Was I always daydreaming?
It’s starts as a cutely surreal slice of life in 1930s Japan as Suzu (Non) and her flights of fancy take the spotlight. The young girl loves to draw and daydream—the latter often leaving her with time lost in a place unknown. At one point she even finds herself with a strange boy in the basket of a monster, her quick thinking to put the latter to sleep allowing for hers and the former’s escape. You wouldn’t be faulted for scratching your head as you also smile with delight because any notion of where things are going is hardly cemented if one even exists. The years go by rapidly, her age advancing as her absentmindedness remains. And suddenly we learn where she is and where we’re headed.
Suzu’s seaweed “farming” family lives in a Hiroshima Prefecture suburb and as time passes we see the happy-go-lucky atmosphere of that setting turn to one of hardship, rations, and uncertainty. But Kono sekai no katasumi ni [In This Corner of the World] is not a World War II film per se. It’s not here for jingoistic patriotism like so many Hollywood depictions strive to conjure. It’s not looking to paint the Japanese as heroes and the Allied forces as villains. Sunao Katabuchi‘s film (co-written by Chie Uratani) is instead about the cost of war. By following Suzu as she matures under the threat of what’s coming, we’re made privy to the day-to-day lives of innocents thrust into the role of collateral damage. These souls didn’t earn their fate.
The animated drama is adapted from Fumiyo Kōno‘s manga of the same name (a property which had already been turned into a live action television special in 2011). I honestly wondered multiple times why this film didn’t also detach itself from its illustrative origins because the subject matter is so heavy when compared with the medium’s usual target audience. But then I began to understand how important this story is for children to experience. I saw the reasoning behind Suzu always being so child-like in appearance and action despite her age. She wasn’t a soldier or a military/political mind with ambitions or hate for one side or the other. Suzu is like you or me, a regular citizen whose dreams of a future have been replaced by nightmare.
It’s through her obliviousness that we understand the innocence World War II truly took. We watch as the beauty of the ocean water and its “white rabbits” of waves hopping along the surface is transformed into a raging battlefield where too many navy men will ultimately perish. We watch as the whims of an artist drawing the horizon line earns her a reprimand by military officers throwing around accusations of espionage. We realize that the gradual erasure of Suzu’s family’s “farm” and the unspoken absence of certain characters that have passed away aren’t simply a result of time. And just as her marriage to Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya) takes her to Kure and out of the atomic bomb’s inevitable path, every return home has us bracing for the worst.
So while kids may not grasp the weight of what’s happening at first, they can laugh with the young woman falling victim to pratfalls and earned exuberance when succeeding at tasks she wasn’t sure she would (sewing a kimono or making gourmet meals on rationed ingredients). Suzu’s family and Shusaku’s both laugh at her, but the act is disarming and appreciated rather than depicted as petty or mean. Suzu’s sensibilities and desires aligning with those of her sister-in-law’s (Minori Omi‘s Keiko) pre-teen daughter Harumi (Natsuki Inaba) rather than the adults co-existing around her might keep her at arm’s length to what’s occurring, but her naiveté gives those touched with death and tragedy a reprieve—hope. Her unwavering optimism helps them survive in the face of a depleting nation.
This also means that the fallout from the fated moment when this war hits her personally will possess immense emotion from all sides of the spectrum. No matter how ordinary a life you live or how welcomingly you allow others to dictate your future, exiting an international crisis like the one happening above her head unscathed isn’t possible. No matter how absentminded or prone to fantasy you are, the happy accidents and unplanned meetings with nice people trapped within horrible situations you can’t fathom are either constructed out of horrors or destined to be destroyed by them. So many times this script has people talking about things that give you a heavy heart despite them bouncing off Suzu without a scratch. Eventually her Teflon must crack.
In This Corner of the World is two-plus hours, though, so it cannot hinge solely on one character’s trajectory towards an infamous moment and any ability to cope in its aftermath. It must use her as the through-line for which an authentic and harrowing depiction of a side of war we as Americans ignore too often can excel. All those involved do exactly this with the intricate customs of marriage, the complex psychology of men resigned to the reality that they’re going off on a suicide mission, the intense pain of survivor’s guilt, and the disparate attitudes of people merely one town over due to economics, bombings, and promise. These are people who don’t know what they’re fighting for, only that they should hope to win.
I think the part of the film sticking with me most is that feeling of resignation surrounding Suzu. She’s always so bubbly that many interactions end with the other party growing quiet and serious as though the spell woven by her unbridled excitement wore off. Suzu may be the ray of light others can hold onto when the future looks bleak, but they can never feasibly let it consume them as it does her. Sadly the opposite is true. Eventually the war comes home, the absolute futility of it consuming the seemingly bottomless reservoir of joy within her. She becomes a metaphor for Japan itself, stopped in its tracks before finding the strength to rebuild. It’s no longer naiveté that bolsters Suzu’s idealism. It’s laudable resiliency.