There are so many pitfalls In This Corner Of The World could have fallen into. The miracle of the movie is how it avoids the vast majority of them. It examines, and celebrates, the resilience of ordinary people in difficult times, without making them into saints and without sentimentalizing what they went through. It also accomplishes all this without becoming boring — and, even more strikingly, without injecting false drama (or for that matter, melodrama). And it's all delivered by way of animation that is affectionate, imaginative, and precisely observed. It's hard to remember the last time I saw a movie with so few false notes anywhere in it.
Welcome to the family, Suzu
Corner, adapted from Fumiyo Kōno's manga, is set in the years preceding and during World War II. A girl named Suzu lives in a seaside town near Hiroshoma, where the family business is harvesting and drying seaweed. She's on the dizzy, dreamy side: she loves to draw, to invent stories about things glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. Her family isn't quite sure what to make of her, and there's little money to go around to support her hobbies — she has to make use of the same pencil for months on end, until there's barely enough of a stub for her fingers to pinch around.
One day, when she's eighteen, her parents receive an offer of marriage for her. The prospective groom is a proper young man named Shūsaku. On marrying him, Suzu is whisked away to his family in Kuré, a port town where the Japanese navy is a major presence. She's welcomed in by her new family, although they can be as baffled by her as her own family was. The biggest resistance comes by way of Keiko, Suzu's sister-in-law, whose overall bitterness in life comes from having lost everything that was hers. What little she has, she doesn't want to share with some ditzy newcomer. But what matters most is that she has the love and care of her husband, who doesn't try to analyze her but just makes her feel welcome in his heart whenever she needs it.
The noose of the war begins to tighten around all of them. Rations dwindle. Suzu tries to make up for it by scavenging local plants and stretching their rice allotment as far as humanly possible. It doesn't always work — there's a hilarious scene where one of her recipes, prepared in great detail, causes everyone to gag. But her friendly spirit is inexhaustible, and contagious. It only becomes clear just how far she's become a part of the family when another aspect of the war's damaging effects on daily life rears its head. One day Suzu innocently sketches the battleships sitting in the harbor, is caught in the act by the military police, and upbraided in front of the rest of her family for possibly being a spy. For moments on end, they stand there mortified. Then they burst out into barely suppressed laughter: The idea that ditzy Suzu could possibly be a spy! Why, the police are even dumber than she is!
The weight of the war
Most of the first half of In This Corner is episodic, an accumulation of many well-observed details throughout Suzu's life. But the movie works above and beyond just being a time capsule; it takes its details and regards them by way of a story that leverages their presence well. I mentioned the way Suzu improvises meals, but there's also things like the way she's motivated to wear something more "fashionable" (Keiko's words), and so she repurposes a kimono into workaday clothes.
Gradually, almost without us noticing, the story closes in on Suzu and her family, both sides of it, from different directions that ultimately converge. The war becomes less about mere material privation and more about the threat of death. Air raids go from being routine drills to frightening endurance tests. The possibility looms that Shūsaku may end up being taken from his safe desk job and pressed into active duty. Then one day Suzu makes a horrible miscalculation involving a delayed-action bomb that landed next to a road. She loses part of her right arm, but far worse, she loses her niece, Harumi — Keiko's daughter.
That Suzu can no longer draw is nothing compared to the rage Keiko feels towards her, or the way Suzu now feels all the more inadequate and useless as a human being. But Suzu is ultimately determined not to let circumstances dictate her life; there's a lot you can still do with one and a half arms. At one point a firebomb smashes through the roof of their house, and she smothers it singlehandedly, both literally and figuratively. (It helps that the bomb is a dud.) But when the war ends and Japan declares its surrender, there is more despair than relief, as Suzu and the others wonder if all their endurance was for nothing — although life has a way of providing them with reaffirmations of one kind or another.
Movies that incorporate some historical event into the goings-on often have trouble not using our foreknowledge of the events to generate tension in an unworthy way. It's impossible to watch In This Corner and not feel a mounting sense of unease about everyone's fate, doubly so as Suzu flirts with the idea of returning home to her family in Hiroshima towards the end of the war. We know what that will amount to, even if she doesn't. Then she changes her mind, and we heave a sigh of relief — right up until the moment when the flash from the bombing of Hiroshima can be seen all the way from Kuré. Yes, the ones we know and care about survive, but what about all of those who didn't? The movie argues, without forcing the point, that we should not value only Suzu's life in this equation simply because we got to know her. It uses the oppressive weight of that moment in history without exploiting it.
Many hits and no errors
One other thing In This Corner doesn't fumble is something I have a personal issue with. I've long been leery of stories where the mere fact that someone has artistic talent is used as shorthand to imply they're a good person and worth sympathizing with. It's not that I don't believe that can be the case; it's that it's too easily used as just that, shorthand, instead of a characterization ingredient. Suzu captivates us not just because she has an eye for beauty, but because that is one of the many channels through which she manifests her goodness. I also liked how the movie's own vision partakes of that: Occasionally, the movie's animation incorporates bits of Suzu's artistic flights of fantasy into the goings-on, but it's illuminating, not distracting.
A third issue that could have derailed the movie is its handling of the bombing of Hiroshima. When it does happen in the film, it's mostly offscreen. Then, towards the end, there is a flashback to it from the point of view of another character, a girl who wanders the ruins and is eventually taken in by Suzu and her family. We see just enough of the horror, and in just enough of the right way, for it to matter; what becomes more important than the horror itself is seeing how everyone chooses to cope with it.
The story behind In This Corner is another case of the little guys winning. The producer, Masao Maruyama (of Madhouse and now his own production company Mappa), tried to raise funding for the film for years, only to be turned down time and again because the movie didn't have enough action. He turned to crowdfunding, raised the money needed to complete the film (the credits run extra-long to thank everyone involved), and the film ended up a critical and commercial success, playing in theaters for months on end. The production also stands as another case of turning difficulties into opportunities: When delays mounted, the production team used the intervening time to conduct ever more meticulous research into every conceivable detail of whatever might have ended up on screen. (The team received letters from people alive during the depicted time period, lauding them for how much they got right.)
When I saw Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, another story of Japan in WWII, I was torn between how imaginative that film was in its visuals, and how problematic (and aimless) it was as a story. (I thought Katabuchi's earlier film Mai Mai Miracle also suffered from having no firm narrative hand at the tiller.) Wind's main character was never really given the freedom of speech or movement needed to fulfill his role in the story, and the movie as a whole compulsively shied away from confronting the difficult issues it danced around by way of fantasy and whimsy. In This Corner doesn't touch on the larger questions of complicity with the war, but it doesn't need to. It deals with people who were on the sidelines of history from beginning to end, and regards them wisely and with affection. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize how hard it is to do those things at all, let alone do them this well.