Sunao Katabuchi’s crowd-funded third anime feature In This Corner of the World [‘Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni’, 2016] is set at Kure, a thriving port city in Hiroshima prefecture during the wartime Japan of 1930s and 1940s. It brings a vivid, ground-level picturization of the devastation inflicted upon the innocent civilians by the bombing Allied forces and willfully ignorant Japanese Empire. The Japanese home-front struggle, of course, had been covered thoroughly by historical documents and books. Yet nothing beats the experience of watching familiar history through refreshing and humane pair of eyes. In this manner, the anime would be fine companion piece to eye-opening and genuine tear-jerking dramas Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Giovanni’s Island (2014).
Based on Fumiyo Kono’s acclaimed manga, In This Corner of the World unfurls from the point of view of an imaginative young woman Suzu. The manga is clearly for adults and surely has the clear-eyed perception of serious literature. Director Sunao Katabuchi has worked as an assistant director for Hayao Miyazaki (in Kiki’s Delivery Service). His first anime feature Princess Arete (2001) was a typical fairy-tale riddled with feminist themes. Mai Mai Miracle (2009), the 2nd feature, was thematically closer to Katabuchi’s recent film as it is set in the Japanese countryside of 1950s. Mr. Katabuchi has also directed the adaptation of violent manga series Black Lagoon (2006). While Makato Shinkai’s sci-fi fantasy and coming-of-age tale Your Name was a huge block-buster hit at Japanese box-office, thanks to the nation’s teenagers, In This Corner of the World proved to be a sleeper-hit, attracting majority of elder viewers.
Set between the years 1933 and 1945, the anime follows the domestic challenges faced by young Suzu, who lives with her parents and younger sister Sumi at the Eba section of South Hiroshima. She is a daydreamer and shows penchant for drawing and weaving imaginative stories from her uneventful reality. Her right hand profoundly conveys her feelings (in drawing paper) which the mouth only mumbles. For the most part in her life, Suzu doesn’t believe much in herself and hence complies to others wishes. When she turns eighteen, she is married to Shusaku Houjo, a young man from Port City Kure, home to largest Navy military base of Imperial Japan. Shusaku works as a clerk at the local naval base and father-in-law is an engineer for the navy. Mother-in law is a frail woman and so the elaborate household chores fall upon the thin shoulders of Suzu. Suzu’s new home is situated atop a resplendent hillock, surrounded by green fields and overlooking the vast ocean and the intimidating battleships. When the war escalates, Suzu’s sister-in law Keiko and her sweet little daughter Harumi comes to live with the family. Despite tough war-time situation – nighttime air-raids, shell attacks, rationed foods, diseases – and relentless personal tragedies, Suzu who is often blamed for absent-mindedness and imaginative flights, conducts herself as a well-spring for kindness and determination. Although physically and mentally, Suzu doesn’t come unscathed from war and knows there aren’t any happy endings, she finds courage and perseverance from deep within her. In the process, Suzu becomes a memorable face of civilian resilience during war-time devastation.
Sunao Katabuchi’s color palette here is muted and earthy which instantly generates charm and warmth. Katabuchi displays a vivid understanding of the household or domestic rituals of the day. He acutely draws the mundane chores as if it is the only means of providing spiritual solace amidst the overwhelming chaotic social atmosphere of World War II Japan. Thorough research and real-life verbatim accounts has gone into writing, from realizing the myriad of sufferings the civilians faced to showcasing the simplest things like what they wore or what they ate (no one could draw food preparation as beautiful as anime makers) and how the landscape appeared at that time. Katabuchi remarks many of the buildings in the drawings are actualized from the strong memories of the survivors. While the film-maker offers a perfect insider’s perspective of war-time life in Japan, there is none of the melodrama and unconvincing epiphanies we witness in majority of the similar themed narratives. ‘What’s the point of crying for a pity?’ a character says which happens to be general perception of the creators. Even the inevitable dropping of atom bomb in Hiroshima isn’t exploited for unwanted sentimental notes.
Though the narrative is subtle and transcended by its graceful sketchbook aesthetic, In This Corner of the World seems muddled in the first half due to confusing dreamy digressions and rapid introduction of many characters. Some of Suzu’s dreams where she imagines her alternate life paths ends up being a confounding experience than an interesting one. Certain tragedies and disputes are quickly moved through lacking strong emotional resonance. For example, the episode involving Suzu’s brother’s death, the verbal fight she has with husband Shusaku and the weirdly romantic scene (weird because Shusaku almost pushes Suzu into other man’s hands) between Suzu and old childhood friend Tetsu. These sequences comes out of nowhere and it speaks of conflicts which the narrative didn't suggest beforehand. Suzu’s mixed feelings about her husband and her existential angst warrants more depth in the narrative than this episodic treatment. However, the second-half is more clear-sighted and infuses spectrum of emotions to create one deeply resonant singular moment after another: especially, the tragedy involving Harumi is expressed in a manner that never exploits it for few tears and the later reconciliation between Suzu and sister-in law. There’s also an underlying ironic humor affixed to the proceedings that keeps things buoyant.
The gorgeous animation is mostly portrayed as a reflection of Suzu’s vibrant consciousness. At times of suffering and bleakness, the image resembles the watercolors that Suzu paints (as if an illustrated children book comes into life), depicting the woman’s escape into imagination rather than face death and destruction. The idea of frame-within-frame works brilliantly in the scene Suzu encounters the harsh reality of bombs dropping at the city. Katabuchi makes an excellent use of the medium whenever he portrays Suzu’s introspective journey (even a broken windowpane hanging upon a tree becomes colorful canvas in her mind). This along with Katabuchi’s perfect grasp of down-to-earth, quotidian war-time lives of the civilian populace gives the narrative an uplifting and optimistic tone. The anime once again proves the Japanese are still unparalleled when it comes to picturizing simple life in minute details, keeping all the emotions intact [a simple shot of Suzu blowing on the dandelion, whose white seeds float through the air, brings some emotional quality to it than the overtly sentimental works of their American counterparts).
In This Corner of the World (130 minutes) is a captivating character study of a sensitive young Japanese woman in wartime which interestingly dodges familiar sentimentality to yield an intimately human experience. Although it doesn’t match to the depth and crushing sadness of Grave of the Fireflies, it still remains as piercing account of victims of the war.