The animated film Miss Hokusai has been one of a handful of features that has been garnering awards attention, and justly so. Gorgeously filmed, sophisticated, and meaningful, it’s a movie that should been seen and considered both the critics awards and arthouse audiences. We spoke to director Keiichi Hara about bringing famed and important feminist and Edo historian Hinako Sugiura’s story of the real life artist Katsushika O-Ei to life onscreen, his inspiration, and how he shaped the film’s aesthetic:
Leslie Combemale for Animation Scoop: Can you talk about being a director interpreting Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura—which is decidedly work created from a woman’s perspective? What did you consider in wanting to do it, and her legacy, justice?
Keiichi Hara: I first discovered Sugiura’s work more than 20 years ago, an adapting it into a motion picture has been my dream ever since. Her cinematic storytelling, masterful depiction of human feelings and emotions through the understated and the unspoken, her elegance in avoiding narrative clichés or melodramatic devices… I could not praise her enough. I simply hoped to share the beauty of her work with as many people as possible. I also consider the original manga Sarusuberi as one of her most personal works, with O-Ei as Sugiura’s avatar sent back into early 19th Japan.
LC: For those many animation fans who know little or nothing of Manga or of Hinako Sugiura’s work, what would you want them to take away from seeing Miss Hokusai?
KH: 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 an 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.
LC: What have been and remain your strongest influences in animation as a director and in fine art as an artist, and who inspires you as both at the same time the most?
KH: I never tried to “imitate” the style of another director, and rather than animation, I feel more inspired by Japanese films from the 50s and the 60s. Especially, I have great admiration for the work of Keisuke Kinoshita. Although I draft my own storyboards, I cannot draw properly, therefore I wouldn’t talk about direct inspiration, however I do like artists such as Michelangelo, Vermeer, Monet, Klimt and Hiroshige.
LC: Can you talk about your collaboration with background artist Hiroshi Ono on evoking the look of Edo and the film as a whole, and about using both 2D and 3D techniques in the film?
KH: I’ve been undecided for a while about which sort of visual approach we should pursue regarding background art. At first I thought about taking Hasui Kawase as reference. Kawase is often considered the last ukiyo-e master, an ideal heir to Hiroshige who tried to revive the technique with modern sensitiveness from the 1920s onward, and his landscapes are of rare beauty. However, after seeing an exhibition of Antonio López García’s paintings, I believed I found what I was looking for, and asked Ono-san to change direction. I know I confused him. But he is one of the last background artists who does not use Photoshop, and I think his beautiful backdrops speak for themselves.
We decided to rely on CG as a technical shortcut to recreate the crowded streets of Edo, as hand-drawing hundreds of characters did not prove a practical option. Therefore, there are about five hundred digitally-created Edo citizens starring in Miss Hokusai, mainly on and around Ryogoku Bridge at the beginning and the end of the film. The CG team led by Takumi Endo experienced some hard time in having digital characters interact with hand-drawn ones appearing in the same scene.
LC: How did you decide what to include or reference in terms of reflecting art in the real world? (like the visual reference of The Great Wave off Kanagawa print?)
KH: The Great Wave is arguably the most iconic and recognizable artwork coming from Japan. You can see it in museums, art books, T-shirts and coffee mugs. Making it into animation is probably a strong temptation for many filmmaker, and I came up with the idea while I was drafting the storyboard. But it was a very irresponsible decision, because the actual work had to be done not by myself, but by the animators. Norio Matsumoto, who was in charge of this sequence and who happens to be one of the best animators we have in this country, had to redo the key drawings twice. And it was entirely hand-drawn with pencil on paper. I scattered further nods to other Hokusai’s artworks throughout the film, but I tried to be not too invasive, keeping everything functional to the story.
LC: The father/daughter and sibling relationships in Miss Hokusai is very complicated. He is often critical and unkind to her. O-Ei is caretaker for both her father and sister in very different ways, essentially a mother to both of them. How does your own experience influence building these authentic familial relationships onscreen, since their authenticity is one of the most powerful aspects of the film? What insights did working on the film offer you for your own life?
