For young Japanese who have known only peace, an animated portrait of an ordinary woman’s wartime life has brought the devastation of war and nuclear weapons close to home.
Based on a manga by Hiroshima native Fumiyo Kono, “Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni” (“In This Corner of the World”) draws on historical records to tell the story of a newlywed woman living in Kure, a naval port just over a range of hills from the city of Hiroshima, which was devastated by an atomic bomb 72 years ago.
“Raw scenes of destruction from the bombings might seem like another world to people nowadays … but this film lets us know that this indeed happened in our own world, to ordinary people who were just like us,” Miga Sugimoto, a 23-year-old student, said after seeing the film in Tokyo.
“Although the main character at times experiences deep suffering, she is just trying to figure out who she is and manage conflicts within herself as she grows, concerns that are definitely still shared by young women in Japan,” Sugimoto said.
According to Rayna Denison, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia whose research focuses on Japanese cinema, the work departs from past animated depictions of the atomic bombings, notably the manga “Hadashi no Gen” (“Barefoot Gen”) written by Hiroshima hibakusha Keiji Nakazawa, who died in 2012.
Nakazawa’s graphic depictions of the aftermath of the bombs sparked discussions in recent years after a board of education in Shimane Prefecture asked elementary and junior high schools in 2012 to ban the book from their libraries. After facing criticism, it decided to retract the request in 2013.
“In comparison to those other works of ‘hibakusha cinema,’ this is so much more gentle … by placing the story one step away in Kure, the war’s gradual creep into the lives of the main character and her family is made all the more devastating,” Denison said.
Tokyo-based actor Minori Omi voiced the part of Keiko, the protagonist’s sister-in-law whose cosmopolitan lifestyle has been cut short by wartime austerity.
“Now is the time for all generations of people to think deeply about peace and what it means, keeping in mind that these things happened not in some far-off place but here in our own country,” Omi, 33, said in a recent interview.
Omi is a fan of the original manga, having read it to prepare for her part in a 2015 stage play about the “Hiroshima Maidens,” women who suffered disfiguring injuries in the atomic bombing and went to the United States for reconstructive surgery.
“There’s definitely a sense among younger people that the atomic bombings and the war as a whole are scary topics they would rather avoid talking about,” Omi said.
She counts herself lucky to have heard directly from hibakusha who lived through the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, aware that the time will come when only their testimonies remain.
What most surprised Omi about the film’s reception was the confusion of some younger viewers, who did not realize why a character exposed to the atomic bomb in Hiroshima is shown sapped of her strength, with bruise-like marks on her body.
She thought knowledge of these symptoms of radiation sickness would be common, particularly among Japanese audiences.
Tokyo student Sugimoto echoed this concern.
“Although people from Nagasaki, Hiroshima or Okinawa know a lot about what happened in their own hometowns in the war, elsewhere our education is often lacking,” she said.
Graduate student Tatsuro Nishikawa, 28, said the film made him feel the medium of animation is uniquely suited to bridging the gap between historical events and today’s world.
“The film shows that war disrupts every part of life, and it could be us in those people’s place … this message is made all the more vivid by the contrast between the cute drawing style and the serious content,” Nishikawa said.
The film has enjoyed a long run in Japan since its release last November. More than 2 million people had seen it as of mid-June, according to its promoters.
According to Denison, the film is likely to find a place in classrooms around the world teaching about the atomic bombings because it strips away the big ideological questions of the time to show the universality of suffering in war.
The film neither idolizes nor roundly condemns the Imperial Japanese Navy, whose presence brings the war to Kure.
“This is definitely a pacifist movie, but it walks a really subtle line … it shows how war costs everyone involved, not just people’s lives but also their livelihoods and hope,” Denison said.
Jaqueline Berndt, a professor of Japanese language and culture at Stockholm University, said she recently watched the film in Kyoto alongside graduate students from several Asian countries.
“The Asian students were reluctant at first; they didn’t want to watch a wartime movie. But then they were surprised at how much this film encourages its viewers to live their life despite hardships … how positive it is,” she said.
The film premiered overseas in film festivals last month. It was screened for a full house in New York on Sunday as the final feature of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts film festival, organizers said.
A U.S. publisher plans to release a licensed English-language version of Kono’s manga this autumn.