CANNES - One of Japan's most acclaimed directors, Hirokazu Koreeda, launches the competition at Cannes on Thursday with a manga comic adaptation he feared another filmmaker might snatch away.
"Umimachi Diary", whose English title is "Our Little Sister", is among 19 films vying for the coveted Palme d'Or top award at the world's premier film festival, a frequent ticket to international distribution and further honours.
The film is based on a comic series by Akimi Yoshida set in Kamakura, an ancient capital of Japan near present-day Tokyo, with a strong cast of popular Japanese actresses including Masami Nagasawa, Haruka Ayase and Suzu Hirose.
It tells the story of three siblings whose estranged father, a notorious womaniser, dies. At his burial, they meet their orphaned teenage half-sister for the first time.
But in a break with the Cinderella story and its wicked stepsisters, the trio shows Suzu nothing but kindness when she moves in with them, in a gentle family drama that has become Koreeda's trademark.
Koreeda, 52, said he was taken with the graphic novel when it began serialisation in 2007 and immediately envisioned the film it could become.
"When I read it, I was completely absorbed by this universe and got completely lost in the story," he told AFP in an interview at the French Riviera resort.
"I said to myself, 'I know someone else is going to make a film out of it.' And so I thought, I would prefer it be me and no one but me."
Koreeda said he aimed to recapture some of the most beautiful images from the manga including cherry blossoms spread on a beach and the sisters lighting sparklers in their summer kimonos.
But he said the narrative, which begins and ends with funeral rites, needed fleshing out before it was ready for the big screen.
"After a time, we put the manga aside to work on the screenplay and change it so that the characters could be enhanced and come alive on screen," Koreeda said.
Koreeda's 2013 feature "Soshite Chichi ni Naru (Like Father, Like Son)", the heartbreaking story of families who discover their sons were swapped at birth, was awarded Cannes's jury prize, selected by a panel led by Steven Spielberg.
The Hollywood director reportedly liked the film so much that he secured the rights to a remake.
After working in television documentaries, Koreeda made his movie debut in 1995 with "Maboroshi no Hikari (A Trick of the Light)", which focused on the grief of a woman whose husband kills himself.
The picture won international acclaim, including the Golden Osella at the Venice Film Festival.
Koreeda was back in the European limelight in 2004 with "Nobody Knows", in which his 14-year-old star, Yuuya Yagira, became the youngest person ever to win Best Actor at Cannes.
The movie was based on a real-life story in which four children were abandoned by their mother and left to fend for themselves.
"Our Little Sister" is one of three contenders from Asia at the year's festival, alongside "Mountains May Depart" by China's Jia Zhangke and martial arts film "The Assassin" by Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien.
Also premiering Thursday in competition is "The Tale of Tales", an English-language, special effects-driven fantasy starring Salma Hayek and Vincent Cassel and directed by Italy's Matteo Garrone.