Little Princess Sara Staff Interview: Fumio Kurokawa

In this 1999 interview conducted on the occasion of the DVD release of Little Princess Sara, director Fumio Kurokawa turns the clock back 14 years and talks about his goals and disappointments directing the 11th World Masterpiece Theater TV series.


Interviewer: How did people react to the series?

Kurokawa: Actually, I received a letter about half a year into the broadcast, I'm guessing from a man. Wondering what it could be, I opened it and inside found a razorblade and a letter. Twice I received the same thing.


Probably both from the same person. The letter said "Stop bullying Sara!" I was pretty shocked, but I figured, hey, at least there's a strong reaction. (laughs) People laughed and said it was a sign of the show's popularity.

The character Sara doesn't seem to do anyting in the anime. We get this impression of her in the opening song as just sort of accepting her fate.

The girl Sara in the original novel A Little Princess is a person who never does anything of her own volition. The only possible way to tell the story with her as the main character would be for those around her to propel the story forward. But that would never hold up dramatically in a TV series. And if it won't hold up dramatically, it's hopeless. That's what gave us the most trouble: A main character who doesn't do anything.

The difference is that in the book you can follow the flow of the story just from the words. In retrospect, you're right; the characters around Sara are the ones who kept things moving.

So then, A Little Princess is interesting to read, but it won't hold up dramatically. I got together with the scenario-writer [Ryuzo] Nakanishi to discuss what we should do, and we came up with this answer: female jealousy. We decided that our theme for this series would be "the spirit of woman".

I see. Hence the focus on Miss Minchin.

Before we began production, we told the staff, "Sara is not the main character. Miss Minchin is the main character." And we made sure to emphasize that this wasn't a story about ijime (bullying). It seems everybody interpreted Sara as a story about ijime. Ijime was a big issue at the time in Japan, so obviously people were letting their experiences color their reading of the story. Very few people seemed to grasp our intent. That interpretation was completely at odds with what I intended, and that was and remains a source of dissatisfaction for me.

Around that time there was a lot of talk about the NHK drama Oshin, another TV program which painted the life of a woman who has to put up with adversity.

Yes, so when people talked about Sara, they would overlap the two. That was one of the mistakes as far as people's reactions to the show... but I think it was partly simply the zeitgeist that led people to interpret the story that way.


Did you feel that Sara had a very different atmosphere from preceding World Masterpiece Theater series?

The WMT series pre-dating Sara certainly seemed softer in comparison. Sara was harder, with over-the-top plot developments that gave it a more powerful impact.

It's definitely a unique series in the long history of the WMT.

Of all the old series that were sugoi [powerful, shocking], the one I remember being most impressed by was Tomorrow Joe. In a different sense, Sara was also a sugoi series of this kind. Of course, being in the TV series business, I'd long wanted to make a sugoi series like that. I think people sensed something new and different of this kind in Sara which set it apart from all previous WMT.

What was fascinating about all the WMT series which came before was that they could create a whole 30 minute drama out of the simplest materials. For example, if there was a flower here, they could do a whole episode about that. Of course, that was a good thing about the WMT, but it also sometimes left the audience wondering where the story was going.

Yes. Flowers are pretty, but they can also be poisonous and dirty [sic]. I thought it would have been a big mistake not to look at things from that viewpoint. When I was deciding how I would portray Sara, the first thing I asked myself was, could the audience feel sympathy for a character like Sara? I decided it would probably be difficult, so I fleshed out the story with that in mind. Maybe that's why it feels different from the original (though I think I was pretty faithful to the original). Actually, I believe to retain the taste of the original it was necessary to reverse the main character's personality, because as a main character she wasn't active enough.

There are a lot of scenes where Becky feels sorry for Sara.

