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August 11, 2017

‘In This Corner Of The World’ Both Tearjerking & Troubling [Review]

When a new animated film draws comparisons to the heartbreaking anime classic “Grave of the Fireflies,” you’d be forgiven for going to the cinema with high expectations and a box of Kleenex. And while Sunao Katabuchi’s “In This Corner of the World” — tackling the same historical period in World War II-era Japan as Isao Takahata’s tearjerker — may not meet the impossible bar for quality, the tissues will probably still come in handy. To director Katabuchi’s credit, his third feature-film effort (he was once a production hand at Studio Ghibli) takes its own approach to the exorcizing the national demons of the war that still haunt Japan, smartly sticking close to its female protagonist and threading a painterly motif throughout the narrative. Unfortunately, some fumbled melodrama and the thorny issue of nationalism that hung over Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” compromise the finer impulses in “In This Corner of the World.”

The film kicks off in December 1933, with a young Suzu shopping in the bustling streets of Hiroshima, becoming aware of the value of luxuries like candy (tidily setting up a framing device). It becomes quickly evident that “In This Corner of the World” is told in the form of the young girl’s personal diary, quickly skipping through the formative events of her childhood and as her personal history runs parallel to the grinding gears of war.

When Suzu is set up in an arranged marriage, she is forced to leave her family and move to the hills surrounding the port city of Kupe. She quickly moves into role of the female caretaker for her in-laws; not just the elders, but also her new sister and niece who have already experience their own fair share of tragedy. All the while, the journal entries advance closer roughly this moment in August 72 years ago, when the unthinkable devastation of a pair of nuclear bombs cripple Japan.

Like so many of the great Japanese films (at least the ones without samurai swords), “In This Corner of the World” really sings when it focus the routines of everyday life. For the bulk of the narrative, protagonist Suzu persists as if nothing has fundamentally changed in her day-to-day role as daughter and, subsequently, wife. Of course, the increasingly stringent rationing in Japan during the Second World War had a dramatic impact on quality of life, and the centrepiece food montage in which Suzu stretches four sardines into a series of meals for the entire family stirs the heart as much as it gets the tastebuds salivating.

“In This Corner of the World” prides itself on its hand-drawn animation, a level of effort and expense that is becoming all too uncommon in contemporary cinema. This time-consuming undertaking isn’t just to give the film a coat of prestige and polish worthy of its serious subject matter. More so, the painterly approach to the look of the film encapsulates the watercolor goggles through which Suzu views the world. In her earliest moments, the character is established to be an avid artist; one illustrative sequence shows that the young girl has sketched so extensively that her costly school pencil is now an impractical nub.

Often the animation in the film breaks from its realist mode to capture an impressionistic vision of the surrounding beauty: the caps of waves are imagined as white rabbits, and later airplane fire leaves behind paint spatter as residue. The most radical stylistic departure follows the film’s most traumatic incident, and the animation devolves to chalk marks on a black background. If perhaps not the most original expressive devices, they are nonetheless just as effective.

The final act of “In This Corner of the World” plays out around the arrival of the American military to the islands of Japan and the bombing of Hiroshima, unfolding in particularly grim contrast to the relative optimism of the events preceding the country’s defeat. The narrative was inevitably heading to this point, which is the real “Grave of the Fireflies” territory of the whole picture, though it tends to drag out like the last excruciating stretch of Masaki Kobayashi’s ten-hour opus “The Human Condition.” There’s something unconvincing about this streak of misfortune that comes to Suzu and her family. It’s not contrived that horrific things would come to pass, but the rapid succession of events seems too heightened, as if in a last-ditch attempt to stir the audience. The strings pulling on the heart are visible in a way that betrays the more subtle turns of “In This Corner of the World.”

Similar to “Dunkirk,” Katabuchi’s wartime pic avoids explicitly naming the enemy—in this case, the American military—until one moment near the end (of course, this could be down to the translation in the subtitles, but the point stands). Nonetheless, “In This Corner of the World” dodges the important question of how our humble characters, by any small measure, are contributing to a brutal war and are not simply victims of it. Miyazaki’s tack in “The Wind Rises” was similar, attempting to bury the violent application of airplanes in the artistry of their design. The aftertaste of “In This Corner of the World” is one of propaganda—our heroine still subscribes to the warmongering rhetoric and the shame of her nation’s defeat. The delicateness at which the film arrives at this conclusion, no matter how period accurate in its sentiment, is ultimately troubling. [B-]

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