Lonely Castle in the Mirror is an animated adaptation of Mizuki Tsujimura’s eponymous novel. It is a modern fairytale about a group of troubled teenagers who find refuge in a magical castle – but harrowing truths lie buried underneath its shimmering surface. At this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, Kaisa Saarinen spoke to director Keiichi Hara about the process of animating novels and the social issues underpinning the film.
[This interview was conducted in Japanese and has been translated into English by the interviewer. Some answers have been shortened for clarity.]
You have extensive experience in adapting novels into anime. Could you talk about the process of transforming work from a textual to a visual form?
To me, there isn’t a massive difference in adapting textual or visual source material. The most important question I ask myself when deciding whether to take on a project is the same across the mediums – whether I feel that it will be possible to bring out its full potential in an adaptation.
Do you usually read a lot of novels?
I read for pleasure, not for work, and I barely ever pick up new novels. I’ve somehow lost all interest in Japanese novels published in recent times.
I feel the same way about most literature published in the UK.
I just don’t find most of it interesting, so I end up rereading old favorites instead. When it comes to Japanese writers, I like jidaigeki author Shiba Ryotaro, for example.
Lonely Castle is based on a relatively recent novel, though.
That’s true. In fact, I didn’t pick this work to adapt – I was requested to do it.
Colorful (2010) was also adapted from a novel. Was that a similar situation?
Yes, it was another commission.
Have you ever felt strongly that you want to adapt a particular work, whether it’s in the form of a novel or another medium?
I have, but I tend to be out of sync with the times. My proposals usually get rejected.
The heavy topic of child suicide was central to Colorful. Lonely Castle addresses similar themes, including mental health issues and bullying. Do you feel passionate about addressing such societal themes in your work?
To be honest, it’s not that I particularly want to deal with these topics. In fact, I spent a big chunk of my career working on incredibly silly children’s anime, like Crayon Shin-Chan, and I know I’m good at it. But I haven’t had many chances to do that recently – somehow, I’ve become a person people approach with very serious projects. I think it would be high time for me to surprise people by creating a really inane gag anime.
You’d like to return to the Crayon Shin-chan style?
Rather than return, I’d like to showcase the breadth of my abilities. I really hope I get to do that soon. I never really intended to be typecast as a serious storyteller. When I’m doing it, I do it to my best abilities, but I wouldn’t say it’s my passion.
Despite their heavy themes, both Colorful and Lonely Castle ultimately have quite hopeful and life-affirming messages. I think they can provide ‘ibasho’ to both children going through a hard time and adults with painful memories. In real life, though, I wonder if bullying and mental health issues in Japan have gotten worse in the 13 years since Colorful came out?
I think this is a crucial point to communicate clearly. Last year, 514 kids between elementary and high school ages committed suicide in Japan. It’s the highest number since they began collecting records, with many suicides even among elementary school students. Neither the government nor the schools want to acknowledge this, but the root cause is bullying. Both the government and the schools are evading responsibility, so they prefer to suggest that there was something wrong with the child instead. But that’s obviously not true. The number of hikikomori has also reached a record high - last year there were about 300,000 elementary and middle school kids who were not going to school. It’s mind-boggling.
This may be an impossibly big question, but why do you think that is?
I can’t speak on behalf of the kids themselves, but if I try to explain it in my own way, I think Japan has somehow, at some point, become a nation of bystanders. Even if we witness someone being bullied and think, 'Ah, how horrible’, we fail to turn our pity and compassion into action.
To regain the ability to act, I think we should first recover the capacity to express compassion. We need to speak up when we recognize that someone is going through a hard time. Small gestures – like offering to walk home from school with someone – can be the most important. There’s no need to be a hero – the thing is that people trying to be heroes often end up the target of bullying, too.
We should acknowledge each other’s humanity.
Exactly. When someone is getting bullied, they’re probably incredibly lonely. Often, they cannot even tell their parents. They feel incapable of letting anyone know what they’re going through, so they suffer alone, in the worst cases to the point of committing suicide. I think that for kids like that, having someone who speaks to them or offers to walk with them could be enough to prevent the worst-case suicide scenario.
