Interview: Legendary Anime Producer Masao Maruyama

by Andrew Osmond,

In this Corner of the World, a period drama about a young woman growing up in the Japan of the 1930s and 1940s, is currently in Japanese cinemas and racking up rave reviews. (Screen Daily, for example, called it "an enchanting delight, but in a thoughtful, measured, even mournful way.") Directed by Sunao Katabuchi, whose career has gone from the hardboiled mayhem of Black Lagoon to the childhood joy of Mai Mai Miracle, the new film will be distributed globally by Animatsu.

Shortly before In This Corner of the World opened in Japan, ANN had the opportunity to interview the film's producer, Masao Maruyama, a true titan of the anime industry. He's seen anime evolve for more than fifty years, ever since he first worked at Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Pro in the 1960s. He co-founded the Madhouse studio in 1972; four decades later, he founded MAPPA, which made In This Corner of the World. Maruyama's producer credits stretch from Death Note to Kids on the Slope, Monster to Perfect Blue, Unico in the Island of Magic to Record of Lodoss War.

The interview covered both In This Corner of the World as well as Maruyama's wider career. Special thanks to Rod Lopez of GENCO and Jerome Mazandarani of Animatsu for making this interview possible, to Andrew Kirkham and Kazumi Kirkham for their wonderful translation, and to Andrew for his extra questions.

Do you think In This Corner of the World will appeal to a particular kind of audience, in terms of (for example) age and gender?

It was not created for a certain sort of person or place. It is for all generations from children to adults. This film is for everyone, not for a particular kind of audience. It was not limited in any way. I think it will be understood by everyone.

There have been previous anime films about World War II, including Barefoot Gen, Grave of the Fireflies and Giovanni's Island. What do you think this film achieves that the previous films didn't?

Even during the war people still had to eat, to live. We tried to describe accurately that daily life in a very deliberate manner, not to expand upon it dramatically. Conversely, we worked hard to describe that point precisely.

For some viewers, In This Corner of the World may look very different from their idea of what anime is. Do you think the film is a new kind of anime, or do you think it is similar to some anime from the past?

The answer is both yes and no. I think the director's (Sunao Katabuchi's) previous work that particularly portrayed daily life was really outstanding. However, this time around it includes adventure, not just normal life.

Katabuchi has the methodology to be able to describe daily life as if nothing had happened despite it being a turbulent time.

The film is a very realistic story, but it became fantastical when the stylised world painted by the heroine Suzu gets mixed in with the images of reality. It was a really miraculous structure.

Katabuchi grasped the core of the original story and bought forth this fantastic visualisation. It was an extremely marvellous component. Not just the portrayal of real life, but the element that suggested some sort of dream or fantasy. I think is an unparalleled film.

Inevitably, some young people will think that a film that involves Hiroshima and World War II must be very depressing. Is there a way to persuade people like that to see the film?

Yes... The original manga writer Fumiyo Kono's character is very soft and she looks adorable. I wanted to capture those characteristics in the animation.

Actually the film itself does not feature so many war scenes. Of course we described the atomic bomb scene, but the interesting point of this film was that it did not take place in Hiroshima city but in the nearby city of Kure, which was also influenced a lot by the results of the atomic bomb.

The heroine Suzu moved from Hiroshima to Kure to get married. Kure was very heavily involved with Hiroshima city, but there was also a lot of movement and trade between Hiroshima and Kure. Kure gave an outside perspective on Hiroshima city.

I chose the fundamental principles for making this film. The word "Corner" in the title signifies the overview of Hiroshima city from all over Japan. I decided I didn't want the film to be too dark or painful. Also the director had the intention of making a cheerful and good looking film.

You have worked with many famous anime directors. What would you say are the main qualities of Mr Katabuchi as a director?

He is very investigative. He really checks the background facts of the story. But he doesn't just stick to those. He has an eye that foresees the situation, both past and future. Once again, he grabbed for the reality of the situation and delved into it. So I think his ability is immense.

You have also worked with such directors as Shinichiro Watanabe, Mamoru Hosoda and Satoshi Kon. Were they all very different people, or do anime directors have a lot in common with each other?

The answer is yes and also no. If I had to identify a common characteristic, I would say they all have a high degree of stubbornness. That means they all had robust strong wills, making it very hard to control them. If I told them the schedule was tight or the money had run out they would just say, "So." They were all like that.

What would you say have been the most important changes in the anime industry over the decades that you have worked in it?

I would say that the technical aspects have gone digital and hand-drawn animation on paper has mostly disappeared. Basically as creators we haven't changed. Put simply, it means a move from pencil to machine, that's all.

The way of thinking and creating has not changed at all. I work in a rather old fashioned style and I am always pondering about how to work in that fashion.

Are you sometimes surprised by what anime become popular with viewers and fans: for example, the trend towards cute “moe” girls in recent years?

I have no problem with it if the audience thinks it is fun or interesting. So, for example, if I could make an animation with a moe character and it got a huge audience, I would be quite happy. I just haven't had the chance to work on anything like that. At this moment that chance has eluded me. So I don't think that style is bad.

However, when I'm watching them on TV they all look the same to me. So I think it is better to have a unique point and for the characters to have an individual strength.

Do you think a person in your position can help steer anime in the direction that you would like it go? Or do you feel at the mercy of factors beyond your control?

That's a difficult question. For me, given that I'm 75 years old now I can almost see the goal. I'm very interested in seeing which direction young people go in, but for me I just want to keep the good things even if they are old fashioned.

In This Corner of the World is one of the first movie projects by the MAPPA studio, which you founded. Does the film reflect a new direction for the studio?

Not only for MAPPA, I think it represents the sort of projects that would be nice to be included in the Japanese animation world.

May I ask if there is any news update concerning Satoshi Kon's unfinished film, The Dream Machine?

I have no new information. I would love to do it somehow, but I have no way to. I mean that it is like a concert, where the star is no longer on the stage. So at the moment it just goes back and forth in my mind. If he appeared in front of me right now I would jump at the chance, but he has the ultimate reason keeping him away from me. So I'm sure this is would be very difficult to achieve.

As a producer, have you been involved in many live action films and if so what are the differences? Is one more difficult that the other?

Definitely different. An animated character does not have a skin sensibility that an actual human has.

We are flexible enough to work in both. Animation is limitless, but we are not fixated on that. We think it is rather more of a challenge to work on live action.

Sometimes I've been asked, "Why don't you make live action films?" especially as we are only perceived as being purely animation creators.

Do you feel that for anime to survive, it is now more important to have international co-productions, rather than purely Japanese ones, as it gets harder to raise budgets in Japan?

I think so. In my case, I don't discriminate between a film being only for Japan or overseas. When we aim to create works for a universal studio, I am sure (they) will be successful both in Japan and also overseas. Especially as I don't discriminate between a film being made in a way that is best for Japan against one being made purely for an overseas market. I'd like to represent the matters in the right way. That is what I want to do.

It's not important to strive for an audience in Japan. I'd like as many people as possible to watch everything I've made. I am very happy for everyone to watch my work, without obsessing over its projected target arena. I want them to appreciate it whatever.

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