The Japanese anime film In This Corner of the World tells the story of a young woman living near Hiroshima during World War II. Directed by Sunao Katabuchi and based on a manga by Fumiyo Kouno, the film drew wide acclaim after it debuted in 2016, winning the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year. In This Corner of the World recently opened in several cities in the United States.
We first meet Suzu, the main character, as a young girl running an errand in downtown Hiroshima in the 1930s. She and her family live in the seaside town of Eba, where they run an edible seaweed business. Suzu, who loves to draw, describes herself as an absent-minded daydreamer, and the film itself often takes on a dreamlike quality. Sometimes, it is difficult to tell reality and Suzu’s imagination apart. Whitecaps on a stormy sea transform into white rabbits; anti-aircraft fire becomes colorful splotches of paint in the sky.
In 1944, Shusaku Hojo, a man Suzu barely knows, asks for her hand in marriage. Suzu moves to the port of Kure, home to a major Japanese naval base and shipyards, to live with Shusaku and his family, including his haughty, widowed sister Keiko. Suzu adapts to life as a housewife and forges a close bond with Keiko’s little daughter Harumi, who also loves drawing and delights in pointing out warships in Kure Harbor.
Even as the fighting draws closer to the Japanese mainland, the film retains a light touch. When rationing sets in, Suzu tries to cook an old samurai recipe with comic results. The family must fend off ants who raid their precious supply of sugar. But soon, their reality becomes increasingly grim. Suzu’s drawings of ships in the harbor attract the attention of the military police, who accuse her of espionage. Kure becomes the target of US bombing, and the family spends hour after hour huddled in their bomb shelter. Eventually, Suzu and Harumi’s shared curiosity leads to tragedy.
The characters are fictional, but the film is based on extensive research. Dates flash on screen documentary-style as the film re-creates specific events leading up to the fateful day of August 6, 1945. Viewers familiar with the history of the Hiroshima bombing will recognize certain references – both the Atomic Dome and the T-shaped Aioi Bridge, the aim point for the Enola Gay, make an appearance – but this quiet, subtle film focuses more attention on the daily struggles of Suzu and her family than on the actual bombing. The scenes depicting the bombing and its aftermath are brief, harrowing, and powerful.
Some critics have asked whether the film’s focus on the experiences and suffering of Japanese civilians may promote narratives of victimization that play down Japan’s wartime atrocities. A review in Variety notes, “the alteration of some dialogue in a scene in the original manga, when the heroine realizes her country’s oppression of others upon seeing a Korean flag, has provoked domestic debate.” Viewers can and should consider these questions. Yet whatever one thinks about this history, In This Corner of the World provides a moving look at daily life and survival during wartime.