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An Interview With Keiichi Hara, Director of Lonely Castle in the Mirror

On June 21 and June 22, the animated film Lonely Castle in the Mirror will be released in select American cinemas by GKIDS. As the title suggests, it’s a fantasy film, but one with strong real-world undertones. A Japanese girl, Kokoro, finds the idea of going to school unbearable, and she spends her days in a limbo existence in her room. Then her mirror glows magically, and she passes through it to a beautiful castle in an endless ocean.

Here she finds six more children like herself. They’re greeted by a scary little girl, her face hidden by a wolf mask, who tells them they can visit the castle every day. The girl also claims one child has the chance of having their wish granted. But if they break the castle’s rules, a wolf will gobble them up.

Lonely Castle is directed by Keiichi Hara, whose decades-long career includes such films as the fantastical The Wonderland (called Birthday Wonderland in Britain); the historical Miss Hokusai; and the boy-meets-kappa film, Summer Days With Coo. Perhaps the closest precedent to Lonely Castle, though, is Hara’s 2010 film Colorful, which also used a fantasy framework to explore the problems faced by modern Japanese teens. 

The most obvious real-world problem that Lonely Castle depicts is that of youngsters like Kokoro, who refuse to leave their homes, sometimes even their rooms. The media often tags such people with a Japanese expression, hikkikomori or “shut-in.” While hikkikomori affects people of ages, Lonely Castle focuses on school-aged characters, and I wanted to know what Hara thought about them. 

AFA:Lonely Castle in the Mirror emphasises that huge numbers of student-aged people have great difficulty going to school, and this problem goes back years and generations. I wondered if you think there is one underlying reason behind the problems all these youngsters have. Is it bullying, or is there a deeper reason? 

Keiichi Hara: I'm 63 years old. And you know, when I was a child, I had to go to school, there was no option. If I didn’t feel like going to school, I had to go to school! Comparing the present day to my childhood, I think that it’s (the children) having their own rooms. I think that made it easier to become hikkikomori. I didn’t have my own room when I was growing up, so not going to school wasn’t an option. How things change over the generations, that can be part of it (the reason).

I think that generational differences, generational changes, are undeniable. Especially today, kids have social media, they have smartphones, they have laptops. And I think that your own psyche, your emotional self and your physical body, have become more important and something to protect, because it’s gotten into a more fragile place, so that when something does happen, it hurts that much more. It’s a bigger shock to the system, emotionally and physically, than it used to be.

When I was a kid, we were all just a lot more freewheelingbut I think that kids are a little bit more delicate these days.

I’ve read that you came up with the basic visual image for the castle, both inside and out. Were there any real buildings that you found particularly helpful in how it was going to look? 

There wasn’t a real castle. I had actually asked an acquaintance of mine, who’s a Russian illustrator and animator and animation director as well, who I had previously worked with, to come up with the castle’s exteriors and interiors. 

[The castle’s Visual Design is credited to Russian artist Ilya Kuvshinov, who has Character, Mechanical and Art Design credits on Hara’s The Wonderland. Kushinov’s other anime credits include Character Design on Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045.]

The film took five and a half years to make, which I’m guessing was because of Covid. Can you describe how Covid affected the production? 

Like everyone else during Covid – the entertainment industry, music - everything was affected and our production fell behind like many others. But it turned out that with animation, most of it could be done at home. People didn’t want to confess that, but then they realised that they didn’t have to go to an actual workplace to make animated features. Some people were saying they even worked better at home. 

For me personally, I really like my core crew to occupy the same space and the same room. But for this film, there were some core crew members who I did not see through to the very end (of production), so it was a little lonelier than I’m used to.

In Japan in the last ten or fifteen years, there has been a huge rise in stories about characters going to the other worlds, which are often labelled “isekai.” These stories often originate as online fiction, and many people think they are for otaku. Lonely Castle is very different – it’s based on an award-winning novel, and it engages with problems in the real world. Do you think some viewers may be surprised by the film, because they expected it to be a normal isekai anime?

This is just my opinion, I haven’t done any market research on this or anything. But I think that many viewers are not taking genre into consideration when they choose something to watch. And if I knew what they were taking into consideration, I could be making hits all day. But I think that between what I created and the isekai titles, there’s a common hook that those people are looking for, that is able to draw them in.

I think that there’s been a huge shift in anime and society. Forty, fifty years ago, if you go back then, you could never really find an adult who would watch anime. And if you did, the word didn’t exist back then, but you would have been considered an otaku. But now our audiences aren’t very picky between live-action or anime at all.

So I think that’s a big change in society, and it’s a big change in how anime is treated as well. The people I would call younger, in their 20s or 30s, who can pay to go see a movie, they aren’t picking between live-action and anime - at least in Japanese audiences. 

Apart from Kokoro, one other character in your film who makes a big impact is the boy Ureshino, who desperately wants to be friends with girls. Do you think many of the audience will be able to secretly relate to him? 

The feedback was that a lot of people saw themselves in Ureshino and that actually made me surprisingly happy. Because if we’re talking about people, there’s always that one person who cannot read the room, and that is him. The people watching can understand what it’s like to be in his position as well. 

There’s a reality in Ureshino’s imperfection that I think touches on a soft part with people. My relationship with Ureshino is that he knows that he cannot read the room. And I learned to be more understanding of people like Ureshino, to be a little bit more empathetic.

Lonely Castle In The Mirror is in select US Cinemas on June 21 and June 22. Find a screening and buy tickets here