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Inspired by a popular manga graphic novel series and telling the story of Suzu, a young woman who moves away from her hometown Eba, in Hiroshima, during the Second World War, In This Corner of the World has already won a raft of awards and is winning rave reviews. We spoke to the director, Sunao Katabuchi, about this very different Japanese animation.
Culture Trip: It’s a tough subject matter to tackle in any format, live-action or animation. Why was it important for you to make this film?
Sunao Katabuchi: When I read the original manga by Fumiyo Kouno, I felt that Suzu was an extremely lovable, ‘real human being’ with a highly complex personality.
Although, her existence could easily have been depicted in any medium, I thought her presence could be more strongly expressed in film format.
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CT: What advantages are there to making this story as an animation?
SK: I don’t see any particular advantages. Suzu is very laid-back. We thought we would be able to bring more reality to the characters’ motions by focusing on such a relaxed person doing household chores in a carefree manner. And we think we succeeded in expressing reality.
In terms of Ms. Kouno’s artistic style, I think she holds a unique stance within the Japanese manga world. This was actually to our advantage, because it helped us create an animation that didn’t look similar to pre-existing works.
CT: Are there any things you couldn’t do because of the format?
SK: There were almost none. Rather, animation enabled us to portray many things we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. For example, we could draw Hiroshima and Kure exactly as they would have been during the Second World War. If we made it live-action, this would have been almost impossible to achieve. It also enabled us to draw the reality of war and her life pre-war, in the same dimension. I think we managed to express a world where the war and towns coexisted within the image, capturing both elements in the same position.
CT: Can you tell us a bit about the reputation of the manga series that first told the story.
Ms. Kouno was producing the original manga with enthusiasm, trying to make it a turning point in her artistic career, and, in a way, she was tormenting herself with emotions. Although, I believe there were many people who were extremely passionate about the series, unfortunately its readership stagnated, leaving Ms. Kouno probably feeling quite lonely. But fans were clearly overjoyed when the anime adaptation was announced – I think this was the first time Ms. Kouno noticed the sheer number of readers. I believe it was an important experience for her. It was also an extreme honour for us that this announcement achieved a multiplier effect, which resulted in readership growth and more appreciation of the original manga.
CT: How hard was it to translate from the manga originals to an animation?
SK: Ms. Kouno doesn’t give many explanations in the original manga. For example, she doesn’t state where exactly in Hiroshima Suzu is standing, even though she drew it with a clear and specific idea of the spot. There are many things like this. So we confirmed all the places Suzu went to, solving mysteries one by one. By doing this, we found out new facts and started to understand the reasons why Suzu was there. The manga had many of these moments, and they were fresh surprises for us. The film doesn’t give all the answers, but by depicting environments with more detail than the manga originals, you can tell the exact places Suzu visits. Having said that, many audiences may need even more information. But giving more detail as to each scene’s place and time may offer something different – I hope audiences agree.
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CT: What appealed to you about making this story?
SK: We experienced everything Suzu was doing. If she cooked, we did; if she sewed a kimono, we did the same and if she made nori [seaweed], we also visited the seaside to make it ourselves [laughs]. We made straw sandals, too. Though we failed just like Keiko did [laughs]. If Suzu walked around Hiroshima and Kure, we also followed the exact same streets. Reliving her life made her existence more concrete in our minds. It was great fun to create the film while actually experiencing what she was doing.
CT: We see the war from a perspective rarely seen in the West. How do you think audiences outside of Japan will react to the film?
SK: I think even in Japan it was the first time wars have been portrayed from such a perspective. And that’s probably why it was perceived as offering a fresh point of view by Japanese audiences. In that sense, they didn’t necessarily have any advantages over those from overseas. They knew as little about the wartime as the overseas audiences, and I think they saw the film without much knowledge of various matters. But I believe there were many things about Suzu’s experience they relived and understood through the film. I think it drove people to support it. I am hoping to see the same phenomenon internationally as well.
CT: How realistic is the action we see on screen, and how did you go about recreating the locations we see?
SK: We portrayed the geographical features as they would have been during the time of the Second World War, except for one part where, for the sake of the story, we made Suzu walk a road that didn’t exist back then. When we draw a mountain for instance, we took the density of trees into account and drew it the way it used to look, rather than how it looks now. Each of the fighter planes in air raid scenes actually took place back then. We wanted to leave everything as it was, in order to accurately understand Suzu’s feelings while she was there.
CT: Suzu is an innocent character who endures a lot. What qualities does she possess to help her get through the tough times?
SK: I’d say her survival was a mere coincidence. Wars are extremely cruel and affect every single one of us equally. Regardless of her personality, she dies when she dies. She survived because she was lucky to be standing just far away enough from bomb debris. When living through those times, I believe it would actually have been a disadvantage to hold her naive perception of reality. I would like everyone to remember that she was one of the people who survived by mere chance. It wasn’t because she was particularly superior. She was skilled in drawing but that didn’t help her in any way during the war.
CT: We see how important drawing is to Suzu throughout the film. Is this a passion you share with her?
SK: I believe so. That’s because she has her inner self waiting to be expressed, and it proves that there is a treasure greater than what’s on the surface. I hope to be like her. However, such skill was not powerful enough to get rid of the war itself. During the war, she even had to discard her drawing skills and choose a life as an ordinary housewife. Such a waste of her talent… the world never got to see it. It was kept in her own heart only… I think that’s especially why I adore her so much.
In This Corner of the World is out now.