Dwelling more on culinary feats with food rations than on the unutterable horror of the atomic bomb, Japanese period anime “In This Corner of the World” is a wistfully nostalgic time capsule of civilian life under the catastrophic tide of war. Adapting Fumiyo Kono’s 2007 manga of the same title, director Sunao Katabuchi captures the manifold experiences of a housewife during WWII with beguiling intimacy and appealing hand-drawn illustration. Despite the increasingly grave drama, what dominates the film is the heroine’s feisty fight for personal happiness, making the film entirely of a piece with Japanese post-war liberal humanist masters such as Shindo Kaneto and Keisuke Kinoshita, who extolled civilians’ innocence and fortitude while making a mild indictment of war.
Perhaps as a backlash against the populist “Your Name,” “In This Corner of the World” enjoyed rapturous raves by local critics, winning a number of top national film awards, most notably Best Japanese Film in the polls by established publications Kinema Junpo and Movie Art. Domestic B.O. was propped up by a large turnout of senior citizens at theaters. With Shout! Factory releasing the film in North America, and many European sales confirmed, the anime should find appreciative audiences overseas among adults in quasi-art-house circles, though it contains elements possibly distressing for very young tykes.
Katabuchi, who was assistant director to Hayao Miyazaki on “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” is best known for helming “Mai Mai Miracle” a fanciful but wispy anime of a country girl’s brush with thousand-year-old imperial history. Here, the film begins in the same playful, pastoral tone, as protagonist Suzu (voiced by Non — real name Rena Nonen of TV drama “Ama-chan”) grows up in a modest rural family in Eba, a small town in Hiroshima. By the time she turns 18 in 1944, she is packed off to Kure, a bustling seaport about 14 miles from the doomed city, for an arranged marriage to Shusaku Hojo (Yoshimasa Hosoya), the son of a naval engineer.
As an important naval and artillery base during the war, Kure serves as an apt location to gauge deteriorating conditions on the Pacific front. Glimpses of Yamato, the navy’s flagship constructed in Kure, symbolize the citizens’ illusions of invincibilty. Yet, Suzu’s world is cocooned in routine domestic chores, which she throws herself into with the fierce diligence typical of Japanese housewives. Even as food rations become tellingly stringent, she concocts ever more resourceful ways to cook tasty, filling meals, sure to delight overseas lovers of Japanese culinary cinema.
Suzu’s upbeat temperament keeps the first half of the film afloat, as does her husband Shusaku’s tender demonstrations of love. Even the petty fault-finding of her haughty sister-in-law Keiko (Minori Omi) provides light farce rather than ugly conflict, offset by a close friendship with Keiko’s adorable daughter Harumi (Natsuki Inaba). A talented artist since childhood, Suzu’s drawings of an eccentric folktale about a crocodile bride resurfaces time and again in cute animated form — flights of fantasy that color the story with an increasingly desperate escapism.
As more men are drafted, women, on top of material privations, eventually have to step up and do the work of men in factories and as well as perform their civic duties. Art director Kosuke Hayashi and illustration director Hidenori Matsubara deliver beautifully rendered imagery of their busy activities, epitomized by how they re-tailor kimonos into fusion-style overalls that symbolize their departure from traditional femininity. Through Suzu’s occasional trips to her hometown, the original municipal glory of downtown Hiroshima is recreated with almost photographic realism, offering poignant sights of landmark architecture such as the historic castle and the government building that later became the A-bomb Dome.
Kono, a native of Hiroshima, also published a manga on the plight of hibakusha (victims of nuclear-related disease) made into live-action film “Yunagi Town, Sakura Country.” Compared with Isao Takahata’s “Graveyard of the Fireflies,” the best-known Japanese anime set in WWII, Katabuchi’s work is less graphically harrowing, showing a female perspective with great sensitivity. Still, like “Graveyard,” the focus here, exclusively on the suffering of civilians, will be construed by some viewers in China and Korea as “self-victimization” in order to evade Japan’s war responsibilities. Already, the alteration of some dialogue in a scene in the original manga, when the heroine realizes her country’s oppression of others upon seeing a Korean flag, has provoked domestic debate.
Though “In This Corner of the World” is not the first Japanese film to attribute the magnitude of human suffering to American air raids, when an accident occurs at the film’s climax, the shock and emotional trauma is conveyed sharply. By contrast, the nuclear holocaust in Hiroshima is narrated at a deliberate emotional remove, like the way in which one character’s fatal radiation exposure is obliquely hinted at by a bruise on her arm. This enhances the tragic impact, especially when Suzu finally unleashes her righteous anger not only at the cruelty of war, but at the folly of her country’s ambitions. In this light, Keiko’s reconciliation with her sister-in-law over a painful incident implies that forgiveness and generosity are what enabled ordinary people to pick themselves up from the horrors of war. The value of the individual and the power of love over nationalism are reiterated when Suzu thanks Shusaku for “seeking me out in this corner of the world.”