Director Interview: MISS HOKUSAI

Director Keiichi Hara is an expert in the world of animation.  Since graduating from Tokyo Designer Gakuin College he has had a hand in directing multiple Japanese animated series, including two of the most famous ones: CRAYON SHIN-CHAN and DORAEMON.  DORAEMON alone is available in over 30 countries around the world.

It’s no surprise, then, that Hara segued from television into feature films of both the live action and animated variety.  Hara’s most recent work, MISS HOKUSAI, is based on a manga (comic) by Hinako Sugiura and is essentially a coming-of-age story rooted in the Edo period (1603-1868).

Sugiura’s source material, as well as the historical time period, influenced MISS HOKUSAI.

Keiichi Hara graciously agreed to answer some questions about his latest feature film via email; excerpts from the exchange appear below:

Hara-san, as you started your career in television animation, what were the adjustments you had to make moving into a feature film?

After all these years I am convinced that filmmaking is somehow very similar to mountain climbing. You decide which peak you are going to challenge, you plan your journey, and you start with your bag pack from the forest at the foot of the mountain. As you proceed, the path gradually turns into a slope, and the terrain becomes rocky. You can see the top already, but it is still very far away. All you can do to get closer to your goal is to take one little step after another. When you finally get there, you may be exhausted, but the scenery repays you for your effort, and you feel it was worth the hardship you went through. Making your audience believe that your work is worth watching is the most difficult yet most rewarding aspect of filmmaking. I always try to keep this mindset whenever I take on a new project.

Animation is respected deeply in Japan, more than some other parts of the world.  How do you think the story of MISS HOKUSAI is supported more by animation than if it had been a live-action movie?

Making this film live action rather than animation never crossed my mind. The city landscape of 19th century Edo no longer exists anywhere in Japan, and unless you are ready to invest Hollywood-scale resources into proper recreation of historically accurate environments, you end up relying on existing film sets and the restrictions they impose, making it impossible to deliver the picture I had in mind. I could not think of anything other than animation as the best technique to adapt the original comic book into a motion picture. 

What are the challenges of adapting manga into a feature film?

I personally love all Sugiura’s works, and I find her storytelling greatly inspiring to me as a filmmaker. Therefore my first priority, and what I felt to be my duty as a director, was to convey the beauty and deepness of her work to the audience while adapting into a different media. But soon, my love and respect for Sugiura turned to be the greatest obstacle in making this film. I was afraid to change even a little bit from the original, fearful of being unfaithful or disrespectful. At the same time, making a slavish copy of the original would prove me a failure as a film director. On top of that, I was unable to seek for Sugiura’s advice, as she had passed away in 2005. It’s been a tough battle, but I feel confident that Sugiura would approve the final result.

Did the project come to you as a complete script or is this something you developed?

I happened to have this meeting with Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, the president of studio Production I.G, with the intent of submitting a film adaptation of a work by Hinako Sugiura. To my great surprise, it turned out that Production I.G had been planning, and then shelved, an animated feature based on Sugiura’s most famous comic book, Sarusuberi. So the conversation went on with Ishikawa asking me if I would be willing to take on the task. I obviously accepted, as Sarusuberi was one of my favorites. We started from there, and the script was written thereafter by Miho Maruo, with whom I had already worked in my previous film, Colorful.

Were there any aspects of MISS HOKUSAI that had to be adapted for foreign audiences who might not understand some of the Japanese-style jokes or situations?

Not really. I strongly believe good films have the capability of crossing borders, and cultural distinctiveness is always an added value that enriches cinema culture. It helps us to understand that beneath an apparently different surface, we all share the same feelings of joy and sadness.

When you have a film like MISS HOKUSAI that will reach foreign audiences, do you feel more pressure to show Japanese life in a specific way?

I’d rather say it was the opposite case: we soon realized that the culture and lifestyle of the Edo period were a mysterious and unknown world to present-time Japanese like us, therefore the whole staff, starting with myself, felt the pressure to research the matter properly for this film.

How closely did you stick to the original manga?

We tried to be as much faithful to the spirit of Sugiura’s work as possible. The original comic is a collection of stand-alone short stories, and we picked those we felt best represented the multi-layered personality of O-Ei, and at the same time those that provided the rhythm of the changing seasons, as I wanted to tell this film through a one-year timeline. We connected the episodes using “family” as a narrative continuity. You may even say that Miss Hokusai is also the portrait of a dysfunctional family. For this purpose, we expanded the character of Hokusai’s youngest daughter, O-Nao, who in the original source appears only in the very last episode. The sequence on Ryogoku Bridge originally featured Zenjiro and Kuninao, but we re-wrote it with a new cast, namely O-Ei, O-Nao and Hatsugoro, and changed the situation completely. We also added an entirely original episode, namely the snow sequence, that was written by Miho Maruo. Yet we were careful to preserve Sugiura’s distinctive style and mood.

