Fuse is celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month by looking at a variety of rising forces who are creating Future Asian and Pacific History before our eyes. Today we're checking out Hiro Murai, the music video MVP who had never directed television before helming almost the entire debut season of Donald Glover's hyper-celebrated FX series Atlanta.
Murai was born in Tokyo and moved to L.A. as a 9-year-old. He graduated from USC's School of Cinematic Arts in 2006 and within a few years began a run of high-profile music videos for a range of artists that now includes The Fray, Lupe Fiasco, Enrique Iglesias, Usher, Gym Class Heroes, The Shins, St. Vincent, David Guetta, Earl Sweatshirt and Spoon. He filmed the visuals for Frank Ocean's inventive "Forrest Gump" performance at the 2013 GRAMMYs and in 2016 served up Michael Kiwanuka's "Black Man in a White World" and A Tribe Called Quest's "Dis Generation." He's a regular on prominent year-end music video lists.
Glover and Murai first linked up in 2013 with the astonishing Clapping for the Wrong Reasons. Arriving completely out of the blue, the 25-minute Childish Gambino film was an intoxicating glimpse at (a fictionalized?) Glover hanging in and around a luxe mansion, smoking, swimming, recording music, having philosophical campfire talks. Written by Glover and shot, on real film, by Murai, the piece was an entrée to a creative relationship that's still hypnotizing us in 2017.
Between Clapping and Atlanta came a Because the Internet music video trilogy—"3005," "Sweatpants" and "Telegraph Ave," each more inventive and electric than the last, collectively inspiring obsessive theories of an overarching narrative—and "Sober," off the pop music EP Kauai. Murai cites for inspiration the films of Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki, Takeshi Kitano, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch and Spike Jonze. He also loves Louie, Adventure Time, the novelist Haruki Murakami and manga, which especially "influenced the way I build shots for a sequence," he told Booooooom's Jeff Hamada.
His approach to the art of music videos, he told Hypebeast last month, is this:
"I realize the only way that I can get anything good made is connecting with the musician. We see eye to eye, and [see] that they trust me, trust that I have respect for the music that I am handling, ‘cause I really do look at it like I am adding a new track to their music; it’s not just like a reason for me to fuck around with the camera."
When Atlanta began inhaling accolades in September 2016, the praise belonged to Murai as much as anyone. He was behind the camera for seven of the 10 episodes, and the first five are all him. The show wound up scoring the Golden Globe for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy, with Glover taking Best Actor in a Comedy Series. Recognition also came from the Peabody Awards, the NAACP Image Awards, and both America's Producers Guild and Writers Guild.
Murai told MTV that in a medium that can be an "unfriendly environment for directors because you’re expected to come in and tell a story in the voice of the show that already exists, and just fill in the blanks and then submit it back," Atlanta rapidly became "very director-centric and execution-heavy." He spoke further about the series with IndieWire, touching on the outsider status that links him and Donald:
“A lot of the stuff we touch on in the show is not necessarily black and white, pun not intended, it’s a lot about the grey areas about race and how these characters interact. Donald always talked about the show like he wants it to be about the absurdities about being black in America. I think ‘absurdity’ is the key word where anything can happen.
So I think a lot of those scenes were there to give you a feeling that there’s a bigger world outside of what you’re seeing and that functions in a very—by its own rules. Anything can happen to these characters. ... I’m an immigrant and I think being an outsider in your home is something that I really relate to. ... So when Donald was saying how strange it is to be black in America, and how you’re kind of outside of the main conversation in a way, I really related to that in a lot of ways.”
Murai has extended his eye to other FX series, tackling one of the eight episodes of the recent X-Men adjacent series Legion from Fargo mastermind Noah Hawley. He also did an episode of this summer's Snowfall, a 1983-set series about crack's beginnings in L.A. One well-connected Variety reporter said in March that Warner Bros. "was high on" Hiro Murai for the directing gig on the Akira movie.
So yeah, you'll be seeing Hiro around.
Next, watch an interview with Atlanta star Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Paper Boi: