The first thing that Japanese director Sunao Katabuchi did during a recent visit to L.A. was pull out his dog-eared copy of “In This Corner of the World,” the manga about wartime in Hiroshima by Fumiyo Kōno, which he adapted into the critically-acclaimed Oscar contender (from Shout! Factory Films and Funimation Films). He pointed to a drawing of its protagonist, 18-year-old Suzu, climbing stairs with a piece of luggage.
“That’s the moment for the audience when Suzu was a real person,” Katabuchi said. “But I also think this film brings back old memories from childhood. When they were kids and carrying something really heavy and struggling. So I think this specific scene also reminds people of being alone in a large city.”
In other words, this ordinary moment of struggle and loneliness typifies the great accomplishment of “In This Corner of the World,” which authenticates life in Hiroshima before and after its ravaging through the delicate craft of hand-drawn animation. And, as a coming of age story about Suzu, the sensitive artist who loses almost everything (including her right hand and the ability to draw), Katabuchi makes it all the more timeless and relatable.
Katabuchi meticulously researched the history and architecture of Hiroshima before the war and also interviewed Japanese survivors now in their 80s, He discovered how people lived in the region in the months leading up to the bombing, asking about the parks they played at as children, the buildings they went to, what the weather was like, and, finally, what they remembered about the explosion.
It is a real town that existed, but when we were doing our research there were photos of buildings that we couldn’t find,” said Katabuchi. “At least we understood the general architecture. But then there were a lot of possibilities within that. So we created a couple of theoretical renderings and posted it in Hiroshima. And it turns out that someone lived next to the mystery building and got in touch with me.”
The girl recalled the railing in front of a store depicted in the manga and how it felt when her back leaned against it. “But in the original manga, there is no handrail in the drawing,” added the director. “But all that information came out from the memories of the people we interviewed.”
Suzu hails from a seaside town called Eba, but, after an arranged marriage, relocates with her husband to the large naval port town of Kure. She endures great trauma and tragedy, but her spirit and sense of survival keep her going, along with her love of drawing. (A new Extended version elaborates more on her marriage struggles.)
“I feel Suzu is someone I’ve known all my life,” Katabuchi said. “Compared to other animated characters, Suzu is very complex. But at the same time, I think that any person in real life is just as complex. So I’m pulling from people in my life who have been Suzu-like and recalling from my memories and experiences in building Suzu. However, I did have many female animators around me, including my wife, Chie Uratani [the assistant director and artist]. She did many drawings and about 90% of the layout.”
Many of the key animators were also women, and that perspective infused Suzu with nuance and believability. “If you notice, up until her marriage, there’s a lot of physical contact and then it just drops off,”said Katabuchi. “And when she goes back home for a visit, her sister takes care of her hair so there’s physical contact again.”
Of course, working on the dropping of the bomb scene was emotionally difficult, but the director was able to personalize it. “There were so many stories and so many people I was thinking of when I was working on the scene,” Katabuchi said. “I did so much research, I’d read accounts, I had seen photos, I knew what they looked like, so I kept recalling people’s names as I worked on that scene.
“I think the thing about animating this was what I was able to express,” added the director. “Not just about Suzu, but the people around her, the town, the bay, the ocean, the sky, all of it. Of course, you can probably throw a lot of CG at something and build that world technically, but not when it’s about a typical housewife. Anime is able to express what’s going on outside, but also what’s going on in the soul.”