Keiichi Hara Interview

Andrew Osmond talks to the director of Shin-chan and Colorful

Keiichi Hara
As the eleventh Japan Touring Film Programme heads through Britain (see here for venues and here for our write-up), we took the opportunity to speak to the director of the anime entry, the feature film Colorful. Keiichi Hara has been working in anime for thirty-odd years, gaining experience through working with two of Japan’s most popular kids’ characters, Doraemon and Crayon Shin-chan. He then graduated to his own projects, and is now a freelancer who pushes at the boundaries of what anime can be. So join us on a journey through robot cats, naughty tots and lost souls…

“When I left high school, I wanted to go to an art college,” Hara explained in a panel discussion at London’s Japan Foundation. “But I realised that with my grades, and with my level of drawing, I wasn’t going to get in anywhere. So I discovered that there was an animation specialist school that I could go to (Tokyo Designer Gakuin College). When I graduated from animation school, there wasn’t so much anime being made as there is today, and there weren’t so many job opportunities. I couldn’t find a job.”

Hara went round knocking on doors, at first to no avail. Eventually he got to know a director who referred Hara to a company making commercials and PR films. Hara worked there a while, before a contact enabled him to join the studio Shin-Ei Animation in 1982. Hara’s first responsibility there was schedule management. “Animation involved the collaboration of so many different professionals, different parts,” Hara says. “For example, one person directing a scene, another one handling colours, or making cels. Quite often they were working in different locations. So I co-ordinated between those different professionals, checking the schedule and passing (work) from one stage to another.”

Eventually, Hara became an assistant director, spending much of his time on the escapades of Doraemon, a blue robot cat and friend to kids everywhere (profiled here). He was also chief director on ESPer Mami about a paramoral girl, co-created by Doraemon’s Hiroshi Fujimoto. But early in the ‘90s, Shin-Ei Animation turned to a very different character, whom Hara would get to know very well indeed…

Crayon Shin-chan is an anarchic five year-old boy, with an endless energy for mischief, tactlessness, and smashing social norms which mean nothing to him. His tricks include using his body to imitate an elephant, swinging trunk and all – yup, like that. Such gags are beyond the repertoire of even Bart Simpson, to whom Crayon Shin-chan is sometimes compared (well, they’re both voiced by women).

Shin-chan was originally created in strip form by the late Yoshio Usui. “The original manga was targeted at adults, not for children.” Hara indicates that when the studio decided to animate it for kids, some people didn’t think it would go down well. “However, Crayon Shin-chan’s character turned out to be different from the conventional kids’ character, who is normally very obedient, a ‘goody’ type. Shin-chan appears a very realistic figure to children, sometimes annoying to adults, behaving so badly that he generates sympathy among the children.”

Crayon Shin Chan

The character was criticised in the Japanese media. “A certain controversy is inevitable when you create something,” Hara says. “But we never tried to create Shin-chan just by emphasising his disgraceful behaviour. It’s a shame that Japanese newspapers just picked that up, and enlarged that point… What I wanted to emphasise is kids’ true nature, their inner world. Shin-chan is very honest and never discriminates against any type of people. It’s a great pity that the critical journalists never saw this point.”

Hara has credits on many of the Crayon Shin-chan cinema features. One he directed was the outstanding The Adult Empire Strikes Back, which bears comparison to classic anime franchise features as Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro (featuring Lupin) and Oshii’s Beautiful Dreamer (with the Urusei Yatsura cast). Hilarious and scary, Adult Empire Strikes Back shows grown-ups being brainwashed and infantalised by nostalgia for the good old days. Shin-chan and his friends must save the day, helped by the Proustian properties of stinky shoes (well, it’s Crayon Shin-chan). Warning: the film’s trailer contains underage driving and reckless piddling.

The director admits he’d been running out of ideas for Shin-chan when he came up with the film. “I was wondering what to make. And then, as I was making it, it became gradually not for children, but just what I wanted to make.” Hara had a dilemma, wondering if this work would appeal to anybody, but children and adults loved it. “It actually set a milestone for Crayon Shin-chan, which is to be loved by adults as well as children. I had quite a lot of freedom making it.”

As a spoof of Japan’s obsession with nostalgia, Adult Empire feels as sharp today as when it opened in 2001. “I didn’t want to just reflect how good the old days were,” Hara says. “I meant to include the message that, ‘Okay the past was good but we have to move forward.’” What does Hara think of the continuing stream of films recreating Japan’s long-gone decades, such as the live-action Always: Sunset on Third Street and Ghibli’s Poppy Hill? The director laughs, then answers diplomatically. “It depends on the work. I can’t sympathise with those works that just glorify the past.”

Hara, though, also has a love of history, evident in a sequence he added to his later film Colorful, where two boys follow the lost tramways of Tokyo. Hara is also proud of another Shin-chan film he directed, The Battle of the Warring States. Made a year after Adult Empire Strikes Back, it whisks the brat to samurai times. Very unusually, this film was remade as a live-action picture, Ballad: A Song without Love, with Shin-chan replaced by a more conventional little boy. The remake was directed by Takashi Yamazaki, who also helmed the Always: Sunset on Third Street film. Hara says he was delighted to be adapted.

After a great many years working on Shin-chan, Hara graduated to a personal anime, the 2007 feature Summer Days with Coo. (In a previous interview, Hara said that he’d wanted to make Coo for years, but kept on being forced back to the Shin-chan treadmill.) Coo is the story of a present-day little boy who finds a mythical kappa, a water-sprite, with serious consequences.