I think that's where the story really gets moving. Miss Minchin also reacts acutely to Sara, not to mention Lavinia. Lavinia was acted by Yamada Eiko, who often said to me "I don't want to play a character like this anymore. I'm tired of getting phone-calls and letters from people telling me "Please don't play such a bad role!"." She said that to me two or three times. But all I told her was "Good for you!" (laughs)

She'd have a hard time topping that role for viewer response. (laughs)

That's why I told her to say "Blame the director and the scenario writer--it's all their fault!" (laughs)

Miss Minchin is an even more dislikable character than Lavinia, and I remember there was a lot of discussion about her in magazines at the time. But I got the sense she was by no means intended to be a villain.

That's right. She's just an ordinary human being. She pours her heart and soul into running the institute, so when a girl like Sara suddenly arrives in the institute, I think it's entirely normal that a woman with her outlook would act the way she does. I may sometimes have exagerrated a bit in depicting her actions, but to me she was absolutely not a villain, because the theme of the series was "woman's nature". She was intended as a character with a strong sense of certainty.


I've directed a lot of series by now, but I still find it difficult to portray people. And yet, even though the hardest thing in animation is to portray a person's core (kokoro), on the contrary it feels like the easiest thing to do while you're working on the actual animation. At least that's how it seemed to me when I started out, and that's what enchanted me. I still feel very much the same way.

I can see why people say it's easier to make anime than live-action. Anime is just drawings, and there are advantages to making something from scratch.

I agree. Actually, I directed several live-action series before turning to anime, and with live-action drama you have to deal with time limits, actor limits and all sorts of other limitations. Once the casting is done, you have to make due with what you're given, even if you think something's not quite right or a certain actor doesn't fit the bill. That's not a problem with animation. Everything is drawings. It's much simpler.

You can re-create precisely the image you had in your head without any differences.

Though sometimes the drawings may be not exactly what the director wanted. But for that reason, it seems to me that of all the visual media, animation is the easiest one in which to express oneself. I think it may even be better suited to depicting psychological depth than using live actors. That's where skill as a director comes into play.

So animation is basically just drawings.

Yes, that's what they mean when they say 'moving pictures'. Provided you have good pictures, then the confrontation of two minds gives rise to drama; events occur due to this opposition; and people move through these events. When the drama is propelled by people, viewers feel anticipation about what will happen next week. When I was doing Sara, I didn't want to do kiddy stuff like what had been done before, I wanted to look at things from a different perspective, not just narrowmindedly portray 'pretty' things. That's why Sara should be a drama adults can enjoy too. But of course, we had to consider things from the point of the kids too, due to the time slot and the history of the WMT. That's why we inserted characters like Becky: to hold kids' attention. Perhaps it was a big mistake to create a series on the theme of 'woman's nature' when mostly kids were going to watch. But I strongly feel that doing so opened up the possibility of doing something new and completely different from every WMT until that point.


Miss Minchin isn't a bad person. Her actions are molded by her environment. As for the theme of 'woman's nature', I purposely made it unclear whether or not Miss Minchin has a change of heart at the end. [Minchin's voice actress] Nakanishi Taeko insisted, "She has a change of heart!" This is just my theory, but I think the reason for her saying this is that as a woman she was able to understand Minchin's pain, and because certain aspects of her own life overlapped Minchin's. But the writer wasn't so sure that Miss Minchin should have a change of heart. I also felt she shouldn't, so at the end I made it ambiguous whether she shook Sara's hand when she left. I kept at a distance so that you can't tell whether she had a change of heart or not. I didn't feel that by the end Sara had had enough of an impact on Miss Minchin to change her character, to make her say "I was wrong". As usual, Sara just does nothing. That can't change Miss Minchin. If she was going to change, it would have had to have happened 2 or 3 episodes earlier in the scene where she made friends with her little sister Amelia. That's my favorite scene. If even her little sister couldn't change her, there's no way Sara could.

Miss Minchin makes no direct apology.

