For years, legendary Japanese animator and director Hayao Miyazaki has inspired creatives from all over the globe to pick up their best pencils (opens in new tab) and learn how to draw manga (opens in new tab) and anime. In 2013, Miyazaki broke the hearts of millions when he annouced his retirement from filmmaking, following his final film 'The Wind Rises'.
For some pundits, the question, "Who is the next Miyazaki?" is as wearisome as, "Why do anime characters have big eyes?" Anime expert Jonathan Clements, author of the indispensable Anime: A History, argues that Hayao Miyazaki was simply unique, as was his artier mentor Isao Takahata (Princess Kaguya) and the Ghibli studio they co-founded.
But if you're looking not necessarily for the next Hayao Miyazaki, but just for anime with a similarly popular touch – accessible to mainstream, international viewers, with a sense of poetry and wonder – then there are candidates. In recent years, there have been some excellent anime movies that feel Ghibli-esque without being imitations.
Two cases are Patema Inverted, in which a girl discovers an upside-down world where she's in constant danger of plunging into the sky; and Giovanni's Island, a fantasy-tinged history drama about two boys on an island occupied by Russia in the 1940s.
But the big directors often compared to Hayao are Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda. Makoto first came to attention with a short film, Voices of a Distant Star, which he made practically solo. He's since developed sumptuous feature films, such as 5 Centimeters per Second, which are often themed around love-struck teenagers.
His 2011 Journey to Agartha looked great, but failed to build a world as compelling as Hayao's. Far better was 2013's Garden of Words, a 46-minute intimate drama about a boy and a woman meeting in a Tokyo park in Japan's rainy season.
Making use of digital tools
The rain is a key element of Garden of Words. "The droplets of rain in the air are particle simulations," Makoto explains, "and the rain splashing in puddles and in lakes, the ripples, the spray, that's hand drawn." Rain was an important part of Ghibli films such as Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. "I was impressed by their use of rain, but they were made in the days of analog... I wanted to see if I could make the rain in Garden of Words look as impressive, using the computer."
However, it's Mamoru Hosoda who's the hot anime name at the moment. Notoriously, he was hired by Ghibli to make Howl's Moving Castle, only for his version to be rejected. Since then he's made his name through his own outstanding feature films, with winning characters and strong themes: The Girl who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and The Wolf Children. Mamoru’s latest film in Japan is The Boy and the Beast, which has elements of Spirited Away and The Karate Kid.
A boy finds a world of talking, brawling animals and becomes apprenticed to a bear-like bruiser. At the recent Tokyo Film Festival, Mamoru said, "When I have an idea in my mind, I can't help thinking about how I can express it, how can I make it wonderful, to make people laugh. It's the sheer pleasure of making it happen that drives me through making the film."
He says The Boy and the Beast was inspired by the birth of his son. "I'm thinking as a parent, how is he going to grow up, how are we going to raise him? Is he going to be able to find a soul mate or some master from whom he can learn about life?"