Producer and character designer/animation director share their thoughts!
As attendees of Otakon 2017 sat down to watch a special screening of In This Corner of The World, others across the country were doing the same as select theaters nationwide began showings the very same day. This wasn't the first US screening of the film since it was first released in Japan over half a year ago, but what made the event at Otakon so special were two individuals in attendance. Chairman of MAPPA and producer of the film Masao Maruyama was on stage, along with its character designer and animation director Hidenori Matsubara, to introduce the film. Below are their opening statements as well as a transcription of the post-screening panel where they discussed the production details and themes of one of the greatest movies of 2016.
In This Corner of The World Introduction
Masao Maruyama: It’s been almost a year since it was first released in Japan and we’re very fortunate that it's still playing in some theaters, it’s quite miraculous. Of course the reason why it’s been a such a miraculous product is because of the brilliant staff who have worked on it, starting with the director Sunao Katabuchi’s vision, the visuals animation director Hidenori Matsubara provided, the voice of Suzu who was played by Non, and the music by Kotringo. When we first proposed the project to be an anime adaptation, we asked for demo tapes for the music and she provided music that was so sad and melancholic that we instantly decided to go with it...
It’s been released for about a year now and it’s got so much acclaim, but the project didn’t move for about 5 years. I’ve been in the industry 40 years now and this title is the one that I’ve put the most work into and sweated the hardest to create. What was so challenging about bringing this movie to fruition was the fundraising aspect. I would go to the sponsors and bring them a proposal and they would tell me, “It was wonderful but it won’t be a hit! We don’t know if we want to put the money in. It’s not sensational enough and doesn’t have enough action!” and I said, “Well, that was the point. That’s why it’s going to be a good movie!”
That’s why it was so difficult to gather enough sponsors to put the movie together. But, on the flip side, that gave the director Katabuchi five years to perfect the storyboards and to do all the research necessary for the film. Actually, at the five year point we realized we may be able to pull it off with just half the budget we had anticipated. We cut down about 20 minutes of animation and the production time by about a year. We also had almost nothing in terms of a PR and advertising budget. When it was released it, the reason why it got around and became a hit was actually word of mouth. People said, “Let’s see it together” or, “Oh, you need to watch this!” and so it spread like wildfire. I believe that is the strength of the story.
Now it’s not just being screened in Japan but all across the world and we want to bring it to you here in America. It's thanks to the brilliance of the story, the music, the visuals, the animation, and, of course, the person who worked even harder on the films than I did standing right next to me and I’m gonna have him tell you a little bit about making the film.
Hidenori Matsubara: My turn?
I was told to talk about the challenges of making this film but, as an animator, every project is challenging. What I’d like to say it that it struck me how bizarre the timing was of bringing the film here to DC and showing it at Otakon and I have to admit I’m starting to get a little bit anxious...
Those who were extremely helpful and very kind to me were the staff of convention who would invite me and also you American fans. When I completed the film, the first thing that came to me was that we must all work and cooperate together so we never again see what is conveyed in the film. I would like you to take that from the film as well and enjoy it today.
I’m extremely happy and honored to be here today in such a timely period to be here to say hello to you. I hope you enjoy it...
(Photo credit: Evan Minto)
Post-screening Panel Opening Comments
Maruyama: I talked about this a little bit in the introduction to the film but, in 50 years I’ve been involved in animation, this may have been the longest and most difficult production.
Matsubara: Yeah... that’s pretty much it.
The thing about it is, the story itself is so complex that when you ask, “What would you like to say about the film?” It’s hard to come up with a response. I could talk about what went into making the film, the process of the research, or the emotional pressure and the weight that I felt throughout that process. To be completely honest, I’m 51 but my knowledge surrounding that subject is not really in the top echelon of people in the world. In the process of it, at this point in my life, doing so much research to the point of excess really weighed heavily on me. If I overthink it, it sort of becomes a “is it good or bad?” kind of thing so I try not to think about it.
