Interview with Sunao Katabuchi: Suzu-san is not a translation of anyone’s imagination; from the beginning you can feel like she is a person with an existence

We speak with Sunao Katabuchi in detail about his latest film, his career, WW2, animation and other topics

While studying at Nihon University, Sunao Katabuchi participated in the writing team of "Sherlock Hound" directed by Hayao Miyazaki. After graduating, he joined Telecom Animation Film. In 1999, Katabuchi joined Studio 4°C and developed "Princess Arete", which was released in 2001 and won the Excellent works of the year in Domestic Feature Film Category at Tokyo International Anime Fair in 2002. He joined Madhouse and worked for various animations including "Black Lagoon".

In 2009, he directed "Mai Mai Miracle" that won the Best Animated Feature Film award in the Jury Prize categories at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montréal, Canada (July 2010), among other local and international awards In 2016, Katabuchi directed "In This Corner of the World" which was released on November 12, 2016 in Japan, and planned to be released in fifteen countries including UK, France, Germany, Mexico and US.

We speak with him in detail about his latest film, his career, WW2, animation and other topics


The film is adapted from a manga. What made you choose this project?

In 2009, I made a movie titled "Mai Mai Miracle", which was a stage play in 1955. Because of that period, I could still imagine myself being born in the world of the 1960s. By painting what was at home when I was a child, I was able to draw that era. But the adults who appeared in the story, also noticed that the previous period was still alive. For example, 10 years ago, I was interested in how people lived in the 1940’s and I wanted to make a movie that could portray them. As I was thinking that, a person introduced me to Mr. Kono Fumiyo’s work called “In this corner of the world”. When I was reading this manga, it was exactly what I wanted to draw myself; how ordinary people lived at the time of 1945 and how it was in the war.

Moreover, Mr. Kono Fumiyo understood that, like as we did at the time of “Mai Mai Miracle”, we did enormous research to be able to draw that world. Additionally, by putting daily and everyday life first, I came to understand that I was challenging my work to draw that. In various ways, I came with the thought that I should animate this work by myself. Then, I wrote a letter to him to ask him to let me make an animation movie of "In this corner of this World’. To my surprise, when I read his reply, I understood that he had seen ‘Famous Dog Lassie’ which I made in 1996. ‘Famous dog Lassie’ was also a work that showed the trivial things of everyday life, but also touched upon a lot of different things. He sympathized with this point of view. For this reason, it was as if we were making this work with the same interest.

Aside from the manga, what other research did you do into this period of Japanese history? And did you learn anything interesting while researching for the film?

First of all, I tried to collect as many photographs of that time as I could. The manga ‘In this corner of the world’ is told chronologically and every month a new episode is written. In other words, rather than summarizing the era during the war, the work tells us the changes that occurred month by month. So, we analyzed all the photos we collected [to know] on which day, month and year they were taken, and arranged them in chronological order. That’s how we tried to know how people’s life changed during the war. We did not only gather photographs, but also a diary in which [someone] wrote as much as possible in those days. By doing these things, with the various experiences of the postwar period we gathered, we were able to retell and, from those memories, better draw the true feelings of that time.

Despite being in the middle of the war, people kept writing about the blooming and the beauty of the flowers; they also wrote about the joy of every season. Additionally, in a diary of a housewife, we found nothing about the war, but instead we found a continuous summary of which housework she had done on a given day. By doing so, we were able to create in our own mind, afresh, the fact that people living at that time during the war kept embracing ordinary feelings. I think that was very important to make the movie.


People have praised the voice acting in the movie, particularly Non's performance as Suzu. What do you look for when choosing voice actors?

As a creator, my ultimate goal is that the character Suzu-san that Kono Fumiyo created in his manga, when watching the movie, is experienced by the audience as if he had a real existence there. We also checked the background of the world in detail, because we wanted to give Suzu-san and the life she was living a realistic feeling. At the same time, we also had the reason to create the feeling that the voice of Suzu-san and the people surrounding her were really there. So, I did an audition for each character and did various things. For example, by watching how actors performed in drama and movies, we selected people of which we thought could express the existence of Suzu-san and the other people.

Because Japanese animation doesn’t have prescoring; since it is after-recording, we have to draw the pictures without relying on voices. However, in the head of the creators, the voice of the characters is already ringing. When the movie was finished, a lot of the staff were surprised that the voice and they way of speaking that they had imagined in their mind remained intact in the sound of the movie. Everyone thought that it sounded like the voices had just jumped out of their imagination.

Although this is the translation we chose, all the voice actors cherished the presence of their characters and, I think that led to a wonderful appraisal.

Is there one character that you particularly identify with and why?

