We’ve been lucky, as of late, with regard to Japanese anime movies coming to our theaters for actual commercial runs and not just slots in a film festival. This year saw Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. and Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice, both excellent movies, get an opportunity to find audiences here. Add to the list Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World, another great entry in what will hopefully be a continuing initiative of bringing more regional cinema to the country.
An adaptation of Fumiyo Kono’s manga, Corner tells the story of Suzu, a young woman with an artistic bent who comes of age and gets married right around the time the second World War descends upon the Japanese people. Spanning several years, it’s an epic saga of the everyday struggle, and how that everyday struggle turns sharply during wartime.
The film does a fantastic job of juggling many elements: feminism in its dramatic depiction of women’s roles in traditional Japanese culture, the nationalism that was expected of its citizens (given tension from the audience’s distance and benefit of hindsight), the budding relationships Suzu must form with her new family, following the course of the war through organic narrative as opposed to clunky exposition, settling into life in a new town, as well as many others besides, all under the larger umbrella of trying to make it through the hardships of the war, with its own attendant issues: worrying about family members fighting overseas, making do with harsh rations of supplies and food, the abuses of power of the military police, the anxiety and panic and eventual ironic familiarity of frequent air raid sirens.
All of this is rendered in gorgeous colors and line art, ably supported by Kotringo’s score. Magic realism is another element they get to add to the mix thanks to Suzu’s artistic side. A painting of a river’s whitecaps come to life as rabbits; as a child she encounters what appears to be a monster calmly walking the streets of the city (and meets her future husband in said monster’s basket), a battleship floats to the sky, and anti-aircraft artillery explodes in lush colors against a bright azure sky like daytime fireworks made of powder.
The opening scenes do a good job of establishing what daily life is like for Suzu and her family, the better to contrast with what becomes of that life when war breaks out. But these scenes also serve other purposes: endearing us to the characters, and setting up relationships that will pay dividends later on. As a young girl, Suzu gives a wastrel her watermelon; later she encounters this person again and gets help in return.
Life during wartime is delineated in a number of ways, and the filmmakers’ attention to detail is rewarding. Scenes about the scarcity of ingredients and food, resulting in largely flavorless offerings or rice without viands, or how kimonos need to be repurposed into other types of garments, hammers home an appreciation of the things we take for granted in our everyday life.
Thankfully, all is not gloom and doom. There are buoyant bursts of humor generously sprinkled throughout the tale, giving scenes a bittersweet tang or a release valve from the anxiety of impending death. An exciting cooking scene doesn’t pan out the way Suzu hopes it does, an at-first dramatic scene with military police turns out to be a bonding moment for the family, there’s even one (or two) faux deaths, played for laughs.
Best of all, everything resonates because of the careful attention given to the development of Suzu’s relationships to everyone else. None of it would matter if we didn’t care, and we can’t help but care when every comfort is hard-fought and every safe moment is appreciated. Suzu’s relationship with her sister-in-law Keiko is an especially moving arc that starts about as rocky as it can get.
Director Katabuchi (who also co-wrote the film) tells a great story and does it very well. A quick, almost throwaway shot with a Hershey’s bar will break your heart. Dramatic montages take a left turn towards comedy. Successive scenes of air raids intentionally exasperate the audience and the characters, and they (and we) become lulled to their danger.
As a war story, it can’t help but be very serious at times, and you’ll want to have some pocket tissues nearby. But we rarely see these depictions in war movies: the common people of the aggressors’ nation, snookered by its leaders as to the nobility of their actions. Katabuchi and his team have crafted a fine entry to the collection of inspiring tales about man’s will to survive, their spirit of togetherness, and the grace in facing such horrors that, alas, are also man-made.
Photos from IMDb