portray?” Europe and Western countries might think that Japan is very old school and traditional, but actually, I was only depicting what is happening in Japan right now. There are a lot of fathers who are actually staying at home. So, I wanted to depict the way it actually is, and how society is changing in how we tend to see the roles of gender. I think we tend to keep [charming] parts of our traditional views, but then we’re also changing, so that’s what I wanted to depict. I don’t think it’s just in Japan that society is changing; I think worldwide, we’re all trying to figure out what family is, what gender is, and what our place is in society.

This year, Mirai became the first anime to premiere at Cannes. How was your experience there?

I was actually really surprised because we got invited by Cannes while we were still making the film. We had given promotional materials and whatnot, but they officially invited us while we were still making it. So we were really surprised, especially because among all the categories, ours was the only anime. Before I went, my impression of Cannes was that they’re very critical—not snobby, but sort of higher up. But then when I went, it wasn’t like that at all. The audience, and all the other filmmakers, and everyone involved, they were all very friendly. The atmosphere was like, “Oh, let’s have fun, but also expand the movie culture.” Even the journalists were very interesting and fun, so it was a huge surprise. Because they were so friendly, it gave me the courage to challenge [myself], and continue creating movies.