In all the characters, I feel something of myself. In Suzu-san, a woman, and Michiko-san as well. At the same time, when you see all those people, you separate yourself and you feel their existence objectively. Suzu-san is not a translation of anyone’s imagination; from the beginning you can feel like she is a person with an existence. It is the same with the other characters. I do try to superimpose myself on all the characters and in part you can find a part of yourself, but it is not completely equivalent. Each character has a very complex mind, so that it seems like they really have an existence.


How important was it to show the impact of the war on an ordinary family?

What happened in Japan during the Second World War has been told many times in Japan. Especially in ordinary households. Everyone who has relatives who have experienced wartime has heard the stories about the fact that in every household there was no rice and that the edible things, which were not delicious, didn’t fill your stomach. Others who experienced air raids or machine-gunning, talk about those things. However, what dropped out of those stories, is how people spend their ordinary days when such incidents didn’t happen. People don’t talk about such daily life. Because, for the those who experienced that time, it was the ordinary story of everyday.

We rendered the fact that even during the war, there was an ordinary life. It was mostly like that in those days. But about that part, they didn’t talk about, and it dropped out. Drawing that part was very important in “In this corner of the world”, I think.

Suddenly faced with an air raids or with machine-gunning, or with an atomic attack is no joke, but for those who lived that time, there was a life before that. We thought we had to properly take that into account.

We see Suzu's view of the past in the film. Do you think the film itself is a realistic or a nostalgic portrayal of life before 1945?

“In this corner of the world” is not considered a regular animation in Japan, as it attracts a higher age-group visiting the cinema. People of 70 or 80 years old and sometimes even of 90 years old are coming to the movie theatre to watch this movie. They are the ones who actually experienced the war. Those people who watched the movie say clearly that this movie expresses the atmosphere of that era better than any drama or movie they have seen. There was even a person above 90 years old that told me that this movie is proof of his existence.

At the same time, we sought to express accurately the childhood of Suzu-san. The reason why was to show what kind of ordinary world existed before the war broke out. We collected as much stuff as possible from that time and drew the city of Hiroshima. And we did not only draw the streets, but also the people who lived there and the people from shops that really existed.

What do you see as the advantages of animation as opposed to live-action film? 

Concerning “In this corner of the world”, there are some. One thing is that we were able to draw scenes of daily life and scenes of war with warships and airplanes in the same dimension. The scenes that sketch out Suzu-san's existence are practically all scenes where she is doing her daily chores. At the same time, war enters in the same space: an airplane passes through above the pumpkin field Suzu-san carefully raised. In fact, what seemed at first to exist in different dimensions, actually exists at the very same time. To be able to draw that is for me the strength of animation. Secondly, if it is animation, not only what is actually happening, but also what is happening in the mind can be drawn in the same dimension. The fact that it is possible to draw the world surrounding Suzu-san and to draw Suzu-san as present in this world, while at the same time, it is possible to animate what kind of world is present in Suzu’s heart … I think that is very important.


What is your opinion of the anime industry in Japan at the moment? Do you think that the gap Miyazaki will eventually leave will be covered? 

You can think of the work of Miyazaki as being part of a trend in Japanese animation. I think Japanese animation enthusiasts have seen a huge variety if works so far. When it comes to that, that will not change. In other words, I feel that many works that were not at the heart of animation until now, could get produced in the future. I think that Japanese animation will bring richer variation. I think that“In this corner of the world”is such a new variation, since it did not exist previously

What advice would you give to people considering a career in animation?

Animation is not something that photographs the existing reality as it is. It is about making pictures with one’s hands. That means that what comes to be created, are things that have passed through the hearts of people. In other words, the things that are in your mind, your imaginative power becomes a filter. If so, then I think we should, as a kind of preparation, have as many things as possible in our mind. I do not want a filter that only gives passage to certain biased things, but a filter that is able to understand and depict various things.

What are your plans for the future? 

I think I should gradually start thinking about my next work, but up until now I made“Mai Mai Miracle” and “In this corner of the world” while thinking if I could actually travel to this era or world. I wanted a time machine. If so, I think the time machine will depart for another era. As of now, I want to tackle works that invites [the audience to] adventures in a world that they do not know.

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Asian Film Vault: Interview with Sunao Katabuchi: Suzu-san is not a translation of anyone’s imagination; from the beginning you can feel like she is a person with an existence
Interview with Sunao Katabuchi: Suzu-san is not a translation of anyone’s imagination; from the beginning you can feel like she is a person with an existence
We speak with Sunao Katabuchi in detail about his latest film, his career, WW2, animation and other topics
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Asian Film Vault
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