Anime has had a strong series of releases recently, thanks to limited screenings of Your Name and A Silent Voice. Based on the manga by Fumiyo Kōno, who grew up in Hiroshima, In This Corner of the World ran a massively successful crowdfunding campaign, making ¥39 million. Director Sunao Katabuchi’s credits are brief, having worked alongside Miyazaki on Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), but works like Princess Arete (2001), developed at Studio 4oC, play a beautiful twist on the fairy tale, a meditation on mortality and fate through its stunning animation.
Like Katabuchi, 18-year-old Suzu is an artist; in the opening prologue in 1933, we see her sketching white rabbits moving through the green grass. The film’s animation adopts watercolours similar to Suzu’s art, contrasting artistic interpretations of her sketchbook with reality. Suzu sketches a scraggly man with a feral beard, but in a moment of magical realism, the man looks just like her beastly sketch. The sky lives with a Van Gogh-esque starry night, taken from her work. Katabuchi reminds us of the importance of family and traditional ways of living to Japanese life, reminiscent of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) through its different generations. Suzu finds herself in an arranged marriage with Shūsaku, a judicial officer within the military court who becomes a part of the navy, living in Kure. Taken to a new city, Suzu forms a bond with a new family of in-laws, including young Haruma and Keiko, gazing upon Japan’s fleet of warships from the port. Part of the war effort, Suzu becomes a Tonarigumi, stitching trousers into traditional clothing, seen through a diagram she explains for us. Her romance with Shūsaku is never given enough development, but remains endearing, affording a necessary sense of companionship to Suzu in a time of great struggle. Though we sense unease as they kiss upon his vessel, they remain together, cuddling and protecting each other during an air raid.
In This Corner of the World’s strength is in situating the war within the normality of everyday life in Hiroshima and Kure. In the opening scene in December 1933, we see the bustle, Christmas figurines decorating windows as young Suzu runs errands. The summer of 1945 is a summer like any other: people go about their day, celebrating the summer festival, never knowing their inevitable fate. Like with Your Name’s contrast between the present and the life of Lake Itomori, In This Corner of the World captures a sense of guilt yet hope at survival amid great adversity, as foretellers of doom question if we could have avoided this point. Air raids and evacuations foreshadow the coming threat. Suzu does her hair, as the ground beneath her shakes; a barely noticeable flash appears, lasting seconds. Suzu is caught between two homes: one will save her, one will not. The film counts down the days, diary-esque, towards August 6th, as though each day were one less. The impact is gradual: houses left aflame by orange streaks of firebombs; assembled men and women standing witness to the seemingly inexplicable mushroom cloud out in the distance.
Irradiation affects the water; the ground beneath; nature all around; the genetics that carry forth our future. Hiroshima is cast under a grey haze: floors become liquid tar, unwilling to touch the tread of shoes; living bodies melt in the street. Suzu stands amid rows of demolished houses. But life goes on. We witness different reactions, as families become more and more desperate, areas cordoned off. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) was bleak, emotive yet depressing, opening upon the incendiary firebombing of Kobe and the lifeless, burned body of Seita and Setsuko’s mother; the conclusion is one of great mourning and sadness. In This Corner of the World stands by hope: Suzu holds onto a great optimism: in the face of everything, they can get through it.
Japan’s imperial legacy of occupation continues to be confronted. South Korean films like The Handmaiden depict a combination of cultures, between the Victorian country home of the source text and the imposition of Japanese culture upon Korean culture, whilst The Age of Shadows depicts movements of Korea’s resistance against Japanese powers. Le Moulin (2015) presents Taiwan’s resistance movement against Japanese colonialism through poetry, film, photography, music, intellectual schools of thought and surrealist art, combining found texts with spoken narration and the physical presence of a library of books. Beginning in 1933, In This Corner of the World positions us from the beginning of Japan’s militarism and territorialism through the Sino-Japanese War, Pearl Harbor and the pacific theater of war. Shūsaku’s role as naval officer gives a sense of Japan’s own military involvement and national fleet: the Yamato, the Musashi, the Aoba.
Katabuchi hints towards a wider, imperceptible war machine, just below the surface that civilians pay the ultimate price for, without being responsible. Military police harass Suzu as she sits upon the coast with her sketchpad, drawing warships, dismissing her artistic work as possible espionage, unable to pursue her artistic streak through the paranoia of war. Relating the incident to her family, she is shaken and soulless; they laugh it off as a humorous anecdote. Witnessing the devastation, Suzu sees beauty, juxtaposing explosions with paint splotches on the canvas. But without a canvas, she cannot paint the unimaginable.
Recent American films like Hacksaw Ridge might avoid the yellowface and oriental stereotypes of wartime propaganda, but still confront us with armies of Japanese soldiers without characterisation or families, rallying war cries and practicing seppuku. In This Corner of the World reminds us of the humanity. As the Europeans celebrated, war carried on, without easy victory in sight. Family are killed; Suzu holds the fossilised remains of her brother’s brain; loses her hand, bandaged as it continues to bleed out.
Western cinema has provided many tales of the civilian impact of war. Brief Encounter (1945) presents Britain as it was before it went into war and the women within it. Hope and Glory (1987) uses Boorman’s own wartime experience to show the effects of rationing and bombing during the Blitz. But rarely do we consider how this played in Japan. In This Corner of the World provides many small details of how Japan’s everyday people cope. Suzu must act as a homemaker: cooking, fetching water, sewing kimonos. As food distribution weakens, Suzu relies on resource-saving recipes, combining sugar, rice and miso, saving small amounts wherever they can for the next day. Suzu’s family watch in amazement as she cooks rice, inflated to three times the regular size. We see her frustration as their only supply of sugar, infiltrated by ants, drowns in water as they attempt to salvage it. It is never a diet to live on, feeling great weakness as their bodies fail them. Suzu must rely on the black market, wandering into a different part of town, built upon a lavish industry of hotels alien to her. Watermelon, sugar, sweets and paints are traded out in the open at highly inflated costs, as thought it were a traditional market, barely able to afford anything. Suzu becomes lost in a city that refuses to help her find her way, bumping into courtesan Rin.
Through radio broadcasts and military communications, we hear a war going on beyond its people; the radio becomes a communal space for families to crowd around. Japan surrenders, humiliated, making a mockery of its great power. Through the film’s final scenes, we see a nation weakened, losing its military and occupied in its streets by Americans. People barter with American soldiers, getting better rations from soldiers’ tins of table scraps than they ever did during the war.
But Suzu holds out hope. For as long as the five people beside her remain standing, she will continue to fight and live. She gazes out upon the bridge with Shūsaku, admiring being in this corner of the world. She raises an orphan of the bomb and a household, because it is her duty. Japan will rise again.