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Interview: Director Sunao Katabuchi Recreates 20th Century Hiroshima for ‘In This Corner of the World’

Award-winning hand-drawn animated feature from the director of ‘Princess Arete’ and ‘Mai Mai Miracle’ is a coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of WWII-era Japan.

Written and directed by Sunao Katabuchi, ‘In This Corner of the World’ won the 40th Japan Academy Film Prize for Best Animated Film, the 90th Kinema Junpo Best 10 Award for Best Japanese Film, and the Jury Award at the 41st Annecy International Animated Film Festival.

An empowering coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of World War II, In This Corner of the World is a captivating story about the resilience and triumph of the human spirit. Adapted from the award-winning Japanese manga by Fumiyo Kouno, In This Corner of the World is written and directed by Sunao Katabuchi and produced by GENCO and Japanese animation studio MAPPA.

Bolstered by emotionally resonant storytelling and exquisite hand-drawn animation, In This Corner of the World won the 40th Japan Academy Film Prize for Best Animated Film, the 90th Kinema Junpo Best 10 Award for Best Japanese Film as the second-ever animated film, and the Jury Award at the 41st Annecy International Animated Film Festival. The Academy Award-qualified anime feature is also one of 26 films submitted for Best Animated Feature in this year’s Oscar race.

Sunao Katabuchi

The story follows Suzu Urano, a young woman who in 1944 moves to the small town of Kure in Hiroshima to live with her husband’s family. Suzu’s life is thrown into chaos when her town is bombed during World War II. Her perseverance and courage underpin this heart-warming and inspirational tale of the everyday challenges faced by the Japanese in the midst of a violent, war-torn country. This beautiful yet poignant tale shows that even in the face of adversity and loss, people can come together and rebuild their lives.

Katabuchi began his career working closely with Hayao Miyazaki before directing his own animated films, including acclaimed animated features Princess Arete (2001) and Mai Mai Miracle (2009). AWN had a chance to ask the director about the making of In This Corner of the World, as well as his time spent working under some of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” and how animation is perceived by audiences in both Japan and the U.S. Read the full Q&A below.

What were some of the challenges of adapting Fumiyo Kouno’s 2007 manga into a feature film?

Ms. Kouno’s “In This Corner Of the World” manga was drawn with a very similar visual approach to my own, so this was not a challenge. However, there was a lot of work put into re-creating a world that has been forgotten. I focused on the day-to-day lives of people as well as the humor. Ms. Kouno’s manga and my approach to the film were actually quite complimentary instead of being a challenge.

The overarching story is told as a series of vignettes -- what inspired you to choose this format?

The original manga was a series in a magazine. In Japan, there is specific way of expressing the eras of Japan. The publication of the series coincidentally ran in parallel to each of the two eras, Showa (1926-1989, when the film takes place) and Heisei (1989-present day, when the series was being published). In other words, there would be a chapter from a day in the life of Suzu in February of the 19th year of the Showa era (February 1944) and readers were reading that chapter in February of the 19th year of the Heisei era (February 2007).

This pattern lasted until the final chapter, January 1946 (the 21st year of Showa and Heisei eras). Those who were reading the manga via the magazine were experiencing Suzu’s life in real-time. As a manga, this was very interesting. The author provided the audience with the same flow of time as Suzu. However in the case of the film, of course, we can’t have a two-year long movie; we only have 120 minutes. I had difficulty shortening the story down to 120 minutes. Each vignette in the manga has a joke or a funny moment and that is one of the things I had to edit out in order to have the proper flow of time. I chose a different way of expressing the passage of time compared to the manga.

Scenes of everyday life are featured as prominently as the film’s major events -- why was it important to you to focus on the daily existence of the characters?

I’ve always felt that finding and expressing the moments of happiness, beauty, and the brilliance of life, even those moments that no one pays attention to, are important. Through animation I best capture these feelings. My past works include Famous Dog Lassie and Mai Mai Miracle. As it turns out, Ms. Kouno had watched Famous Dog Lassie and she and I discussed the importance of finding beauty in the everyday. The life of the every-person is not to be dismissed. Because it is a story of the every-person, there is a brilliance to be discovered. Ms. Kouno also echoed this approach. It feels as if we had been building on each other’s philosophies without knowing it, until our paths crossed when I came upon her manga and turned it into a feature.

How did you arrive at the film’s overall visual design and color palette? What about for the scenes of destruction that followed the bombing in the third act?

I was very deliberate about maintain the design and artistic sensibilities of Ms. Kouno and her original manga. I contributed to the storytelling by placing Suzu in an environment that was as real as possible. The “real” is not the realism of a photograph, but the realism of a painting. This is because Suzu is an artist and it was very important for her to draw. Therefore, it was important that this film was a hand-drawn animation. The bombings in the third act was not expressed realistically in Ms. Kouno’s manga. In reading her manga, the reality that bombs were falling on ordinary people like Suzu is not explicitly expressed. The air raid scene in the film was how I expressed the emotional impact I experienced outside the pages of the manga.

Late in the film, Suzu says, “I wanted to die a daydreamer.” Is your film a commentary on the resistance to understanding the war and its potential consequences as it unfolded?

