The director of Miss Hokusai talks of his aims and inspirations
KEIICHI HARA As a matter of fact, I love all Sugiura’s works, and Sarusuberi in particular. When I was working on Summer Days with Coo, there was this scene with a huge dragon flying in the night sky near Tokyo Tower. I recall bringing to the staff a page from Sarusuberi, and telling them: this is how I want it to be done! This is why this movie is a dream come true for me. It was a lot of pressure, too, as I really loved this manga: it portrays reality but it is visionary, it touches various aspects of life, still the supernatural is always lurking behind the thin veil of reality. With such wonderful material, I felt I could make it into a visually entertaining movie. Period dramas tend to be overly stylish, and yet Sugiura succeeds in delivering both a realistic historical rendering, and convincing, lively characters. This film is a story about people, rather than a biopic. We did our research, as I must confess I was certainly not an expert in the Edo period, but Miss Hokusai is basically an adaptation of Sugiura’s comic and worldview.
What did you keep, and what did you add to the original comic book?
Sugiura’s comic is a collection of short stories without any actual connection to each other. Furthermore, each story may focus on a different character. The titular “crape myrtle” is a reference to Hokusai, but there’s no real protagonist, as Zenjiro is prominently featured, and O-Ei [Hokusai’s daughter] becomes more important as the series progresses. So I decided to focus on O-Ei, who is arguably Sugiura’s avatar inside the comic book, and I developed the character of her little sister, O-Nao, who in the comic appears only in one story, still one of the most beautifully touching, and actually the core around which I built this movie. I used “family” as the cohesive agent to create a movie which could stand on its feet. In collaboration with scriptwriter Miho Maruo, we also added an entirely original episode, the snow sequence in the middle of the film. The ending is original, too.
I think it is the first time in years I have made a movie where nobody cries! Again, I believe this is one of the peculiarities of Sugiura’s storytelling. Never melodramatic, never overdone. I would call it essential. Still, her stories convey great emotions. This is what I admire in her style and I am trying to emulate. If you think she did this when she was 24, you can only call her a genius
Hokusai and O-Ei: who between these two proved easier to render? And who is your favourite character in the film?
O-Ei was easier to work on, of course. While being a historical character, unlike her father we don’t really know much about her, and this gave me leverage to develop her personality, although I owe much to the source material. O-Ei feels in rivalry with her father, who also happens to be her master as an artist. She’s proud, strong-willed to stubbornness, and overall a rather self-assertive person. Still, she’s terribly shy and clumsy when it comes to her unspoken romantic interest. And she’s as sweet and protective as a mother to her little sister, O-Nao. So I thought I could offer a complete portrayal of this incredibly intriguing woman by showing the many sides of her personality, and make effective use of the changing seasons to tell a story throughout a one-year span. As for my favourite character… I’d say Zenjiro. He’s the most human in the whole bunch.
For the score I had the privilege to work with Narumi Fuuki, who already had composed the music for my previous film, Dawn of a Filmmaker. I had also discovered from Sugiura’s brother that she used to draw comics while listening to rock music. It was indeed a very unconventional association, and I decided to pay homage to this unique creative process, so I had O-Ei walk the streets of 1814 Edo at the sound of electric guitars. If you allow me to say it, O-Ei rocks!
What image do you have of Hokusai?
Today he is celebrated as one of Japan’s greatest artists, and probably he is considered so at world level. However, when he was alive he was rather a talented craftsman, a commoner among commoners. Ukiyo-e prints required cooperation among specialised artisans, and to this extent it is very similar to animation today. I would like to consider myself as an artisan, who collaborates with many other people possessing different skills in order to achieve the end result.
Was O-Ei a woman ahead of her time? Do you consider Miss Hokusai a film with a feminist message?
I do believe O-Ei was ahead of her time, especially from an artistic point of view. From the very few accounts we have, apparently she also had the privilege of living a life in which she did what she wanted. However, I am not sure whether we can describe this film –or Sugiura’s comic– as “feminist.” It all depends what meaning you give to this word. I am under the impression, and I suspect this was also Sugiura’s view, that women in the Edo period –not from the samurai class, but the ordinary people– were less expected to adhere to particular models of social behaviour, a situation that somehow changed after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when many Western concepts were introduced into the country. I believe Sugiura felt that commoners of the Edo period, while at the lowest level in the social pyramid, enjoyed their lives in the awareness of living in a “floating world” with a surprising degree of freedom.
The UK Premiere of Miss Hokusai took place at Scotland Loves Anime at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Saturday 10th October 2015 with Keiichi Hara in attendance.
Miss Hokusai is released by Anime Ltd as an Ultimate Edition Blu-ray/DVD set as well as on Blu-ray and DVD.