(Mild spoilers for Grave of the Fireflies)
The thing about world cinema is that we in the UK generally only get the most commercial products put into our cinemas. After all, the goal of a distributor is to make money, so I can hardly fault them for such an approach.
Because of this, the films of Studio Ghibli are generally how we experience the animated visions of Japan. But doesn’t this occasionally feel somewhat restrictive? Just imagine if the only animated films the world saw from the west were from the House of Mouse. Would they not be missing out on some of our finest work, such as The Lego Movie, The Iron Giant and Song of the Sea to name but a few?
Therefore it was quite exciting to finally see a piece of animation that would bring a new vision of Japanese history to the western world.
Released in Japan under the title Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni, and based on a manga series of the same name; In this Corner of the World (ITCOTW) follows a young woman named Suzu (Non). A talented artist, she’s quite the innocent daydreamer, and doesn’t pay much attention when it comes to matters of the world around her.
But with her parents arranging her marriage, Suzu finds herself far away from home in the city of Kure. Now married to a young judicial officer called Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya), Suzu must adjust to her new life as the shadow of the Pacific war approaches.
It’s always been quite fascinating watching Japanese interpretations of WWII. Our western films have always had the advantage of being able to end with success, even in the face of an overwhelming number of deaths. But in the case of the Japanese, their films have to guide us through stories that not only touch upon the sizable loss of life, but also address the fact that they were on the losing side.
Oddly, it takes an unusually long time for director Sunao Katabuchi to bring us to this moment. Kicking off the story in the mid-1930s, we spend much of the opening hour seeing Suza grow into her new role as a wife, as she learns to sew, cook, and develop a relationship with her new in-laws.
It’s clear that this approach was taken in order to get the audience to truly emphasise with the normality that pervades these character’s lives. By going into such depth before the horrors of World War II bears down upon them, the resulting darkness in the third act is all the more difficult to endure. But while said approach has been done for noble reasons, there’s no escaping the fact that such a slow burn in the beginning lends a sense of stagnation to the entire proceeding.
That said, there’s no doubt that beauty still remains in the midst of such sluggishness. Japanese animation has come a long way from the seminal 1988 film, Grave of the Fireflies. Every frame in ITCOTW feels like the animators have studied the natural and human world with unyielding commitment, purely in order to bring realistic beauty to the world of the mid-20th century.
Speaking of Grave of the Fireflies, once ITCOTW passes the world-changing event of the Hiroshima bombing, it’s impossible not to compare the two stories. Both films seek to explore the results of such a tragic incident on the average citizen, but arguably in very different ways.
While Grave of the Fireflies ultimately ends with the characters unable to find peace in a recovering world, ITCOTW chooses to show its characters struggle on past the devastation of war in an attempt to live in what could be a much better society.
ITCOTW makes an incredibly noble effort to portray a momentous period of Japanese history. With a third act that brings to life the pain and fear that millions of people must have felt, there’s no denying the filmmakers have given a voice to a long gone generation.
It’s only a shame that the first half doesn’t hold the attention to quite the same extent, meaning that you may have fallen asleep long before the climatic events of ITCOTW begin.