Reviewby Rose Bridges,
In This Corner of the World
Suzu is a young girl with a talent for drawing, growing up in Hiroshima in the late 1930s. As she reaches her late teens, she gets a sudden proposal for an arranged marriage, which she accepts—requiring her to travel to the port city of Kure to marry a boy she has only briefly met. She and her new family get along well, and Suzu adjusts quickly to her new life. By this point, the date is 1944 and World War II is rushing to its devastating conclusion. Allied bombings escalate over Kure, an important shipyard for the Japanese navy. Suzu has built a comfortable life for herself in her own corner of the world, but the war is about to change everything for her and the people she loves.
When I saw the film version of In This Corner of the World at Otakon this year, I was impressed and thrilled, but also struck by its odd plot structure. Nearly all of the film's driving narrative is in the third act, as the war descends on Kure in unavoidable ways. This made the first two-thirds feel meandering by comparison. Thankfully, this is not at all the case in the manga, which presents these earlier everyday scenes much better. The story is the same, but the presentation makes a great difference.
The In This Corner of the World manga takes risks with format that succeed, feeling wholly different from both the film and any other reading experience, perfectly suited to the story it's trying to tell. The short chapters capture the slow trickle of the war's escalation, and the way that Suzu's life can change bit-by-bit or all-at-once. The sudden jump from her childhood to young adulthood also makes sense, as the former is presented as a sort of prologue to the rest of the story, which begins in earnest not long before her arranged marriage. One chapter in the later part of the series consists entirely of the Kure family's activities presented as wartime propaganda posters. Each has a patriotic slogan that directly corresponds to some aspect of their daily routine. It's a remarkable way to show how the war effort impacts the family's lives, in a way that would be hard to translate into film.
Another notable manga feature is how it incorporates Suzu's drawings into the story. The art style of In This Corner of the World can be simple and understated, making it difficult to distinguish between different characters at first (especially male ones). But it blends seamlessly with Suzu's own art, which often gets multiple-pages to feature between chapters. Notably, Suzu's comics about her "Ogre Brother," based on her older brother who picked on her when she was younger, take up much of the beginning and end of the series. Suzu's drawings can be told apart by their sketchier and blurrier quality compared to the main manga story, but the style is similar enough that it feels like she could have drawn the whole manga herself, bringing the audience even closer to her. The film did an excellent job at incorporating Suzu's art into its version, but there's a unique experience in being able to read Suzu's own comics within her story at your own pace.
While the manga brings the reader into Suzu's mind better in some ways, it struggles with others. Suzu feels much more deeply ordinary here, with more time spent on other characters' judgments and her struggles with housewife duties. Childhood friend Mizuhara's comments about her make far more sense, where they felt like a surprise to be elaborated on over time in the film. Still, Suzu remains a strong narrator, and her position as an "ordinary" person represents how World War II touched everyone in Japan. Her status as an everywoman also makes it easy for readers to put themselves in her shoes. It feels like a reminder that "well-behaved women rarely make history", in the sense that average women and the importance of their lives get left out of traditional historical narratives. This is a drastically different angle on WWII than the usual ones about soldiers and politicians—but it's just as important.
Since this is historical fiction, there is a lot that modern readers will find unfamiliar—both Japanese and especially American readers. The English edition takes pains to translate both the original version's explanations and add new ones where necessary. This was really helpful, although some notes were difficult to read in the Kindle/Comixology edition I used for this review. While the digital edition allows you to read panel-by-panel, it leaves out a lot of information on the sides of panels—including those notes. It is definitely a feature that is better oriented for the print edition of the manga.
Like the film, the manga of In This Corner of the World is sad but not hopeless. The cruel twists near the end of the story play with the same devastation that they do in the film. They're softer and less sudden, but this arguably gives them longer-term impact. Despite this, the story still ends on a hopeful note for the most part. The conclusions in the final chapter come off a bit gloomier and more morbid than they did in the film, but the ending still reminds readers to take life as it comes and appreciate it.
All this makes In This Corner of the World a weighty work, yet it also has a surprisingly gentle and intimate core, as it coaxes you into Suzu's world. That's the real benefit of reading the manga even if you've already seen the film; it doesn't rattle the senses, but does encourage quiet contemplation and personal identification. It offers the same rich story from a whole new angle, reminding readers of the importance of ordinary people's histories.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : A-
+ Unique perspective on the last days of World War II, manga offers worthwhile additions for movie viewers, Suzu's own drawings add to the story
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