In the world of animation, it’s always quite striking to be reminded of the still untapped potential of Hollywood films. Save for a few ambitious efforts, the medium has been mostly synonymous with fantasy-related children’s fare. Internationally, however, animated films have been more willing to approach difficult subjects through a realist lens. One such example is “In This Corner of the World,” the new anime feature from director Sunao Katabuchi. Recalling the 1988 Studio Ghibli classic “Grave of the Fireflies,” this impressive period drama takes place in Japan during the tumultuous events of World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima. Told through the eyes of a young civilian, it never shies away from the harsh realities of life during wartime. As such, this modest animation stands out at this summer’s box office alongside like-minded fare such as “Dunkirk.”
“In This Corner of the World” is the story of Suzu Urano, a young woman growing up in 1940s Japan. We are introduced to her as an innocent schoolgirl in Hiroshima, a self-professed daydreamer who likes to draw and lives a simple life with her family and friends. But that is about to change. Not long after her 18th birthday, she is wed to a man from another town, in an arranged marriage as is customary of her society. Her life is abruptly uprooted as she is forced to move to the naval town of Kure to live with his family. Upon arrival, she must quickly become a woman, learning to cook and even to make her own clothes. While adjusting to her new world, a more daunting experience awaits, as her town prepares for the onset of war.
While the war eventually becomes central to the story in the film’s closing act, the first hour is deceptively carefree. Katabuchi fills the narrative with the simple moments of life, including household chores and the tender romance that blossoms between Suzu and her new husband. One of the more memorable scenes involves a montage of the resourceful Suzu preparing a makeshift family meal with the ever-depleting wartime rations. Playing off the popular visual appeal of anime food, it is a quintessential example of “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” The ingredients may include little more than leftovers and herbs scavenged from the roadside, but through Suzu’s determination and the film’s upbeat tone, it becomes symbolic of the people’s perseverance.
From the initial separation from her family to her subsequent survivalist attitude, Suzu thus emerges as a truly heroic character. As the situation gets dire following the onslaught of bombs, her defiantly optimistic attitude in the face of adversity is touching to watch. And with the film’s use of explicit imagery and jolting use of sound effects to capture the atmosphere of war, her character arc is all the more profound.
Brutally honest in its depiction of wartime struggle, “In This Corner of the World” is therefore far from an animated fairytale. Furthermore, its meticulous exploration of the lived experience of the era may not appeal to less patient audiences. But for those willing to engage with it, the underlying optimism of the story and its quietly courageous protagonist will leave you feeling inspired and deeply moved.
“In This Corner of the World” opens in select theaters August 11.