Hero Mask is an original anime from Studio Pierrot which first became available on Netflix in December 2018. It is an action series filled with charming characters, mysteries surrounding a strange mask and the drama that expands around it. After the first part ended on a cliffhanger, the second part was released on Netflix in August 2019.
James Blood is a detective inspector of the SSC (Special Service of Crime) division. During one of his cases he learns about the existence of a mysterious ‘mask’. Those who wear the mask gain superhuman strength, but there are also people who have lost their lives because of it. As he digs deeper into the case he also encounters his former partner of SSC, Harry Creighton. Harry now works for LIVE Corporation and tries to disturb James’ investigation. While James and his co-workers at SSC fight against him, they get closer to the core of a conspiracy connected to LIVE. The developer of the mask at LIVE corporation, Geffrey Connor, clashes heads with LIVE president Steven Martland. The case ends with the sudden disappearance of Steven and the end of LIVE Corporation. However, of course it doesn’t end there…
MANGA.TOKYO was able to talk about this exciting series with the director, Hiroyoshi Aoki.
Please tell us how you were chosen to direct Hero Mask.
The producers at Pierrot reached out to me and told me that they would like to make a hero story and asked me to participate. There was nothing firmly decided at the time and the only information I had was that it would be a big hero story. [laugh]
The more I thought about what kind of story we should make and what it means to be a hero, the more I got confused. Together with the staff members and the producers it was like a three-legged-race whenever we tried to decide something. What kind of style did we want for the series? What kind of story did we want to create? Everything took shape from zero. When we talked about the art style, there were also arguments that if we were to produce this certain kind of story then this kind of visual would be best and so on. We wanted it to differ from usual hero stories, where the enemy is dropped into the story from the start and they fight each other. Instead we wanted to do something more realistic and thus the reality differs to the visuals. If you add reality to the surroundings, the visuals will also naturally become more realistic.
Although the title of the series is Hero Mask it is not a very hero-like story.
If you take a closer look at the logo you can see that there is a ‘not equal to’ sign (≠) between the words ‘hero’ and ‘mask’. In other words, a hero doesn’t equal the mask. It’s pretty twisted. [laugh]
At first we wanted to create a hero story, but when we thought about how real we could make this theme, we came to the conclusion that the heroes we know aren’t very realistic at all. Even if you look at Marvel’s Avengers, the principles of justice held by the different heroes often clash. After all, those whose opinion differs to the hero are usually portrayed as the enemy. In Hero Mask we follow the story from James’ point of view and automatically see Steven as the enemy in part one and Connor in part two, but viewers should still be able to empathize with both of them if they wanted to. If we were to tell the story from Connor’s point of view, then James would become an obstacle in Connor’s way, making him the enemy. My goal was to show the characters in a way that the viewers could understand the emotions of any character, so it can’t really be said that James is the ‘hero’ of the story. Some people may say that James is clearly the hero of the story while others may not see him as heroic in the slightest. That’s why it’s good. I feel that if we draw realistic heroes, they will be like someone who is close to us. As a suspense series, we progress through the story with the knowledge of James, but the parts that are revealed are revealed and the parts that are hidden are hidden. If you compare it to other anime, it probably is a work where the hero faces the camera very little. That’s another thing that doesn’t seem very hero-like.
James seems like a man capable of getting things done, but it isn’t clear just how he would go about doing it.
Hero Mask is not the story of James. Whether it is the story of James or someone else, when we start to tell their past it will become their story. Instead I like to think of James as a medium to tell the story of the people who have come in contact with the mask.
It is a rich series featuring science fiction, drama and action, but was there something that was particularly hard?
After the production had progressed to a certain stage, I had a direction to follow and followed it accordingly. I would say the most difficult part of the pre-production was the criminal drama. We wrote the series keeping in mind that it would be released worldwide, so we made sure that the problems appearing would make sense to viewers around the world. The story isn’t set in any particular country and the characters are not of any specific ethnicity. The cast of characters does include many Caucasians, but it isn’t specifically set in the US, for example. This is why we also chose not to add in any famous landmarks from anywhere.
