Director Takayuki Hirao on Kara no Kyoukai 5: Paradox Spiral

This interview was included with the storyboard collection published by Kodansha for the anime film Kara no Kyoukai 5: Paradox Spiral. I transcribed and translated it on my own. If anyone’s intent was not conveyed in the translation, it’s my fault. It’s best appreciated after you’ve watched the entire film.

You can buy the book this interview came from here.

Without further ado:

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Interview with Director Takayuki Hirao — Sticking to his vision without worrying about cost efficiency

October 20, 2008

Kara no Kyoukai 5 was a real tour de force. The editors of “Anime Style” really loved it.

Takayuki Hirao: Thank you very much.

You were able to pack in so much story in just under two hours of movie. I think it’s the most story-packed anime movie in the 21st century.

Hirao: I’m glad to hear you say that. It was so dense with story that we really had to push the structure to its limits to cram everything in.

I heard that you volunteered to direct the fifth movie. Weren’t you worried about how much story you’d have to deal with?

Hirao: I may have mentioned this elsewhere before, but when I raised my hand to direct, it had been three or four years since I read the original light novel, and I hadn’t gone back to it. The character of Tomoe was the only thing from it that left a strong impression on me. So after I said I’d do it, I went back and read it, and I started to think I might have made a mistake (laughs). I regretted having taken on such a long story.

Once you decided to direct, did you begin by working on the screenplay?

Hirao: Because this part was so long, the producer (Hikaru) Kondo suggested, “Before you start writing, you should plan out how you’re going to structure the story.” So I got together with (Kinoko) Nasu and the screenwriter, (Masaki) Hiramatsu, and we put together a plan for structuring the plot.

What sort of planning were you doing? Like, this part stays in, this part gets cut?

Hirao: Nothing that concrete, more coming up with ideas. Like, after that scene, we’ll rewind time and return to this scene. That was the kind of structural plan we were writing.

Oh, I see! So from the very beginning, you had planned to shuffle the chronological order of things.

Hirao: Right. We weren’t sure if Nasu’s people would be okay with it, so we first confirmed it with them. Once they understood what we were going for, we could begin putting together a concrete script.

Why did you feel you had to present the story non-linearly?

Hirao: I think that anyone who works in film, no matter who they are, wants to use film to mess with the flow of time. So firstly, I personally wanted to challenge myself with that. And this story in particular is built around this idea of “opposites”, which are connected in the form of a spiral. So I figured if I could jumble up the flow of time in this episode, and work it into a spiral, maybe I could visually evoke something interesting. The original work was a novel, so I felt like I needed some kind of weapon in the transition to film.

And that weapon was non-linear storytelling.

Hirao: Exactly. Creating a motif of opposites and spirals by mixing up the flow of time. And when dealing with the problem of how to fit the original into two hours, I was thinking that if I mix up the order things happen in, the people watching who already knew what would happen could use that knowledge to supplement what they were seeing. Well, there were a bunch of other reasons too, but those were the main ones.

Did you want to shuffle events around so you could set up a climax midway through?

Hirao: That was part of it, but it’s mainly just that the story in this episode was so incredibly complicated. All these different characters and their subplots are all mixed up, so I wanted to first put that all in order. To do that, I split the flow of time between Tomoe and Shiki in Part A, and Kokutou and Touko in Part B. By setting these two timelines opposite each other, and shuffling them like a spiral, I thought I could reflect that dynamism visually.

I see. At the end of Part C, just before Shiki escapes the Spiral of Origin, there’s a scene that quickly puts everything that was shuffled in order. I think the idea is that the spiral is being consolidated, but it’s also showing how everything was chronologically.

Hirao: I kind of messed up there (laughs bitterly). I really wanted to make it as short and quick as possible, just to say, “Here’s how those parts we shuffled are connected.” It turned out about a minute and a half long, which is a lot more than I thought it would be when I planned it. We kept having to add more scenes. Of course it drags down the pace of the movie, but I couldn’t help it. In the end, maybe viewers couldn’t get what the scene was supposed to be about…

As it is now, it feels like it’s trying to tell us visually how Shiki feels (laughs).

