Tokyo Film Festival: Anime Director Keiichi Hara on the Genre's Struggle for Respect in Japan

Courtesy of Production I.G
'Miss Hokusai'

The director is the subject of the animation focus at this year's festival, which has so far never selected an anime film for its main competition.

The Tokyo International Film Festival is this year putting the spotlight on anime veteran Keiichi Hara.

Beginning his directing career in the early 1980s on TV and movie productions of the mega-hit anime franchise Doraemon, Hara continued into the 1990s and early 2000s working on another major kids' anime franchise, Crayon Shin-chan.

His award-winning feature Summer Days With Coo in 2007 was followed in 2010 by Colorful, a complex examination of teenage suicide. But it was 2015's Miss Hokusai, about the daughter and collaborator of a famous woodblock print artist, which garnered Hara international recognition.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the release of Namakura Gatana (Dull Sword), a two-minute animated, silent film by Jun'ichi Kouchi about a samurai tricked into buying a blunt sword. It is the oldest known Japanese anime film.

In the intervening century, anime has grown into a $16 billion industry and won legions of fans around the globe. Despite the enormous success, some in the industry, including Hara, believe it still fails to get the respect it deserves in Japan.

Since 2014, the Tokyo festival has been running an animation focus on leading directors, including Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell), Hideaki Anno (Evangelion) and Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars).

Hara, the subject of this year's focus, spoke to THR before about how the genre found respect overseas before it did at home, avoiding the porn route and no longer having a complex about working in anime.

You've said you first wanted to be an animator, but realized you weren't good enough. How did you feel at that time?
I was disappointed when I realized there were lots of better artists around me. I probably could have been an animator if I wanted to, but I would have been second or third tier. I'd like to tell my young self that I it was a good decision to have taken the path of director instead.

Which directors were you most influenced by?
Keisuke Kinoshita. I watched a lot of Hollywood films when I was young. It was the era of Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg, and they would talk in interviews about how great [Akira] Kurosawa was. I thought I'd never seen his films, and when I watched them, they were incredible. Then I realized there were such amazing classic Japanese films, and from there discovered Kinoshita, who I came to like even more.

What was it about his films that appealed to you?
It was his portrayals of ordinary, flawed people, rather than heroes, something that I could truly relate to.

Kinoshita was a live-action director. Why did you decide to do anime?
The Japanese film industry was in a terrible state when I was starting out. The only route open for most directors was via pink eiga, soft pornography. Even after I entered the world of anime, I still watched mostly live-action films.

Would you like to see an anime award category at the Tokyo festival or anime included in the main competition?
Either would work. This year is the 30th edition of the festival, but I'm pretty sure there's never been an anime film nominated in competition yet. If you look at other major festivals, Hayao Miyazaki won the Golden Bear at Berlin [Spirited Away in 2002]. It feels kind of odd that there is no case like that at the biggest film festival in Japan, the country in the world that produces the most anime.

Why do you think that is?
In the past there was a lot prejudice against anime, that it was aimed at children and somehow below live-action films. That is less true now, but I had a kind of complex about it for a long time. I want to make anime films that can hold their own besides live-action.

What do you think of TIFF's recent focus on animation?
They were too slow about doing it; they should have done it from the start [laughs]. Anime has been recognized properly much earlier overseas. There isn't a big anime festival in Japan, the home of anime. Even at the Japan Academy Prize, they have a best animated film, but only that; no awards for technical categories like there are for live-action, or voice acting.

How do you see the state of the Japanese anime industry?
Everyone is exhausted, seriously; there are a ridiculous number of productions being made. Some of the work is going abroad as the number of people who can do the work for anime features is very limited. You see a lot of the same names appearing on a lot of productions. Young animators aren't being brought through the ranks. When I talk to young people who want to work in the industry, they are worried about whether they can survive on the wages. Though CG is being used more and more, the drawing skills of the top animators in Japan are definitely the best in the world.

What has changed since you entered the industry?
It used to be thought that it was only kind of weird people who were involved in anime as an adult. I used to be embarrassed to say I'm an anime director, but not anymore.