A nourishing, sobering, beautiful piece of work on par with the most resonant, humane cinematic depictions of of the Second World War.
There are several factors working against Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World. First and foremost is that title. It prepares the audience for a syrup-drenched character study about Canadian farmers or a cable documentary meant to humanize the rust belt. When we learn it’s actually an animated historical drama about Japan in the throes of WWII, we’re saddled with more, uglier preconceptions. How could someone make a cartoon about nuclear war without veering into gross nationalism or tasteless tragedy porn?
Exactly like this, it turns out. Katabuchi’s story, heavily focused on character-building in its first half, is an elegant wartime drama that manages to be tender without being toothless. It foregrounds civilian life, which could read as a spineless shortcut around the realities of conflict; instead, it feels like a graceful swerve away from glorification. Katabuchi is careful never to make violence seem valiant. In one particularly tricky sequence, American fighter planes explode into paint splatters on the Japanese skyline. It’s a beautiful image, but the score turns dissonant underneath it, as if to sour any trace of heroism.
The film as a whole walks a knife’s edge between conveying the savage beauty of a war-torn landscape and condemning the forces that have torn it apart. It tells the story of young Suzu (Rena Nounen), a talented artist from Hiroshima who works for her grandmother’s seaweed business. She spends her days drawing landscapes and inventing fantastical accounts of her trips to town for her younger sister Sumi (Megumi Han). At 18, she’s forced into a marriage with naval clerk Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya) and spends her days tending to his family’s domestic duties.
The first hour takes its time. Once Suzu is married, we get several comedic montages as she adjusts to her new surroundings: she cooks, she learns how to sew evacuation clothes, she finds herself spacing out due to her artist’s temperament. A lot of screen time is dedicated to the relationship between Suzu and Keiko (Minori Omi), Shusaku’s fiery older sister, whose worldliness starkly contrasts Suzu’s restrictive circumstances. Then, of course, the war sets in. At the end of the day, In This Corner of the World is an anime about Hiroshima set between the years 1944 and 1945; the second half is a slow and steady build toward the inevitable.
When it comes, the moment is all the more affecting for its quiet tragedy. Katabuchi’s film has a bevy of strengths, but his visual compositions stick most after the credits roll. They’re modest, immaculately detailed but with a loose improvisational sensibility that lends the film a fluid, dreamy tone. Even as several narrative threads don’t necessarily come together—one supernatural subplot, about a watermelon-loving ghost, is particularly aimless—the images endure. The initially puzzling opening sequence, which features a furry kidnapping monster, gains weight as we begin to process the horrors of the war through Suzu’s impressionistic eye.
The story’s origins as a manga (by Fumiyo Kono) don’t mar the pace either as some adaptations do. The episodic stretches gradually give way to a concentrated, gruelling account of coastal Japanese life during wartime. When all is said and done, we’re not left with the same rallied sense of patriotic endurance that Dunkirk left us with. Instead, we feel we’ve witnessed a loss of innocence along the lines of Persepolis. In This Corner of the World has staying power that transcends its trite title and well-worn subject matter. It’s a nourishing, sobering, beautiful piece of work on par with the most resonant, humane cinematic depictions of of the Second World War.