[Review] In This Corner of the World

Otakon held a special screening of In This Corner of the World, the new feature film from studio MAPPA (Kids on the Slope, Yuri!!! on ICE), with an introductory talk from producer Maruyama Masao and animation director Matsubara Hidenori. There was also a post-screening Q&A panel with the two creators later that afternoon. The film had already drawn critical acclaim, so a good portion of the AniFem team attended both events, notepads and tissues at the ready.

Now that we’ve had some time to get our thoughts collected and our emotions under control, we thought we’d share our impressions of the film in a spoiler-free series of commentaries, similar to our team recommendations. If you’re in a hurry, the short version is that it’s excellent and we all heartily encourage readers to go see it. And if you’d like a little more detail than that, please check out the write-ups from Dee, Vrai, and Amelia below!

A busy city market in 1930s Japan

Introduction

In This Corner of the World is a historical fiction chronicling the day-to-day life of Suzu, a young artist born and raised in Hiroshima who later moves to the seaside city of Kure. The story follows her from childhood to adulthood, although the bulk of it takes place in 1945, during the final months of World War II, when allied attacks on Japanese soil were at their peak (culminating in the atomic bombs dropped on first Hiroshima and then Nagasaki).

Meticulously researched, right down to the color of the buildings and the taste of the food, animation director Matsubara spoke during the post-screening Q&A of wanting to “recreate the town” for the people they’d interviewed who had actually lived there. Producer Maruyama also stated that one of the film’s goals was to depict as accurately as possible what “everyday life” would have been like for the people who lived through the final days of WWII, so that the audience would feel “it was no lie.”

While the film is relatively restrained, mostly preferring abstract or stylized images of war to graphic ones, it does get a content warning for depictions of violence, death, and trauma.

In This Corner of the World is adapted from the manga by Kōno Fumiyo. It is produced by Maruyama Masuo (founder of both Madhouse and MAPPA) and directed by Katabuchi Sunao (Black Lagoon, Kiki’s Delivery Service), with character designs and animation direction from Matsubara Hidenori and music by Kotringo.

A young woman and a little girl, both in trousers, sit on a stone ledge. The young woman leans forward, watching the girl.

 

Dee

Before watching the film itself, the creators showed us the original five-minute “pilot”: a dialogue-free compilation of scenes mostly from the earlier portions of the movie. The pilot ends with a shot of a battleship, half-sunk and rusting in the harbor, while on the shoreline we see two kids skipping rope while a few onlookers mill around them, going about their day-to-day business.

And that’s what In This Corner of the World is about, really: Not the Capital-H History of World War II, but the individual histories of the “ordinary” people who did their best to live their normal lives even as the world fell apart around them. The film frequently returns to the idea of perspective—what Suzu can or can’t see and hear, what she notices and what she’s oblivious to, how she perceives the world around her, and how that shapes her actions and relationships—and that perspective is often skewed or limited.

Smoke clouds a harbor, hiding unseen danger. Far-off friends and family are connected only by occasional letters and visits. The radio warns of incoming air raids or abruptly falls silent. Suzu, a young artist, sees the world in graphite, watercolor, and pastel. Even attacking planes flying overhead can look brutally beautiful to her. Suzu’s art helps preserve a lost city, but it’s also not an “objective” one. For all its impressive attention to detail, In This Corner of the World is a painting of history, not a photograph of it.

Long shot: A battleship lays half-sunk in the water next to the shoreline, where kids are skipping rope

More specifically, it’s the history of a young woman and the people (mostly other women) around her. Not the soldiers who fought or the leaders who sent them to fight—not the ones who made things happen, but the ones who had things happen to them. As a result, it isn’t so much a story about war (Allied attacks are treated more like natural disasters, and the characters’ anger, fear, or scorn is far more often directed at their own government), but a story about enduring and adapting.

No matter the changes or tragedies that occur, Suzu and the people around her do gradually get used to them. Even the constant air raids become monotonous and commonplace, a sequence of dates and evacuations that pan across the screen in a blur. For better and for worse, the film suggests that humanity can get used to anything. Unthinkable losses can be overcome, police surveillance can be mundane or flat-out amusing, and even constant violence can be incorporated into a daily routine. At one point, Suzu’s friend says he’s happy she’s “ordinary.” But if this is “ordinary,” then what in the world is extraordinary?

