In This Corner of the World
At one point during In This Corner of the World, the reflective, violent, and humorous look at the Japanese life near WWII Hiroshima, a character opines that “The past and the paths we did not choose make us who we are today.” Though said in the context of a relationship, it’s a good quote to define the film: when tragedy occurs, whether in or out of your hands, you can still make choices about where you want your journey to lead.
The heart of this animated war film is Suzu, a cheerful, dedicated, and absent-minded young woman (child at the film’s beginning) who has a talent for drawing. Much of the anime’s first half is episodic in nature, following Suzu’s life as she grows up and eventually marries, moving from Hiroshima to the home of her in-laws in the nearby mountainous village of Kure. Suzu develops friendships with neighborhood women as she learns to become a housewife, caring for her mother-in-law and developing a loving relationship with the husband to whom she was matched. She also faces challenges, such as living with an overcritical sister-in-law, whose young daughter develops a strong bond with Suzu.
It’s in this early half that a love for Japan and it’s people and culture is explored. The direction spends a great deal of time showcasing traditional housewife duties and more specific items, like an appreciation for Japanese warships and the uses of different wild plants in cooking. The kindness and proud heart of the Japanese people is also emphasized, even more so as the second half of the film occurs in 1944 and 1945, as the war draws near to the city and people begin to suffer, first with loss of property and loves ones who are fighting abroad, and later through casualties at home as well. This is when the film takes a most interesting turn, as the continually cheerful Suzu faces an unspeakable tragedy and must decide how to move forward when it seems impossible.
The viciousness of war makes a great contrast to the peaceful, sometimes fantastic, and often humorous events of the film’s first half. We as the audience (certainly Japanese viewers will be aware) know that the movie is moving toward August 6, 1945, the day the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Date stamps, along with increasingly disruptive U.S. bombing, remind us that the tragedy of tragedies is around the corner, and that a beloved character – and maybe many of the supporting ones we’ve come to know – may die that day. History tells us what the end is, though fiction gives our hearts hope for a reprieve. However, tension increases all the more with animation that is frighteningly vivid though rarely graphic (save for an important scene at the end), such as the dropping of bombs from the point of view of an American bomber.
The animation in the film, in fact, is across-the-board glorious. Much has been made of how the animators researched wartime Hiroshima to accurately depict the area before and after the atomic blast. And the animation as a whole has a lovely, old-fashioned feel feel to it, matching the cheery demeanor of the film’s heroine, and leading to effective divergence in key scenes. Suzu’s own skills with chalk, pencil, and brush are also explored to great effect, aiding the story as it progresses, but most importantly by cleverly setting up key points in the story where animation styles shift as characters reflect on significant events and their meaning. These moments give us pause; viewers are meant to think and empathize with those suffering then (and maybe also about children and families doing the same now) and evaluate the story as it mercilessly barrels forward.
In This Corner of the World ultimately succeeds, though, through how director Sunao Katabuchi delivers the film’s significant meaning. Its messages of grace, peace, family, and the heart of Japan’s people and culture aren’t hammered into us ineffectually, but brought to us subtly and personally through the characterization of Suzu and the others. They become real to us; their stories are real, and so, too, is their suffering.
Developed for Japanese audiences, tension in the film and it’s impact may be slightly loss on those without great knowledge about the bombing of Hiroshima. This reviewer grew up with in a military family with deep connections to the War in the Pacific, and read John Hersey’s Hiroshima, so my experience was colored by context that other viewers may not have. More critically, there are key plot moments that felt less than sincere, mostly when family members would coincidentally meet Suzu during important moments. The voice acting wasn’t notable, with Suzu’s being an exception, both in how well Non conveyed her character and in how out-of-place she was voicing Suzu as an elementary schooler.
These slight issues aside, the movie is worthy of all acclaim. I believe it not only stands toe to toe with great wartime anime, like Grave of the Fireflies, but it needs even fewer qualifiers than that. In This Corner of the World is one of the best war movies ever made. And for a film spent largely in community gardens and in the sketchbook of a young housewife, that’s a most remarkable achievement.