Hirao: Hahaha (laughs). When I saw it after it was done, I was like, “Huh!?” That scene was originally supposed to demonstrate that the non-linear Part B was supposed to be a dream that Shiki was seeing, with all those scenes linked together inside the Spiral of Origin. That’s why Part A proceeds chronologically, but Part B is more shuffled around.

So in Parts B and C, the flow of time is messed up because it’s a dream that Shiki is seeing inside the Spiral of Origin.

Hirao: Yeah, that’s right. In that sum-up scene, I wanted people to realize that those images Shiki was seeing inside the Spiral of Origin were everything that had happened until now. At first I tried applying a “Spiral of Origin effect”, but none of the staff understood it (laughs). Even Kondo-san was like, “This makes no sense.” So then we just applied the effect on the edges of the frame. We did a lot of experimentation trying to create a good spiral-like effect.

I think the visuals illustrated that well.

The recap scene inside a spiral

Hirao: I wanted to demonstrate that this was a dream Shiki was having, while at the same time dynamically summarizing what had happened. This was my first time making a feature film, so in the end I was always worrying, “If I don’t explain this stuff, nobody’s going to understand it.”

Even if all that stuff might not have come across, I think the film itself treats viewers very kindly.

Hirao: Maybe it’s because I’m a natural worrier (laughs). Thinking about it now, perhaps I should be more ruthless with the stuff I create. No matter how much I explain things that anxiety never goes away, so I guess I’m just not ruthless enough.

This was the first film you directed. What motivated you to do it?

Hirao: Hmm, let’s see. When I worked at Madhouse, the staff that worked on movies always seemed like a level above the TV people. That gave me a feeling at that time that film was something special. And when I decided to direct one of the seven chapters of Kara no Kyoukai, I felt a lot of pressure because it was special. When I started, I had this idea that no matter what anyone else said, I was going to do everything the way I wanted to do it. That’s how I’d done it on (Gakuen Utopia) Manabi Straight! and Futakoi (Alternative). But on those, I still had to deal with the limitations of production. That was a familiar environment, where I’d have to make my decisions in the context of producing the entire series smoothly. But with the fifth movie, it was my first time…

Your first time not having to think about that stuff, or in other words, being able to create without worrying about what’s cost effective?

Hirao: That’s it (laughs). I tried creating without thinking about what was cost effective, without listening to what other people said. Like, nobody would seriously set out to make a two-hour animated movie, right? While we were making it, plenty of people pushed me about what the point was of doing all this stuff.

What exactly do you mean by “all this stuff”? Like, cramming in all that story?

Hirao: When it came to the story, once we finalized the storyboard, it was just like, “Well, nothing to do but do it.” The real issue was making sure the staff understood the meaning of all the individual cuts with the flow of time all mixed up. They’d say, “This flow doesn’t make sense,” so I’d try to explain, “Actually, it’s connected to something that occurred before, so it’s got to be like this,” but even so there were still a lot of misunderstandings. When that happened, I’d either have to correct it myself or just be like, “Whatever, just do what I say.” That caused a lot of frustration to accumulate among the staff.

It’s kind of like trying to explain why you made a play the way you did.

Hirao: We had the same kind of problems when it came to adding lighting to the cuts. Because time could move backwards, the lighting would also have to move in the opposite way. But no matter how hard I tried to explain it, they didn’t understand. And with the fifth movie, I wanted to give it more of a film-like feeling. The first four movies didn’t have any film grain, but on this one we added it in with AfterEffects.

Why did you add film noise?

Hirao: Whatever we did, the fifth movie was going to be massive, so we couldn’t handle compositing the same way as the first movie. If we made people watch a two-hour film that way, they’d get bored of it. That’s why I thought we should add a thin layer of film grain on top in compositing. But once I proposed that plan, of course there were plenty of people who wanted to stick with what they had been doing before. It was a tough fight against all that dissent. Even in the character design, we had to add a little shadow beneath what we had.

Adding a bunch of shadows in the compositing phase for a two hour movie sounds like rough work.

