This film was released in Japan in late 2016 and in the United States in the late summer, 2017. It was a “limited release” here in the States (all of 20 theatres for a 35 day gross of $172,147) so the odds are you haven’t had the opportunity to see this on a large screen. If you have the opportunity to see it, do so. This is not something I would ordinarily recommend for a movie described as “heart warming.” Those are two words that usually mean the filmmakers have their thumbs mashed down on the sentimentality button. But this is a gorgeously hand-drawn (mostly) animation with a surprising degree of emotional honesty.
The story is about the early years of Suzu Urano, a child of 1930s Japan, who grows up in a suburb of Hiroshima, one of three children of a family that harvests seaweed for a living. She is a cheerful, helpful, cooperative, resourceful and artistic person who, turning 18, accepts an offer of marriage from Shusaku Hojo, a stranger from Kure, rather than marrying the boy next door, Tetsu Mizuhara, with whom she shared a crush. Kure is a port city and naval base all of 15 miles from Hiroshima. 15 miles! But for the poor in 1930/40s Japan, 15 miles is almost another country. Of course, there are Chicagoans in the 21st Century who rarely leave their neighborhood.
While the beginning of the film scans Suzu’s childhood, the main body of the story is a coming of age story about Suzu growing into becoming a young homemaker, a participant in her local community, and with coping with the adversities of running a household in wartime Japan. It starts off in a sort of episodic way: Think of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small with its interconnected, charming episodes. As the war progresses, the narrative becomes more of a story and much darker.
And in fact, the war is the elephant in the room for this movie. Suzu and the Hojo family Suzu married into do not question the war. Indeed, the Hojo family works, in a modest way, for one or another part of Japan’s military-industrial complex, as do most of their neighbors. Kure is a naval port, after all. But there’s no hint of dissent. In one of those charming episodes, Suzu innocently begins to sketch the warships in Kure harbor, only to be detained by military police as a possible spy. The Hojo family considers the incident to be incredibly funny, not a serious matter and the police absurd — though not to the officers’ faces. Contrast this with the portrayal of the Japanese police by Satoshi Kon in his movie, Millennium Actress. Or even, for that matter, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises wherein the secret police are essentially bought off by the protagonist’s employer. On her first exposure to the black market, Suzu marvels at the inflated prices and wonders how they are to live. At another point, Suzu says, “Our duty is to survive.” And that’s as close to dissent as you’ll find. When Japan surrenders, it is Suzu who has a major melt down.
And of course, there is the whole matter of Hiroshima and the atomic bomb.
Suzu is an enormously likeable person, but is she in some way being presented as a role model? So ordinary: People both laugh at her and congratulate her for this quality. She’s creative, cooperative, caring, and it’s all in the service of her family and her community. She attends civil defence classes and studies the lessons. She has a naïvety that is charming and sometimes maybe… artful? As in an evasion. War aims? Civil government? Black markets? Prostitution?
Contrast this with Suzu’s sister-in-law, Keiko Kuromura, who had adopted western styles (a “modern girl”). Keiko’s life is a bitter disappointment — is that a judgement? — though in truth much of it is a consequence of the war. Nonetheless, which would you prefer: the intimacy of Suzu’s family or “wafers and ice cream”?
Some of Suzu’s life may be difficult to translate to the United States and to the 21st Century. For an example, why did Suzu not marry the boy next door? Even if Suzu’s family (her mother and grandmother, for example) are enthusiastic over the stranger from Kure, Suzu does have the option of saying no, a point made explicitly in the movie. But consider the limited options for women at the time, especially for the less well off, and the opportunity costs that rise as one pushes the conventional limits. One might imagine Suzu attending art school, but hers is a poor family and to what end would that education serve as a practical matter? In 1930s Japan, the bride conventionally joins the husband’s family in what is frequently a multi-generational family compound. The family of the boy next door, who she really loves, are drunkards and at least as poor as Suzu’s family. In this context, Suzu’s decision becomes understandable and seems almost inevitable (Tetsu might have persuaded Suzu to marry him instead but he did not try… partly miscommunication but partly for the same reasons?) but none of this calculation is explicit in the story-telling. This choice in marriage becomes one of the central tensions in the movie.
It is a beautiful movie, and the Director, Sunao Katabuchi, went to extremes that animators only occasionally reach. With the city of Hiroshima, for example, the filmmakers did their best to portray the city with historical accuracy, drawing from photographs and even interviewing pre-war residents about neighborhoods, businesses and buildings.
I suspect that in Japan, In This Corner of the World works as an affirmation of a certain nostalgic national narrative, and as such, it fills a conservative if not reactionary role in Japan politics. It also seems to fill a need; the movie continues to be shown in Japanese movie houses almost two years after its release. I can’t help but wonder at Japan. There are anthologies of Japanese commercials on YouTube and many of those are determinedly ethnically diverse in ways that are totally irrelevant to Japan. Brand names and product names are frequently in English. Sometimes product descriptions and pitches are partly in English. Anime movies often have various Japanese characters who are drawn to seem European or American. I’m not sure what the story-tellers are attempting to convey with these choices. I am sure that if something similar were the case here in the States, we might — maybe — be a better country for it but most certainly not everyone would be happy. Especially if it were an aftermath of a lost war. What about Japan?
Or could it be that we all need a good thumb-suck to cope with the 21st Century?
Whatever: this movie is a work of art. Regardless of what might be lost in translation linguistically, politically, culturally, it demands your attention. See it.
Post Script: And when you do see the movie, be sure to sit through the credit scroll at the end; Katabuchi tells the story of one of the secondary characters in the form of a story board. It’s not quite so heart warming.