Last summer saw the release of what would become the highest grossing Japanese animation film to date, Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name.,” which was also the country’s top box-office draw of 2016. The surprise hit’s main characters are a pair of body-swapping teenagers. A survey conducted by the Fields Research Institute earlier this month revealed, unsurprisingly, that its commercial success was driven by the nation’s teenagers — over 30 percent of whom said they bought tickets, compared to 4 percent of those 65 and older.
But another anime feature released just a few months later attracted a majority of elder viewers, who helped it become the year’s second sleeper animation hit. The crowd-funded “In This Corner of the World” (“Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni”), set in a village near Hiroshima during World War II, won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Animation and earned nearly $20 million in domestic cinemas, despite very little promotion and no gender jokes.
“In This Corner of the World” premiered globally two weeks ago at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France and in the United States last week at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Screenings are scheduled in July and August at the two largest North American anime conventions, Anime Expo in Los Angeles and Otakon in Washington, and the film will be widely released in North America by Shout! Factory and Funimation Films on Aug. 11.
The animated feature was co-written and directed by Sunao Katabuchi (“Princess Arete”), adapted from a manga serialized from 2007-09 by Fumiyo Kono, a Hiroshima native, and was earlier produced by NTV as a live-action television series. Its patient, detailed portrait of daily life in Japan from 1933 until the aftermath of the atomic bomb studiously avoids the sort of melodrama and sudden epiphanies one might expect from a war film — or an international summer anime release.
Katabuchi hopes that overseas audiences experience the wonder and sense of discovery that attracted so many viewers in Japan, despite the film’s culturally specific period details.
“This kind of story and its depiction are something that even many modern Japanese people are seeing for the first time,” he tells me via email from the Annecy Festival. “Compared to their current lifestyles, it’s quite foreign and different. So even Japanese audiences see the era and lifestyles introduced in ‘In this Corner of the World’ as if they were stepping into a different world.”
The film’s protagonist, Suzu, is a teenager very different from Mitsuha of “Your Name.” Mitsuha yearns for escape and urbanity and finds her soulmate through text messages. Suzu may share Mitsuha’s penchant for fantasy, expressed through her passion for sketching nature, but she is a dutiful young woman who accepts an arranged marriage and commits herself to the household rituals of the day, lovingly portrayed by Katabuchi and his animators: the washing of clothes and housecleaning, and the preparation of meals as food rations become increasingly strict and prospects bleak.
“In This Corner of the World” received the Jury Award at Annecy last week, and overseas reviews have been positive, praising the film for its realistic period details and character portrayals of the women, in particular, who dominate the onscreen action, as many of the men are either victims of war or reduced to more humble roles on the homefront.
“I really like the pencil and watercolor look of the artwork,” Los Angeles Times animation critic, Charles Solomon, tells me at his LA office. “It gives the visuals a warmth and charm. And while kind, sensitive fathers appear in a lot of Japanese films and TV series, understanding, gentle husbands (depicted in ‘In This Corner’) are less common. I think those elements added to the humanity of the film, which reminded me of ‘Giovanni’s Island’ and ‘Grave of the Fireflies.'”
Unlike those two films, however, “In This Corner” focuses more on the slow, grinding effects of the war on Suzu, her family and community, until a blinding flash of light appears in the sky and leaves the nearby city of Hiroshima in ruins.
“The main character, Suzu, has a personality that is complex, yet full of warmth,” says Katabuchi. “I think that the audience is able to really like her as she is, but not only that, they are able to feel as though they are actually living in the kind of world that she was living in. It felt more to them like going out to live alongside Suzu in her world than going out to see a movie.” Viewers who attended the film multiple times, says Katabuchi, “were going back to visit with Suzu, over and over.”
Katabuchi’s research included studying verbatim accounts of food preparation and ingredients from the 1930s and ’40s. He made several visits to Tokyo’s Museum of Life in the Showa Era (Showa-no-kurashi Hakubutsukan) to recapture the living spaces, tools, clothing, other artifacts and behaviors of daily existence in Japan’s pre- and postwar years. The director has received praise from older Japanese over his careful and accurate portrait of their lives.
“The meals Suzu prepares in the film, they are not entirely accurate,” Katabuchi admits. “Those recipes were actually created by (the manga artist) Kono. She kept in mind the kinds and amounts of foods that probably would have been available to the characters at the time, then she imagined how Suzu would have used the ingredients to create meals.”
Other notable debuts in anime’s international reach this summer include the first-ever convention booth at Anime Expo to be hosted by Kadokawa Corporation, producers of such hits as “The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya” and “Lucky Star.”
Tsuyoshi Kikuchi, manager of Kadokawa’s anime division, tells me, “The anime industry has come to a moment of critical change from the days when we could focus only on the domestic market.” In late August, Crunchyroll, the global anime streaming site, will launch its own convention, Crunchyroll Expo, in Santa Clara, California, details of which are still being finalized.
Katabuchi is confident that audiences outside of Japan will appreciate the intimacy of his film, even if they know little of its era. “The viewer travels with Suzu to her world as if they were living there themselves,” he says. “As you keep watching, you begin to understand and become one if its inhabitants.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a 2017 Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University.