In This Corner of the World

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/22/17 21:21:39

"Welcome to the home front, young lady."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Movies like "In This Corner of the World" would like to sneak up on the audience, but that's almost impossible; the end of World War II had been thoroughly covered in history class and in film, and if you're watching this one, you've probably seen the story of the Japanese homefront covered (unless you're young, but I'm not showing it to my nieces). It's probably for the best, then, that it softens the emotional hammer blow that many films of its genre aim for, and not necessarily as a result of being animated, though it would be a shame to use these filmmakers' talents entirely, or even mostly, for graphic misery.

The audience first meets Suzu Urano (voice of Rena "Non" Nounen) in December of 1933, a girl of about eight in the Eba section of South Hiroshima; she's prone to daydreams but good at art, wearing her pencils down to nubs much faster than her classmates. She's sweet and helpful, not really changing between then and 1942, when Shusaku Houjo (voice of Yoshimasa Hosoya), a young man from Kure, fifteen or twenty miles away, she has only met once or twice, proposes to her. Suzu accepts, and though it seems that the families have an ulterior motive - mother San (voice of Mayumi Shintani) is frail, so they put Suzu to work right away - she quickly becomes fond of her new family; even if sister-in-law Keiko (voice of Minori Omi) was expecting Shusaku to marry a more sophisticated girl, her 6-year-old daughter Harumi (voice of Natsuki Inaba) takes to her new aunt fast. There is strict rationing at this point in the war, and As a strategic shipyard, Kure is the frequent target of American air-raids, but Suzu's upbeat and determined personality may be what the family needs to get through it.

Seventy years later, it can be hard to set a drama against the war and the years leading up to it without the sense that the filmmakers are following a checklist or having their characters submerged by history rather than being guided by it. Fortunately, director Sunao Katabuchi and co-writer Chie Uratani (adapting a manga by Fumiyo Kono) seem to be mostly aware of this. They show a lot of dates on-screen, which initially tracks Suzu growing up but not only come quicker as the film moves into 1945 and the war comes to dominate the story of an 18-year-old girl marrying before she is truly an adult. The film can't help but note the passage of time moving from something general, a measure of one's life that is somewhat universal despite the specific backdrop, to one where specific events change the course of that life in previously unforeseeable ways. It's generally done with care and the style shifts enough to not make it There may be lines about going home to Hiroshima where it's safer than Kure, but they're a bit awkward, the filmmakers too aware of how they sound to milk them for irony even if they can't have them play straight. The story itself is often built of small things, from disconnected childhood memories to the culinary legerdemain necessary to stretch tiny rations, that coalesce nicely.

The film does use the war to show how maturity is often forced upon people, though, first as a constant bit of background noise as Suzu adjusts to her new life with a husband and family she barely knows and then as she must try to be what holds them together, and then as she finds that there may be no happy endings or going back to normality. There's a moment that could feel like a simple demonstration that the filmmakers mean business about people not getting through the film unscathed that instead becomes more personally horrible with the longest and most poetic stretch of Suzu's narration. Toward the end, what seems like a relatively simple and subdued narrative scream at the surrender to the Allies has a lesson to it. Interestingly, it is not entirely clear when Suzu starts looking like an adult - her basic design at 18 is very much what it was at 8, with her almost seeming to be lapped as her younger sister becomes the local beauty while Suzu has grown taller but still looks like a pigtailed kid- before she starts to seem worn and aged by the war.

That's hardly the only time an attentive viewer will notice that Katabuchi has made excellent use of his medium, though. This film is striking to look at, often looking like an illustrated children's book come to life, with painterly backgrounds and characters whose coloring shows a bit more texture than the Miyazaki-inspired looks that much of the recent wave of Japanese feature animation (including Katabuchi's own Mai Mai Miracle) sports. It's still a beautiful picture, and if it's not entirely hand-drawn, then the digital assistance is exceptionally subtle. Slight differences in how the backgrounds are drawn do a great deal to change the mood, and the shifts into different styles tending toward something simpler, more directly taken from Suzu's drawings rather than representing an imagination unbound that defies the rest of the film's realism. It's a reminder of Suzu's modesty along with her inner depth.

Though it's often hard for those not fluent in the language to judge, I liked this film's Japanese-language voice cast. Rena Nounen, credited as "Non" (pronounced "no-n"), captures a sheepishness to Suzu's voice that never feels small or diminished the way anime girls often do, matching the early mischief of young Suzu so that her later determination and outspokenness doesn't require a very different delivery. Yoshimasa Hosoya has a lot of the same qualities as Shusaku, so they're nice together, while Natsuki Inaba gives a cute but not overly-precocious character a good voice. In some ways the most impressive combination of voice acting and character animation outside Suzu is Keiko; often drawn with a pinched, disdaining expression, she's given just enough vocal snobbishness by Minori Omi that the audience can immediately scoff, wondering what her deal is, but also feel some sympathy for her when the relationship between her and Suzu complicates without Omi or the animators changing much.

There are moments when the film seems like it's en route to simply recreating the brutal, punishing sadness of "Grave of the Fireflies" (its most obvious comparison), but it is not that film; its makers can find hope amid the horror, even if they can be uncertain how much of each to show. It's an impressive movie, admittedly not as thoroughly devastating as others along its lines, but it's also honest to give Japan the ability to rebuild. It is, then, a little more muted than some expect from this genre, but often exquisitely put together.

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