SUNAO Katabuchi’s animated film In This Corner of the World is an evocative account of Japanese civilians trying to persevere under the volatile and unforgiving pressures of World War Two. To pile onto the misery, the film is set just a short distance from Hiroshima City. Atomic devastation looms larger with each passing minute.
Despite this morbid inevitability, there are tenacious and heartbreakingly beautiful rays of light that break through the rubble of In This Corner of the World’s wartime struggle.
One of those is Suzu, the kind and earnest protagonist of Katabuchi’s film.
We are first introduced to her as a sweet young child living in the seaside town of Eba. It is 1933 and life is peaceful in this gloriously green corner of the world. Young Suzu helps her parents out with work, enlivening daily tasks with a wondering imagination and artistic eye.
Yet Suzu’s world will soon go from fantastical stories of troublesome ogres to real-life peril of air raids. A transition that Katabuchi is right to include – one to give us a clear image of the young girl whose life is distorted by devastating forces far out of her control.
Fast forward a decade, Japan is at war and adulthood has been thrust upon Suzu. She moves to Kure City, a naval port a few train stops from Hiroshima, to marry a man she cannot recall meeting named Shusaku. It is here that Suzu must adapt to her new family life as well as the escalating burdens of war.
With this, we get insight into how a traditional Japanese family may have coped with the strains of war as air raids grow more frequent and food becomes more scarce.
As the days pass by, Katabuchi is sure to remind us of the continuous flows of nature. As Suzu comments: ‘even in war, cicadas cry and butterflies fly.’ This appreciation of the delicacy and resolve of nature acts as a reminder of the innocence that has been caught up in this man-made destruction – how Suzu should be sketching skylines with butterflies rather than passing fighter planes.
The masters of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki and the late Isao Takahata, used their childhood experiences of war to produce the classic films The Wind Rises (Miyazaki) and Grave of Fireflies (Takahata). Although Katabuchi, who once worked under Miyazaki on the 1984 TV series Sherlock Hound, cannot draw from the same experiences, he has produced a film that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as these master works.
Just as Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, Katabuchi’s film speaks to the ways life’s forces can cruelly crush dreams. In Suzu’s case, she goes from painting the waves as white bunny rabbits to having her notebook snatched by suspicious military police. Her once ‘distracted’ outlook of life has been forcibly shed for the necessities of war – from careless daydreaming to careful rationing.
This sacrifice of civilian life and opportunity is best summarised by a piece of wood – once used to mark children’s height – that is later used to prop up a bomb shelter. The youthful, sentimental joys of life have to give in to the practicalities of conflict.
In This Corner of the World also has the brute honestly and harshness of Grave of Fireflies. The knowledge of the inevitable atomic bomb and Japan’s consequential defeat makes their struggle all the more difficult to watch – and the defiant courage they display all the more admirable.
This film shows that wartime existence is enough to bend even the strongest and purest of spirits – but it does not always break that spirit. A magnificent and agonising addition to these must-see Japanese animated accounts of World War Two.