Interview: Tokyo Ghoul live-action film director Kentarō Hagiwara

by Gabriella Ekens,

Just before its wide Japanese release, the live action Tokyo Ghoul film premiered at Anime Expo on July 3rd, 2017. Hundreds of people waited hours in line for a chance to see the film, whose screening filled the JW Marriot's Diamond Ballroom. The audience was lively, with fans often cheering for their favorite moments and characters. Afterwards, there was a brief Q&A session and a premiere screening photo of the crowd, where audience members donned their own paper versions of Kaneki's mask.

In preparation for the movie's premiere at Anime Expo 2017, we sat down with Tokyo Ghoul's director, Kentarō Hagiwara, for an exclusive interview to discuss the film's influences and adaptive choices needed to bring this popular manga to life on film.

ANN: Were you familiar with Tokyo Ghoul before directing this movie?

Hagiwara: No, I wasn't.

So what did you think of the material? When you were preparing to direct the movie, did you read the manga?

Hagiwara: As I said, I did not know the material before, but when I was offered the project, I read through the manga, the whole thing, and I thought that it was very interesting, I was very intrigued. And I started thinking about how I would present this to producers, and how I would ultimately present this material as a film.

What were some of the unique challenges of adapting Tokyo Ghoul to live action?

Hagiwara: We didn't have a Hollywood budget for this movie, so – in the style of Japanese filmmaking – I had to be creative about what I could show onscreen. I didn't intend to make this film as an action film. Rather, I intended to make a film that includes both action and drama. For example, the kagune – I didn't want to include them just because they'd be cool, but rather because they're a part of the overall storyline. So when Kaneki becomes a ghoul, he has to learn to see his kagune as a part of himself, as something beautiful.

How difficult was it to realize the kagune visually?

Hagiwara: Kagune aren't something that exist, of course, so we had to think about things like their weight or how they'd move. I worked hard to make them seem real, like things that could be part of people's bodies. That was a challenge. There was also the issue of how to frame them emotionally. In the beginning, during his encounter with Rize, Kaneki is scared of this unknown creature – a “ghoul.” So at that point, I tried to make the kagune more terrifying. However, once Kaneki becomes a ghoul and grows to understand what that means, I tried to make them look more beautiful, as he stops being afraid of himself.

You mentioned something about genre earlier. What genre of film do you consider this version of Tokyo Ghoul?

Hagiwara: I feel that I made something like a Hollywood movie where Caucasian people go into native land, assimilate into their society, try to understand them, and learn to coexist. Something like The Last Samurai.

Are there any other films that you looked to as a model?

Hagiwara: In terms of storyline, films like District 9. Visually, the producers told me to watch certain movies as references. However, my focus was on the beautiful story already present in the manga, so I instead kept my focus on how to best depict what's already in the manga beautifully. Otherwise, I took particular inspiration from Kill Bill: Volume 1, which tells a strong story that's also punctuated by action.

Did you look at any other anime-to-live-action adaptations when making this film?

Hagiwara: I did watch several, not anime, but manga-to-live action movies in preparation. However, I also specifically did not watch the Tokyo Ghoul anime in order to focus on the manga.

Directorially, how did you go about replicating the feel of the manga in live-action?

Hagiwara: Have you seen the live-action adaptation of Ping Pong?

No, I haven't.

Hagiwara: Well, what the director of that film – Fumihiko Sori – did was use the manga as a storyboard, mimicking the panel arrangements in live action. It really worked, but at the same time, he also incorporated reality so that it didn't seem so anime or manga-like. So for Tokyo Ghoul, I did try to incorporate some of the “shots” or “cuts” used in the manga.

What do you think are some of the common problems made by anime-to-live action films? How did you work around these for Tokyo Ghoul?

Hagiwara: So in Japanese shonen stories, there are a lot of very stereotypical characters? For example, there's Goku, who's a type of happy-go-lucky character. Kaneki, meanwhile, isn't one-dimensional like that. So I struggled with finding models in anime-to-live-action films for how to depict multidimensional characters.

I'm interested in the process for making anime and manga characters look realistic. They often have quite outlandish designs – impractical outfits and unnatural hair colors. How did you balance making the characters look realistic but also still recognizable as themselves?

Hagiwara: You know the character Mado?

Yeah, it seems like he could be difficult.

Hagiwara: You know, he had to have gray hair? Initially, we were going to give everyone black hair, but when I went to discuss it with the actor [Yo Oizumi], he insisted on having gray hair. We ended up making a wig with human hair for the part. We thought that if we put that look together and it was still attractive, even if it's unrealistic, it would still work.

Is it possible that there will be more live-action Tokyo Ghoul films in the future?

Hagiwara: I'd really like that. More interesting characters are going to be introduced.

Would you be interested in watching the anime after you make the films, to see what was done differently?

Hagiwara: Perhaps, once everything is done. At least the arc that I covered in this movie.

Thanks to Kentarō Hagiwara and Anime Expo for this opportunity.

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