By Gianni Simone.
After six difficult years in which it often seemed that it would never be completed, Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World finally came out last November, winning multiple prizes and even being nominated as film of the year by respected film magazine Kinema Junpo. All the Anime met the director before he took the movie to the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and other events abroad.
Why did you decide to turn Fumiyo Kouno’s manga into a movie?
I think we share the same approach to story-telling. In particular, Kouno never glamorises her stories but tells them matter-of-factly. They could be considered simple and quite subdued but at the same time they are very compelling. I guess what I love the most about this story is that it shows in great details the characters’ everyday life. When I read the manga I felt as if I had just met a distant relative whose life I knew nothing about. You can feel a lot of research went into making this story. This is exactly the same way I like to work on a project. Actually, when I met Kouno, she told me that her editor had proposed a number of different endings, including making Suzu, the protagonist, die in a dramatic fashion, but she had rejected all of them and remained faithful to her original idea.
I heard that one of the reasons you couldn’t find any financial backing at first was that everybody thought the story was not dramatic enough.
Yes, it’s true (laughs). I remember that when I first introduced myself to Kouno, she said, “You made Famous Dog Lassie [a 26-episode TV series that aired in 1996], aren’t you?” She confessed that she had seen my anime when she first broke into the manga magazine market, and she had been inspired to infuse the same everyday-life quality into her own work. When I heard this, I was convinced I had found a kindred spirit.
How was it working with Fumiyo Kouno?
I first wrote her a letter in the summer of 2010 but I didn’t actually meet her until ten months later after we had already begun our research work, checking the places that are featured in the story, etc. Therefore when we finally met I was able to ask very specific questions, such as about the exact location of Suzu’s house in Kure City. From the very start we just put aside any formality and got down to business.
Apart from the A-Bomb Dome, there’s only one single building still standing from the wartime years (you can see it in the movie), so it took a long time and a great deal of effort. I found telephone directories in a Hiroshima second-hand shop that gave a clear idea of the type of shops that were around at the time, and where they were. But that wasn’t enough on its own, so we went to the National Archives for Japanese navy aerial reconnaissance photographs of the port of Hiroshima. Then we had sketches someone made at the time.
Probably because Hiroshima was completely destroyed, many people have felt the need to preserve as many records of the pre-bomb city as possible. In this sense we have been very lucky to find a lot of information. The problem was finding information on Kure. At the time it was an important military port so photography was severely restricted. But we managed to get hold of some, and then painstakingly checked every single building against the other information we had gathered. This process continued all through the movie’s production, even after we had made the storyboards.
Most of your films’ protagonists are women. Why’s that?
It’s partly a coincidence. But I guess I have a particular feeling for stories written by women, maybe because I’m a man. Probably the stories written by men are too close to me to really appreciate them. But being a man, reading something written by a woman, creates a sort of distance that allows me to enjoy and appreciate them more.
How would you compare Princess Arete from your 2001 feature with Suzu from In This Corner…?
Princess Arete is a very inquisitive girl who doesn’t easily give up once she decides to do something. When her story begins it’s as if her true self is hidden behind a mask, but eventually she gradually manages to express her feelings and find the way to live her own life in full. Suzu in a sense is quite similar to Arete. She is a very shy and pure girl with little knowledge of the world around her. She is a very reserved person. The only way she has to express herself is through her drawings. It’s only when she loses her ability [to hold a pen or brush] that she is forced to get out of her shell and speak up her mind.
Suzu’s world is very different from today. Japanese society has changed a lot since the war. Do you think Japanese families have changed as well?
I don’t think the family itself has changed. What has changed is the legal system surrounding the family as an institution. During Suzu’s era, for example, women didn’t have the right to vote and couldn’t really take part in political activity. They couldn’t even serve as soldiers, which is probably a good thing. In other words they were discriminated against by male-ruled society. However I think that inside the family (at least in some families), things were a little different. Japanese society had actually changed in many ways before the war, especially in the big cities where nuclear families were becoming the norm, compared to multi-generational households in the countryside. Unfortunately the war put a stop to these social changes and imposed a more traditional and conservative system.
It was quite frustrating because the people we directly dealt with were usually quite sympathetic and liked our project, but when they reported to their companies they always wanted to see some hard data that would show that we could be trusted and our film would be a success. Obviously, they were always thinking about the bottom line, and how do you work that out? They looked at my previous film’s performance (Mai Mai Miracle, 2009) and discovered that its first run in the theaters hadn’t sold many tickets. So they concluded that I couldn’t be trusted with making a successful film. They completely overlooked the fact that in its second run the film had raked in almost as much money as the first. In other words, it started slow but it gathered steam thanks to word-of-mouth. But no matter how good a story is, the sponsors want to be sure that there is actually an audience for that story before the film is completed. They want to see hard data, and we were finally able to do that when we resorted to crowd funding and showed them how many people were backing the film. Eventually this film has proved to be a long seller, thanks again to word-of-mouth. Also, it’s the kind of story that attracts people in their 70s and 80s – the kind who usually don’t go to the movies.
What are you particularly happy about this movie?
The fact that these 70- and 80-year-olds praised the movie for being so accurate in the depiction of wartime Japan. Those words made me and my team very proud. We felt that all the long hours we had put into making this film were worthwhile.