A young man in a black jacket and cap sets his hand on the head of a woman in a pink apron. A view of hills, houses and trees spreads out before them.

There’s an undercurrent of tragedy to this adaptability, but In This Corner of the World doesn’t simply see its characters as passive victims. While the characters’ choices are often extremely limited and Suzu in particular spends much of the film avoiding making any real decisions, allowing herself to be carried from one event to the next, the importance of “choice” still forms much of the focus of the second half of the film.

There’s great value placed both on active choices and passive ones—in choosing to do (or not do) something, yes, but also in choosing to endure or adapt to that which has been done to you. Suzu is an admirable protagonist not because she’s a stereotypical Strong Character with superhuman physical strength and mental fortitude, but because she is an “ordinary” person living through terrible events who nevertheless decides to keep going. Sometimes carefully, oftentimes spontaneously, Suzu chooses to protect and love who and what she can as best she can, and to find a future for herself among the ashes of the past.

(As an aside, since the film is certain to draw comparisons to Grave of the Fireflies, I’d argue that this is the main difference between the two: Fireflies is a film about victims, while Corner is a film about survivors. Though I personally preferred Corner, I see both as vital components to helping form a complete, nuanced picture of war—the latter reminding us of what has been lost, and the former pushing us to find a better way forward—which is why I’d prefer they stand side-by-side in terms of importance and artistry rather than argue over which is “better.”)

A girl picks ash off a shirt, a laundry line above her also covered in ash, while more falls from the sky

“Feminine” and “masculine” are admittedly loaded terms whose definitions vary by culture and time period. Still, the thought struck me halfway through the film that—particularly in the context of 1940s Japan—In This Corner of the World is a movie distinctly about “feminine” strength: About finding some measure of agency in a world where so much is out of your control, about fighting for what you can change and adapting to the things you can’t, and about the “ordinary” power of enduring, persisting, and coming out the other side, bent but not broken.

The film depicts some truly horrific events and doesn’t shy away from showing Suzu at her weakest or most hopeless, but it staunchly refuses to be a tragedy. Like the kids skipping rope next to that half-sunk battleship, “ordinary” life finds a way to move through and past the ravages of war.

People still laugh, share meals, bicker, and fall in love. Families are shattered and reformed. Women suffer unimaginable losses, grieve, and then find some measure of comfort or hope, however small, on the other side. This is an anti-war film, to be sure, but it also somehow manages to be a quietly pro-human and (I’d argue) specifically pro-woman film. As the end credits rolled, I was surprised to find myself more resolute than devastated.

A girl in period clothes with her hair in two braids stands before a sunset-tinted field of flowers, looking off into the distance

We live in a time of powerful people (overwhelmingly men) making rash, hateful, violent statements and choices. So much seems outside our own control, and it’s easy to feel like Suzu does for much of the film: That it’s better to not make a choice at all, to watch things happen and let them. But over the course of the film, Suzu and the women around her remind us that there are always still decisions we can make and things we can save. Find what you can do and do it. Even if the “only” thing you can do is endure. Sometimes that “ordinary” strength makes all the difference.

In This Corner of the World is a beautiful, wrenching work of art, but that reminder makes it a timely and important film, too, and one that I’d recommend to just about everyone. Absolutely see it if you can.

 

Vrai

I came away from In This Corner of the World feeling like something of a monster—while a good chunk of the team was shaken or in tears, I was contemplating its film techniques and also possibly dinner. I very much enjoyed the film, mind. But it’s a quiet, melancholy affair. While Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen struck me as raw, angry expressions of their authors’ experiences, In This Corner of the World engages more cerebrally (despite having some harrowing brutality on par with those films).

