“In a year like 2016, in which all went to shit”, as Jerome Mazandarani, one of the executives of Animatsu Entertainment, who introduced the screening to us, said, “here’s In This Corner of the World.” How right he was.
In This Corner of the World follows the story of Suzu Urano (Rena Nōnen), beginning with her childhood in Hiroshima as early as 1933. There, we get glimpses of her life as a kid full of laughter, familial love, and artistic skill – painting and sketching her surroundings whenever possible. Time passes with the same rapid bliss with which it does in real life, and come 1943, 19-year-old Suzu agrees to a marriage proposal from Shūsaku Hōjō (Yoshimasa Hosoya) – a man she has never met who lives not in Hiroshima, but in the small town over the mountains called Kure. Welcomed into the family, she begins to take on the daily chores of the household, and quickly adapts herself to the new setting. The emotional intimacy between Suzu and her husband develops soon enough, as it does with her mother-in-law (Mayumi Shintani), niece (Natsuki Inaba) and, eventually, scornful sister-in-law (Minori Omi). But in 1945, she comes to inherit more than just a new family. The slur of everyday changes brought on by the war culminate in the air strikes and bombing raids that finally reach Kure; World War Two at its peak.
Despite the wartime conditions, the premise of the movie appears at odds with what we see on screen. The rich colours of the beautifully hand-drawn animation seem almost too radiant to be found in a war film. Bomb explosions are but a black-colored paintbrush dab on the canvas sky Suzu so often draws. In fact, the War is never demonized further than necessary, while still managing to be horrifically plenty. And the characters – with all their detailing, mobility and exuberance – appear as if they’ve been thrown against their will into this two-dimensional, painted world, reflecting how disjoint the citizens’ lives are from the motives and nature of the conflict their country is so engrossed in.
If the film feels slow at times, it is only because we as viewers can’t always latch onto the intensity of a conflict we so expect. There is no radical change in tone from pre-1938 to post-1938, as in other conventional war films on this period. While there is a setting and a context that drives the lives of the characters, In This Corner of the World almost makes itself out as a story that happens despite the events of the Second World War, not because of them. Entire scenes become dedicated to Suzu’s artisanry in using a restricted amount of supplies to prepare a meal for the whole family to enjoy. Others revolve around the gentle stillness in crafting a kimono with needle and string, or the slapstick and sobriety in rationing food to the local neighbours. The characters, rather than being controlled by the perils of war, navigate through them. And precisely because of that, so much of the intimacy of the movie is able to take root, leaving us in awe at the stolen moments.
Yet, even by the closing of the film, after the constant air raids and the shell-shocking Little Boy, the tribulations of the characters are never validated by the consolation of victory. In spite of our awareness of Japan as an Axis power, it’s no less soul crushing for us as an audience when Suzu finally breaks down in the existential (rather than political) exclamation that, “it was supposed to be worth it! We were supposed to win!” The tragedy lies in the fact that we know, even before the movie begins, that these characters are doomed from the start. But was it ever about the course of the war? Certainly not for us, and in the end, certainly not for Suzu and her family. For just as this a film set in war, that is not about war, so too is her life one that precedes, and even ascends, the circumstances that define it.
Exhausted, older, and with the loss of a few dear family members, our heroine chooses to stay in Kure. But there is no life-changing epiphany or radical shift in the character. The void of war is palpable, both during and after. And while the bombings may have left Suzu physically incapable of painting the landscapes she was once able to in the beginning, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re still not there – that they haven’t always been there. Though war has ravaged, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t lived a full life, thankful to have been found, as the title foretells, in this corner of the world. After all, “the cicadas do not stop playing just because there is a war.” Indeed, as the film evokes – life is what happens to us while we’re busy dealing with its tragedies.
Dir: Sunao Katabuchi
Scr: Sunao Katabuchi
Cast: Rena Nōnen, Yoshimasa Hosoya, Natsuki Inaba, Minori Omi, Daisuke Ono, Megumi Han, Shigeru Ushiyama, Mayumi Shintani, Nanase Iwai, Tengai Shibuya III
Prd: Masao Maruyama, Taro Maki
DOP: Hidenori Matsubara, Chie Uratani
Runtime: 130 minutes
In This Corner of the World (この世界の片隅に Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni) is yet to set a UK release date