At one point in the film, Tetsu tells Suzu “I don’t want you to change.” He wishes that in their war-torn world, Suzu would not be affected by their circumstances and be untouched by war. Suzu, herself, was living her life slightly removed from the war: just living day to day as normal as possible. Once the air raids begin, Suzu experiences more and more loss: loss of her personal belongings, her niece, her right hand, and then her family when the atomic bomb drops.

Eventually, Suzu becomes conscious of those that are attacking Japan. As B-29s are flying overhead, she starts saying that she will not lose to them. Surviving another day becomes her own personal war. At the end she is crying, but I feel that she is crying over how much the war has changed her and that she could not fulfill Tetsu’s wishes of “never changing.” This is also my own personal approach to war as well: we should strive to physically and emotionally exist outside the effects of war.

Describe some of the research undertaken to complete the film. How were you able to re-create the cities of Hiroshima and Kure as they were more than 70 years ago?

Fundamentally, I did not want to rely on first-person accounts from that time because I noticed that after 70 years, their memories are not as accurate and become distorted over time. I wanted to conduct interviews after I had become knowledgeable about that era. I had a map of the areas from that time period and, if possible, any aerial photos. We collected historical photos of each building and acquired phonebooks to see what kind of businesses and shops existed.

 In addition, I wanted to know what society was like at that time, so I studied the law books from then. We collected many photos as well as journals. The journals were very valuable since many forgotten details were recorded. For example, the weather on a certain day: was it warm or cold? Or journal entries about what kind of flowers were growing in their neighborhood. We gained so much knowledge that we could close our eyes and imagine what it was like. If there were any details that were missing, then we would do interviews, but that was only done towards the end to fill in one final piece of the puzzle, so to speak. I do believe that final piece was important.

How long was pre-production, and what did that entail?

I decided to work on this film in August 2010. It was completed in October 2016, so that’s six years and four months of production. In the beginning, we began with research while meticulously reading Ms. Kouno’s manga. Her manga was already a product of hours of research on her part. Therefore, I felt that our first step for the feature should be to become just as knowledgeable as she was. We also built upon her knowledge: if there were areas that needed more research, we would fill the gaps. This was done during the layout process and, of course, as our research deepened, the layouts would be updated. Our process did not have a pre-production phase since we were jumping right into it. When necessary, we would add test drawings on top of the layouts. Up until 2014, we were focused on storyboards and layouts. Thereafter, we focused on drawing.

How many artists worked on the production?

The time that we had the most artists on-staff was very short; about a year. The core crew members were tasked to lay down the framework for the film. Overall, we didn’t hire too many artists, even for Japanese animation standards. This is because what we were creating was very specialized. We had to create this film with the full understanding of what and how we were animating.

What were some of the most challenging aspects of the production period?

Time was our biggest challenge. If we had more time, I would have increased the details. In order to accomplish the level of detail in the film within the allotted time, all we could do was to work diligently at our desks. When I think back, another challenge was that we didn’t have time to eat. We had a lot of snacks at the studio to nibble on while we worked.

Which software technologies were employed during production and post-production?

I believe, we only used basic software. The drawings themselves were, of course, all hand-drawn. When we needed to do line tests, we used QuickChecker from Celsys. This software is now unsupported and can only run on an older computer. This is how we tested our animations, as it’s very important to check the movements of Suzu and the other characters. For color and consistency, we used Adobe Photoshop. I personally use the older Photoshop v7.0 because, for me, it’s easy to use and a helpful tool. Other software we used were the common ones like Adobe After Effects and Apple Final Cut Pro.

The film has won a number of awards, including the Hiroshima Peace Film Award at the Hiroshima International Film Festival and the Jury Award at Annecy. Did you expect this reception, and what do you hope to have audiences take away from the film?

I had expectations for many people seeing and embracing the movie. Regarding the awards, the judges for the awards are also part of my audience. I feel that the awards and accolades that the film has received is a reflection of the many people who have seen the movie.

Why did you decide to crowdfund the financing for the film, rather than taking a more traditional route?

This film is quite unique. This movie gave Japanese animation viewers something different to be interested and curious about. Of course, this is difficult to accomplish and investors were not confident in the film. However, once investors realized how many crowdfunding supporters there were for this film, the investors came back to us. The investors didn’t realize that our film already had an audience even before we made the film.

You’ve worked on many feature films and other projects -- what was different for you in making In This Corner of the World, and were there things you learned about the process that you would like to employ in the future?

My process has been to approach my work from a different angle compared to the animation in Japan. In the beginning of the 1980s, I came to California to work on a U.S.-Japan collaborative film at Disney. At the time some of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” were still alive and I learned about the differences between U.S. and Japanese animation approaches.

Today, I’ve been investigating this more academically with professors on how the brain hears and sees animation: how does the brain perceive animated movement? To the brain, is an animation actually “moving?” Or is it not? I’ve been deepening my understanding in order to bridge the gap between animation styles of the U.S. and Japan. I’m theorizing that Japanese animation movement is perceived differently by the brain. After watching In This Corner Of the World, the audience has told me that Suzu is a real person to them and not a drawing. I’d like to continue exploring and incorporating this in my future work.

Do you draw regularly? What are some of your inspirations?

I don’t draw myself anymore. My wife, Chie Uratani, was the assistant director of the film and she is in charge of the drawings. My inspirations come from trying to figure out what inspires my wife’s imagination.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.