Hirao: Yeah. Of course there were ways to do it more efficiently, but I wanted to do things differently whenever I could, from the script to the compositing. Doing that, demanding this specific kind of image, meant conflict at every single phase of the production, where I’d have to try my best to explain what I was looking for. That started with the script, but it extended to compositing and editing, and every other section. I had to fight every step of the way.

One example of your planning was that scene showing the fight between Tomoe’s parents. Compositing that long one-take must have been a real challenge (laughs).

Hirao: Ahaha (laughs). It sure was.

Seeing that, I was like, “Damn, that must have been a bitch to draw!”

Hirao: (Laughs). I needed people to understand how his parents were repeating the same day over and over in the Ogawa apartment complex, and there wasn’t going to be another chance later in the film. Part B is all about Kokutou and Touko, and the whole story starts combining in Part C. In order to show Tomoe’s history and express why that household was so unhappy, I felt like we had to do it that way… but really, even though I had an excuse, ultimately I did it because I was into that stuff (laughs).

You did it because you wanted to, then (laughs).

Hirao: (Laughs). I guess I really wasn’t thinking about cost-effectiveness with this film.

As anyone who has this book already knows, the fifth movie has a huge storyboard. Were you particularly motivated when making it?

Hirao: Hmm, hard to say. Parts A and B were the hardest. I was really worried about them. On the other hand, everything from Part C on felt like it went really smoothly.

What was worrying you? Was it how to portray everything?

Hirao: Of course that was tough, but the real challenge was how to shuffle things. Like, in Part A, the story’s showing Tomoe and Shiki’s normal daily life, so for a while the plot’s not really moving and it’s kind of boring. It only picks up again when Tomoe sees his mother, who he thinks he killed. But until then, I was just drawing normal life stuff. I worried a lot about how to convey the important points without people getting bored. With Part B, at first I drew everything in order, and then tried moving everything around a bunch of different ways to see what worked. But if course, whatever amount of shuffling I did, I was worried that people might not get something… I was trying different things every day. In the end, I asked a lot of people for their opinions about the storyboard.

While you were drawing it?

Hirao: For example, every day I’d draw 10 or 20 pages for the storyboard. Then I’d take what I just finished and show it to a bunch of the staff (laughs). Over and over, bringing it out like, “What do you think?” In the end, there’s that fight with Shiki and Araya where the camera’s moving all over the place, right? It wasn’t like that in my first draft of the storyboard. I was asking the staff how I could make it more dynamic, and the idea came up to have the camera spin. I was like, “That’s it!” (laughs).

That camera was spinning like a top (laughs).

Hirao: Ahaha (laughs). So for that scene I adopted an idea an animator gave me. Things like that are the main way I was able to push forward when I got stuck on the storyboard.

For one of the big action scenes in the movie, you allowed the animator Tetsuya Takeuchi to storyboard it. How did that come about?

Hirao: Takeuchi and I have been drinking buddies for a long time, so the idea must have come about then. He told me once, “These days, nobody storyboards any action I want to animate.” He’s all about motion, but he’d get storyboards that wouldn’t let him draw any real activity. I suggested, “If you make the storyboard yourself, you could fill it with all the ideas you’ve wanted to animate,” and he responded, “Yeah, definitely.” So with all the action in the fifth film, I gave him an action scene to storyboard from scratch. I was like, “Here’s your chance.”

When you compare the rough version with the final product, some parts are cut from the beginning and end, but Takeuchi’s work in the middle is largely untouched.

Hirao: The beginning and end had to connect with everything else, so I had to clean it up a little. But I didn’t interfere with the action in the middle at all. The only thing I requested was that Shiki remove her leather jacket during the fight, just for the sake of continuity.

When Shiki is fighting the zombies, a baby gets thrown at her in the rough version. In the final film, it’s replaced with a fire extinguisher.

Hirao: At the time, we thought that as long as their skin had an unnatural color it’d be okay, but we had to change it once we started animating. Just before that point in the production, there was a mass murder incident in Akihabara, and we didn’t have time to make big changes before the film was set to open, so we might have had to remove the cut completely. I consulted with Takeuchi, and we decided on the change to a fire extinguisher.

There are a lot of other shocking there that didn’t get changed. Like when Shiki cuts down a kid.