From my line of thinking, that sort of thing should never happen again and that’s pretty much where I ended up through that process. While making the film I was thinking, “This is still going on all over the world.” Like usual I was enjoying making the film but the remaining thought I had was that. That is why I would like everyone to see the film, to experience the idea that, even while you’re in the middle of your everyday life, disaster can fall upon you at any time. In the process of making animation you don’t often come across things that are so deep and meaningful, so in that respect it became a very important work of mine, to the point where I’m thinking, “What can I do from this point on?”
I’m just going to go back to the fun anime world, I think.
Maruyama: About 25-28 years ago, I worked on a film called Barefoot Gen. As far as films related to wartime, I’ve probably made the most films related to that topic so far. Even among works that depict WWII and Hiroshima, it’s kind of rare to see the town as it was. In the process of research for this film, the director Katabuchi-san went back and forth between Tokyo and Hiroshima countless times, to the point where I began asking “maybe you don’t need to go back and forth that much?” but it resulted in a very realistic depiction, probably the most realistic depiction, of Hiroshima to date. That’s the result of Katabuchi-san’s endless research.
I think it’s due to the undying passion of Katabuchi-san and his love for the original work by Kono-san. It was that passion that made up 90% of the love that went into this film.
Matsubara: His research went to the point where he researched each house that was destroyed in the bombing and could discuss it in such vivid detail that you’d think he lived there at that time.
It might be easy for a Japanese audience to recognize, but not so for an American audience. In the first five minutes or so, there is a scene where Suzu goes to the market in town. You might not realize it, but that town is now the Atomic Bomb National Park. There is nothing there but a park and the dome of the building that’s in the scene. One of our first original projects, to try and recreate that town as it existed prior to disappearing. Katabuchi-san relentlessly asked people who lived through the bombing, who at the time were maybe between 5-7, and had survived because they been removed and sent to the country to get them away from the bombings. He asked them for as many details as they could remember.
It was during that time that he was doing that research that we didn’t have very much money, so it was 4-5 years that we didn’t have any guarantee it would be made. While that was going on, the people who I was interviewing, their age was getting around to the point where it was uncertain if they’d be around to see the final product. It was out the intense intent to make something out of this project before those people passed away that we made the first 10 minutes of the film and that is what we used for the crowdfunding project.
It was, for the time being at least, about being able to recreate the town through animation for the people who lived there. Working so hard to make sure we could get that done and show those people was our major driving goal. Thanks to the fact that we were able to show it to backers as a proof of concept was what led to us being able to make the movie, but when we were making that there was no guarantee the movie would be made at all. That’s one of the difficulties we faced.
Maruyama: The first couple years of planning, we were really intent on the recreation. That was our goal to the point where it was recreation and not imagination. It became about “what was in this place where nothing is now? What were things made of? What did they feel like? Was the handrail on this staircase made of wood or marble?” It’s not imagined, it’s all based on real research. In the scene where Suzu is picking weeds and grasses, we ran out and got all that vegetation, made the food, and tried to eat everything that they ate. We tried to live it.
One of the reasons it took so long was due to not having the money to make the film and one of the reasons for that was because, whenever there is a film about wartime, it’s all about “how sad is it? Will it make you cry? How emotionally moving is it?” Whenever we got that question, we would answer that we’re not really looking to make a movie that’s crushingly sad and depressing, we’re looking for is to make a movie that’s about everyday life and what it’s like to live through that sort of thing. Whenever we said that we were met with “oh, nobody’s interested in that. We wouldn’t fund that.” That’s where all the initial troubles came from.
What we were really striving for were the details of everyday life. It might come off as a little bit bland and sometimes a little bit boring, but what we were looking for was the reality of what it was like for the people living during that time. Maybe a little bit funny at times, but never too sad. It was that passion that Katabuchi-san brought and that’s what made the project for us. It might be an animation what we were trying to shoot for was that it was no lie. It wasn’t made up. It was very real.
While we were making it, we were really wondering how it was going to be received. We really didn’t have much in the way of advertisement, we didn’t have any press conferences, so we were really interested in what people would think of it.
