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Film Review: ‘In This Corner of the World’

Variety logo Variety 6/19/2017 Peter Debruge
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In 1931, Japan began a crusade of Asian expansion, and for more than a dozen years, the country waged an offensive war away from home — meaning that the women and children were largely insulated from the horrors their sons and husbands were wreaking abroad. And then, in 1944, the tide turned, as Allied bombers reached Japan, culminating, of course, in the two atomic blasts that ended the war. Wistful and snowglobe-intimate, director Sunao Katabuchi’s “In This Corner of the World” takes place a stone’s throw from Hiroshima during this period, capturing a way of life that was effectively wiped out by the war through the experience of a young housewife blessed with an artistic sensibility.

“Even in war, cicadas cry and butterflies fly,” observes Suzu Urano (Non), the movie’s young protagonist, who has the capacity to look out at a sky full of explosions and see them as bursts of color on a giant canvas. She’s not so much naïve as optimistic (after all, no one could have anticipated the damage of a nuclear explosion), managing to find the beauty in one of the toughest periods the country has every known — and that’s the tone this lovely (albeit somewhat loosely drawn) anime feature distills from Fumiyo Kono’s prized manga.

Domestically speaking, “In This Corner of the World” has been a considerable success, earning nearly 2 million admissions, even going so far as to win the Japanese Academy Award for animation over megahit “Your Name.” And yet, “Princess Arete” director Katabuchi’s unusually tender adaptation is sure to have a very different life abroad, where no one knows the source material, and where audiences are less likely to respond to its nostalgic evocation of a simpler time. Even to those who do identify, its more-than-two-hour running time and occasionally confusing mix of characters and locations poses somewhat of a challenge, unfolding like a slow-motion countdown to a disaster whose mushroom-shaped shadow looms large from the outset.

To some extent, “In This Corner of the World” recalls Studio Ghibli’s WWII-set “The Wind Rises,” in which legendary helmer Hayao Miyazaki drew from firsthand memories of the fire bombing of Tokyo, or elder colleague Isao Takahata’s 1988 masterpiece, “Grave of the Fireflies.” Except in this case, 56-year-old Katabuchi is too young to have witnessed much of what he depicts, relying on a combination of research and imagination to evoke a place that was blasted into oblivion. That makes the film’s exquisite attention to detail all the more remarkable, as virtually every scene teaches us something about a place that no longer exists.

Suzu is just a child when the story begins, and her memory sometimes plays tricks on her, as in the story of an early visit to Hiroshima, where she was kidnapped by a monster who threw her in a wicker basket with another boy. This fanciful anecdote marks a curious way to open a story that otherwise feels firmly grounded in reality — the only other exception being a visit to granny’s house in the country, when Suzu sets out slices of watermelon for a poor girl she believes to be a ghost (the character later grows up to be a geisha in the neighboring town).

Through simply drawn, distinguished only by a tiny mole on her chin, Suzu emerges as a tough, well-rounded character, capable of adapting to air raids, rationing and the other demands of war, while still maintaining her capacity to find the beauty among hardship — even after a tragic loss that makes it impossible for her to draw. Hailing from a family of modest seaweed farmers, Suzu sacrifices romance for a pragmatic marriage to a stranger named Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya) — one that requires her to forget Tetsu Mizuhara (Daisuke Ono), the classmate on whom she’d had a crush as a child, and leave her home near Hiroshima for the port city of Kure about 15 miles away.

In one of film’s strongest scenes, Suzu crosses paths with Tetsu after school and draws him staring out at the ocean, painting the frothy white waves in the distance as a series of jumping rabbits. Little could these two kids know how the sea would separate them: Tetsu grows up to join the Japanese Navy, while Suzu settles into a life of mundane chores: cooking, cleaning and caring for her new family. As young men everywhere enlist, tragedy is inevitable, as when Suzu’s younger brother Seiko disappears, but she is lucky in that Shusaku works as a clerk in the court martial office, meaning her husband doesn’t have to fight.

As the far-off war escalates, subtle changes sweep the country, forcing civilians to get creative as food shortages limit what they can eat. Suzu tries her hand at recipes that she would never think to eat in peacetime, and even visits the black market after an invasion of ants compromises the family’s limited sugar supply. At one point, Tetsu returns on leave, and much to Suzu’s surprise, her husband encourages her to comfort the visiting sailor in his room. It is here, confronted with the possibility of what might have been, that Suzu finally comes to appreciate the life she has chosen — which is not to say that it’s been easy.

By this point, American bombing raids have become a routine occurrence, focusing on Kure while Hiroshima goes relatively unscathed. As the attacks escalate, even Suzu loses hope at one point, as the screen goes dark and she plunges into despair. And then comes the bomb that will change everything, ushering in an a surreal epilogue as Katabuchi forces us to confront the gruesome impact of Hiroshima, while adding an orphaned child to a family that has lost so much.

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