Hirao: As I told Takeuchi, in this movie there had to be some real cruelty. Araya is the kind of person who drives people into endless despair, and uses human bodies as objects for his own ends. We needed those extreme scenes to get that idea across.

Going back to the non-linear story, my favorite part was when you repeat Touko’s visit to the Ogawa Apartment Complex. That was a really interesting trick.

Hirao: Ah, so you liked it! Actually, Aniplex producer (Atsuhiro) Iwakami told me over and over that we should cut the second visit. Even after we finished post-recording and got into dubbing, he was still requesting that.

The second time we see Touko arriving at the apartment

That scene happens three times.

Hirao: That’s right. There’s the first Touko’s visit, then the second Touko’s visit gets shuffled ahead, and then that second visit happens again in its appropriate chronological spot, making three total visits.

But actually, Touko only goes to the mansion twice. In other words, when she appears again you’re asking yourself, “Is that the second Touko, or not?”

Hirao: Yes, yes! That’s exactly what I wanted.

And when the third time comes around, you’re like, “Ah, now it’s not shuffled, and the real thing’s here.” (laughs)

Hirao: You got it (laughs). You think the second Touko has finally arrived, but then it’s like, “Huh? I guess not.” Perhaps this trick might have made it tougher for some viewers to empathize with Touko, though.

Attentive viewers watching that scene can notice that it’s out of order based on the number of the parked cars.

Hirao: That’s true. Chronologically, the first car to arrive is Touko’s first Aston Martin. After that comes the rental car that brought Kokutou and Tomoe. Finally, the third car to arrive is Touko’s second Aston Martin. In the scene where the second Touko arrives there are three cars, but when Kokutou and Tomoe arrive later there are two. If you notice the number of cars in the far shot, you can tell that the scenes are out of order. I meant for it to be something viewers might pick up on.

You created a rhythm for the film in a lot of places by shuffling scenes around. That feels particularly true in the first half of the film. Was that something you were conscious of as you were making it?

Hirao: I was very conscious of the film’s rhythm as I was making it. That’s because fundamentally, I think visual rhythm is the most important thing. This was my first film, and my first time making something this long, so ultimately I needed something to hold onto (laughs).

And that was the whole film’s sense of rhythm.

Hirao: There are still plenty of things I can’t do well. Maybe other directors on this project have talked about this, but for Kara no Kyoukai started rough cutting during the storyboard phase. For the fifth film, it took about 3 days to carefully go through the whole storyboard, and we did that about four times. During that cutting process, the sense of rhythm was always at the front of my mind. There were around 1100 cuts in the storyboard when we were through with it, but the number swelled to something like 1200 or 1300 in the actual film. In the compositing phase we did a lot of tinkering, and added a whole bunch of cuts. But I was always thinking about the visual tempo.

There are some long takes, but on the whole it feels like 2000 cuts are packed into the film. Like, there are all those cuts of that door opening and closing you included.

Hirao: There’s so much of that doorknob cut that it’s just like, “Enough already!” (laughs). We stuffed those in kinda feverishly. The idea behind the image of the door opening was to give more weight to Tomoe’s line from the second half of the film, that “The key is proof of the family.” So when the doorknob turns in that cut, the flow of time is meant to move back and forth. Of course, when I thought that, I had a more relaxed image in mind.

Those cuts come really quickly, though (laughs).

Hirao: I thought if I didn’t do it that much, people wouldn’t get it (laughs). But the final product turned out really different from that image. It’s got this sort of restless quality. I guess it’s true that you can do something well even when you fail.

The repeated use of this cut makes it feel like Shiki and Tomoe have lived together for a long time

I wouldn’t say that. It felt like a really energetic film. In terms of creation, have you ever considered making a live action film?

Hirao: Live action? Well, it’s not like I haven’t thought about it, but I wouldn’t know where to start. I’ve heard other people say that the fifth film has a real “Japanese cinema” feel to it.

I guess so. I mean, it’s certainly closer to Japanese cinema than Western cinema.