“I made it when I was still employed by Shin-Ei Animation,” Hara explains. “The studio had a steady income from their popular anime, and occasionally it is able to make work that is not so popular, but higher quality. Therefore I thought I probably needed to be employed by the studio to make Summer Days. I had nurtured the idea of making the film, so I had lots and lots of ideas. In the end, the film ran more than two hours, but it was really difficult to decide which parts should be cut, because originally it was much longer. And there was a battle involving the studio over which part is cut… It was so tough to finish.”

Hara’s next film, and perhaps his best-known internationally, is Colorful. Based on a novel by Eto Mori, it opens in fantasy mode with a nameless soul being granted a second chance at life. The soul awakes in the body of a 15 year-old boy, Makoto, who has just attempted suicide. With no memories, the new “Makoto” must acquaint himself with his family and schoolmates, and make sense of that strange and disturbing thing, everyday life.

Hara hadn’t read the source book until he was approached by the Sunrise studio to adapt it. (He admits that at first he thought it wanted him to make an anime like its iconic Gundam.) Hara was interested in the idea, and took the plunge into freelancing. “My aim in making Colorful was to give myself a challenge; to get rid of the old conventional code of anime, which is mainly unrealistic fantasy. I focused on making the film as realistic as possible.”

At a London screening of Colorful, Hara described the film as, “a detailed depiction of the everyday and also some harsh realities of life. For a lot of people, I expect that the ordinary, the everyday is boring, but I hope that through this, you (the audience) will come to realise how important the ordinary and the everyday is to us.” Hara added more comments in the Japan Foundation panel. “When I read the book, I thought it was something that wouldn’t usually be possible using animation; the depiction of these delicate 15 year-old feelings, the cruel realities you see in the film… I thought these were things that would be challenging to put into animation.”

In the film, Hara tried to lose the sense of animation and play to a live-action feel. Colorful has many scenes of everyday conversations and meals, much harder to animate than fantasy worlds. Food was especially fiddly. “Meals are fairly important in the novel, but I tried to emphasise it more in the film, so there are more scenes of the characters eating. It’s actually very difficult to animate people eating, and really annoying! If you’re animating action scenes, then you have a degree of freedom, but if you’re animating people eating, the amount of food on the plate has to get less and less, the level of rice in a bowl has to go down bit by bit, and it’s just very tiring (to animate)… I put in quite a few of these mealtime scenes, and the animators called me a sadist.”

Colorful includes the dark sides of teenage life, things to lead a 15 year-old boy to suicidal thoughts. “I’m not a junior high-school student,” Hara said at the London screening, “but I think they have delicate interpersonal relationships. I think that with mobile phones and the internet, if you put a foot wrong, you find the people you thought were your friends turn on you and bully you. That’s very common, and something that leads to a lot of suicides, I think. I think the children don’t have relationships they can really, truly enjoy as friendships. I feel they are always aware of the power play going on.”

For the film, Hara interviewed high school students to get a sense of their contemporary lives. Colorful’s protagonist belongs to a painting club; the paintings weren’t created by professional background artists, but by uni art students. The protagonist was drawn to look normal. “I wanted him to look ordinary, not like the main character of an anime. I wanted this ordinary boy to change into somebody special through the story.”

Asked whether he was targeting viewers the same age as the characters, Hara said it wasn’t really so. “I wanted young people the same age as the characters to be able to enjoy it, but I also wanted adults to enjoy it and slightly younger children as well. To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about the target audience when I was making it; it didn’t occur to me.”

Hara’s earlier anime work on the Crayon Shin-chan films and Coo might seem more tailored to kids (fart gags, cute kappa). But they, too, get dark. When the adults regress into overgrown children in Adult Empire Strikes Back, the real kids’ horror is funny but upsetting. Coo is worse; it opens with the titular little kappa seeing his dad getting bloodily cut down by a samurai.

“I worked for a long time in TV animation and gradually I witnessed censorship being imposed,” says Hara. “I was really against that because the animation I grew up with had a lot of unsettling or violent scenes. It’s actually part of real life.” Hara cites Astro Boy, Tetsujin-28 and the live-action Ultraman, with their deaths and sad endings. “I don’t agree that concealing those kinds of dirty parts from children is a good thing. They should get to know that the world is not pure and beautiful all the time, there are some irrational points in life.”

Following Colorful, Hara has debuted in live-action. The drama-documentary Dawn of a Filmmaker: The Keisuke Kinoshita Story (trailer here) was part of the centenary celebrations of the title filmmaker, famous for Twenty-Four Eyes; Hara’s drama portrays Kinoshita’s tribulations in the 1940s, and his bond with his mother. Hara’s next film, though, will be animated. He won’t reveal the name, but reveals it will be in Japan’s Edo period, the age of the samurai. However, “There’s not going to be any samurai sword-fighting in it.” It will not be aimed at children, but at a wider range of age groups.

At the panel discussion, Hara concluded with a surprisingly mournful comment about his career so far. “I made animation for a long time as an employee of a company, so I didn’t get to choose what I worked on. I do like to choose my projects carefully. Having said that, my recent projects haven’t been that successful, so I’m starting to worry I might have to sell my soul soon!” We can only hope the London trip has recharged Hara’s batteries, and introduced more viewers to one of anime’s most impressive rising stars.

Our thanks to the Japan Foundation for making this interview possible.

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