An in-person conversation with Japanese director Sunao Katabuchi evidences his visually wired mind.
In our exchange during his most recent visit to Los Angeles, which included an appearance at Anime Expo, Katabuchi not only answered my questions, but he had a set-up to use his computer as a visual aide for his responses—pulling up storyboards, reference photos, and even the manga by Fumiyo Konõ upon which In This Corner of the World is based.
Following his time at Studio Ghibli, as a consultant and teacher, as he describes it, Katabuchi worked in television and eventually moved on to his own feature projects. None, however, would bring him the level of success he found with the story of Suzu, a young woman going through the motions of life in an arranged marriage just as World War II reaches its final hours. This animated war drama is an exquisite showcase of emotionally-charged storytelling, in which the only “magic” on display is the wisdom acquired through hardship, perseverance and hope.
A poetic, compassionate tearjerker of the highest pedigree, In This Corner of the World is proof that when animation is used by true artisans, it can delicately guide us toward introspection. Ever committed to realistic representation in his animation style, Katabuchi shared with MovieMaker the techniques that help his team connect with their material, and how devoted fans assured the success of the film—which beat out Your Name for the Best Animated Feature Award from the Japanese Academy and screened at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In This Corner of the World is a historical drama—something that’s not often tackled through animation. What does this medium add to a story like this that can’t be done in live action?
Sunao Katabuchi (SK): I wanted to actually capture the world and recreate a lost city. I wanted to create something that was believable and that really did exist. For a live-action film, I don’t know how you would recreate an entire city. It’s just not realistic. Are you going to have actual battle ships? The cheaper option would be doing it in CG, which wouldn’t be as realistic. But when it’s animation, it’s on the same plane. I knew going into this that animation would be a huge contribution to telling the story, because of its strengths. I also wanted to present the characters with a soft touch—especially Suzu. Because of her personality, I thought it was crucial to have this approach to express who she is.
MM: Would you say that another quality of animation is that it can make the more difficult themes and moments in the film easier for people to witness?
SK: That might change from person to person, and how they can absorb tragedy or not. But what I can say is that I enjoyed being able to express wartime and everyday life in the same world, and along with that, being able to portray the reality of things—visually expressing what is emotionally going on, portraying reality and emotions.
MM: I understand that the film was partially crowdfunded by fans of the original manga. How did this shape the way the film was financed and eventually released in Japan?
SK: Actually, it was the fans that started saying, “You should make this,” which goes to show there was already an audience for this movie before it was even made. There are a lot of period films about World War II that have already been made in Japan, and also about the atomic bomb and anti-war themed films. At first we’d go to investors and they would just say, “Oh it’s about WWII, you must be of the same ilk as Shindo. We’ve seen this before.” Director Shindo had made a film about the atomic bomb, so the investors said, “You are trying to do what that director did.” And then I was like, “No, no, you don’t understand what we are trying to do.”
The ones that really understand what the story is about are the fans that contributed to the crowdfunding campaign. Seeing the passion that the fans had to crowdfund it, we were already halfway to success at that point. We knew people would watch it and they understood what we were trying to make. Through the crowdfunding campaign we confirmed that we were on the right track. We had around 35,000 contributors, but of course, 35,000 don’t necessarily represent all of Japan. The next step was, “OK, we got these 35,000 people. How do we get the word out to everyone else?” That, in the end, I think went really well in terms of marketing.
Once we released [the film] we had really great feedback. Normally, what’s standard is that when you have a film, you have to reach out to press outlets and you have to really work on it. But when we had a press conference in a room for a maximum of 40 people and 90 people showed up. We had to turn away 50 people. We had presidents of big companies show up as well. Most press people see the press screening and the go home and write about it, but what happened with this movie was that once the screening ended, they all started talking about, “What did we just see?” There was a discussion amongst the press. In turn, that press helped get the word out as well.
MM: Was the character design entirely based on the source material, or were you able to add or change its aesthetic for your version of this story?
SK: Our character design was all based on Fumiyo Konõ’s original work and we stayed pretty true to it. In Japanese manga this approach is pretty unique. It’s not drawn to go with the fad of the manga style of today. It’s definitely very specific. We wanted to preserve this as much a possible. I wouldn’t say I added anything. I probably just refined it, nothing too big. I wanted to understand her drawings first—for example, the ratio of how big the hands and the feet are. When I saw her drawings, I felt that each characters’ hands and feet were a little bit big proportionally speaking. I took a lot of time to analyze her drawings. Throughout the manga she actually changes the proportion between head, torso and hands. Depending on how big the box is, the ratio changes. I really thought about, “What’s the right ratio to maintain Kono’s style? Is it 1: 4.5 or is it 1:3?” We were right down to the hundredths, to be exact.