Hirao: When I was a kid, I preferred Japanese cinema to Western cinema. I was a big fan of directors like Shinji Somai, Takeshi Kitano, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. When I saw the stuff they did, like using really long takes to build tension, I wanted to do that stuff myself. I tried to use those techniques when I worked in TV, but because of the smaller screen, you can’t hold people’s attention the same way. So I wanted to try a long take myself in a film once. But the more I did stuff like that, the less efficient the production became (laughs). Still, in the end I was able to do most of the stuff I wanted to try. There was the fight between Tomoe’s parents we talked about before, but I also had those long cuts in mind in the scene with Tomoe waiting and waiting on the street.

Compared to the earlier films, Paradox Spiral has a drier visual tone.

Hirao: Ah, that might be because the camera’s more pulled out. But honestly, whenever I looked at the storyboard I always thought, “We should move the camera back more.” (laughs). I asked a lot of other people about it too, but I think more of the cuts turned out how I wanted them. Still, I wanted to pull the camera back even more (laughs). Also, I think how we composited it may have given it a drier feeling. To make the Ogawa Apartment Complex feel like the inside of the human body, we made heavy use of the color orange, which makes the tone feel drier.

How do you feel about the structure of the story? I’m sure deciding what parts of the source to keep and what to cut took a lot of work.

Hirao: Yeah, it was really tough. The hardest part of the original to deal with was this long conversation Touko has with Alba at the Ogawa Apartment Complex. It’s a big part of the source, and I was really worried about whether I should cut it. Besides that one part, we cut a lot out during the scenario phase, and then I added some of it back in while I was making the storyboard. Like in Parts A and B when Kokutou is looking up info on the apartment, I’d be drawing the storyboard with the original at my side, picking bits to use and adding them in.

Was there anything from the original work that you gave a different interpretation to?

Hirao: A different interpretation? Hmm… the biggest change was probably that thing I was telling you before about Shiki dreaming. There’s nothing about that in the novel. There’s that line in Part B where Touko says, “Maybe Shiki is dreaming inside the spiral,” but it’s really just creating a reason for the shuffled timeline. There’s also the setting for Touko and Alba’s conversation. In the novel they talk in a Buddhist temple, but I thought that was a stiff kind of image, so I changed it to an art museum.

The landscape Araya imagines looks like it’s from the Sengoku period, doesn’t it? That places him specifically in Japan. In the novel, we don’t get a sense of what time or place he comes from.

Hirao: I guess that is another change from the novel. I thought it would be easiest for the audience to understand Araya as a symbol of endless human despair which has always existed if I used the Sengoku period. Still, it’s true that he’s only around 200 years old, so the Sengoku period was well before his time. That’s why I changed that line to “over two hundred years”. There are a lot of details like that which were changed, and some of those changes probably create contradictions with Nasu’s other works. But on the other hand, I really love that feeling of charging full speed ahead, so I want to keep those kinds of things around. When we started the project, Nasu told us we should change anything that contradicts the setting, but I think those contradictions are what really grab readers’ attention.

You mean, the parts that are left up to the readers’ interpretation?

Hirao: Yeah. The reader presses forward with the book, asking themselves, “Maybe this is what happened?” And of course, there are many fans who deeply love the world of Nasu’s works. Whenever we cut something from the story, or made any changes, I was always worried about whether the fans would accept it. Whenever I got too worried, Kondo would get in touch with TYPE-MOON, and we’d go over it with Nasu directly.

There are three eyecatches in the movie, at the start of Parts A, B, and C. Why did you put those in the movie?

Hirao: Personally, this is just what I wanted, but the idea was that Part A was Tomoe and Shiki’s story, Part B was Kokutou and Touko’s story, and C and D were when the whole thing got connected together. We didn’t plan on having any eyecatches, but when I was thinking about how I could make the movie easier for viewers to understand, the idea for eyecatches hit me. They weren’t supposed to move at first. But after we cut it, I showed it to (Tsuyoshi) Imai, an editor who I’d worked with since “Manabi”, even though he wasn’t on the staff for this movie. I told him about my concerns, and he gave me the idea to have the eyecatches move. It made them a lot easier to understand. That’s why you have the eyecatch at the start of Part B turning from white to black, and the one for Part C showing the white and black melting into each other.