There are some fantastical (magical) elements within the story of MISS HOKUSAI.  How do you hope these will be interpreted?

The so-called “supernatural” is a recurring element throughout the original comic book, and one of its many fascinating aspects. I believe that people back in the day felt gods, ghosts, and goblins as an integral part of everyday life. I wanted to recreate that world, and present it to modern audiences. 

How did you challenge yourself with the animation for this film?

Historical research on buildings and all details of daily life was the very first big challenge, as nothing of 1814 Edo has survived in Tokyo, and existing records are often fragmented if not inconsistent.

For the character designs, we had the privilege to work with a very talented young man, Yoshimi Itazu, who was coming from working experiences with Satoshi Kon and Hayao Miyazaki. He remained overall faithful to the source material, but he gave to O-Ei these large and inquisitive eyes, and very thick eyebrows, symbolizing her unwillingness to adapt to conventions, as people at the time would think them rather unattractive.

Animating people wearing kimonos posed further challenges, and we had models posing for us so that the animators could see how the fabric, that may vary from a very thin summer robes to a very thick, multi-layered vestment depending on the season and situation, folds and drops shadows, and how the human body moves underneath. Again, Yoshimi Itazu, who was also supervising animator, did a wonderful job here, together with all the artists in the team.

For the style of the backgrounds, initially I thought I wanted something like Hasui Kawase, who is often considered the artist who revived the ukiyo-e printing technique with modern sensitiveness from the 1920s onward. However, after seeing an exhibition of Antonio López García’s paintings, I suddenly though, that’s it! and asked art director Ono-san to pursue a more realistic approach.

As for the score, I happened to learn from Sugiura’s family that she used to listen to British and American rock music from the 70s while she was drawing her Edo period manga. I thought it was a very unusual yet intriguing association, and it fit perfectly into O-Ei’s character, so I decided to bring this element into the film. Having O-Ei walking the streets of early 19th century Edo at the sound of electric guitars was also a way to warn the audience that this is not your typical period drama.

How much of MISS HOKUSAI was done by hand and how much by computer?

Animations and backgrounds in Miss Hokusai are basically hand-drawn. Art director Hiroshi Ono is one of the last artists I know who does not rely on Photoshop to create his beautiful backdrops. May I also specifically mention the sequence when O-Ei dashes to O-Nao’s place, that lasts 30 seconds in the film, but took three months to be made entirely by hand by one single animator, Masahiko Sato. Even today, most productions would create at least the animated backgrounds with a preliminary wireframe.

Having said that, we did use CG here and there, mainly as a technical shortcut to populate the crowded streets of Edo.  The difficult part was to blend these digital characters with hand-drawn backgrounds, and have them interact with hand-drawn characters. The CG team led by Takumi Endo experienced some hard time there.

How did you decide on the color palette for the film?

I referred to paintings of the time and color illustrations made by Sugiura. I also paid great attention to the different color hues as the seasons change. In 1814, there was neither air pollution nor skyscrapers impeding the view, so we put emphasis on this vast, crystal-clear blue sky watching over the bustling city of Edo. Our color designer, Satoshi Hashimoto, had to find the right degree of darkness in a world without electric light. He struggled a bit before finding a compromise of realism without losing too much picture detail he was actually happy with.

What were some of the thematic elements that you wanted to carry through?

Sugiura set most of her stories in the Edo period. People back then favored an attitude to life they called iki. Being smart and stylish while remaining simple and spontaneous, was considered savoir vivre. The opposite to this concept was yabo, or being self-centered and greedy, pretentious and showy, and obsessed with money and material things. Therefore, literature and art of the Edo period were conceived under this iki aesthetics. Authors rejected being too straightforward about meanings or conclusions, this being regarded as utterly yabo, or unsophisticated. To me Sugiura was iki, and this showed throughout all her work. So I attempted to bring the same spirit into this film as well. Miss Hokusai, like the source material it is based upon, doesn’t have a linear story, but encompasses the whole spectrum of human feelings. Like you would not expect photorealism from impressionist painting, it makes sense in the sum of its apparently disconnected parts, because our lives are a random sequence following an unscripted path. In the end, it’s about the beauty and suffering of being alive. But I would like each one who is going to watch this film to find their own meaning –if any– as the answers we find belong only to ourselves.


What do you think?

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