By Forrest Rawles (Georgia)
As war-torn countries claw their way through each other, Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World is well deserved animated film that portrays the Japanese experiences and views inside the life of World War II. Katabuchi’s beautiful animation is inspired by his previous projects at Studio Ghibli with Hiyao Miyazaki, where he was most notably the assistant director for the animated film Kiki’s Delivery Service. Most recently, his film In This Corner of the World weaves a dramatic, fictional tale that is based on the adaption of Fumiyo Kouno award-winning manga series with the same title. The setting places itself mainly in the city of Hiroshima and Kure, throughout the main character’s life, which mostly takes place during World War II. The story paints the bloody portrait of living in an imaginary cage of war, and the effects of losing oneself within the harsh realities in wartime. The separation between imagination and reality becomes blurred during wartime to a point at which the soul is lost, especially coming into adulthood.
The film transitions between luscious dreams and the harsh reality of the life of the protagonist, and society’s expectations of women’s duties during that period. In This Corner of the World tells the story of the creative, kind, and humble Suzu Urano, an artistic young woman who begins a new life as a house wife. As her arranged marriage sets in stone her future, she moves to the small city of Kure, outside of her home city of Hiroshima. There she is married to Hojo Shusaku, an earnest and quiet man who works as a judicial solider in Kure and lives with his family. The town is home to many naval fleets that are targets of the dreaded war, and, because the war is coming closer to the heartland, food rations are becoming scarce among the people. Urano starts to experience the harsh reality of life as a woman in the wartime era of Japanese society, and her difficulty adjusting to her duties around the household. Her creative mind inspires her to draw the world around her, through the lens of her imaginary life.
However, as war draws near to her town, her life begins to change dramatically. The film excels at telling the perspective of war from the Japanese point of view and details the horrors that arise as people live through the terror of World War II. The film is produced by a Japanese studio, and therefore lacks the overdramatic glamour of a Hollywood production, and the animation is not white washed to appear through the American lens. Due to the film’s Japanese viewpoint of the war, the story seems to be more realistic to events of history in Japan. The plot seems simplistic at first, but as the scenes progress, the story becomes richer. The shift in mood between the beginning and end are so differentiated that the narrative impacted my emotions very dramatically. There are a lot of small details that are scattered throughout the film that comes back subtly later in the story.
Early in the film, young Urano meets a poor, little girl at her grandmother’s home, and Urano offered her some watermelons. By the next day, the poor stranger disappears. Later in the film, an adult Urano is lost in a blatant red-light district in her town. There she is greeted by a lavish woman who helps her find her way back home. During the confrontation, there are subtle hints that point to the lavish woman to be the poor child from the past. These small details add an extra layer that gives the story a deeper connection to the protagonist. The film does seem to drag a slower pace like the years the main protagonist goes through, and this makes the narrative a bit sluggish to watch. Since there are also very quick and excessive frames of events for many scenes, sometimes it is hard to follow what is going on, but this settles down as the story progresses longer.
The film portrays the life of living through the terrors of war, and the feeling can be felt heavily. The desperation that war creates a cage for the daydreamer of a protagonist, and the film excels at how war kills the life of creativity and starts a life in deep reality. The happy feelings of life become dreadful to overcome, and effects of war on the people are very impactful to living. The story becomes a means to survive than live life. This is especially difficult to the protagonist, Urano, because of her age and gender as she is stuck to live at home and do womanly chores. But, later in the film, she reflects on trying to make choices on her own and decide her own future. This becomes difficult for her, since her living in the war is dramatically impacting her soul, her life, and her imagination. Overall, the story is very intriguing and conveys the effects of war to those who live within the times of bloodshed. The pacing may be a bit slow and hard to follow, but it fixes itself the further the story goes on. The artistic visuals and animation throughout the film are stunning to watch and experience. The colors are soft and light at first, but when the animation continues towards the end, the colors starts to become darker and grittier.
The transitions of the light, calm palate to the dark, hollow palate makes the mood and tone of the film way more impactful for the audience. It shows the transitions of prosperous life to the dreaded need to survive. Not only the colors impact the story telling, but also the way the animation transitions to different styles of artistic visuals. From an oil paint style background to back to hand-drawn animation style background, the art design makes the world feel like it is the imagination of Urano, and that the audience is inside the head of the protagonist. There are plenty of scenes throughout the film in which the style of animation changes to reflect Urano’s imagination. At one point, Urano looks over the sky to see anti-air shells firing at aircrafts in the sky, and these shells create a burst of metal and smoke. In Urano’s lens, she starts to see the explosions as lots of different colored brush strokes in various directions within the blue canvas sky.
Her imagination is taking over, but reality creeps in and causes her to realize the danger of the situation. The scene makes the moment seem so real to imagine, and the effects of the paint strokes takes the viewer away from the effects of war. This imagery strongly impacts story, as it blends art and history in a unique way. The music and sound effects within In This Corner of the World gives the narrative more life, but the way Katabuchi handles music in the film is a bit unusual. Usually, there are plenty of scenes that implement various amounts of soundtracks and music to fill the void and enhance the scenes, yet Katabuchi places long gaps of silence between multiple scenes. This draws an unusual atmosphere while watching the film. Because of the long gaps of silence, the scenes with music have a huge impact to the viewer, and these scenes grasp the audience very tightly and emotionally.
The music choices made the moods of various scenes cherishing, and the music that is played is either classical or traditional music like the music played by Studio Ghibli. As such, the sound effects are also enhanced, because the longer silence periods. The sounds of bomb shells, people chatting in the background, and more seem to feel more real; these effects absorb the viewers to be inside the life of Japan during World War II. Even though it seems unusual at first, the offbeat feeling fades away the longer the film runs. This means that the choice of including longer periods of silence does create a bit of a drawback to the audience’s attention. Due to the narrative’s slower pacing, some scenes seem to be a bit boring to watch over with no background music. But on a larger scale, this effect performs very well.
Overall, the film In This Corner of the World is a great dramatic animated film to watch. The story is fascinating to follow and the common themes that Katabuchi and Kouno portray are interesting. It becomes very emotional at the right moments, and despite being an animated film, the protagonist life seems very real. Some parts of the film are a bit slow and hard to understand quickly, but this is outweighed by the overall pacing and narrative. The artistic animations are beautiful to watch, the colors match the mood they convey, and the background animation make the film very aesthetically pleasing. The choices made in the sound design are a bit odd at first, however, the sound work is very integral to the theme of story and compliments the film overall. The music is enjoyable and impactful, which heightens the drama and narrative of the story. In This Corner of the World is a memorable animated film, and a great experience to watch for the first time.