The eyecatch at the start of Part B

Did you think that adding eyecatches takes away from the cinematic feel of the film?

Hirao: Well, I had that thought too, but I’d rather have that than make the film hard to follow (laughs).

How did you feel when it was all done?

Hirao: In terms of regrets, they’re mainly in the processing phase. Even if it was just small things, I feel like there’s more we could have packed in if I’d done a better job. I also have some regrets about the animation. Through the first four parts, I don’t think the basic animation movements ever fundamentally broke down. I was the only one who pushed the animators beyond what was reasonable.

There really were a lot of character acting cuts. Was that part of the plan at the storyboard phase?

Hirao: It really came up in the animation meetings. At the first meeting we set our goals, and I assigned the animators their work. Most of them were people I’d worked with on “Manabi”, so we didn’t talk about stuff like how much character acting to animate. And then they didn’t include any animation at all (laughs bitterly). I thought, “Oh, no! I guess production worked this way on the other parts,” and at the next meeting we talked about all the character acting I wanted to add, but at that point there wasn’t any time… To polish it up to the extent of the other parts, we’d have needed another six months. And that might be a bit optimistic.

How about the amount of story?

Hirao: It was tough (laughs bitterly). I was able to get in all the stuff I made, though I think I could have gotten it a bit shorter. But in terms of volume of plot, if I get the chance to make another movie, I’d like to have this much to work with again. I don’t mean to brag, but when I first finished cutting it so you could watch it all the way through, I was like, “It’s actually watchable!” (laughs). Even with all that script and content, it still turned out to be a two-hour movie. Still, I think that only works in terms of anime. For a live action film you can take more time with things, but for an anime film I think it’s better to overwhelm viewers with volume.

I see. You don’t want any of the “sagging scenes” that Oshii talked about.

Hirao: None at all (laughs). Like in this movie, there’s only one cut that’s just backgrounds.

Now that you mention it, the portion of Part A where Shiki and Tomoe are living together is kind of laid back, but you push through it very quickly.

Hirao: (Laughs). Earlier I said, “It feels a little too long,” but those are just my sentiments as a creator. From a viewer’s standpoint, it’d be nice if there were more of the original work. When trying to tell the whole story in just under two hours, you have to pack each cut with a lot of information. That sense of density applies to the tempo of the conversation and the amount of dialogue, and I wonder if maybe young people today like it that way. They’ve gotten accustomed to the density, so they aren’t satisfied by the slower older stuff. I realized this when I watched “(Tengen Toppa) Gurren Lagann” as it was airing. The story moves incredibly fast in that show. But there are still plenty of people who can deal with that kind of speed, and have developed a taste for it.

That’s true. When people of my era watch Gurren Lagann, it’s more like, “That guy died before I even learned his name!” (Laughs).

Hirao: Yeah, yeah! (Laughs). That’s it. Moreover, this was a two hour film. So to bring in a brand new character for his part and tell his story from start to finish, it was good to have that amount of speed and volume.

The speed and density of this movie was originally a measure of last resort to pack in such a huge story but I guess it turned out alright in the end, didn’t it?

Hirao: It did. We probably could have cut a bunch of side stuff until it fit into a two hour episode, but doing it as we did, packing everything in until it moved like a roller coaster… well, I guess because we thought it was possible, we were able to pull it off. Looking back on it now I’m glad we did it that way, but the process was really tough. While we were making it I had to face head-on those dissatisfied with the sheer volume of it, and I was pelted with a lot of doubt about the production process. During those times Takuro (Takahashi) supported me the most. I’m deeply grateful to him.

Takuro was the animation director and your assistant director on this movie. In what ways did he support you?

Hirao: Specifically, above all else, I’m most thankful that he supported me mentally, and didn’t bring his complaints to me. The rest of the staff had plenty to say, but he was the only one who didn’t bring that up while we were working, put up with my requests, and when my grumbling discontent spilled over, said, “It’s all right.” He was always supporting me from the sidelines. As animation director, too, he had to deal with all the annoying little details about clothing and accessories and stuff. I think he had a harder job than I did. When the film was finished I was planning to do the director’s greetings by myself, but the reliable Takuro and color designer (Emi) Chiba came with me.