Being involved from the very beginning, it’s very hard for me to see a film for the first time when it's completed and appreciate it because I know everything that went into it. However, when I first saw this film, it was overwhelming to see it completed and know that it was done and that it existed. I just couldn’t stop crying. That’s a very rare thing, being so involved as a creator. One of the reasons it was such a powerful, moving experience was because, at least three times I sat down with the director and said “maybe we can’t get this film made. Maybe it won’t ever be finished. What can we do?” To see it exist, moved me to tears. It’s probably the most complete film that I’ve made in my 50 years in animation.
(Photo Credit: Evan Minto)
Carl Horn (Dark Horse): I think it is a profoundly tragic film but it’s not the kind of tear-jerker or melodrama you were talking about when you were having difficulty getting financing. If you want to sincerely appreciate what happened at Hiroshima, you have to understand what happened to the people's ordinary lives, what those people’s lives were like, and you have to respect that. This is what this film does that makes it so profound. It says “what was lost? Who were these people? What were these houses?” and that makes it a much more sincere film about what happened that almost any film I’ve ever seen.
Maruyama: The process of recreating Hiroshima was a definitely big part of it. It might seem a little bit bland, but the main focus of the film being the city of Kure, and not Hiroshima, was always a central part of it. Asking what could we do to make the lives of everyone who lived in Kure, which was a famous military installation, real for everyone.
Carl Horn: I actually learned about Kure from reading the manga Barefoot Gen, because he talks quite a bit about it and the bombing that happened there.
Caitlin Moore (HeroineProblem): The realism of the setting and research worked well with how the characters were presented. If you have even well-written characters in vague settings or very realistic settings with stereotypical characters, it can feel false. I feel the characters were written with a lot of nuance. Together with the research of the setting it felt like people who really lived and existed. I felt like I knew Suzu.
Maruyama: If Suzu was alive now she’d be 92 or 93. It’s one of the things that the director Katabuchi-san is always talking about. If they were alive today.
Matsubara: It was definitely exactly like you said. With that intent of making Suzu real, Katabuchi-san spent so much time researching the city. That was very important to him. Whenever he’s talking about Suzu, he always talks about her as if she was real. Everyone gets drawn into that. It’s one of those things where we have to step back and remind ourselves she’s a fictional character. That’s the extend of the reality that he put into even discussing that character. It was with that intent that he spent so much time researching, to keep it from feeling false. Right now he acts very much like a historian.
Maruyama: He was making it with the intent that people could go into the town of Kure, or perhaps even Tokyo, and expect to see a 92-year-old woman missing an arm and still drawing.
I was at the convention AM² in 2011. At that time there was a screening of My My Miracle, which had no subtitles or anything. Even though there was no subtitles I was happy to see it. It was right after that screening that you announced that you were forming MAPPA. I heard about that at that point in time and we also learned that this movie was in the works. Being able to see it now, I was very moved not only by the film but everything that was put into it...
Maruyama: I worked with Katabuchi-san for a number of projects, one of them being Black Lagoon,which was very intense project. From that point, we went on to work on My My Miracle. That’s a movie that I hold very dear to my heart, although it wasn’t much of a commercial success. I’ve always wondered why such a great film didn’t make a bigger splash. I wonder if we didn’t work hard enough to make you want to see it maybe? I reflected on that while we were making this movie. The driving theme for this movie was not to make something that would be expected, but to create something that was fully realized that we had made very carefully.
Actually, Suzu is the same generation as the protagonist in My My Miracle. We kind of consider it a connected work in a way, where In This Corner of the World is 30 years previous and exists the same idea. If we think back on it, I’ve been working with Katabuchi-san on this movie for over 10 years.
It’s hard not to feel like the characters are alive... I wonder about the fates of the characters after the movie. Did Sumi ultimately survive radiation sickness? Did Suzu ultimately learn how to draw again with her left hand?
Matsubara: *Puts his head in his hands* I forgot.
