Following the tumultuous life of Suzu (Non), touching on her childhood in 1930s Hiroshima and the early years of her arranged marriage. Though the day-dreamy Suzu yearns to be an artist, both her domestic responsibilities and the climax of World War II stand in the way.
One of the most devastatingly affecting portrayals of Japanese civilian life during World War II is, perhaps surprisingly, an animated film: Studio Ghibli’s Grave Of The Fireflies. Since its release in 1988, Isao Takahata’s depiction of the plight of two young, homeless siblings in 1945 shocked and impressed Western audiences more used to their cartoon movies featuring songs and talking animals. It felt powerfully unique.
The artistry and detail of Katabuchi’s hand-drawn animation holds your eye.
So comparisons with writer-director Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner Of The World, which also portrays Japanese life under the shadow of American bombers, are inevitable. Fortunately for Katabuchi (who at the time of Grave’s release was at Ghibli working on Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service), his wartime narrative matches up well to Takahata’s highly respected film, in terms of both quality and clarity of vision, but perhaps most importantly for its sheer emotional impact.
Based on a manga (by Fumiyo Kono) and structured like a diary, it is less a ‘war film’ than an episodic personal narrative. It is more about Suzu (voiced by actor/model Non, aka Rena Nônen) dealing with homesickness as a reluctant 18-year-old newly-wed ensconced with her young husband’s family in a new town than it is about air raids and battleships at the docks. As the title suggests, this is a personal and subjective view of the world at a terrible time; the perspective of a young woman forced by the expectations of her society to set aside her greatest love — painting — to resign herself to a life of household chores.
Which isn’t to say the war is distant background, only that Katabuchi never puts it in front of his main character. In one beautiful scene, military police find Suzu sketching ships and accuse her of spying. They march her to her husband’s parents and tell them to keep her under surveillance; after all, “daughter-in-laws are still strangers”. For a moment, you think Suzu will be punished; then her in-laws burst out laughing. She’s so absent-minded, they say, the idea of her being a spy is a joke.
So while Grave Of The Fireflies is pure tragedy, In This Corner Of The World is far more tonally varied — like life itself. Though its two-hours-plus running time stretches its episodic format to the limit, and its fidelity to the rhythm of Suzu’s life pushes it to the fringe of repetitiveness, the artistry and detail of Katabuchi’s hand-drawn animation holds your eye, and your concern for Suzu never wavers. Of course, given the precise location of her ‘corner of the world’, we know what it’s all building up to — “What is that cloud?” someone says as the inevitable happens. But thanks to Suzu’s quiet resilience, and a strong dose of gallows humour, you’ll also be smiling. Besides, as one impoverished character drily quips while watching the US occupying forces pass by, crying “is a waste of salt”.
A gorgeously rendered and deeply personal portrayal of a young woman’s life in the part of the world where history’s greatest conflict reached a devastating conclusion.