In the United States, terms like ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ are quintessential expressions, underscoring an emphasis on individualism. But in Japan, life has traditionally skewed toward collectivism. As such, the word, ‘ganbaru’ is ubiquitous in conversation. Literally translated as ‘standing firm’, the expression is used to describe perseverance through particularly taxing times. While the word is rarely uttered in director Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World, its manifestation lingers in the backdrop throughout a majority of the animated film.
Largely, this devotion and tenacity is only absent during the first twenty minutes of the film, when we meet Suzu, an imaginative young girl from Eba, a seaside town on the outskirts of Hiroshima City. Recalling some of the motifs of Studio Ghibli’s oeuvre, early moments of the film are filled with nostalgic sentiment. A trip into town offers a mix of traditional Japanese winter decorations and red suited Santas, as citizens bustle about. Another scene reveals a low tide excursion to visit a grandmother which ends with the protagonist and her siblings covered in mud. A meeting with a stranger is reimagined by Suzu as a fairy-tale like encounter with a hairy ogre, illustrated in pencil and then told to a wide-eyed younger sister. Katabuchi casts these years as a serene and fulfilling era, with only a monstrous anvil cloud hinting of the tragedy to come. And while these moments might seem like unrelated vignettes, there’s intention and essential exposition that will soon pay off.
Steadily, Suzu’s life changes after a marriage proposal by a young man from Kure City, a neighboring town with an active naval port. Gone are the carefree days spent painting the local scenery and playing, replaced with the needs of housekeeping and cooking for three generations of a family she barely knows. But Suzu finds satisfaction in the seemingly mundane, with contentment produced with the service and care to others. The only truly troublesome element is an outspoken and snappy sister-in-law named Keiko, whose demeanor is wrought from past misfortune. On the upside, Keiko has a cheerful daughter named Harumi, who forms an easy bond with the young housewife.
As Japan’s overseas involvement grows, we see the effect on its citizens. But the food rations do little to damped the spirits of Suzu, who manages to transform a few basic ingredients and local florae into culinary art. And when the specter of war grows closer, she doesn’t waver, as the provisions become exponentially smaller, the blasts of anti-aircraft fire and the klaxons of emergency sirens increase with fretful frequency. Yet, throughout personal tragedy and hardship, Suzu remains resolute, envisioning clouds of cannon fire as beautiful pastel puffs that help reduce the drabness of an azure sky.
As the film’s timeline progresses, we know the approaching fate of Hiroshima, but are forced to watch the actions the unsuspecting family. Coupled with the contact barrage of drills and the encroaching danger of Allied bombing, threat feels particularly constricting in Corner of the World’s third act. But unlike Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies which showed the Kobe firebombings in excruciating detail, Katabuchi favors restraint. Largely, the effect is unnervingly devastating.
When the fateful A-bomb is released by the allies, it’s rendered not as an instantaneous cataclysm but an enigmatic flash followed by a succession of after effects, from a shock wave and atomic winds that flare seconds later. Again, the film’s impact grows from our own awareness of history. There’s heart-wringing poignancy in knowing that a nation would come together, indefatigably rebuild, and one day create document the tragedy in such an affecting, artful manner.
Based on Hiroshima-born Fumiyo Kōno’s manga of the same name, In This Corner of the World’s characters may be fictionalized, but obsessive care when into making sure the context was accurate. From interviewing survivors to meticulously using aerial photographs are source material, you can feel Katabuchi’s painstaking determination to ensure the film’s authenticity. Much like Corner of the World’s characters, that unwavering commitment and perseverance is absolutely inspiring.
In This Corner of the World opens in the U.S. on August 11th, 2017. A list of theaters showing the film can be found here.