'In This Corner of the World': Film Review | Annecy 2017

An intimate account of life during wartime.

This Japanese Academy Award winner from writer-director Sunao Katabuchi ('Princess Arete,' 'Mai Mai Miracle') played the main competition at Annecy.

The quotidian hardships and horrors of WWII are seen from the perspective of a young Japanese woman living close to Hiroshima In This Corner of the World (Kono sekai no katasumi ni), a compelling third feature from anime writer-director Sunao Katabuchi (Princess Arete, Mai Mai Mircale).

Adapted from Fumiyo Kono’s manga, this impressionistic chronicle of the war is, at first, more concerned with household chores and family matters than it is with soldiers on the battlefield, but its harrowing third act reveals what can happen when civilians become targets as well. Winner of multiple prizes, including Best Animation Film at the Japanese Academy Awards, World grossed nearly $20 million at home when it was released in late 2016. It will debut stateside at the L.A. Film Festival before being rolled out theatrically by Shout! Factory and Funimation Films.

Starting in 1933, with budding young artist Suzu (voiced by Non) living with her parents and little sister, Sumi (Megumi Han) in a seaside cottage outside Hiroshima, the story follows her all the way to early August 1945, when the atomic bomb would decimate much of her family, friends and hometown.

At that point, Suzu is already in her late teens and has been living for over a year in the naval port city of Kure — about an hour’s train ride from Hiroshima at the time — where she's staying at the house of her shy new husband Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya), who asked for her hand in marriage even though the two hardly knew each other.

Following Suzu’s life as a married woman from month to month, Katabuchi initially focuses on the daily grind of a housewife living in rural Japan, with much time devoted to cooking, fetching water, sewing kimonos and trying to be a presentable homemaker — which is especially difficult for the artistic minded Suzu, who often has her head in the clouds. Her irate sister-in-law, Keiko (Minori Omi) doesn’t necessarily make things easier, although Suzu soon becomes the favorite of Keiko’s little daughter, Harumi (Natsuki Inaba), who accompanies her on walks through town or through the surrounding fields.

If the first part of the film yields few moments of drama — despite some misgivings, Suzu warms up to the kindhearted Shusaki and seems to accept her position in his home — once the war kicks in Suzu’s peaceful existence becomes severely threatened. Food grows scarce, the men of the house are either wounded or away working for the Imperial Japanese Army and, when the Americans launch a vicious bombing campaign on Kure (whose large port housed Japan's major battleships), all hell breaks lose.

Those sequences are certainly the movie’s most memorable, with Katabuchi, who worked at the start of his career with Hayao Miyazaki (whose The Wind Rises comes to mind here), recreating the punishing effects of daily air raids – including a firebombing attack that levels half of the city. All of this is seen from Suzu’s innocent perspective, and the young woman seems as taken by the aesthetic beauties of bombs bursting in the air as she is by the desire to save her own skin.

Tragedy will eventually strike Suzu and her clan before the finale, although not necessarily in the way that one expects. And while the narrative structure of the film provides a countdown to the Hiroshima bombing of August 6, that event is only experienced from a distance and for a brief moment, before we see its aftermath later on. Such a decision may frustrate viewers looking for a broader historic portrait of WWII, but Katabuchi is much more concerned with showing how the conflict affects Suzu and women like her (the men are pretty much absent throughout) than he is with presenting facts and figures.

On the other hand, the director and his team clearly put lots of research into the realistic renderings of wartime Kuru and Hiroshima, with particular emphasis on decors, costumes and props — including the many dishes Suzu serves up to her in-laws, even if it’s just a bowl of white rice that they’ve been craving for months. In This Corner of the World is ultimately more about details such as those than it is about the big picture. But in the end, such details convincingly reveal how, whether you’re a soldier or a housewife, war can ruin your life in a flash.  

Production companies: Mappa Co., Genco
Director: Sunao Katabuchi
Screenwriter: Sunao Katabuchi, based on the manga by Fumiyo Kono
Producers: Taro Maki, Masao Maruyama
Composer: Kotoringo
Character designer: Hidenori Matsubara
Venue: Annecy Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Animatsu Entertainment

In Japanese
129 minutes