Interview: Sunao Katabuchi

by Justin Sevakis,

In May 2017, director Sunao Katabuchi (Black Lagoon, Mai Mai Miracle) sat down with ANN's Andrew Osmond to talk about his new film, In This Corner of the World. Since then, the film has gone on to sell over two million tickets in Japan, and win the coveted Jury Award at the Annecy Film Festival. The film has also opened to rave reviews in the United Kingdom, and a theatrical release is planned for the United States in September.

Just prior to the film's early screening at Anime Expo, Katabuchi sat down with Anime News Network again to fill in a few cracks in our previous coverage. We discussed the thought put into the small details of the film, and how those details allowed the film – and its spunky protagonist Suzu – to come alive to audiences.

ANN: Congratulations on the film's huge success, both in Japan and abroad. How that it's opened and has been seen by many people, what is your reaction to this success?

Katabuchi: Thank you. It's amusing, but in Japan, people aren't referring to Suzu as just “Suzu,” but as “Suzu-san” – actually using that formality. Suzu has become someone who exists in people's hearts, and people reference her with a lot of respect. And that's what I've been seeing – not just in Japan, but around the world – people have been able to grasp her as a real person. She would've existed 70 years ago, and she would've been just another person in this village in Japan. Even though that's so far away, people were able to find themselves in Suzu, and make a strong connection to her. There's a lot of success, but it really made me realize the universal truths that are a part of her story, and that so many people have been able to connect with her.

It almost sounds like making this film was more of an effort to bring her to life, rather than just telling a story.

Yes, exactly. And I feel that Fumiyo Kōno created her as a fleshed-out human being, with layers. And because it's Suzu, it's very meaningful that she's the main character of the story. But in order to get her off the page and off the screen, the environment she inhabited was extremely important, so we took painstaking effort to create that. Even extras in the film – people in the background – are based on people who really existed. For example, you see a scene on the street with a mother with a baby, a shopkeeper… Those people will die from the atomic bomb, and they had lived a life up until that point. So we really went to great pains to understand what life was like in that time. It was Suzu's world. That's the kind of movie I really wanted to make.

We actually went back and researched the weather – what kind of weather, what kind of clouds were in the sky, and the like. And then we created this reality based on actual research and data that we had, and put Suzu in that world. For example...(Katabuchi pulls up a chart of historical weather patterns). We actually confirmed each day what weather Suzu would've experienced. For example, the day Suzu and Shusaku were looking at the battleship in the port, we looked up the actual day the Yamato came into port. Our first step was to create reality, so we could lay the foundation for Suzu to live in that world.

Why were real details so important?

Because wartime is not a fantasy. The majority of anime is a product that's out to create a fantasy world. When I realized that anime can recreate reality, I felt that I wanted to recreate in anime exactly how things looked on a given day. I didn't want to film, I wanted a time machine.

When Isao Takahata talks about Grave of the Fireflies, he says that when a film is about daily life, there isn't much actual story per se, so the details become what really makes the film.

When I think about the world, it's made from many, many details. For example, the details on how food is made. (On his laptop, Katabuchi pulls up research photos of food preparation in an old fashioned Japanese kitchen over an open fire.) Without things like that, there's no world. You must do the work of building those details. For me, really presenting everyday life in a beautiful way was my goal. I personally believe that everyday life, even if it seems humdrum, has value and meaning. And I thought that Suzu is the sort of person that exemplifies that philosophy.

The walkways, the paths that Suzu took, we took those same paths. We wanted to experience what she experienced firsthand. We went to Hiroshima and Kure more than seven times. But they weren't really research trips per se, they were more to actually build a sense of belonging in those cities. I think that we were able to accomplish what we did because we were able to experience those things.

It's interesting that, despite all of this extreme attention to detail, the art style you ended up going with was more cartoonish than we're used to seeing in anime these days.

With anime, you can draw anything you like. Compared to live action, animation has far more possibilities. In anime, the world at war and Suzu's everyday life can co-exist in the same story, on the same plane. I think that contrast is why wartime scenes felt even more realistic. Beyond that, I feel that animation is very well-suited to express what was going on in Suzu emotionally.

Ms. Kono's original manga might be more how Suzu would interpret her life through drawing, rather than through her eyes. It feels like someone very similar to Suzu made it, and I wanted to capture that from the manga. I do find that many anime has more of a 3rd-person outsider point of view, which we were trying to avoid. We did spent a lot of time on the backgrounds, making sure they were spot on. But that said, if you read her work, Ms. Kono combines different types of drawing styles. Nothing's all that consistent. Since Ms. Kono did that with her manga, we did the same thing.

Many Westerners have really only learned about Japanese civilian life during WWII from anime and manga, mostly from Grave of the Fireflies, but also Barefoot Gen. How much did your average Japanese viewer know about this time period, and did you take that into consideration when making the film?

There really isn't that big of a difference, from what I can tell. Life in Japan between now and then is so different that many people, especially young people, see it as a pretty foreign place. I actually started off thinking that my audience wouldn't really understand a lot of specific details and activities in the film. Instead of stopping and explaining everything, I just approached it as “well, you might not know this, but it's part of the world,” hoping that the unfamiliar things would pique the audience's curiosity. The audience's curiosity then takes what's in the film and brings it into the real world.

For Japanese viewers who also wouldn't know these details, they too become curious. Then they can go to Hiroshima themselves, and they can see these buildings. They can literally reach out and touch them. (Katabuchi pulls up an illustrated map of Suzu's area of Kure, with key locations in the film marked and annotated.)

Who are the filmmakers that you love and feel you have absorbed the most from over the years?

It's a hard question to answer! I watch everything, I actually teach film studies at universities, both animation and live action. If my students make something really special, that's something I'm influenced by, and I've taken that influence in over the years. There's a part of In This Corner where it looks like the film's been scratched. I had one of my students do that.

Thanks to Anime Expo for this opportunity.


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