A girl in pigtails with a pack on her back sits in front of a store window, glancing down and smiling slightly

The separation is somewhat natural—Akiyuki Nosaka (Fireflies) and Keiji Nakazawa (Gen) were both survivors dramatizing their firsthand experience (and Nakazawa turned an extremely critical eye on the government), while manga artist Kōno wasn’t born until 1968. That absolutely doesn’t preclude her from writing about the war or the atrocities suffered by her hometown of Hiroshima, but time inevitably means distance, and the produced works will serve different purposes.

In this case, that purpose seems to be an attempted record and memorial for Hiroshima, much of which was lost after the bomb. A market that no longer stands is recreated in the opening credits, and animation director Matsubara spoke of his intensive research on the lives and habits of those who lived through the war. As he did, he mentioned not knowing much about that period of history before embarking on the five-year research period before the film was greenlit.

That feeling of people rediscovering their national history through making art describes the feel of the film well. It’s an attempt to recreate places, people, and emotions, and that sense of delicate (re)construction both impressed me and kept me from fully throwing myself into the emotional reality of the film. It’s also something of a small-scale film, perhaps in reflection of its protagonist’s small sphere of experience (and sometimes willful delusion, a component of the film part and parcel with Suzu’s tendency to live through art).

A girl in a kimono closes one eye and holds out a piece of charcoal, like an artist imagining a snapshot

The biggest commentary on the war itself is Suzu’s response to the surrender, an emotion the film doesn’t really interrogate beyond presenting it as another snapshot of how some people lived. While Matsubara also expressed a desire to show the film to others so that the atrocities within it never occur again, it’s not really a story with any particularly incisive thoughts on the politics that were brewing at the time (perhaps my one disappointment was hearing a Korean-American viewer ask about those political elements in the Q&A panel afterward, a potentially meaty discussion that didn’t really go anywhere).

Still, no film can be all things to all people, and the topics that In This Corner of the World does choose to focus on (as discussed by the other reviewers) are handled well. Suzu is a wonderful protagonist, the bleakness is balanced with enough small joys to keep the story from being unbearable, and its portrait of Hiroshima is undeniably poignant. Well worth seeing.

A young woman with her hair pinned back closes her eyes and blushes, head tilted; next to her a young man in a black uniform faces away, adjusting his cap.

 

Amelia

As a war film that was never meant to be a tearjerker, it took years to raise the funding required to make In This Corner of the World. During this time, director Katabuchi carried out the in-depth research mentioned above, pouring in a level of care and attention to detail that makes the final result so multi-faceted.

Different elements will stand out to you most, depending on your experiences and interests. One member of the AniFem team was captivated by the artistic, delicate representations of violence or pain. Another related strongly to Suzu herself, identifying with her increasingly intense emotions as the film went on. For my part, I was most affected by one of the film’s themes which Dee touches on above: choice. Specifically, the choices and lack thereof for women.

A young woman in formal kimono is helped out of her jacket by another young woman, as a man in formal kimono sits, looking embarrassed, beside her. Other people in formal wear sit behind them.

Given their intentions to showcase the everyday lives of ordinary people rather than the drama of combatants, it is unsurprising that the film centres on the lives of women. What is surprising is how deeply the experiences of these women, with whom I have little to nothing in common, upset me.

Artistic daydreamer Suzu is somewhat unconventional, but she submits to social conventions like marriage with only some mild avoidance. Her journey to become someone who does not avoid but resists, objects, and expresses what she wants is something many women will recognise.

More resonant for me was the story of Suzu’s sister-in-law, Keiko. Keiko has suffered many hardships, but accepted every one: she chose to defy expectations, and the consequences are hers to bear. Keiko is not a likable character, and I have not experienced any of the happy or sad events in her life. However, the quiet, understated scene in which she acknowledges the role of choice in her difficult life devastated me to an embarrassing extent.

A woman in kimono with a flower in her hair faces away from the camera, looking out over a field bathed in sunset. There are people in the distance.

In my defence, by that point in the film I was emotionally raw. In This Corner of the World does not focus on the horrors of war so much as the stress of it. Most obviously, the date appears on screen, initially infrequently and showing only month and year, but speeding up and narrowing it down to specific days as the film goes on. The closer we get to August 6th, the date the U.S. Army Air Forces dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the more frequently you see the date on screen, feeling like a countdown.

