ALMOST anyone familiar with Grave of the the Fireflies will assent it was a work of art. Even if they’re not personally fond of it, it’s one of a handful of animated films that regularly features on published lists of the best of all time. It also features among those films that consistently receive the adage that they ‘really have to be seen to be appreciated.’ A fine sentiment for film in general, obviously, but also a great cop-out clause for a reviewer who wants to reach an early close.
I think Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of The World is perhaps an easier film to gauge on an emotive level – and its certainly less overwhelmingly depressing! – but in its own fashion, it carries every bit as much of an emotive punch, and can pull just as many heart strings. I compare the two films, now almost three decades apart, simply because it feels impossible not to – the thematic interchange is that apparent.
Both films are about Japanese youths from a suburban upper working class background growing up in West Japanese cities – Kobe and Hiroshima respectively – during the latter half of the Second World War as their respective families are forced together, and pulled apart, by the traumatic effects of the war. This is only to scratch the surface of what the two films have in common, but what struck me most about In This Corner… was the manner in which Katabuchi was able to draw from the same period, with remarkably comparable material, and still managed to provide an almost entirely different perspective. Perhaps this is not surprising, after all, though I’ve caught myself describing In this Corner… as Ghibliesque, more than a few times. It is not a Ghibli film in style, in substance, or in fact.
Granted, the soft tones and earthy hues of the film, together with its emphasis on light and natural sounds and textures, very much recalls ‘Fireflies and other Ghibli works but with a decidedly more impressionist streak. It recalls the cross-exchange between European impressionism and the Japanese print and watercolour traditions which had been developing across contemporary Japanese art schools.
The style of the art is also indicative of one of the other main differences between Fireflies and In This Corner…: the change in perspectives. Whereas Fireflies’ Seita aspires to be one of wartime Japan’s ‘iron youth’, representing the country’s militaristic bent, and drive to self-determination at any cost, In This Corner…’s Suzu (Rena Nonen) is instead an artist and daydreamer who strives to find a place within both her community and her new family.
Aside from Princess Arete (2001) – a cult hit in Japan which has also been widely compared to Studio Ghibli – Katabuchi is mostly known for his work for anime television studios such as Madhouse. However, I get the clear sense In This Corner… was a passion project, involving the biggest, and most successful, crowdfunding operation for a film in Japanese history, netting over 39 million Yen. The level of attention to historical detail is especially meticulous, with numerous surviving residents interviewed, a vast collection of available archive footage and photo of 1940’s Kure and Hiroshima sourced, and single shots being revised up to 20 times to ensure each detail was correct.
The film follows Suzu’s childhood and coming of age in wartime Hiroshima. We see her just coming to terms with her womanhood and a developing attraction to a young classmate, the sullen naval rating Tetsu (Daisuke Ono), when her family announces that the naval clerk Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya), a young man she has never properly met but who remembers her from a chance encounter, wishes to marry her. And so Suzu begins a new life in Kure – the home of Japan’s oldest naval dockyard and the central hub of its naval industry and activity in WW2 – along with her new husband, his aging parents, his sister, the initially steely and uncompromising widow Keiko (Minori Omi) and her young daughter Harumi (Natsuki Inaba).
The emphasis on Suzu’s colourful and often fantastic perspective makes for a curious tonal distinction, which might at points even be seen as verging on apologetics for Axis Japan with its depiction of resourceful Japanese communities doing ‘their bit’ to help the war effort while enduring relentless air raids from a faceless enemy. There is an argument that elephant in the room is not being fully addressed; that what we are being treated to in In This Corner… is an almost entirely one-sided perspective, which would no doubt be highly uncomfortable for some viewers. It is very hard to imagine this film becoming a hit in China or Korea, for example.
Even great studios like Ghibli can be politically reticent at times. 2013’s The Wind Rises was a charming story about a passionate aeronautical engineer (Jiro Hirokoshi) and his touching relationship with his terminally ill wife; it barely recognised that the weapons the man developed were used to kill tens of thousands of people, servicemen and civilians. It is one thing to make a film which celebrates a nation’s inventiveness and its people’s strength of character during a turbulent period, but another to make a film which celebrates the ingenuity and excitement of war without sparing a thought for any of its dire realities and consequences.
In This Corner… sometimes falls into this category. Suzu and her neighbours may appear devoted to their nation’s cause – the level of awe and pride the characters have for the great battle ships of Kure, particularly the Yamato, deliberately borders on the romantic – but we never lose sight of the horrors of war or the state’s role in perpetuating them. Even if Suzu as a character is initially naïve to the hardships war can bring, In This Corner… is always cognizant.
A key character who reflects this is Tetsu, who we first meet looking at the sea having lost any passion to draw it. Suzu, ever the day dreamer, is so entranced by his description of the waves as ‘white rabbits running’, and being given the opportunity by Tetsu to paint it for him, that she completely fails to engage with the reasons he actually gives for having lost his enthusiasm for the sea – his brother’s ship has just been sunk at Midway and he is certain the sea will claim him too, sooner or later.
For Tetsu, the sea and the war has stolen not only his brother’s life, but the life he himself could be leading if not conscripted. Suzu, and we the viewer, can only see a beautiful scene of crashing waves. This contrast between destructive forces and Suzu’s creative passion crops up again and again throughout the film. When scrambling for an air raid shelter she looks up at the battle raging above and is dazzled for a time, seeing only explosions of colour as dabs of paint bursting overhead.
The beginning of the film’s third act also features one of the most insightful and effective portrayals of trauma, survivor’s guilt and recovery I have ever seen in film, all while remaining within the wellspring of the artist’s mind. Beginning with stuttering sparks of static as neurons re-knit, the mind tries to patch itself together after a life-shattering moment of shock, regressing to the last memories which are comprehensible and playing out a thousand and one possibilities for avoiding a catastrophe which has already occurred.
The pace might be indulgent for some viewers, but In This Corner… triumphs in portraying, through the many small and seemingly ordinary acts of day to day life, how individuals and communities can endure amidst the daily horrors of war. It says something that, when the bombing of Hiroshima takes place, it’s almost peripheral, a horror that can only be glimpsed in the details: a faceless man sitting down to die next to a house that was once his, unrecognised by his own mother. Families go searching for their loved ones but there has been too much trauma already for them to be affected the way they once were. As they say, “Crying only wastes salt.”
Despite this, In This Corner of the World manages to avoid becoming a movie about despair and death the way Fireflies has sometimes been characterised. The development of the romantic plot between a couple who are at first virtual strangers, gradually grows into a bond of mutual respect and surprisingly tender care which keeps the family alive and functioning. Seita dies at the beginning of Fireflies surrounded by busy and uncaring commuters as a piece of human refuse at Sannomiya station, having lost everything he once had to live for.
War breaks families apart, pushes the good, the bad, and the ordinary to their breaking points, physically and mentally, and pushes the most vulnerable people in society further into the margins. Taken together, Fireflies and In This Corner… show us how, despite the heroic efforts of its ordinary citizens, the Japanese state ultimately failed its people in WW2, particularly the young. In This Corner… makes the case that it was only the strength of individual families and communities which prevented the rest of Japan from falling into a deathly despair like Seita’s, and instead kept a nation alive and together.
Please support the release of fantastic animation like In This Corner… by checking it out at your local with that fiver you were going to give to Michael Bay to stuff his mattress with in return for his latest dog turd. That is… if you can still find it… as I believe it technically only had a two-day nationwide release last week in the UK. Ah well.