KH: I did not take inspiration from any specific personal experience. Sugiura’s storytelling is never explanatory or straightforward. You get to understand her characters’ past experiences and emotional status through a subtle combination of their behavior and minimal and often indirect dialogue lines. I think her style has something in common with Salinger, who happens to be one of my favorite American novelists. For many years I had been dreaming of adapting her work into a feature film, and when I started dissecting and analyzing every element in order to prepare for this project, I surprised myself wondering at the exquisite elegance and unconventionality of her finely crafted narrative technique, as if I was discovering it for the first time.
LC: In the lead character, who is based on a real artist of the Edo period, there is an interesting balance of naïveté, stubbornness, and curiosity in painting what they call in the movie “pillow paintings”. How did you decide how to approach the aspects of the movie relating to erotic paintings and her work with them, as well as her growth as an artist?
KH: I was intrigued with the idea of O-Ei as a young girl assisting her father in his trade by drawing extremely graphic erotic pictures –which were best-selling items at the time as they are today– in a chaotic and garbage-cluttered room. It is a situation defying mountains of stereotypes, and it is very likely to be close to historical truth. “Our” O-Ei is proud and stubborn. If she’s told she’s not good at what she does, she would take action without a second thought. Her response shows both her naïve side and her determination at the same time. I think this uncompromising attitude makes her a very lovely character.
LC: Knowing that historical data suggests that O-Ei painted a number of paintings attributed to her more famous father, how did you allow that information to influence her character and actions in the film?
KH: We know that historical O-Ei spent her almost entire life at her father’s side -except, perhaps, during the period of her short-lived marriage. However, her corpus of works is surprisingly meagre, with just a dozen of items we are aware of. And yet, she painted like no other of her contemporaries did, with outstanding results. It is possible most of her paintings went lost. Or they are simply hidden under her father’s signature. The actual extent of that father-daughter collaboration is to remain confined within the realm of scholars’ speculations. However, for this film, we imagined O-Ei nurturing rather conflicting feelings toward her father and master. She admires him for his artistic skills, and the same time she despises him because he’s a failure as a parent. It is hard to admit your own immaturity, especially when the best ones are right next to you. And finding your own style is an even harder task. In the ending credits, we included one of O-Ei’s most beautiful and representative paintings, a nightscape of Yoshiwara that features a sophisticated interplay between light and shadows. One day that stubborn and naïve girl will create such a masterpiece.
LC: Can you talk a bit about how the cohesive look of the film developed, and how far away it is from the original concepts for it? Were there a few specific images that were held as representative of the film as a whole?
KH: In the comic book, O-Nao appears only for few pages in the very last story, entitled Autumn Gale. Those pages reveal an unexpected side of O-Ei, tender and sweet like a mother toward her little sister. With screenwriter Miho Maruo, we expanded that delicate relationship between the two sisters, and eventually with their father, and we made it central to the film. It’s the line that connects the otherwise disjointed stories the original comic is composed of. The snow episode, including the flashback, is Maruo’s original.
As for the second part of your question, I could say I built the whole film from the scene in Autumn Gale when O-Nao touches Hokusai’s face, and the viewer is suddenly taken into O-Nao’s world of darkness.
LC: Given you’ve worked in a variety of aspects of animation, (producing, writing, and directing) what is your experience of building your own style as a director of animation, and advice do you give animators starting out today?
KH: I’ve been working as an employee in an animation studio for almost 25 years. That means I was not free to pick my projects; I did what the studio executives decided and told me to do. Luckily, most of those projects were based on the comics by Fujiko F. Fujio, the author of Doraemon and many other popular kids’ shows. I do love Fujiko F. Fujio’s work, because his stories can be enjoyed by children and adults alike, so I considered myself lucky to be part of those productions, and I do believe that experience helped to make me grow as a filmmaker.
My advice to those who have just started working in animation would be: you first need to learn how to be a functional component within a very large team. When you’ll eventually reach a creative decision-making position, such as animation supervisor or director, try to do something nobody else can or does, rather than imitating others. I personally learned a lot from classic Japanese and Hollywood films, but I was always looking for my own style.
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