Saturday, August 19, 2017

Tonight's Movie: In This Corner of the World (2016)

IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD (2016) is a moving, artistically beautiful anime film about daily life in Japan during World War II.

Called KONO SEKAI NO KATSUMI NI in its native Japan, it's the simple yet simultaneously rich tale of the life of Suzu (Non, also known as Rena Nounen). Young Suzu is a dreamy, creative artist; in a series of episodic vignettes we see some of her childhood experiences and then we watch as she becomes a young woman and leaves her town in Hiroshima, moving to Kure for an arranged marriage to Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya).

Reminders of the war are in the background, as young men join the military and Suzu learns about all the ships in the harbor. As food supplies dwindle, Suzu finds creative ways to stretch meager rations for her husband, in-laws, and widowed sister-in-law. Bombings become more frequent and eventually there's the huge flash of light in the distance over Suzu's original home, Hiroshima...

Despite the setting, IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD completely avoids geopolitics or blame for the war, with the exception that Suzu cries that "violence" has won when the Emperor announces the war has ended on the radio. (There's no mention of violence when the film's onscreen calendar passes through December 1941...) Suzu's comment seems more a cry of frustration than anything else; Suzu's sister-in-law is simultaneously reminded of a painful loss, and both women are processing why they have had to endure the last few years.

Instead of focusing on the reasons behind the war, the story stays tightly aimed at Suzu's experiences and what it was like to be a homesick young bride getting to know her husband and his family while making it through the day-to-day grind of wartime deprivations and losses. Despite the many challenges, Suzu remains determined and hopeful, and the film ends on an optimistic note.

Like other Japanese animated films previously reviewed here, THE WIND RISES (2013) and YOUR NAME. (2016), IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD pairs visual beauty with a substantive, deeply involving story. While a calendar counts down the history we know, within that framework the story is at times pleasantly unpredictable.

We initially fear Suzu may become a Cinderella-like drudge, but her husband is a nice guy, and she also comes to love his family, even his rude sister. Suzu works hard on the family's behalf but she's enthusiastic about tackling her new challenges, a mark of her continued maturation and an interesting contrast with her dreamy nature. (Those who enjoy "foodie" movies will find her cooking scenes fascinating.) In one of the most unexpected scenes, the in-laws' reaction when soldiers find Suzu sketching the harbor and accuse her of being a potential spy is delightful.

With its focus on daily life and family relationships and its deliberate pacing, the movie reminded me strongly of films directed by Yasujiro Ozu. In Ozu's films there are periodically references to family members who didn't return from the war. The Westernization of Japan is another of Ozu's regular themes, and this too is seen in the film, as swing music is played in a military hospital late in the war and later American soldiers are seen distributing food and chocolate.

I was deeply absorbed but managed to remain unemotional until a scene late in the film when characters rhapsodize that what they jokingly call U.S. Army "leftovers" are delicious and eat it gleefully; after all that had happened, the coming together of the two countries and the bright hope for the future was profoundly moving.

It may be helpful for viewers to know that Suzu occasionally has vivid dreams, making it hard at times to tell what's real and what's not; seeing YOUR NAME. earlier this year helped prepare me for that kind of fanciful storytelling, and eventually it all made sense.

The movie is just a little too long at 129 minutes, having a couple of "false endings" ahead of the real one, but that's my only criticism. This is a fine film which I highly recommend; I've seen over 200 films so far this year, and this is one of the best.

IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD was cowritten and directed by Sunao Katabuchi, based on a manga novel by Fumiyo Kono. I was interested to read that while it's animated, the filmmakers took great care in presenting Kure and Hiroshima as they authentically looked during the war.

Parental Advisory: IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD is rated PG-13 for "thematic elements" including "wartime images." The movie isn't graphic, but there are a couple of images and plot points which could be difficult for younger viewers. That's balanced with positive themes of perseverance, kindness, loyalty, and hope.

I saw IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD voiced in Japanese with English subtitles, and I strongly recommend experiencing the film that way rather than dubbed into English. A list of theaters screening the film can be found at the movie's website.

The U.S. trailer is at YouTube.


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