Montages of the family repeatedly following air raid procedures and leaving their house for their bomb shelter show their early vigour and enthusiasm fade as they become tired and used to the routine. Moments of trauma are undercut with humour, giving the audience emotional whiplash that only adds to the overall feeling of exhaustion. You’re likely to leave this film feeling drained, a deliberate accomplishment by the creators.

A woman dressed in WWII era clothes with her back to the camera stares at a sky fully of smoke from exploding bombs. A child cowers behind her. a basket is discarded in the foreground.

However, unlike the inevitable comparison to Grave of the Fireflies, which I saw once over a decade ago and refuse to ever rewatch, I would absolutely see In This Corner of the World again. As Maruyama told us in the Q&A, this film was designed not to be a tearjerker, and the emotions it evoked were ultimately cathartic. The bustling life and community of Kure, and all the comedy that contains, is, frankly, a much easier world to be immersed in for a couple of hours than that of orphans starving in a war-torn wasteland. The grounded life and people balance out the tragedy forced upon them, making the overall viewing experience bittersweet.

This is a very human film, with beautiful artistic decisions, historical accuracy, timely messages and thematic depth, and it will no doubt yield essays and blog posts for years to come. Perhaps more importantly though, it is a genuinely enjoyable viewing experience. I would encourage anyone put off by the expected emotional manipulation of wartime films—and I count myself in that number—to take a chance on In This Corner of the World.

 

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  • Though I thought the film was very affecting, I have to confess that, like Vrai, my reaction was more cerebral than Dee’s or Amelia’s. Part of my reaction was due to the film’s setting: Kure was more than just a “seaside city”. It was the largest naval base in Japan during WWII, was as important to the Imperial Japanese Navy as the naval base at Pearl Harbor was to the US Navy’s Pacific fleet, and US naval commanders explicitly justified its destruction (portrayed in the final part of the film) as revenge for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I agree with Dee that In This Corner of the World differs from Grave of the Fireflies in being about survivors instead of victims. I’d add that it’s (primarily) about adults rather than children, and adults whose lives and (for the men) work placed them at the heart of the Japanese military establishment. To me that puts a bit different spin on the film than you’d find in other films about the experience of Japanese civilians in WWII in general, or about the bombing of Hiroshima in particular.

  • Stephanie Gertsch

    During my time in Japan I lived five minutes walking from the Peace Park in Hiroshima and I dated a person who lived in Kure. I really want to see this movie but I’m a little scared it might be too emotional because I’ll recognize the streets and views that were familiar to me and then see them get bombed. (Who am I kidding? It looks awesome and since it’s Hiroshima I have to see it!)

    Is “Kube” in the introduction supposed to be Kure?

    • Dee

      Yes, that was a silly typo on my part. Fixed now!

  • Gorion

    It’s a fairly melancholy film, in all. I thought it did a good job in showing the ‘total war’ mobilization of the country (or at least Kure in particular): Suzu’s family job is closed for land reclamation for factories, school children are singing war chants, every man in the film is part of the war, the little girl memorizes battleship names to impress the adults, etc. I can’t say I really connected with most of the characters (’emotionally distant’) is a good way to describe much of the film, but it was beautifully presented with a strong eye towards historical detail. Suzu is a character sometimes barely in touch with reality, and I feel like the soft animation style reflected the dreamlike way she wanders through her own story much of the time.

    Apparently the original manga had a scene in which Suzu realizes how Japan has oppressed Koreans during the war, though the scene is absent from the movie. (I found this out because the movie has a conspicuous shot of a Korean flag waving in Suzu’s hometown, which I googled afterwards). So there is room for critique of the movie as part of the ‘Japan as a victim’ post-war narrative, but to be frank, it’s hard enough to tell a sensitive story such as this already. If the prostitute that Suzu befriends had been Korean, I think conservative heads in Japan would have practically exploded…

  • Flower

    Excellent write ups, and I liked how there were three differing perspectives reviewing the same content. Many thanks! ^^