Maruyama: Her name appears in the manga but never in the movie.
Did she survive?
Maruyama: I believe so...
Matsubara: … She did not....
Did Suzu learn how to draw again?
Maruyama: I would like to think so.
Matsubara: As long as you train with your left hand there shouldn’t be a problem. It’s just drawing.
I’m both Korean and American, so I had a lot of conflicting feelings about the film, especially toward the end. How much consideration was taken toward how foreign audiences would perceive the film? Did it affect the final product or did you feel you had met your vision of what you wanted the film to be?
Matsubara: It’s not like that wasn’t taken into consideration, but it was also one of those things where we were looking at what the reactions might be. We wanted to make sure the author's original vision was met was very important. It was a very basic consideration that we would be taking it abroad and showing it to foreign audiences, but I really feel like if we took all that into consideration we wouldn’t be able to meet all our goals. I feel like it’s a really good thing to be given the opportunity to face your feelings and reflect.
Maruyama: We didn’t think about it as a victim versus perpetrator dynamic. It seems like a lot of wartime movies are always divided into victim and aggressor, so we avoided trying to make that the case in that movie.
A common depiction in western movies is the spectacle of explosions, turning destruction into entertainment. I think a really important part of what made this movie emotionally intense is that the bombs dropping wasn’t turned into a spectacle and I thank you for that...
Matsubara: That was in part due to the original work by Kono-san taking that stance. We also feel the same way, but that was on of the things that lead to it becoming an essential part of the film. It starts with the idea that, even in times of war, people will laugh and fall in love. One of the things that I realized is that I haven’t seen many films that deal with what happens to the people that aren’t fighting. How does the fighting affect them and what do they lose as a result of it? It’s sort of an overshot theme so it was meant alot to touch on that subject.
One of the true jobs of a historian was to get a sense of what life was like in the past so the rest of us can understand how people of the time experienced it. That’s one of the major things that impressed me… What’s really history is what happens to the everyday people.
Maruyama: In the process of researching all this and obtain that feeling of what it’s like to live through that sort of period, we experienced the 3/11 earthquake I’m sure you’re all familiar with that led to Fukushima. It was an event that allowed us to examine what it’s like to live through disaster and losing everything. The feeling of loss and your whole life meaning nothing.
Peter Fobian (Crunchyroll): One of the things I really noticed about the movie was the authenticity and, from your own statements, it sounds like there was a lot of research done to make everything authentic to that time period. I noticed the visuals of violence, however, were very surreal and impressionistic. I wanted to know how you came to that decision and what the intentions were behind it?
Matsubara: One of the main contributors to that was that it’s the story told from the perspective of Suzu and her memory, the way that she experienced everything. So, in order to do that, we had to make it less about what kind of battle happened or being overly detailed about what it looked like after the bomb dropped, it was about what war took from the normal person. So, from the filter of Suzu, that’s what led to that kind of expression being used.
I do feel like it was quite graphic, though. Actually, when we were about 90% done with the film we had gone through everything. We were about ready to go, then Katabuchi started saying “I don’t want to release this film.” As far as the illustrations and the way that it’s expressed, it looked like everybody was kind of happy go lucky about their life, but when you take that cute surface off of the film, there’s very little salvation to be found. If you really think about it, towards the end, nothing really good ever happens to Suzu. For that reason the ending is different than the manga. We ended with overtones of the war orphan Suzu adopts and grows up and contains a bit of hope for the future. That was an original piece Katabuchi-san added to the film.
That was what allowed him to ground himself and make it to premiering the film. That’s how heavy it was to everybody involved. In the blogosphere, there’s a lot of people who really do take a lot of cuteness off of the film when assessing it. There’s a lot of people who really take it as quite a tragic story, quite a horrendous story. That might be the truth to be found in the film, but that wasn’t our intention. There’s a lot of different ways to view this film.
In all my years of being involved in animation, this may be the first time I thought “I want people all over the world to see this film,” so if you have any friends who might like to see this film, please spread the word!