In This Corner of the World
The world of Japanese animation is wide and varied. Since its start, anime has come in various genres, without consolidating as only a medium for children’s stories. The same is true for manga, Japanese comics from which most of the animation is adapted—as an art form, it is as respected in Japan as novels, with thousands of stories printed every year.
The historical/personal manga, In This Corner of the World, by a female mangaka, Fumiyo Kôno, garnered praise and had a successful crowdfunding campaign. The latter was necessary, since even though there is a wide range of manga and anime, the historical ones rarely get made into films. The campaign almost doubled the amount initially asked, and the film itself is one of the most gorgeous and sincere animations of the past few years. As such, it rivals the works of Studio Ghibli in their takes on recent Japanese history, such as Isao Takahata’s The Grave of the Fireflies and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises.
The film beautifully adapts practically every frame of the original manga by Kôno, and maintains the visual style of her drawings. It puts us in the shoes of Suzu, a young girl that grows up in the years that lead up to World War II. The film is told entirely from her point of view. We see everything that happens to her from her school days, the games she plays and how she spends her time as a little girl, until the end of the war, when the aftermath of the nuclear bombs can still be felt and she’s already a married woman. Every character is seen as if they were drawn with soft pencil markings around their edges. This, as well as the rugged texture of the different pencils used to color the characters’ skin and clothes, gives the animation a distinct look, as if we’re watching something that is being made on the fly, as if quick sketches on paper. The figures at times seem fuzzy, which works particularly well in developing the character of Suzu, who is absent-minded and constantly forgets what she is doing, as if the world around her were constantly being redrawn in her mind with all its faults and differences. This includes fantasies—for example, when Suzu is kidnapped and put inside a basket that a cloaked figure, later revealed as a monster, carries on his back, and frees herself by making the monster go to sleep.
We know about the events, things and people that Suzu cares about through her art. She draws constantly, telling stories, using her talent to get close to others or to remember better what she’s done. Her drawings are similar in style to those of the film (though a bit more crude at the beginning), thus giving us the illusion that we’re watching a personal retelling of someone’s life. Yet In This Corner of the World is anything but. The manga and film serve as a vehicle to many stories, rumors, hearsay and old tales that are told by the people who lived at the time of the war. The film at times skips ahead to the next important event, based on diaries, newspaper clippings and oral stories of people that lived in the two towns of Hiroshima and Kure. In this way, it becomes much more universal, even if fixed in Suzu’s perspective as she grows up, accepts a marriage proposal from a man that she didn’t know before, becomes part of her husband’s household, suffers famine, has to come up with new and diverse ways to prepare food, loses friends, family and ultimately is confronted with the cruelty of war through the destruction of her hometown.
The film has a sweet tone, but the innocence gives way to a more mature perspective quickly, as Suzu becomes more and more responsible for her household, and as tragedies accumulate. The film becomes darker and doesn’t shy away or sugarcoat the reality of the bombings, or the hunger. At the end, it presents one of the most tragic and brutal events that came after the detonation of the nuclear bomb: the lost children that wandered Hiroshima, clinging to their mother’s remains, where we see every drop of blood, every devastated bit of landscape that surrounds them, accompanied by the heartbreaking yet still sweet and poignant score. The more dramatic details blend in with Suzu’s recollections of how she came up with the latest rice dish, and other ordinary events that are all part of her reality. The film is animated and wondrous, yet the realness of the world it depicts comes across in dialogue, in every date that roots the story in the historical context, and sound that the film fills us with.