The compulsory education period in Japan is 12 years. When that’s over, there is a much wider world out there to discover. I think it’d be important to communicate that more clearly to kids. If parents understood that, what they should really be telling their kids is ’ It’s okay not to go to school’.
School isn’t the most important thing in life.
Yeah. Many Japanese adults take it for granted that going to school is crucially important. As a result, lots of kids feel that they’ve been abandoned by their parents if they can’t fulfill that expectation.
It would mean the world for these kids if they felt that their parents were on their side. If they were told that there’s no need to endure bullying day after day – that it’s okay to study at home instead.
The most important thing for kids is to think about what kind of an adult they want to be, and what is it they want to do with their lives. In that sense, I think the misfits often get a head start compared to the idiots who bully them at school. Kids who watch a lot of films read lots of novels, travel around, and so on. I think doing stuff like that can be a lot more valuable than going to school.
Colorful was a pretty ‘realistic’ film. In comparison, Lonely Castle addresses similar themes in a more fantastical style. Do you feel that it’s easier to get at real-world issues through using a less ‘realistic’ approach in art?
I think there needs to be an element of fantasy in fiction. If the characters’ problems were solved in a ‘realistic’ way, the film wouldn’t be very fun to watch, so they must be saved by this castle. It would be more accurate to describe it as a lonely ‘fortress’, besieged by enemies on all sides, saving the characters from their worst-case scenarios and allowing them to look towards the future.
Of course, no such castle exists in reality. I hope this film will inspire people to consider what we could construct in its stead.
In the medium of anime, it seems that there is no need to remain confined to ‘realism’. The ability to create fantastic scenarios is easily available, so I think it makes sense to make the most of it.
At the same time, I’m not really interested in works that are purely fantastical. Even if there are elements of fantasy, I prefer stories that remain rooted in reality. I want people to recognize that ‘reality’ and be moved by it in some way – that is one of my objectives as a storyteller. Of course, fantasy, sci-fi and stuff like that can be great. I prefer stories that incorporate both ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’.
The isekai genre seems to have become incredibly popular in Japan over the last few years. How do you feel about that?
Ah, well, there are many people who feel fed up with reality.
You see it as pure escapism?
Very much so. People want to flee into those worlds. If it saves them, that’s okay, but I don’t feel the need to be rescued like that.
And you wouldn’t want Lonely Castle to be labeled as an isekai story?
No – because the castle is just a symbol.
When I was reading the original novel, I thought there was a risk that rendering this world of letters in a visual form would make it seem all too falsified. Trying to avoid that scenario was one of my focus points when creating this film.
There’s a trick in this story, isn’t there? It was a headache figuring out how to convey [a plot point] without giving it away from the start. In the end, I decided to not have the characters enquire much about each other’s personal lives. As a result, people have told me the scenario reminded them of a free school.. Actually, do free schools exist outside Japan?
I’m not sure.
It’s basically a volunteer-run school for kids who are unable to go to ‘real’ school. They can take classes in a more relaxed environment.
Something like that must exist in many countries, but it’s not usually organized to that extent.
In Japan, the number of free schools has been increasing significantly in recent years. I think that’s a very hopeful sign.
Issues like child suicide or hikikomori may be particularly widespread in Japan, but they do exist in all countries, so it’s easy to see how this film would resonate across regions.
Teenagers shouldn’t just give up on living, right? Seeing news about kids killing themselves makes me feel like I’m going crazy. And it’s not getting better – in fact, it’s only getting worse. I struggle to wrap my head around it.
When I was growing up in Finland, someone close to me struggled with suicidality at a very young age. I also felt very strongly that it’s difficult to accept someone giving up on life at that age. But thankfully, they are still alive and doing better now.
I think nothing is more difficult for a human being to bear than loneliness. Kids are driven to suicide when they feel a complete loneliness of having no friends or nobody at all on their side. The sense of despair must be unbearable.
Adults shouldn’t be so scared of intruding into their kids’ lives that they fail to provide support. We need a more hands-on approach to helping each other.