Away from Hollywood’s stifling commercial limits, Fumiyo Kouno’s manga about a young bride in wartime Japan has no illusions regarding the human price of war. Young Suzu takes in a new family, endures the hardships of a militarized country and wartime privations, but nobody is ready for what’s coming. Sunao Katabuchi’s historical drama makes stunning use of animation.
In this Corner of the World
Blu-ray + DVD
2016 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 128 min. / Kono sekai no katasumi ni / Street Date November 14, 2017 / 22.97
Japanese Voices: Non, Yoshimasa Hosoya, Megumi Han, Natsuki Inaba, Nanase Iwai; English Voices: Laura Post, Kira Buckland, Barbara Goodson, Todd Haberkorn, Jason Palmer.
Character design: Hidenori Matsubara
Original Music: Kotringo
Written by Sunao Katabuchi, Chie Uratani, from the manga by Fumiyo Kouno
Produced by Taro Maki, Masao Maruyama
Directed by Sunao Katabuchi
American feature films are now a commercial desert dominated by expensive blockbusters, with a Fall season chaser of ‘important’ independent dramas aimed at Oscar nods. Viewers looking for dramatic entertainment with actors and stories are staying at home with their TV miniseries. Caught in the middle are quality foreign films, which often offer the freshness lacking in the over-marketed domestic product. Pictures from abroad can give us new perspectives on the world, something to challenge our preset notions.
In Japan, non-fantasy family dramas are common subjects for animation, something all but unheard-of here. A number of years ago I reviewed From Up on Poppy Hill, a sprawling general interest story about a high school girl in the early 1960s. In 2013 came The Wind Rises, a slightly more troubling slice of history. A sensitive part-fantasy bio, its subject is an aviation engineer who designed Japanese fighter planes for WW2. No matter how benign its intent, the overall feeling is still nostalgia for the nationalistic war of conquest.
Last year’s In this Corner of the World is an endearing family story with just a touch of fantasy. The story of an young girl’s life from 1935 to 1946, it has a built-in suspense factor: our heroine’s home is in a suburb of Hiroshima, and when she marries she moves only about fourteen miles away, to a military port city called Kure. Seventy-two years later, the general awareness of history is now so dim that it’s likely that many viewers of In this Corner of the World won’t understand what’s coming. Thankfully, the movie puts its fateful moment of history into perspective, as experienced by ordinary civilians. The movie is a vision of a simple life under hardships, not a political position statement.
It should be said early on that In this Corner of the World is simply beautiful. The gentle artwork and pleasant character designs are impressive in themselves. The animation is limited, but not limited in effectiveness. We quickly accept the delicate, human dimensions of the characters.
Young Suzu lives in Eba outside Hiroshima City; she’s hardworking, sweet, innocent and naturally artistic. She meets a young boy and interprets the meeting as a fantasy story about being kidnapped by a monster. As the country turns more militaristic, Suzu’s family changes. The father stops harvesting seaweed to work in a factory and her older brother joins the army. A young man, Shusaku, comes to the house to ask for Suzu’s hand in marriage. Suzu accepts and goes to Kure City and a new life. She must learn much but soon fits in, and because Shusaku is so polite and unprepossessing, she grows to love him. As the war years near, Suzu’s unhappy sister-in-law Keiko, a widow, moves back in and is harshly critical of Suzu.
In the war years, time is measured by forced separations and rationing hardships. Shusaku works in a Navy legal department so is not sent away. Suzu is creative in her cooking, finding wild plants and using traditional recipes to keep the family happy. She also finds time to do artwork with Keiko’s daughter, and is almost arrested when the Kenpeitai catch her doing watercolors of the big battleships offshore. When the childhood boyfriend Tetsu visits, Shusaku intuits his relationship to Suzu and lets them spend the night together. But Suzu now knows who she is, and they just talk. In early 1945 the air raids start, and life becomes more a matter of survival. But nobody can imagine what is coming.
In this Corner of the World is gentle, beautiful and strongly felt, but it’s also an uncompromised story of the war years as lived by ordinary citizens. Suzu is not a particularly romantic figure. She’s short and not a stunning beauty. She does exhibit admired qualities of cheerfulness, imagination and industriousness. She never realizes that her artistic abilities are special, even though a painting she gives to Tetsu is a beauty, a seascape with whitecaps on the ocean represented as white rabbits. She’s also not all that intuitive. She only slowly learns why her sister-in-law has become bitter. She gets lost in town, wanders into the Red Light district and never realizes where she is, even though she has an encounter with a courtesan, Rin. Apparently, the three-volume manga of In this Corner of the World expands this section of the story.
Although the theme is human resilience Suzu is not a home front Wonder Woman. When the air raids come, people die at random. Suzu is maimed and goes through an understandable period of depression. And that all happens before the fateful day — August 6, 1945. The finale avoids a phony uplift and instead finds a future by choosing hope over despair.
In this Corner of the World is at all times engaging, and visually beautiful, a pleasure to watch. The basic images find a semi-realistic mode for the painted settings. Costumes are realistic as well for Suzu’s humble surroundings — fancy kimonos are something seen in department store windows. Pre-war Hiroshima has details that will connect with children worldwide: the Japanese know who Santa Claus is, too.
