Sunao Katabuchi might be most recognizable to English-speaking anime fans as the director of the gritty Black Lagoon presently airing on Adult Swim’s Toonami block, but he’s also a veteran of the anime industry whose early credits include scriptwriting for Hayao Miyazaki’s Sherlock Hound TV series and the position of assistant director on Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service. An experienced storyboarder, in time Katabuchi won the opportunity to direct and screenwrite his first feature film, 2001’s Princess Arete from Studio 4°C. In his time with Madhouse Katabuchi’s major credits include Black Lagoon and his second feature film, 2009’s Mai Mai Miracle, which received a successful crowdfunding campaign for an English adaptation by the UK distributor All the Anime. At Otakon 2014 Mr. Katabuchi was on hand to introduce a screening of that film and to discuss his latest film project, In This Corner Of The World. The movie is being produced by the animation studio MAPPA, which Mr. Katabuchi joined when longtime Madhouse producer Masao Maruyama moved on from the company to found the studio in 2011.
Based on an award-winning manga by Fumiyo Kono, In This Corner Of The World chronicles the everyday life of a girl named Suzu when she marries and moves to start a new life at Kure City on the coast of Hiroshima Prefecture. The time span of the film covers 1933 – 1946, which of course spans a period that leads up to and runs through World War II and its immediate aftermath. For Katabuchi there is a meaningful distinction between such a tale and the one he told in Mai Mai Miracle, which focused on two young girls in the setting of 1950s Japan and stands as something he sees as a reflection on his own childhood. “But,” he told a captive audience during one of his discussion panels at Otakon 2014, “I was wondering if I could depict a story from that era that I’d never experienced before. In Mai Mai Miracle there was a mother, Shinko, but she actually married her husband when she was 18 years old. I was thinking that maybe I’d do a story about her. There’s a big generation gap between the 1950s and 1940s, and so if I worked on such a film I was thinking that I might be able to imagine something that I’d never experienced before.” By Katabuchi’s account he spoke with Mai Mai Miracle fans in Japan that were also fans of Ms. Kono’s work, who told him that she had created a manga similar to what he wanted to do. So Katabuchi wrote a letter to Ms. Kono asking for permission to adapt her work, and the rest is history. MAPPA announced the genesis of the film project in August 2012.
“This work”, Katabuchi explains, “is really about one person and how she sees the war. It’s also about the limited information the girl can see from her perspective…For example, if you have the chance to look Fumiyo Kono’s work, most of the time she doesn’t explain what’s happening.” For an example Katabuchi highlighted how in one panel of the comic Suzu is thinking of a Yo-Yo seen on the previous page, and that this is in the context of the toy catching on in Japan at the time in 1934. Yet Katabuchi makes a distinction between including such trends in the story and having them define the story: “What’s illustrated here is that one girl is interested in that trend because it’s what was happening at the time, but that trend is not the story. The work is strictly based on the perspective of this one girl. I think this perspective is really critical, it’s basically touching on what one person can establish. How much can she interact with the world? So there’s many clues and hints how the world is world around her, but there’s no explanation and it’s really up to the viewer to interpret the world around her.”
Be that as it may, In This Corner Of the World is a “slice of life” period piece through and through, and all that I saw and heard of the film at Otakon impressed upon me that Katabuchi and company are holding nothing back when it comes to illustrating Suzu’s world. A special art gallery of layout drawings on display at the event depicted both urban and naturalistic environments in detail, while Mr. Katabuchi spent one entire panel using pre-production artwork to illustrate how the team was expanding on panels from Ms. Kono’s comic to more fully depict Suzu’s surrounding. Through these things it soon became clear that the labor isn’t about evoking the time period, so much as it is quite literally recreating it. See that bookshelf on the left? That’s all reference material on the period and how the area looked at the time. Numerous individuals have been consulted to ensure accuracy about where buildings stood in relation to others. It’s one thing to be sure events happen when and how they did in history, as the creative team does; it’s quite another thing to even spend effort making sure the color of rooftops is accurate. The prodigious attention to detail being paid here cannot be denied.
Toonzone News had the privilege to sit down with Mr. Katabuchi for a one-on-one interview at Otakon. Read on for comments from the man himself about In This Corner Of The World and his ambitions for the film.
TOONZONE NEWS: So of course, you’re working on In This Corner of the World. To lead off, what do you hope viewers will take away from this film? What is the big, compelling reason you’d give for people to see the film?
SUNAO KATABUCHI: Firstly, it’s to depict the world of Japan in the 1940s, the world of an average person back in that era – the era that we can no longer live through and must imagine. I personally think that both making or watching animation requires imagination. It’s a challenge for us, and we would like to challenge our audience too.
TZN: Following up on that, you touched on how the movie focuses on Suzu and her experiences before and after the war and how she has a limited point of view. So how would you describe her perception of Japan during this time?
SUNAO KATABUCHI: No matter what happens during the war, people must eat to live on. So, for example, on the 15th of August in 1945, Japan loses the war and there is a famous radio broadcast. The people of the army might throw away their weapons when they hear that, but the people are the same – they must still make dinner for that night. I believe that is the kind of war that Suzu lives. I thought that things like that might be more important than the world of speeches, politics and whatnot. If you can view the world from that kind of perspective, I feel that you’d see a different picture.
TZN: So what makes the main character Suzu who she is?
SUNAO KATABUCHI: She has a special gift to draw pictures, but she doesn’t notice that it’s a gift and that what she can do is gifted. I feel that her being oblivious to being that special person who can draw these different pictures is what makes her Suzu.
TZN: I was looking at the art exhibit for the film yesterday, and I got the impression there was this tremendous effort to make this movie a very faithful recreation of the period. You mentioned at Friday’s panel how some looked at the layouts and thought it was “crazy”. Is that because of the great challenge of recreating that setting, and if so how did you overcome that?
SUNAO KATABUCHI: That is definitely one reason. I want to make something that people from that town that had lived during that time could see and say “oh, this is really my town.” Yet at the same time, that town is something we have not seen. It’s really something that isn’t real to us, but I wanted to bring it up in reality. I believe it’s making progress. It’s kind of like having to shut your eyes and draw a picture, but then when you open your eyes it needs to look proper. You can’t see the big picture.
TZN: In your mind, is this a movie best identified as the story of Suzu and how she changes, or is she more of our window into this time? Or are these things bound up together?
SUNAO KATABUCHI: I feel that it’s both. In order for her to be a window, you need to understand her. People who feel the same things as us are put into a completely different world of war. People who have read the manga say that what Suzu must be feeling must be the same things that we have felt. Those people that share the same views as us are put into this completely different world war, and they must see what this strange world is from the heart that feels the same things as us.
TZN: This film and your last film, Mai Mai Miracle, were snapshots of life. Looking beyond this project, is there an ideal kind of film you’d like to make next?
SUNAO KATABUCHI: I have many, actually! One is definitely that I’d like to depict the Japan of now. Some people might think that I can only draw things from the past – that is definitely not the case. But taking the same approach as these recent movies, what happens if I view the world now by the smallest details and then expand on them? That is one challenge I’d like to take too.
TZN: In closing, how is progress going on the film and when do you think audiences will be seeing it?
SUNAO KATABUCHI: That is the most difficult question. From a production point of view, the progress might not exactly be so good. I feel that this project is kind of a new style of things, something outside of what we view as anime. But at the same time, we understand that there are people who want things like that. We want to deliver this to you guys as fast as you can, so we’ll try our best!
Toonzone News is grateful to Mr. Katabuchi for his time. A physical release for his latest completed film, Mai Mai Miracle, is expected in Q1 2015 with an English dub and English subtitles.