Review of In This Corner of the World (2016)

Moving picture, 130 minutes

Seen in 2017.

Suzu grows up in Eba, present-day Naka-ku, then a southern suburb of Hiroshima. She is slight, plain and poor, with no noteworthy talents other than drawing and painting. In WW2, at age 18, she gets married off to a virtually complete stranger and moves ten miles down the coast to Kure, a city revolving around its massive naval shipyards. Her new father-in-law works there, making production more efficient for the war. Though greatly stressed by the change, Suzu learns to keep things running smoothly at home. Her husband is a clerk at the military courthouse, where unseen opponents of the war effort are prosecuted.

A relatively mature and politically conscious, yet ambiguously myopic treatment of the home front in Japanese animation. Based on a comic.

In This Corner of the World is similar to Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Both films feature an improbable strafing of a civilian by an enemy fighter. This script uses a lot more comedy and less naturalism to discuss a wider section of society. Like Katabuchi’s previous film Mai Mai Miracle (2009) it is better at explaining historical context, despite its flights of fancy and folktale-like tone. It is somewhat self-referential, with many recurring motifs and coincidences that become apparent or significant only much later: Suzu meeting Shūsaku in 1933 as told only to Sumi in the context of a flight of fancy (the boy’s identity and significance are clearer in the comic, where we see his father calling his name and picking him up, and Sumi is absent); Lin being the (real person misunderstood as a) zashiki-warashi (again this is less ambiguous in the comic, where the grandmother is seen resewing Suzu’s kimono for Lin); two unusual sightings of herons by Tetsu and Suzu; the recurring near-Leitmotif shot of Suzu’s right hand from her own perspective, looking up at ceilings and drawing in the air; finally the awkwardly compressed story of the orphan girl losing her mother with damage similar to Suzu’s.

For all her desire to maintain a bearable civilian life, Suzu’s efforts at home also support the war. Not being stated, this will not be apparent to biased viewers. It is only after being exhausted by privation that Suzu has the impulse to reflect blackly on her culture, particularly the absurd expectation to be thankful for what you’ve got, apparently set off by Shūsaku’s thankfulness for Suzu’s survival, disregarding her maimed state. Causes of suffering are ignored where they can’t be fixed with an ant-proof new lid on a jar. Fascism or Japanese atrocities abroad are thus never mentioned.

Suzu’s depression does not ultimately lead her to reflect. She does not even seem mad at the military police, an obvious, purely destructive intrusion by the fascist state into her private life. Her mother-in-law complains that life has gotten a lot harder since the relatively liberal time when Keiko was a moga in Western-style attire, but this is as close as the film ever comes to condemning the regime. This is the same sort of ambiguity that undermined the didactic intent of All in the Family (1971), allowing Archie Bunker to be admired by actual bigots.

When Suzu hears the Emperor’s “Jewel Voice” broadcast, she alone flies into a rage, shouting that she was ready to fight on. Without any explanation for the war itself, even this scene is ambiguous. In defeat, all of Suzu’s losses suddenly feel more final, because there can no longer be any gains. This would be why Keiko is seen crying for Harumi only after the speech. On the other hand, part of Suzu’s anger is a genuine willingness to continue, after having “overcome” her earlier, perfectly rational impulse to question why everyone around her is focused on the positive while following the orders of the military.

Katabuchi’s work here can possibly be seen as an admirable, albeit understated picture of submission and complicity in the fascist aggressor state. This was my impression after the first of my two viewings at GIFF 2017. He even includes the character of Lin, an unhappy wartime prostitute in the red-light district of Kure, possibly symbolic of wartime rape abroad. Yet the same film can just as well be interpreted as yet another in the long line of Japanese depictions of the Japanese people as innocent victims of the war, adding as much folktale as historical realism to the template. In an interview for Manga Tokyo by Takase Tsukasa, Katabuchi states that “the war was just part of the background”. He compares it to the 2011 Tõhoku earthquake, ignoring causes.

Good storytelling technique nonetheless. Fine naturalistic animation with pleasant adult character designs and one very simple black-and-white shot in the style of Norman McLaren. The lead actor does a good job except at the very beginning (1933), where her character is a small child.

References here: “Don’t mention the war!”, En betraktelse av A Silent Voice, Deadly Fight in Hiroshima (1973), Cannon Fodder (1996).

moving picture Japanese production animation fiction