Going into “In This Corner of the World” (“Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni”), Sunao Katabuchi’s animation about a girl’s coming of age in prewar Hiroshima and wartime Kure, I was vaguely expecting an anti-war film like Isao Takahata’s classic “Grave of the Fireflies” (“Hotaru no Haka,” 1988), with its heart-rending story of a boy struggling and failing to care for his younger sister in the midst of wartime chaos.
However, “In This Corner of the World,” based on Hiroshima native Fumiyo Kono’s manga of the same title, is quite different in attitude and approach. Similar to another film based on a Kono comic, Kiyoshi Sasabe’s 2007 live-action “Yunagi Town, Sakura Country” (“Yunagi no Machi, Sakura no Kuni”), “In This Corner of the World” tells the story of the Hiroshima atomic bombing indirectly, while anchoring it firmly in period reality. But whereas the former film views the bombing largely from the perspective of today’s younger generation, the latter looks ahead from the standpoint of a prewar Japan idyllically peaceful and a wartime Japan resolutely fighting for victory. Then American bombs rain down — and defeat looms.
Similar to Keisuke Kinoshita’s wartime films, “In This Corner of the World” idealizes its characters, who are more self-sacrificing and mutually cooperative than many of their Westernized (and, some would say, corrupted) present-day descendants. But also like Kinoshita, who became one of Japanese cinema’s postwar masters, Katabuchi is at heart a humanist, not a propagandist. His characters express guilt, bitterness and other morale-lowering, if true-to-life, feelings that would soon have a censor of the era reaching for his red pencil.
His heroine is Suzu (voiced by Rena Nonen, now known as the single-named Non), who begins the film as a girl living in Hiroshima. Surrounded by a loving extended family and friends, Suzu is a budding artist with a vivid imagination and dreamy temperament.
But her time as an innocent girl, in movie terms, is short. Soon she is a teenager being married off to a quiet, kindly guy (Yoshimasa Hosoya) she barely knows and shipped off to the nearby port of Kure, where she is a total stranger. But as befitting a woman of her time, Suzu is soon laboring diligently away at household chores under the indulgent eye of her mother-in-law. She even tries to make nice to her husband’s sharp-tongued older sister, Keiko (Minori Omi), who seems to find fault with Suzu’s very existence. And she makes friends with Keiko’s young daughter, Harumi (Natsuki Inaba), who is mostly a sweet contrast to her mean mom.
This family drama unfolds against the ominous backdrop of Japan’s war in Asia, which in December 1941 also becomes a war with America. The film depicts this period, from the imposing warships in Kure Harbor to the grinding privations, with a detailed verbal and visual realism. But when the agony and pain become too great for Suzu, her world dissolves into a vividly realized surreal nightmare, though she manages to struggle through. And she finally shows she has a temper. But when the biggest shock — the atomic blast at Hiroshima — comes, Suzu experiences it at a degree of separation, not immediately understanding what has happened.
This sort of distancing can be found in many Japanese films, fiction and nonfiction, about the atomic bombings. “In This Corner of the World” uses it to make the horror unleashed on Hiroshima both more humanly comprehensible — and less overwhelming. Instead of being paralyzed by the death and devastation, we see that Suzu and the other good folks of Kure, who once worked so hard and selflessly for victory, will work just as hard and selflessly for recovery.
Takahata gave us young victims of a tragedy as ancient and universal as war itself; Katabuchi offers us inspirational role models for today’s Japan.