/ Reviews

In This Corner of The World: Poignancy deepens humanistic outlook in wartime Japan

In that corner of Japan, hope and compassion are characterized in Suzu and her loved ones, who find their ways to heal the wartime scars.

A slice-of-life anime, In This Corner of the World lays out the most striking characteristic of life: repetition, prosaic in momentum yet diversified in tone. Adapting Fumiyo Kōno’s award-winning manga of the same name published in 2006, writer-director Sunao Katabuchi successfully portrays the tranquility of pre-war Japan and heart-warming relationships against calamities.

The movie wraps its characters, whose concept of World War II is simple, around their immediate concerns for domestic simplicity. Whereas this approach tests our patience and inflates the plot for about twenty minutes overlong, This Corner remains an insightful story in the vein of John Hersey’s book Hiroshima. Nevertheless, they are two different meditations on the circumstance of Japanese citizens, who could easily be demonized by their Western counterparts. Unlike the emphasis on a community coming together in Hiroshima, at the center of This Corner is family.

in-this-corner-of-the-world-review-anime-humanistic-outlook-wartime-japan-1

Set in the 30s and 40s, this emphatic anime reveres in Japanese traditions, mainly manners within family contexts. The main character is Suzu Unare (Rena Nōnen), whose childhood sweetness of school days and working days never leaves her mind. The hand-drawn animation, together with relaxing melodies of the theme song, gives innate purity to this idyllic character piece.

Director Katabuchi once worked as Hayao Miyazaki’s assistant on Kiki’s Delivery Service. After his messy debut feature Mai Mai Miracle, Katabuchi improves his depiction of disparate realms. The transition between increasingly crude reality and Suzu’s poetic escapes into imagination is smooth and substantial. He cherishes the sweeping beauty of nature in Impressionist art style, beside kiddy features of characters, slapstick comedy, and one silly expression of embarrassment. Suzu’s surroundings—animated reconstruction of a town outside Hiroshima—has a high level of urban and rural authenticity as Katabuchi creates them via old photographs.

During many subjective, surreal sequences, the main character lets go of herself and lets her artistic aspiration soften the catastrophe. By turning the flames and explosions to strokes of hot colors (including a reference to Van Gogh’s Starry Night), she wants to capture all the moments, peaceful or catastrophic, in her drawings. Dramatic irony permeates the plot as characters are cluelessly facing the small-scale matters. Their experiences with the anvil cloud, a flash, and power surge in Little Boy’s peripheral effect haven’t come. Only viewers are in a countdown to that impending predicament.

in-this-corner-of-the-world-review-anime-humanistic-outlook-wartime-japan-2

When Suzu turns 18, she is proposed by a young man named Shusaku Hojo (Yoshimasa Hosoya), who isn’t strange as she thinks. She moves to her husband’s house in an industrial town. Among her in-laws, she comes to understand her role as a wife and a daughter-in-law—we can hardly ask for a feminist story in 40s Japan.

It’s a delight to witness her growth to maturity: Suzu fixes her kimono into casual work clothes and gets on with domestic responsibility. The movie spends time in Suzu’s detailed recipes for strange cuisine, by which she stretches the family’s rations during privation. Realism meshes with dream-like experience when Suzu deals with inflation and throat-cutting prices in the black market. She gets lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood before helped by an old friend she doesn’t recognize.

The sister-in-law Keiko (Minori Omi) appears to be a good role model for Suzu, but their relationship starts on many wrong notes. Viewers might see Keiko as an antagonist force, but she isn’t. Like many young women with dignity and confidence, Keiko has her tragedies. Luckily, Suzu finds harmony, warmth, and the feeling of being a kid again in the friendship with her niece, Harumi (Natsuki Ibana). The story weaves these relationships with sensitivity—sometimes sentimental but overall elegant.

in-this-corner-of-the-world-review-anime-humanistic-outlook-wartime-japan-4

Out of nostalgia, Suzu saves the images of Hiroshima in her hand-drawn pictures. Looking at herons flying away on their will, the homesick girl longs for the family back home, so she treasures rare occasions to visit. When she meets her childhood friend Tetsu Mizuhara (Daisuke Ono), now a sailor, memories from their days come back like waves. And waves, in her words, look like rabbits. As Tetsu stays at the guest house, Shusaku gives Suzu a chance to do something indecent but not circumstantially unreasonable. Her decision surprises both men, and viewers. Despite similar obstacles, Suzu and Shusaku are nice to each other. Their love grows after the wedding like many other arranged marriages.

Elusive and hostile, war pervades life. There are government’s guidance, people’s growing wariness about aerial warfare, sirens warning of air raids, warships coming and leaving, and blackouts and shelters. This disturbance further confuses the civilian population, whose mundanities still happen when warfare turmoil is ready to fall down on their roofs.

But there are glimmers of optimism in perils. When Suzu is questioned of being a spy by two MPs (due to her sketchings), Mr. and Mrs. Hojo’s remarks point out Suzu’s whimsical daydreams, contrasting the suspicion. If situations get serious, the script balances it with a healthy dose of humor.

The Hojo family lives next to a naval base. One day, their glorious Battleship Yamato sinks before US forces prevail. When the first bombing arrives in the spring of 1945, it brings destruction in the form of fire raining down on civilians. A dream-like sequence from Suzu’s viewpoint anesthetizes their loss of life before a change of tone occurs along with shrapnel and personal losses, one of which is an important part of her identity as an artist. Nonetheless, the movie treats tragedies with delicate respect, and characters realistically act out of Asian stoicism as much as grief.

Despite coldness and death, the shadow of war doesn’t stop these people from resuming their bucolic activities on barren ruins. Their battle is to survive with whatever they have while cascading consequences take a serious toll on normal lives. Whether it’s a girl searching for maternal comfort or a lucky family staying together, they all keep going with inner peace and beautiful memories. In that corner of Japan, hope and compassion are characterized in Suzu and her loved ones, who find their ways to heal the wartime scars.