In Writing Ground Zero, John Treat writes of how the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have always seemed to be indescribable subjects–putting something so horrific into words was impossible, and maybe not even desirable. Thus novelists and filmmakers like Masuji Ibuse and Tamiki Hara wrote not in graphic detail of the bombings themselves, but of the ordinary people whose lives were upended by them. The most famous example of this is arguably Masuji Ibuse’s novel Black Rain, the story of a family who survived the bombing and are now struggling to find a husband for their daughter, who may have contracted radiation sickness. Though both the novel and the film (by Shohei Imamura) contain some scenes of the aftermath of the bombing, the focus is mostly on the mundane routines of everyday life–fishing, squabbling with neighbors, meeting prospective suitors.
Like Black Rain, Sunao Katabuchi’s brilliant In This Corner of the World (Kono sekai no katasumi ni), based on the popular manga by Fumiyo Kōno, doesn’t linger over the bombing itself. When the event happens, it’s barely noticed by the main characters. How much it’s affected them won’t be revealed until near the end of the film, and even then there are no shouts or tears, just a kind of quiet acceptance.
The film will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Grave of the Fireflies, that relentlessly heartbreaking Ghibli film about two wartime orphans struggling to survive in Kobe. But Corner has a lightness and humor that Fireflies lacked, even if its subject matter is equally serious. I also happened to see Corner the day after seeing the hugely popular Your Name, which felt overdone and maudlin where Corner feels stripped bare and raw. The animation has a simple, hand-drawn look that reflects the style of its artist main character. Your Name hits you over the head repeatedly with emotional moments, Corner presents them quietly. When the movie ended the theater was silent except for the sound of sniffles.
Corner also understands on a very deep level that it’s an animated film, and it makes thrilling use of the medium to convey not only beauty but the complicated feelings surrounding tragedy and loss. It’s driven by its story, but it’s helped enormously by the flexibility of animation, the way that a simple change in drawing style or the juxtaposition of different hand-drawn images can reveal so much.
The story begins near Hiroshima in the early 1930s and is narrated by the endlessly charming Suzu (voiced by Rena Nōnen), a young artist who is described by herself and others as eternally “absent-minded.” Really, though, she’s just a dreamer, happy in her own world and content to turn the scenes around her into beautiful images and fantastical stories. Her brother is a bit of a bully, but other than that her life with her sister and parents seems idyllic. She has a crush on an older local boy, Tetsu (Daisuke Ono) who pretends not to like her. By the early 1940s she is married off to Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya), a young man from a nearby port town, and while she seems ambivalent about the marriage and admits that she “doesn’t know him at all,” he turns out to be loving and kind. His family, with the exception of his prickly sister, embrace her as well.
Corner lingers on the magic of the everyday world as Suzu sees it, a world of ocean views, colorful kimono, streetcars, families gathered around a communal table, and stolen kisses with her husband. It’s a world that occasionally turns violent and tragic but always seems to revert to its familiar self, much like Suzu, whose childhood crush once begged her to “always stay normal.”
Suzu’s very ordinary life is juxtaposed with a looming piece of dramatic irony–we all know what’s going to happen to Hiroshima in 1945, and as text on the screen counts down the days and the characters remain oblivious, the tension rises. Things become harrowing long before then, though, as the town is subjected to regular air raids and the family spends long nights huddled in an underground shelter. In between the scenes of destruction, though, life goes on–laundry is done, letters are written, meager rations are creatively cooked.
When things do turn tragic, Katabuchi conveys the characters’ feelings with a jarring shift in animation style. The screen turns black, and the action is suddenly rendered as jagged stick figures that break apart and come together repeatedly, yet again reminding us that some things are simply too horrible to convey in detail. When Suzu sinks into a deep depression, the setting around her gradually blurs and changes color until it resembles an abstract painting with Suzu the only clear object at the center, her chaotic thoughts repeated in voiceover. It takes the gut punch of the narrative to a new level.
The film’s supporting characters are vividly realized. The sister-in-law, Keiko (Minori Omi) is more than just a necessary antagonist, and over time we learn why she’s prickly. Her daughter Harumi is precocious and just a little bit bratty. Shusaku initially seems stoic and closed off but reveals a deep sense of wonder when regarding his wife. And Suzu herself is complicated–her head is in the clouds much of the time, but she’s also conflicted about her feelings for her husband and her childhood crush. When she finally lets go of her mask of deference and shows her angry side, it’s a beautiful moment of release both for the character and the audience.
Though Corner will probably be remembered most for its scenes of tragedy, it was a more mundane scene that hit me especially hard. Suzu has gone into the city and has gotten lost, as she often does. She meets a couple of women in bright kimono who smell like flowers–we know this because little hand-drawn flowers occasionally drift off of their clothing and float away. One of them kindly directs Suzu to her destination, and Suzu tells her that she’d love to come back and see her again. For just a moment the film goes silent, and the woman looks directly at Suzu and says “Don’t come back here.”
That moment reveals so much–that the women are prostitutes, that this is a red light district, that the naive Suzu is in a place that she shouldn’t be in, and that there’s often a bit of darkness lurking beneath a pleasant exterior. The way that Katabuchi ties everything together–the little detail of the flowers, the expression on the woman’s face, the contrast of her kimono with the dull uniforms of the soldiers being escorted into the brothel–is, like the film itself, masterful.