[At this point, Katabuchi begins showing me photos from all the research he did on his computer, pointing at specific examples of historical references for the film.]
MM: The film takes place at a crucial time in Japan’s modern history. Did you have to do exhaustive research on that period for accuracy beyond what was on the manga?
SK: The story is Suzu’s point of view from her corner of the world and that point of view, that world, from that corner, is actually a lot. We tackled every aspect of life, to the extent that it’s hard to think of what we didn’t cover or what we didn’t research. These are only the books as far as data, and all the other research is in my hard-drive right there. These are the physical actual books that we used. As you can see these are all different categories: iron, sirens, registers, dogs, insects, props and toothbrushes. This is a photo of the soap that was actually used during the war. It looks like soap, but half of it is made out of clay. We also have files on shovels, buckets and lighting fixtures, used at the time. Everything was blacked out at the time, that’s why the fixtures had a little hood. But then there are other photos, showing that they weren’t blacked out. This is actually a still from Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful that he shot in December 1943. It’s 1943, so it’s correct to the time period but in the film they are not blacked out. Finding inconsistencies like that was interesting.
MM: Through that research, I’m sure you were able to understand the hardships on an intellectual level, but was there anything you and your team did to bring those experiences close to you emotionally?
SK: We did things that we could do to recreate different moments in the story in real life. For example, at one point in the movie the characters are making sandals, so we made sandals. I took photos and my staff made sandals. We also did something similar to what Suzu did, we gathered edible flowers and weeds and we actually cooked the dishes that were in the film. At that time salt would have been very hard to get, so we cooked without salt as well. I really realized that for humans not to intake any type of salt for an entire day is very difficult. This is how we physically experienced some of the moments in the film. We also made nuri, but we made it in Tokyo, and later on we found out that how people make nori around the country is different, so in Hiroshima is a different process. Thanks to this the animators could now draw based on their own experiences.
MM: One of the most noticeable aspects of this film is the way in which it deals with time. There are numerous vignettes, jumps in time and segmentation. Did this approach to pacing and structure come directly from the manga, or was it a device you had to create specifically for the animated version?
SK: The pacing was decided upon on the storyboard. As we were creating the storyboard that’s how we read the pacing of the story, that was the blueprint for pacing. I bumped into an issue with the manga because since it was being published weekly, they are all chapters. What she does because it’s weekly is that at the end of the each chapter the story does end. It’s self-contained. Of course, there are no movies that end every five minutes. You can’t possibly do that. Sometimes a chapter ends with a comedic moment, a final gag, or a payoff. We needed a balance, we wanted to maintain that humor because it’s part of the characters and the story, but we didn’t want to end the story at every gag. I kept thinking about the best way and everything came out on the storyboard. Unlike mangas that we see these days where the story continues, hers was only one chapter at a time and there was a specific reason for that. The reason has to do with how she dates it. In the time of the story there would only be a couple days between chapters. In that way it’s very experimental. Because it’ so very specific in it’s timeline you could actually see how living in the shadows of war changed lifestyles over a set period of time. Unfortunately that’s a component we had to take out. The manga is very linear but the film hops around in time. Her approach was very specific covering little moments a couple times a month in the time of the story in real time. For animation sake we had to skip faster through time.
MM: Suzu is a heroine who doesn’t fit in with others we typically see in films similar to yours. She is a woman who has her own aspirations, but has to live a traditional life, and somehow finds purpose in that simplicity.
SK: Suzu is someone that didn’t know what her value was, but people around her know what her value is. For example, she is very good at drawing and she’d draw some mangas herself and they’d be really entertaining. But that wasn’t the center of her life. She doesn’t know what her life’s core is. She doesn’t value herself and she is like, “I’ll just go with the flow. I’ll just do what people tell me to do.” Then she gets married and has to live with a bunch of strangers. By the end she becomes truly a part of the family. People who she coincidentally meets love her as a part of the family. That’s when she realizes what her value is in the world. That’s how I see her. MM
This Corner of the World opened in theaters August 11, 2017, courtesy of Shout! Factory. All images, including featured image, courtesy of Fumiyo Kouno, Futabasha and Konosekai no katasumini Project.