In This Corner of the World is the story of Suzu, an absentminded woman from a somewhat poor family in Hiroshima–at the close of the second world war.
The first section of the film serves to establish Suzu through brief snippets of Suzu’s childhood. She is a kind, somewhat clumsy girl who loves her family. But more than anything, she loves to draw–and it’s something she has great talent at. We meet her friends, family, and the boy she seems destined to marry.
Yet, after a surprise proposal, she marries a man she barely knows in the neighboring city of Kure. Moving in with his family, she struggles to adapt to a new life in the bustling naval port away from everyone and everything she’s ever known and loved.
Of course, this is far from an odd story set up in Japanese culture. Traditionally, daughters marry into the family of their husbands and place themselves under the rule of their (sometimes tyrannical) mothers-in-law. However, while all but a stranger to her new husband’s family, she quickly fits in. Working hard, she becomes accustomed to her new life. When problems arise, it is not her mother-in-law, but her sister-in-law, Keiko, who sees Suzu as an interloper trying to take her place in the family–despite the fact that Keiko has long since moved out and married into her own husband’s family.
What would already be a captivating family drama is compounded by the greater setting: the years leading up to August 6, 1945–the date of the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima.
When Suzu first moves in with her husband’s family, the war is still a far-away thing. When young men are drafted, families throw heartfelt celebrations to see them off. Her husband and father-in-law both work indirectly for the military–one as a civil official on the base and the other in a factory–but are in no way soldiers.
But as the years drag on, we see the war’s effect on the general population. First rationing becomes more common as first rice and then sugar disappears. Then, even something as innocent as sketching the harbor is looked upon as espionage. When the Allies get within striking distance of Japan proper, the civilians dig bomb shelters. Soon, rarely does a day go by without an air raid.
We see the personal side of events as Suzu tries to stretch the family’s food budget (sometimes successfully and sometimes not). Through her we learn about the black market and red light district. We see the effects of firebombing firsthand–along with the other death, pain, and loss that comes with war.
And looming behind this all is the sense of dread from knowing what is coming to the neighboring Hiroshima–what is in store for Suzu’s birth family and possibly herself should she decide to give up on her new family and return home.
The other notable aspect of the tale is how the visual style of storytelling is tied to the mindset of our heroine. In the film’s opening scenes of Suzu’s childhood, we see the events through the eyes of a creative child–i.e., the world as if she is a character in a Japanese children’s folktale. She is kidnapped by a monster (which she handily defeats through trickery) and meets a friendly spirit who lives in her grandmother’s attic. In other words, with Suzu as our viewpoint character, we see not the world as it is but as she interprets it. This carries on even into her adulthood.
Suzu is an artist–drawing is clearly the thing in life she loves to do the most. Whether it be scenic landscapes or cooking instructions, she draws pictures whenever possible. She is a visual person–to her, the world appears as she would draw it. Thus, in emotional moments, the art style of the film changes. What should be a distinct room becomes an indistinct blob. A concussion leaves the world as nothing but flashing rough sketches of the world around her.
All this creates a world that can be normal or surreal, realistic or abstract, coming together to make a single beautiful, artistic film.
In This Corner of the World is not a happy film, but it is a powerful one. A normal family drama and the most devastating war the world has ever known contrast to create a tale that is more than the sum of its parts. Visually stunning and emotionally heartbreaking, it is a universal human tale of the terrors of war, the power of family, and the hope for a better future.
In This Corner of the World was screened for the press at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2016 on October 26, 2016. It will be released in Japanese theaters on November 12, 2016. There is currently no word on a Western release.