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Ghibli Alum’s Anime Feature Finds Beauty in an Ugly Time in History

Ghibli Alum’s Anime Feature Finds Beauty in an Ugly Time in History

“War is the opposite of daily life, yet daily life must go on even during wartime.”

That’s the succinct thesis statement director Sunao Katabuchi offers to explain In This Corner of the World; and such poetic paradoxes abound throughout his animated feature. It’s a beautiful film about one of the ugliest moments of modern history.

We follow Suzu Urano, a sometimes-absentminded young woman whose normalcy, and unimportance, in 1940s Japan is continually reinforced. Her husband is a military clerk, not a soldier. She’s a budding artist, but drawing is only a hobby, not something that will earn her any renown outside her family. Suzu moves to Kure, a small port town whose only relevance is its proximity… to Hiroshima.

There are actually a fair amount of twists and turns to Suzu’s life during the period this film documents. They’re, however, mostly on the order of twists a modern woman might go through during a given work week in 2017. Important in the moment, perhaps, but almost immediately forgotten by the next day.  So committed is this film to carrying on, it casually skips over a wedding scene, even after a fair amount of on-screen courtship. Katabuchi handles both pacing and the design of animation to stress another contradiction–the banality in even larger-than-life events. Spectacular dogfights happen in the distance, at the corner of the frame, so focus can dwell on the subtle ticks in Suzu’s face.

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Katabuchi is a protege of Hayao Miyazaki, having worked as a screenwriter on Sherlock Hound and an assistant director on Kiki’s Delivery Service. His post-Ghibli filmography ranges from the ultra-macho shoot ’em up Black Lagoon to the anime iteration of America’s most congenial collie, Lassie. Such extreme polarities in a body of work suggest a creative who can take on a variety of subjects from an even wider variety of angles. And it’s easy to see In This Corner of the World as something of a companion piece to Ghibli’s heartbreaking classic, Grave of the Fireflies.

Both films center on the Japanese victims of air raids during World War II. Fireflies, though, has a grim magical realism, with characters even narrating from beyond the grave. By contrast, Katabuchi keeps his cast’s feet squarely on the ground (the occasional artistic vision aside), and shows how even the deepest sorrows will abate in the face of daily chores. Indeed, one of the most striking plot choices sees a love triangle start before the war, and then continue through it sporadically, with historic world events only being incidental to it. “Relationship drama” might even be too extreme a word, too, since Suzu and her suitors behave like actual adults when temptation arises and is then calmly talked over.

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Saying In This Corner of the World is a welcome respite from a field predominated by giant mechs does a disservice to the breadth of Japanese animation. It doesn’t fit neatly in the category of subdued and grown-up anime that plays in the art house circuit, either. It’s slice-of-life, sure, but that slice is served from a life few could imagine, and nobody would ever wish for.

Katabuchi seems committed to understatement, and a message that’s at once apolitical and optimistic. An amputee learns how to use her severed limb to give soothing back-massages. A grieving mother wails in anguish for a scene, then casually comes across a war orphan to adopt as a surrogate for her lost child in the next. Suzu and her family even befriend G.I.’s when America forces ultimately occupy their city. The point isn’t simply that life goes on, but that it must.

Will you be seeing this film out when it comes to American theaters this Summer? Sound off in the comments.

Image Credits: FUNimation/Shout! Factory

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