Interview: Anime Director Sunao Katabuchi Talks ‘In This Corner of the World’

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It’s not often that you find an animated film that caters directly to older audiences. But that’s exactly what Japanese anime director Sunao Katabuchi has achieved with “In This Corner of the World.” Based on a manga by Fumiyo Kouno, this film is a profound reflection on life during wartime, as seen through the eyes of a young woman named Suzu. Recently, I caught up with Katabuchi to discuss the film’s mature themes and its surprising audience of “children.” Below is an edited version of our chat.

Shane Slater: What drew you to this story?

Sunao Katabuchi: I was really drawn to this personality, her positive energy. I felt that by her doing the daily chores, that it helps her find who she is and her place in the w orld. But in this daily life, you have the air raids and bombs falling. So even when I was reading the original manga by Fumiyo Kouno, I was really touched by it. It brought tears to my eyes, seeing everyday life being disrupted by war.

SS: This was such a traumatic time in Japanese history. Was there any reluctance in reminding people of what happened, especially in the usually child-centric world of animation?

SK: In Japan, there is a lot of manga for adults. I really feel like even if it is manga, it’s right up there with novels and books that you can find at the bookstore. The original manga is very philosophical. I’ve always felt that this wasn’t going to be a kids movie. I knew that from the beginning. This film is actually quite well-known for reaching audiences who are a lot older than people expected. Yesterday, we started screening in England and I’ve been getting reports that the overall demographic has been older.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not saying that children shouldn’t see this. I feel that parents should bring their children to see this, so they can guide them and explain the themes and events in the movie. There were also reports when it released in Japan that there were a lot of families, where parents would bring their kids to see “In This Corner of the World.” So I asked, “how old are the children?” And the children were actually in their 40s! And the parents were in their 70s.

So what I realized was this is really a snapshot of what people’s parents experienced. We’ve seen folks in their 70s, 80s and even their 90s come see this movie at the theaters. We also found that after they see this movie, it would trigger a lot of memories of their own experiences in the war and they would start telling their own stories. Those stories did not include tragedy. Actually, they were just talking about their daily lives during the war. I feel that it’s because they didn’t feel that there was any value to talking about their everyday lives when they were younger, during the war.

So the movie was screening over the 2016-2017 Christmas/New Year holidays and three generations of families would come. I really feel like the most important thing the older generation can hand down to younger generations is their experiences and stories. And many people in their 70s and 80s who have recollections of that time are saying that the movie captured the air and energy of that time very well.

There’s been a lot of WWII TV and films coming out of Japan, but the older generation kind of gave up on them, because they kept portraying the era in a certain way that wasn’t very truthful to what they actually experienced. So a lot of the older folks who saw “In This Corner of the World” kept telling me that this is what it was really like to live every day in the shadow of war. I was very humbled and honored that they would tell me this.

SS: The film strikes a balance between the dark consequences of war with a sense of optimism and hope. Was this optimism already there in the manga, or was it something you especially wanted to emphasize?

SK: The film is actually in alignment with the original manga. What’s different is how we experience colors and sound. For example, the air raid scenes. We were trying to be as close to the authentic noises that Suzu would hear during the air raids. So the bombs and cannons, that’s how it authentically sounds. In the end, we were able to create this expression of war that dwarfs anyone. When we finished the film, we looked at the air raids and war scenes and they were very powerful. Destruction is a pretty big theme in the film overall. So in order to balance that out, I did portray Suzu and her family post-war having a little bit of hope.

SS: With the source material being a manga series, were those images the main foundation for the film’s visual concepts?

SK: Yes, we definitely preserved the original style. And Fumiyo Kouno actually contributed some of her drawings for the movie. She contributed any artwork that Suzu is drawing as a little girl.

SS: A lot of your previous work included fantasy elements. Were you tempted to incorporate more fantasy, especially when your main character is such a dreamer?

SK: I wouldn’t describe it as fantasy. I expressed the imagination of the character through the drawings. Suzu is a dreamer and she has a very strong imagination. When it comes to tackling war, that’s something that does not come out of a person’s imagination. I think war is very relentless, it doesn’t choose its victims.

SS: You mentioned the screenings in the UK. How have different audiences internationally responded to this very Japanese story?

SK: So far, there were pretty much the same kind of comments from the UK screenings as the Japanese audiences. Initially you’d think, well, London had air raids. But it’s actually not that. Both in England and Japan, there aren’t many people left who experienced the air raids. Air raids aren’t something that is really remembered. So the war has become this far off event. But I think “In This Corner of the World” bridges that time gap between now and how things were then. And I think that commonality, that bridge, is really built by Suzu and her family and how they are living. In other words, it doesn’t matter what country you’re in when you watch this, there’s still a common thread of recalling this almost lost memory.

“In This Corner of the World” opens in select theaters August 11.