Suzu’s particular situation doesn’t allow her to fully express her artistry, which is instead expressed through various subjective visual techniques – there’s a blend between the already partly stylized anime settings, and the subjective art in Suzu’s mind. As a child we see her cartoon visualization of the episode where she imagines being kidnapped by an ogre. The seascape she paints for Tetsu is obviously motivated by her attraction to him; later on Suzu seems to imagine the white rabbits lifting and entire ship into the sky, and safety – or is it an omen for something else. Suzu’s cooking experiments are artistic as well, and the animation reflects her creativity, making four sardines into a meal for four people. Suzu also responds to the first daylight air attacks as an artistic event, imagining the sky-bursts and flak as blasts of watercolor, something delightful. Her elation doesn’t last long.
A traumatic bombing event knocks the film briefly into experimental mode — it erases picture and sound, leaving a low buzz like on a faulty optical track, and pitching us into fuzzy blackness broken only by random squiggles scratched on film. It’s as if Suzu is mentally reconstructing her consciousness, out of the darkness of a coma.
To survive and subsist in wartime is a challenge. Neighbors are generous when they can be, and the long lines for rationing are orderly and fair. The military presence is limited to the manic military policemen and the ships at anchor in the distance. Before the war we hear of people moving far away to (occupied) Manchuria. The children express pride in the navy and are impressed by the uniforms. No jingoist slogans or anti-American sentiments are heard, even as we see B-29’s busy raiding Kure City. [By this time I’ve seen plenty of Japanese movies made during the war that reference a range of patriotic, anti-American feelings.] When the occupation forces bring in American food to feed the village, Suzu and her family are delighted by how wonderful it tastes — Suzu has never even had ice cream or eaten in a cafe.
Cultural and political factors inhibited for years Japanese movies about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some early examples like The Bells of Nagasaki (Nagasaki no kane) (1950) were strongly discouraged during the occupation and have all but disappeared. As late as 1988, Shohei Imamura’s movie Black Rain took an attitude of outrage, at both the bombing and the shameful discrimination of survivors by the Japanese culture itself.
In this Corner of the World should tip off the informed as soon as we see Suzu sketching that iconic atomic dome building. The film’s epilogue suggests that a T-Shaped bridge formed a literal ‘X marks the spot’ for the Enola Gay to aim its nuclear airburst.
The bombing itself is seen from the POV of people close enough to see the flash of light and the mushroom cloud, but not to be directly effected. Relatives gone shopping that day simply don’t come back, and those that enter Hiroshima to look for them fall sick. Neighbors barely notice a man slumped on a porch, and learn only later that he was burned beyond recognition, and walked miles from Hiroshima before sitting and dying. Months later, the only relative from Eba that Suzu has left is an older sister, who has become one of the Hibakusha. The only horror-images we’re given are in a brief sidebar story, to explain how a lost toddler was orphaned.
In this Corner of the World begins and ends with beautiful music and a pretty vocal. Its achievement is the expression of so much human experience without falling into the trap of bathos, or trivializing its subject. Perhaps animated films like this are an ideal medium for stories about ‘difficult’ history; I suppose it all depends on the taste and judgment of the people making them. I’m very glad that I was able to see this superior picture.
The reviews I’ve seen simply love the movie. Some reviewers question its politics — I’ve read critics that expect the wartime Japanese civilians to be politically clairvoyant, as if we in 2017 are any more in control of our country’s political direction. Boy, someday somebody may make a film of what it was like to be an ordinary person in Hanoi in the Nixon years. We’re still knee-deep in national illusions about that war.
Shout Factory’s Blu-ray + DVD of In this Corner of the World is a beautiful encoding, with an image that fully renders the soft colors of the handsome animated artwork. The art and music will pull in most any viewer. After a couple of minutes we’ve decoded the character styles enough to distinguish the main players. Always being told that she looks weak or insignificant, Suzu is constantly putting dabs of blush on her cheeks.
The film was a big hit in Japan last year. In a featurette following the U.S. festival tour, director Katabuchi proudly says that it’s still playing in theaters, months after its premiere. Katabuchi also appears for a long question and answer session, discussing all aspects of the film. Katabuchi himself was born in the 1960s, so he relied on extensive research on the locations that appeared in the original Manga. Another long featurette is a ‘location comparison’ that shows how the film uses real places in Hiroshima and Kure City, returning them to the past.
The simple menu offers the choice between the original Japanese and the English dub track; I chose the Japanese. A Japanese star going by the name Non voices Suzu, and I assume the other voice artists are personalities as big or bigger than the English language voice talent chosen for the movie. I once foolishly asked a recordist why big stars take on character voice parts in children’s movies here, and he looked at me like I was nuts — for a couple of week’s work the residuals for a hit can be great, especially for an actor who can’t pick and chose roles.
A booklet inside the package has a sample of an English-language version of the original Manga, story and art by Fumiyo Kouno. Listening to the movie and reading the manga in English just isn’t the same as hearing the original Japanese.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In this Corner of the World
Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Supplements: Interviews With The Director Sunao Katabuchi And Producer Masao Maruyama; Hiroshima & Kure: Then & Now; U.S. Tour Highlights; Theatrical Trailer & TV Spots.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 22, 2017