On top of that it was important that the police system was planned out carefully. As we didn’t want it to seem like it was set in any particular country, we used different aspects from different countries such as the USA’s FBI or the UK’s Scotland Yard. It is a rather big organization, considering the cases they handle. I did thorough research on police organizations around the world. I was learning so much about different systems and got deeper and deeper into it, that I nearly lost sight of the mask in the story. [laugh] Until I started to draw up the departments that were involved with the mask it was a bit of a worry of mine as to how I would connect them.
The action sequences came out as I had planned in my head and went pretty well. I asked an experienced animator to take care of James’s boxing animation. Harry has a lot of footwork in his fights but it is based on a mix between taekwondo and capoeira. Some viewers may wonder how the blond-haired blue-eyes Harry came to learn such techniques. When James and Harry meet, it looks like a mixed martial arts battle. In the middle they start to use guns as well, so it turned into a fight unlike any I have seen before.
Wasn’t it also hard because the story isn’t set in Japan?
Especially when drawing people in the streets, there are limits. Recently there is street view, so there are creators who believe it can be enough to take inspiration from places they can find on there. Sometimes staff members actually go to locations they want to use with the storyboard in-hand, take photos that will be used for the scene and base the background on those photographs. The streets can be drawn in much more detail thanks to the pictures taken. I wanted to see how big the difference is between a background drawn based on imagination and one based on an actual photo. The amount of detail is completely different. Instead of taking many pictures and then thinking of which part of the story to use them in, I think it is better to draw the storyboard first and then go to locations and take pictures that would fit the scene. However I think the latter method is common with live action movies. While looking at street view I thought to do an action scene at a specific location, drew up the storyboard and decided on the character’s storyline. I’d sometimes look for a place with a certain gimmick to include in a scene. There is a scene where James chases after Harry at a train station. We just turned up and took pictures and I heard that local people were very angry with the episode director that day. [laugh] Most directors go to the locations to check them out.
We have some questions for you from overseas fans. First up is ‘Was there anything that inspired you in particular for this series?’
I wouldn’t say that there were any specific series or works that inspired me. Although though we didn’t consciously do it, the experiences of the staff members, the producers and myself come out in the series. As for the visuals, the Bourne series might have served as the biggest inspiration. Like trying to create a realistic feeling by using a hand-held camera for the action scenes. In anime, the movement of the cameras is amazing so we wanted to use it. I haven’t seen many productions that use those kinds of short cuts so I wanted to try it this time. From there I wanted to create a way of filming that is used for more than just for action scenes and give it a unique pull. Viewers may get bored during dialog-heavy scenes so I wanted to make it feel as if there were something happening. I wanted to keep the viewer on their feet, always expecting something to happen, so I often drew inspiration from the techniques of [famed B-movie director] Seijun Suzuki in that sense.
Was there something you did consciously to differentiate your work from other anime?
To be honest, I don’t watch many other anime. There might be other works that are similar in its nature, but Hero Mask was created with such careful balance that I hope viewers would think that it is different from anything else out there.
Who is your favorite character?
My favorite is Steven Martland. He had a lot going on in his past and is one of the most difficult characters in the series. He himself said there is no such thing as pure evil, but he is definitely bad. He’s also very mysterious and it’s hard to grasp what kind of guy he is.
What can the viewers look forward to in the second part?
Part two had a completely different storytelling style to the first one. In part one we follow a certain event. Many things happen and we get to see how the characters react to them and what actions they take. It’s just that it ends before all of the mysteries are solved. Part two focuses on the stories of the characters. There is a strong focus on Tina’s point of view and the emotions of people while we try to solve the mystery around the mask. If you watch the first part directly before the second then I am sure it would be interesting to see how the style of the series has changed. I thought part one was already very entertaining, but the producers told me that part two was even more entertaining because viewers can get emotionally involved with more ease. Whereas the first part is more political, the second one focuses on the feelings of people, so it is easier to watch.
Do you have anything to say to the fans reading this?
Hero Mask is a unique kind of anime, so I am sure there is something for both anime fans and fans of western crime dramas.
Thank you very much for this interview!
Born in 1985, from Tochigi prefecture
He gained experience under Madhouse in a wide variety of fields such as production, original drawings, settings, writing and production. He is currently freelance.
Some of the works he has involved in are X-MEN (directing), Hunter x Hunter (production, assistant director, storyboard and directing), No Game No Life (directing), The Boy and the Beast (assistant director) and Ushio and Tora (storyboard, directing).