She may have apologized, but it was handled in such a way that you don't know for sure. Say you take the stance that she did apologize; say she apologized for the money. Then that makes it seem as if all she cared about was money, as if she apologized only to get the money needed to keep the school going. But if you look back, you'll see that a sudden apology would have been inconsistent with Miss Minchin's character.

Part of the reason Sara was invited to the Institute in the first place was to use her to attract customers, not to mention to use her as a golden goose.

After that, I suppose Miss Minchin had to find a new one. But if we had put in a scene with her apologizing, that would have required inserting some sort of big incident leading to the collapse of her character. By at that point I didn't feel like adding something like that. Changing a person is no trifling matter. Causing a revolution and changing the country isn't impossible, but changing a person is very difficult.

The events in the last episode might be the trigger leading to Miss Minchin changing.

That's right. During the making of the series the voice-actors often came to me with advice. But the fact is, I'm a man, so I don't know how a woman thinks. The writer Nakanishi is a man too. He came from Nikkatsu, and Nikkatsu movies are all about men. (laughs) A drama of this kind was probably a first for him too. That's why early on we even considered hiring a woman as the writer. In my head I can picture how an individual would probably behave, and how the drama should play out... but I still don't understand women. That's why I still find it hard to portray women. I think I was successful in expressing the theme of woman's jealousy using this situation, but I'd be very interested to see what sort of situation a woman writer would come up with if the series was redone.


The last episode was intended as a contrast of Sara and Miss Minchin, but I felt the real contrast was with Lavinia...

I see. (laughs)

...because Lavinia didn't change her attitude even up till the end.

She didn't.

I thought that was admirable, so on the contrary I found it refreshing. (laughs)

I guess so. It makes no difference whether you're young or old: You've got to stick to your guns. (laughs)

But when I got older, I thought about her attitude, and I started to wonder, was she just being stubborn?

So what if she was? Being stubborn is just another way for a person to live. I don't think many people go around constantly analyzing how they see the world, or deciding how to behave strictly according to the circumstances. I guess it's not surprising that, looked at from outside, the way Lavinia reacts to her circumstances might seem like stubbornness. But I think stubbornness is important. When people act, they generally do so in response to the most basic things: When you're hungry, you eat. Nobody thinks to themselves as they're eating, "I need to eat this much in order obtain the energy needed to maintain my body." You eat because you want to eat, period. I beleive people act only from the simplest motives, and feel it's my job as a director to depict the various desires which give rise to all human action. Drama is interesting only if you make it simple. In my case, the only way I'm able to create drama is by making it as simple as possible. Even in Kurosawa Akira's movies, he depicts extremely simple human situations. The stories aren't complicated. The reason people say they're complicated is because critics analyze the films afterwards and read deep things into the characters' actions.

Do you think that depicting Emily the doll as Sara's close friend had the effect of making her shut herself up inside herself, of preventing her from becoming a dynamic character?

Perhaps it did to an extent. I deliberately placed a great deal of emphasis on the doll at the beginning, but then I sort of forgot about it along the way. (laughs)

Later Sara had other things to worry about besides the doll.

The doll took up 2 or 3 episodes at the beginning, I think... In fact I exchanged memos with the producer Nakajima concerning my reason for making Sara search for the doll. Nakanishi-san said "The drama won't hold together." In other words, he felt doing so would have required portraying Sara as an egotistical little girl searching for an imaginary doll. He felt that portraying her that way would have gone against the original book, and I agreed. So even I had a hard time deciding how to deal with the doll. It's an extremely difficult element.

Sara's only refuge?

Yes, I think so. To drive away the sorrow. But on the other hand, it was nothing more. Also, when I look back on it now, I wonder if I shouldn't have made Sara more dynamic. After all, she had all those children around her. Perhaps I could have made her pursue something of her own volition. I think that would ring a chord with the way young people live today, but it was probably impossible back then due to the situation in that settei. 

To be continued...

December 20, 1999
From: Shokojo Seera DVD Volumes 1-7
Translated July 2000
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