Reviewby Justin Sevakis,
In This Corner of the World
It's 1944, and Japan is in the midst of World War II. Suzu Urano is a young tomboy with a penchant for drawing and making her little sister laugh, living on the outskirts of Hiroshima. When she gets an arranged marriage proposal -- which she agrees to -- and finds herself living with her new husband and in-laws in the nearby port city of Kure. Suzu tries hard to adapt to her new life. Her new husband is kind and loving, and her in-laws are (mostly) pretty nice. But Kure is home to an important naval base, making it a target for air raids. As the war gets progressively more destructive, an already challenging life is given unimaginable hardship. But Suzu is not the sort to go down easily.
When I first heard about In This Corner of the World, I was not excited. Another tear-jerker WWII anime? I thought. We'd already had two Barefoot Gen films, Giovanni's Island, Who's Left Behind?, Rail of the Star and a handful of others, to say nothing of the internationally acclaimed Grave of the Fireflies. While many of these films are good (and some are great), I wasn't anxious to return to that subject. What was left to say that was worth the almost-certain heartache?
It turns out, there was a great deal left to say, for I have never seen an anime—or for that matter, a film—like In This Corner of the World. Far from being your typical innocence-lost tragedy, it plays far more like Nichijou - My Ordinary Life or My Neighbors the Yamadas than Grave of the Fireflies. It has the slightly episodic feel of a light comedy manga. We don't see grand arcs or narratives, at least not in the traditional sense, because most people's lives don't have obvious grand arcs. Most people, ordinary people, live their lives day to day, adjusting to new struggles, being a little lazy or bubble-headed sometimes, and do their best to fulfill whatever duties life has set out for them.
Suzu, the protagonist, is one of those ordinary people. She's a bit of a tomboy, with a bawdy sense of humor, mediocre to poor grooming skills, and a knack for drawing. In another era, she might've become a manga artist. Early in the film, she gets an offer for an arranged marriage, which she accepts, moving her in with her new husband and in-laws in the nearby port city of Kure. Her relationship with her husband Shusaku is interesting and heart-warming. Despite being an arranged marriage, the bond and love that forms between them is quite real, and most of the in-laws are pretty nice. Sister-in-law Keiko is an exception; she's exceptionally hard on Suzu. We find out that her husband was lost in the war, and she's left to raise her daughter alone, so she keeps coming home rather than stay with her in-laws.
Short episodes of life go by slowly, and the slow drip of war-related incidents becomes impossible to ignore. Good humor is, by and large, maintained nonetheless: when Suzu sits and doodles a scene of warships on the harbor, some military police stop her and question her family, accusing her of espionage. The rest of the family goes silent. When the men get home from work, it's revealed that they can barely contain their laughter. Imagine, Suzu doing espionage!
But more and more of life's little moments become about standing in ration lines and ducking into air raid shelters. Suzu heroically attempts to keep the family well-fed (at one point resorting to ancient samurai recipes) and keep their laundry clean while ash rains down from the sky. At one point, she gets lost while visiting her husband at work and wanders into the city's red light district. Flustered, she keeps asking all the nice-smelling girls around her for directions, but none of them are any help at all.
There are some things that happen later in the film that are profoundly devastating. These things change everyone's lives permanently, and for a time, destroy the happiness in Suzu's life. There are things that, we think, there's no way she or her family could ever recover from. But it's in this climb back up where the film has the most to say, about Suzu, about the love of family, and about the incredible strength of ordinary people.
In this way, the film wears its intent on its sleeve. Its power comes from how relatable its protagonist is, in being awed at how she responds to the struggles that this horrifying era inflicts on her. There is subtext to be had if you look deeply—mostly in poignant little moments and small details: an exhausted look at Suzu from a character who hasn't led such a quiet, joyful life or an ominous location for a first meeting. But the film overall is wholeheartedly about relating to Suzu and her struggles, never stopping to think too deeply.
The film is based on a 3-volume manga by Fumiyo Kouno, which I haven't read yet. (Its English version has been announced but not yet scheduled as of this writing.) Writer/Director Sunao Katabuchi is no stranger to lighthearted depictions of idyllic countrysides—his acclaimed Mai Mai Miracle, a charming story of growing up imaginative in the 1960s, was beautiful and incredible in its own right. But In This Corner of the World is on an entirely different level. His choice of a cartoonier art style seems antithetical to the harsh subject matter, but in the end, the softer lines and blurrier focus are what make the film so special. We're able to ease off the suffering and remember, fondly, the kind hearts and bright smiles of the people who lived through that experience, because it was those kind hearts and bright smiles that made them able to survive it at all.
There are a few scenes early in the film that I found difficult to follow. Those early scenes reflect a childhood Suzu, full of boisterousness, energy, and humorous exchanges, but we don't yet know the characters around her. The cast is quite large and the artwork is so simple that it takes some time to be able to remember who is who. Unfortunately, the subtitles I saw in the theatrical screening were not much help; while characters were constantly around family and spoke in fast local slang, the translation remained grimly literal and stiffly formal. It's quite possible that with a tweaked translation or the inevitable dub, this problem would go away entirely.
But never mind that. In This Corner of the World will doubtlessly go down as one of the masterpieces of WWII-inspired pop art. It stands on the same shelf as Art Spiegelman's MAUS, as Grave of the Fireflies, as Barefoot Gen, but it's so unique in its approach that I can't easily compare it to anything that has come before. Like its star, it looks pretty ordinary, but the more you watch, it becomes obvious how special it really is.
Full disclosure: I authored the DVD and Blu-ray of Mai Mai Miracle for Anime Limited.
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A+
Animation : A+
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Unimaginably beautiful and original. Unforgettable characters and a sense of warmth that is rare in any film.
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